Second coming and Second Life – is there a connection?

Heaven (or paradise) and cyberspace have characteristics in common. This is an insight from The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace by Margaret Wertheim. The question is, does this matter? Does it make any difference? Some thoughts for Christmas.

I found “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace” in an Oxfam shop the other day, and read it over Christmas. Reviews of the book are interesting: many of them take it as a starting point for talking about their own beliefs. One reviewer said “I found The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace downright painful to read. I doubt any reader would enjoy it.” Another says: “More fundamentally it is a reminder in this age of scientific reductionism that the physical world of bits and bytes encodes messages of meaning. Physical space is not the only space. The mind and the imagination live in other spaces. The soul marches on!” Personally I thought it raises interesting questions, but then fumbles the answers; and also it is far too long. Anyway.

The book draws parallels between cyberspace and the concepts of heaven or paradise. These include:
– both open to all, in the sense that you dont have to be rich or white or male, just Good (or have broadband).
– infinite. I assume heaven is, and cyberspace is getting that way (eg GMail offers you unlimited storage. Not actually unlimited, but for practical purposes, all you would ever need and more. And presumably the supply of prime beachfront land in Second Life is unlimited, unlike in California.)
– omniscient. Not only can you look up most things on Google, but individual applications contain fantastic amounts of detailed knowledge (see recent posting on the British police vehicle movements database. This will not only record most long car journeys made here in future, but it will allow the Police to access particular ones quickly through a search facility. Combine this with credit card and mobile phone databases, surveillance cameras, etc, and you could build up a pretty good picture of any day chosen at random from the life of any person chosen at random. The effect is similar to the Recording Angel – “The angel that, in popular belief, records the deeds of all individuals for future reward or punishment”.)
– free of earthly limitations. In cyberspace games you can be a monster or a hero, whatever you are on earth. Sex distinctions also matter less: men take female avatars and vice versa, and as everybody knows this, the avatars in a way become as sexless as angels. You dont get ill in cyberspace.
– communications with the like-minded. Whether you like wombats or simulation, theres a weblog or a user group somewhere where you can share your interests. Distributed simulations allow you to play games, or train on US fighter aircraft, interacting with others who may be thousands of miles away.
– the collapse of time and distance. For many practical purposes (eg communications, finding information, sharing with like-minded people) it really doesnt matter any more where on earth you are. You can have what you want within seconds.
– a concept of infinity. We all know how long gamers are supposed to spend on line… Seriously, in cyberspace you can be any age you want – the concept isnt really relevant. You can store your experiences digitally and reply them with 100% accuracy whenever you want. Music, images, etc., are no longer fading reflections of a lost original: they are that original – well, as sampled (and then simulated) at a rate that our senses cant distinguish from analogue reality. Time ceases to matter.
– I think Ray Kurzweil (or the Extropy Institute) would say that cyberspace, like heaven, offers us the possibility of immortality or rebirth.

Ms Wertheim also touches on the theological concept of typology, largely in her analysis of Giottos paintings in the Scrovegni chapel outside Padua. This is the idea that
– the Old Testament prefigures the new – Giottos design makes these parallels clear by laying out his frescos in a spatial relationship between the OT precedent and the NT fulfilment.
– both testaments are seen to prefigure life itself as types of actual experience: “Some later Puritan historians such as Edward Johnson and Cotton Mather went further and compared current events directly with Old and New Testament types, discovering parallels that elucidated how the scriptures were being fulfilled daily”. (From the Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 1, 215-216, apparently, quoted here.))

The concept of typology has always fascinated me – after all, what is it but modelling, discerning patterns in one sphere of life that have meaning or utility when replicated in another?

This is all very interesting, but does it matter? Does it mean anything except as a verbal academic game, or a way of upsetting the Vicar? Ms Wertheim likes it because she wants to escape from the scientific reality of limited physical space. (Like many, she blames Descartes for introducing a mind/ spirit dualism, and the Enlightenment philosophers for killing off the spirit side of things – and she yearns for the Mediaeval days when we all knew that heaven was out there somewhere.) Im not sure that works for me except as a sort of intellectual fantasy.

Maybe cyberspace also fulfils a spiritual need at some deep psychological level. Maybe, as Ms Wertheim says, “… we live in a time marked by inequity, corruption and fragmentation. Ours too seems to be a society past its peak, one no longer sustained by a firm belief in itself and no longer sure of its purpose… US society today vibrates with a palpable spiritual yearning… we too are searching for a renewed sense of meaning.” So is cyberspace itself the ultimate simulation: the soul of a society?

Clearly cyberspace does provide us with several benefits. A cynic might say these are all that heaven offers:
– an escape from reality (when things are bad, imagine yourself in heaven/ go play Second Life)
– a place for fantasy
– a sense of meaning to an otherwise empty life (however real that meaning may be.)

What cyberspace doesnt have is
– a concept of God (sorry, Bill, not even you…)
– unity of purpose (in heaven, the angels spend their time praising God. A difficult concept. In cyberspace, everyone does his own thing: memes can be measured but not enforced, and they constantly change.)
– no moral tone. Cyberspace is just as happy with pornography as with culture. Heaven has rules to keep it separate from Hell: cyberspace contains both possibilities and could slip either way.
– teleological claims. Heaven matters in the ultimate scheme of things. A religious person would say that Second Life (for example) doesnt. (An atheist Second Lifer might respond that heaven is just a solitary fantasy, whilst Second life is a shared fantasy in which people learn about themselves in a psychologically developmental way, try new experiences, and which may produce other good real results.)
– the Numbers. Does the concept of heaven give meaning to more lives than do the concepts of Second Life and other MMORPGs or whatever? Yes, probably, at the moment, but the way MMORPGs are growing, this may not always be so.
– fusion of the limited self with the all. In cyberspace, you retain your identity, even though it may be a different one. (Actually Im not so sure about this one: does the social tagging concept offer a future in which we all grow to think the same things at the same time?)
– you have to be dead to get to Heaven; you only need a PC to get to cyberspace. (So Heaven remains mysterious, while cyberspace is common, well-understood, and can be legally advertised and charged for.)

I dont have answers to any of these questions either, but they may partly account for the immense popularity of cyberspace and in particular of role-playing worlds and games.

Theres no doubt that cyberspace fulfils huge numbers of real world purposes – eg Google, email, the many practical uses of simulation. Or the way in which EBay limits waste and maximises utility by recycling second hand goods efficiently. It would be unthinkable to revert to the Dark Ages before the 1990s, when people made marks on slices of dead tree and put them in an iron tube to be carried slowly to another city, or when huge libraries contained only a minute drop of the worlds knowledge, it took you hours to search for it by trial and error, and when you found a reference it was out of date, often by weeks or more, and the librarian was about to go home so you had to come back again tomorrow to read it. (And cut and paste was against all the rules….)

But is there more than this – are we at the brink of some giant collective leap in our psychological or spiritual growth?

Quite a lot of thoughts for £5.99 (£14.99 new). And, yes, it is a six years out-of-date pile of dead tree slices sewn together with thread, a unique non-digital object that will decay and cannot be exactly replicated, which came to me via serendipity not a search engine, in exchange for some metal tokens, and which took half an hour to carry home.

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