The Sacred Cyborg

The Search for Meaning

'Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves.' - Ludwig Feurbach, The Essence of Christianity.

During the Cold War, we were told that we had a stark choice between two incompatible ideologies: liberal democracy or totalitarian socialism. However, as the decades of struggle for world domination continued, people became increasingly reluctant to sacrifice themselves for the utopias championed by the competing superpowers. By time the Cold War ended, it was very difficult to believe that either the American or Soviet empires provided a universal model for human development. The 'grand narratives' of both liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism had been discredited by the actions of their superpower patrons. As the post-modernists eagerly pointed out, philosophies of liberation had turned into ideologies of domination.

Yet the end of the Cold War has not led to the demise of ideology. On the contrary, other 'grand narratives' have rapidly filled the gap left by the implosion of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism. Because the secular utopias of the Cold War are no longer credible, many of the contemporary ideologies have a strong spiritual component. From the USA to Iran, religious fundamentalists dream of returning to an imaginary past. However, the acolytes of these reactionary movements have great difficulty in reconciling the pre-modern tenets of their spiritual beliefs with the modern reality of their everyday lives. This has opened a space for more syncretic belief systems. Ever since the advent of modernity, there have been a succession of new faiths which tried to combine religion with science. Freemasonry, Saint-Simonism, Christian Science, Freudianism and Scientology are only the most well known attempts to reconcile these two opposites. But, despite their ingenuity, all these cults have been surpassed by the relentless process of modernisation. What many people now want is a more up-to-date, hi-tech way of combining religion and science.

Responding to this spiritual hunger, many different varieties of mystical positivism are now flourishing. From the mathematics of chaos to the development of hypermedia, the latest advances in science and technology are raided for their magical significance. For instance, some gurus are championing the concept of memes: the self-replicating cultural entities which supposedly control our destiny. This new faith claims inspiration from the latest researches in evolutionary theory, which used to be the fiercest opponent of religion. Yet, at the same time, the memes cult also believes that matter is controlled by spirit, which has been the basis of religion for thousands of years. While many people find it impossible to accept that gods and angels could control their lives, they are happily able to believe in exactly the same concept as long as these spirits are renamed memes.

According to some acolytes of this new faith, the ghostly memes are even about to take physical form. As in the New Testament, the spirit will actually become matter. However, the new saviour will not be in human form. Instead, in the age of the Net and the PC, the God-Man must emerge from silicon, plastic and metal. Far from being an isolated fantasy, this is now one of the most popular manifestations of contemporary mysticism. For decades, governments and corporations have been funding lots of expensive research into Artificial Intelligence and sentient robots. As Shoshana Zuboff points out in The Age of the Smart Machine, the simulation of human reasoning by machines underpins much of the rapid increase in economic productivity now occurring within certain industries. However, the disciples of Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky or other proponents of artificial life aren't really interested in how smart machines can make cheaper commodities or provide better services. Instead they are searching for spiritual salvation in machine form. Above all, they dream of witnessing the birth of the silicon God-Man.

Like the Christian Apocalypse, the arrival of this Artificial Intelligence is perpetually postponed. Yet, it remains a powerful contemporary myth. In science fiction, conscious computers and sassy robots are essential elements of the genre. From Rachel in Bladerunner to Data in Star Trek TNG, sci-fi stories use the fantasy of artificial life to express the modernist dilemma: what makes us truly human? Yet, when embraced by mystical positivism, this sci-fi anthropomorphism ironically becomes the repository of some very pre-modern desires. As in traditional religion, the cult of Artificial Intelligence feeds off atavistic fantasies: making babies without sex; being the master of slaves; achieving immortality; and even turning into pure Spirit. With secular utopias discredited, old myths are reborn as sci-fi monsters.


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