Cyberspace 1993: Portal to Transcendence

This article was published in the now defunct OMNI Magazine, April 1993, page 4.

There’s a new frontier beckoning us, and we’re growing it in our own backyards. Today many writers are looking toward cyberspace as eagerly as previous generations anticipated moving westward across the prairie or out into space. The prairies, however, held hardship and war. And the high frontier of space promises vast stretches of cold indifference punctuated by alien landscapes. But cyberspace lets us dream that we can build an inner frontier, a virtual reality, to our specs. So our culture is telling itself sexy, glitzy, wishful stories about discovering alien territories right here on Earth. About releasing ourselves from the burden of body and liberating ourselves from sex and race and class. About acting out our fantasies in an electronic nether world and tripping through that trapdoor in the mind that will let us, like Alice, fall into a dream.

This is a fascinating utopian mythology based on a technology still in its infancy. So I have been trolling for new cyberpunk fiction (like Neal Stephenson’s Show Crash), going native on electronic bulletin boards, and listening closely to the technical researchers, sociologists, philosophers, hackers, and writers who speculate about cyberspace. This is what I am hearing:

In the short run, cyberspace will require an elaborate cyborg armor — data gloves, goggles, bodysuit, helmets. Many believe, however, that some time in the next century, genetic engineering, biochip design, and nanotechnology will collaborate to product functional wetware — computer interfaces that will enable us to jack our brains directly into a vast, worldwide, interactive network with its own geography and sensory realism. Eventually, we might achieve the Holy Grail of VR research: the delusion that our bodies are actually there, when, as William Gibson quipped in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, “There is no there there.” The result will be a cross between the ultimate interactive computer game and telepathy.

While there may be no there there, many would-be cybernauts imagine there’s something else there, waiting for us on the other side of the interface. A recurring theme I hear is the confidence that cyberspace will be a technology not just of the brain and of the mind, but of the soul. There’s something quite primitive at work in cyberspace’s allure. This yearning for mystical encounters seems unusually superstitious coming from otherwise rational engineers, academics, and writers. But good anthropologists learn not to dismiss all native beliefs as mere superstitions. So let’s take them seriously, if only for a moment. How might cyberspace be a portal to transcendence? Neurophysiologists suspect that lurking somewhere in the brain — most likely in a formation at the base of the brain stem call the dorsal raphe nucleus — lies a facility that makes us feel, under the right conditions, like we’re in communication with gods or that we have voyaged out to meet some Higher Presence. Certain configurations of data delivered to the brain by electronic stimulation could flood this region of the brain with serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in many functions, including hallucination. In this way, the right software might evoke that oceanic, world-embracing feeling known so well to mystics and psycho-tropical beachcombers.

But let’s not stop here with this portrait of cyberspace as some kind of electronic designer drug. It’s hard not to wonder why the brain has this weird facility to make us feel like we’re talking to God. Is something so irrelevant to survival and yet so distinctively human just a neurochemical accident, an evolutionary byproduct of the sheer complexity of the nervous system? Or is it, as Immanuel Kant suggested two centuries ago, that the laws of the “in here” are the same as the laws “out there”: Our minds are tuned to universal harmonies. Perhaps the brain is prepped to receive divine telegrams because there is, after all, an Intelligence informing the cosmos toward which universal evolution gropes — a Cosmic Anthropic Principle. Perhaps VR technology will be one of the ways to open the hailing frequency.

Surely we are no less likely to find transcendence in cyberspace than we are in any other space, whether a Gothic cathedral or a Himalayan monastery or the pages of the Talmud. Cyberspace could be our civilization’s burning bush.

Copyright © David Porush

Telepathy: A personal note

These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into.

Richard Price, Plowing the Dark

Here are the four questions that the concept of telepathy helps me answer:

1. Where we are: Our desire for telepathy tells us what we are turning ourselves into: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously, without mediation or translation. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, creating artificial humans, finding alien life, colonizing other planets. Telepathy. These are the science fiction dreams that actually seem to propel billion or trillion dollar worldwide industries. But all of them seem to lie just out of reach, beckoning us. We’re always so close. We’re always not quite there, like Zeno’s Paradox, closing the gap but never reaching our target. Seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. To be alive seems to be to aspire to telepathy.

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Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

2. What happened? If we use the dream of telepathy as a lens to look back, it helps us understand our history. Older communications technologies – the alphabet, printing press, radio, TV, and the Internet, were revolutions in telepathy, coming with increasing speed through the centuries and now decades, driving us to this ideal: getting experience and thought to pass from mind to mind. Each came with new hopes, new ways of interacting and defining ourselves, and new gods.

3. What comes next? This trajectory helps us map what will come next: Technologically Mediated Telepathy (TMT), or  brain-to-brain experiences through the computer, aided by AI.

4. How to really read: This is minor but it is dear to my heart as an old literature professor: Telepathy implies a way of reading. Reading telepathically means really trying to find out what the author is thinking and intending before finding confirmation of my own bias or theory in the text. They should teach it in every literature class: how to read beyond ideology. Reading is an act of intimacy between the author and me. It comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation. I submit to entering and being possessed by another’s mind. When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope.

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About Me:

I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge), Rope Dances (short stories, The Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins & Pearson) and other books, as well as reviews, essays, blogs, fiction, plays, and articles. For 21 years, I was a professor of literature and media at William & Mary and then at Rensselaer. I am also the former CEO, co-founder and executive of several e-learning companies and programs at universities, non-profits and the private sector.

Inspired by the launch of the World Wide Web with the Mosaic browser, I originally explored versions of this material during a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94). I indulgently took it up with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. Though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic.

I published a short version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels, an Australian journal. Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins University journal.) I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.”

I thank my many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present, who often served as the first, suffering audiences, saved me from much foolishness, and have immeasurably enriched my life and thinking. I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance, to my children, and to my granddaughters for gazing into my eyes for long minutes, even as babies, with questions I can’t answer.

I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider in this web, drop me a sticky line at dporush@yahoo.com.

The phantom limb of language

What is a pun?

At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.

Continue reading “The phantom limb of language”