Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.
Governments are like media providers, designers of a simulation, a game-world users are coerced into enduring. Why, amid all the many games we could be playing here in our sandbox cosmos, did we get stuck with this one? How do we deprogram it, how do we take back the means of production so as to play new mind games together? John Lennon said “Love is the answer.” Love not war, one day at a time. As always, easier said than done. If only I had time to read Ted Nelson’s book Computer Lib / Dream Machines. At the beginning of Dream Machines (the reverse side of Computer Lib), Nelson appends a section titled “Author’s Counterculture Credentials,” where he describes himself as “Photographer for a year at Dr. Lilly’s dolphin lab (Communication Research Institute, Miami, Florida). Attendee of the Great Woodstock Festival (like many others), and it changed my life (as others have reported). What we are all looking for is not where we thought it was.” All of which leaves me wondering: at what point was Nelson first turned on?
New objects arrive into the lifeworld, gifts from friends and family, well-wishing from near and afar. Some are even hand-crafted — a granny squares knit blanket, an alphabet book, a stuffed creature — made with care specifically for our daughter. These objects return me to the place in my memory palace featuring Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, a book from the future somehow released in the past, ahead of its time. It’s a steampunk biography about Lord Byron and his wife Annabella’s only child, the nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace. The book focuses especially on the cause for Lovelace’s fame, her encounters with the engineer Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine. Lovelace was the first person to recognize the full potential of computing machines, designing and publishing the first algorithm intended to be used by such a machine, thus in a sense making her the first computer programmer. Her biography follows Babbage in calling her the “Enchantress of Numbers.” I read Plant’s book decades ago. What would I find in it if I read it again today? Would I find it frustrating? Perhaps even a bit frightening? Or would I find something worth retrieving — a major or minor arcana? Perhaps the Queen of Wands? Where did Babbage and Lovelace stand, and to what extent did their work contribute, with regard to empire? Byron certainly wasn’t the most admirable character. I prefer different stories, different rabbit holes, bunnies chewing on carrots.
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.
I think about the practice of “time-sharing” from the early history of computing, when students gathered ’round campus labs, multi-programming and multi-tasking at terminals connected to a shared system. Machines are in our lives, buzzing all around us, as are people, plants, and animals. With them, we communicate, we interact. Perhaps because of all of that buzzing, I find myself reconsidering the value of the Christmas tree as ritual and pagan act of worship. A celebration of life, death, rebirth. Time spent in homes with family. This year will be a special one, a year of loving reinvention and change. New responsibilities, girl drummer. Life’s about to get really groovy. Sweet states of being. New friends, a new relation. A new mood to support learning and growth, bookmarks synced to devices, heads working in harmony. To prepare, I read about the launch of a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Psychedelics are interesting well beyond the Center’s medical framework. If faculty connected with the Center are not yet collaborating with faculty in the Humanities, they should. Time to help bridge former disciplinary divides. (Judging from how it’s funded, however, the Center at Johns Hopkins isn’t likely to bridge these divides — so the work will have to happen elsewhere.) “Blue skies with pink clouds,” notes a neighbor. She and her brother circumnavigate and watch the sunset, riding their bikes in wobbly circles up and down the street.