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Belmont Club

The Sorcerer’s Apprenctice

April 1st, 2012 - 4:19 pm

Atari, Altair, Commodore, Kaypro, Macintosh Plus, Sinclair and TRS-80. If you know what these names stand for, or God forbid, actually remember wanting to buy one of them then you may remember a time when computing made the transition from science fiction to something you wanted to buy in the store.   Measured on the timescale of species existence the advent of personal computing came in the blink of an eye. The ancestors of the first consumer PCs appeared in 1975, the same year the Rubik’s Cube was introduced. They weren’t cheap. An Apple Lisa cost $10,000 — in 1983. And yet they took the world by storm.

Strange as it might seem to people growing to adolescence today, the computers of the 1980s could not easily share information. That would come in the 1990s with the development of the world wide web. Thus, a computer was “yours” in a way that it has never been since.  Assembling a new computer and bringing it to life with the aid of marvelously boxed software packages was an exercise in wonder.

They were not yet the throwaway things of today. The software manuals of that era were printed in full color on glossy paper; professionally bound and edited. The software itself came in something called ‘diskettes’ encased in layers of protective bubble wrap and plastic, all of which had that new car smell.  And they were mysterious. Trying to read the program contents via a utility like EDLIN  only deepened the mystery because it only revealed a string of high end ASCII characters confirming that you had trespassed into the realm of wizards.

Once started up, the computers did things that were so magic in comparison to pencil and paper it was as if there was no limit to what they could do. The whack on the side of the head that came from watching Visicalc recompute columns or Aldus Pagemaker reformat text was almost akin to a mystical experience. Because very few people had computers as yet, the mere act of assembling them imparted a feeling of entering some kind of science-fiction elite; of crossing the frontier from the mundane world into the Land of Tomorrow in a single step.

Not a 90 Pound Weakling Any More

But in fact the opposite was happening. The crossing was all in the other direction. What had been the preserve of computer scientists and engineers was becoming a mass experience.  And it was inevitable that the crowds would imbue what was essentially a branch of applied mathematics with the colors of magic.

The actual word cyberspace was coined by William Gibson, who used it in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Gibson described a scenario where ‘console cowboys’ could put on their cyberspace helmets and project their awareness into three-dimensional ‘ virtual ‘ environments. Here Gibson was anticipating that the human imagination would create its own perceptual ‘ realities’ within a technological setting …

In her recent book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, science writer Margaret Wertheim argues that the Internet is providing us with a new concept of space that did not exist before – the interconnected ‘space’ of the global computer network …

However, it is the actual nature of the cyberspace experience that Wertheim finds so fascinating. When one person communicates with another online there is no sense of physicality, for cyber-journeys cannot be measured in a literal sense. ‘ Unleashed into the Internet,’ she says, ‘ my “location” can no longer be fixed purely in physical space.

Appealing as Wertheim’s idea seems, the notion of  “being nowhere” is of course pure hogwash. Most of us give up our locations the instant we enter ‘cyberspace’. In actuality, it physically tracks us as never before, as you will read in my book No Way In. Our cellphones and tablets report our position — and certainly our computers do — unless we physically disconnect them from power — in the case of cellphones, take the battery out.  People who understand this, like jihadi terrorists, for instance, stay as far away from cyberspace as they can and communicate with pencil and paper and by physical courier.

But psychologically Wertheim makes a valid point. The ordinary person in cyberspace feels as though he were traipsing through an uncharted spiritual dimension. And since for some people, feelings are enough,  it was not long before the objections of sober applied mathematicians were cast aside and systems of technopaganism began to arise.

The idea of technopaganism is really simple: people have always wanted magic and were disappointed with the rise of science which showed that magic didn’t really work. But now that we really have magic, why we can now safely re-enter the magical world and pick up where we left off.  Here’s how one guy is making it happen — for those who want it.

Mark Pesce is in all ways wired. Intensely animated and severely caffeinated, with a shaved scalp and thick black glasses, he looks every bit the hip Bay Area technonerd …

Pesce is also a technopagan, a participant in a small but vital subculture of digital savants who keep one foot in the emerging technosphere and one foot in the wild and woolly world of Paganism …

If you hang around the San Francisco Bay area or the Internet fringe for long, you’ll hear loads of loopy talk about computers and consciousness. Because the issues of interface design, network psychology, and virtual reality are so open-ended and novel, the people who hack this conceptual edge often sound as much like science fiction acidheads as they do sober programmers. In this vague realm of gurus and visionaries, technopagan ideas about “myth” and “magic” often signify dangerously murky waters.

But Pesce is no snake-vapor salesperson or glib New Ager. Sure, he spends his time practicing kundalini yoga, boning up on Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic magic, and tapping away at his book Understanding Media: The End of Man, which argues that magic will play a key role in combating the virulent information memes and pathological virtual worlds that will plague the coming cyberworld.

If he ever succeeds in creating this world of Dungeons and Dragons, Pesce will make a mint. Count on it. For the urge to magic and spirituality never really died. The major reason for the success of the American Left lay in its ability to destroy the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the name of ending religion only to supplant it with another. They understood that people had an eternal and compulsive reason to believe. Take one belief system from them and you would have to provide them with another. Rid yourself of Moses and switch over to Marx. That’s called progress. Anyway, they both have beards.

One possible reason for the astounding popularity of the late Steve Jobs was that many people saw him as the new Timothy Leary (well if you’re old enough remember the Amiga, you’re old enough to remember Leary). The new guru. One of his admirers writes, “Panentheistically visioned, Buddha-nature corresponds with the primordial nature of God. Buddha –nature is innate unlimited potentialities for creation. Therefore, knowledge of Buddha-nature expounded in Zen Buddhism is a highly motivating force for a visionary Buddhist like Steve Jobs to strive for the extraordinaries.”

That sentence is completely incomprehensible, but then if one could understand such sentences then you would be one of them, and alas, I am not. But I do understand the attraction of magic; and felt it on that day in the 80′s when we drove across the border to New Hampshire to buy an early model IBM PC at lower rates than Massachusetts could offer. Felt it as I opened up the Peachtree manuals; sensed it in the keyboard; and saw it winking back at me on the green phosphor screen. I have lost it now; that sense of wonder; and occasionally ask myself if it was real. For an answer, all I can recall are the closing lines of Charwoman’s Shadow, which describes the fate of the last magician on earth.

And there came upon him at last those mortal tremors that are about the end of all earthly journeys. He hastened then. And before the human destiny overtook him he saw one morning, clear where the dawn had been, the luminous rock of the bastions and glittering rampart that rose up sheer from the frontier of the Country Beyond Moon’s Rising. This he saw though his eyes were dimming now with fatigue and his long sojourn on earth; yet if he saw dimly he heard with no degree of uncertainty the trumpets that rang out from those battlements to welcome him after his sojourn, and all that followed him gave back the greeting with such cries as once haunted valleys at certain times of the moon. Upon those battlements and by the opening gates were gathered the robed Masters that had trafficked with time and dwelt awhile on Earth, and handed the mysteries on, and had walked round the back of the grave by the way that they knew, and were even beyond damnation. They raised their hands and blessed him.

And now for him, and the creatures that followed after, the gates were wide that led through the earthward rampart of the Country Beyond Moon’s Rising. He limped towards it with all his magical following. He went therein, and the Golden Age was over.

It was as real as only magic and youth can be; meant to live in our memory and not in our waking day lest we should lose it.

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