Spiritual Emissaries in Cyberspace

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation..."

Next to the phrase "Where do you want to go today?" this must be the most quoted dictum on the internet. In creating the metaphor of cyberspace, William Gibson established Neuromancer as a kind of cyberbible for the Information Age. Extrapolating from his depiction of 'the matrix', is a myriad of born-again techno-evangelists, who see the internet as the conduit whereby new principles of solidarity, prosperity and indeed, spirituality, are passed between increasingly connected minds.

The repackaging of the internet as an evocative, digestible and marketable new denomination, is largely the handiwork of a group of libertarian free marketeers best known as The Digerati. Spearheaded by those fluoro flag wavers of Infoculture, Wired magazine, the Digerati are typified by the indomitable cyber-prophet, John Perry Barlow.

"The physical wiring of collective human consciousness, the idea of connecting every mind to every other mind in full-duplex broadband is one which, for a hippie mystic like me, has clear theological implications".

Variously described as one of the '100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life' and and 'the spokesperson representing the Internet to the outside world', John Perry Barlow is the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the first bodies set up to politicise the internet through the discussion of issues such as copyright and censorship. Barlow's writings have a tendency to fetishise the internet as a sacred, unspoiled space, destined for a more virtuous future than its obsolete historical media equivalents: "It's not a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a holy thing", he explains. Theorising a future dominated by new technologies which enable greater exchange between dispersed peoples, Barlow writes: "This frontier, the Virtual World, offers opportunities and perils like no other before it. Entering it, we are engaging what will likely prove the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire. I have a terrible feeling that your children, by the time they are my age, would be barely recognisable to me as human, so permanently jacked in to The Great Mind will they be."

Interestingly, before he undertook his unelected position as cyberspace's first 'senator', Barlow was better known as a cattle wrangler and lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Perhaps it is this background in frontiering which recently inspired Wired to let Barlow loose in Africa, promoting the cyberoptic alter. Advocating ISDN connections, Macintosh Powerbooks and SCSI adapters as new religious icons for the digital age, Barlow's is a infomissionary's quest. Searching the continent for the modern day equivalent of the Holy Grail (the Telephone Port) which enables him to consecrate the Net God through the checking of his email, Wired present us with an image of Barlow nobly toiling through this desert of unconnected space (for forty days and nights?), with nothing but an unreliable telnet connection and a second hand Nokia notebook.

If Barlow is the internet's resident prophet, then Kevin Kelly must surely be its Messiah. At least for the free marketeers. Executive Editor of Wired magazine, Kelly, according to colleague Jane Metcalfe is "on the road to Buddha-hood. He's a deeply spiritual man". With an almost godlike ability to harness US West Coast technocultural opinion with the mere utterance of a well timed aphorism ("Real is going to be one of the most relative words we'll have"), Kelly is doing a phenomenal job of spreading the Wired word to faithful and skeptical alike, with Wired and Hotwired stock soaring in value with each passing year. As he himself puts it, "there's nothing more addictive than being a god".

The contemporary art perspective on cyber-spirituality is a very different story from the superficial euphoria of the Digerati. The avant-garde politics of the internet are increasingly developing theoretical predilections for the aesthetics of chaos-theory. Occupying the transgressive space between aesthetic, politics and science are the Artificial-Lifers. Artificial Life and Art by eminent Australian artist, Simon Penny, introduces some of the methods artists are employing in their unravelling of the complex ribbon of machine intelligence and artificially generated life.

Since the early 90s and his work with Melbourne based performance group Cyberdada, Troy Innocent has been unearthing new modes of visual communication, in a continuous search for the secret to the mysteries of artificial life. Identifying that the key lay in the mythic space between sign and articulation, Innocent's work has focussed around notions of language, inventing ritualistic ciphers which possess a surreal kind of logic concerning electronic space. As media theorist Darren Tofts observes, "to engage intelligently with artificial lifeforms we must learn this multisensory language, for it promises to extend our limited understanding of the human-computer interface".

Innocent's richly perspicuous characters, exemplified by the enigmatic Shaolin Wooden Men, appear to exhibit genuine signs of 'personality', expressed through their distinct behavioural responses to the cybaroque contexts Innocent places them in. Innocent's recent work, Memetic Mutation can be experienced at: http://www.monash.edu.au/mongall/memetic/

Jon McCormack is Australia's most prominent artist pursuing the formulation of algorithmically generated digital life. His breathtakingly lush digital approximations of organic forms, present his audiences with curious questions about the notions of real and unreal, alive and mechanistic. As with many A-Life artists, McCormack's seminal work has an almost reverent integrity to it; "in a way, as an algorithm executes, it is an ultimate truth. It is free from indecision, mistakes, emotion and opinion"

Tom Barbalet's Nervana is a prototype for a complex artificial world which will eavesdrop on the life and society of The Noble Apes - simple human-like creatures that observe the outside world primarily with vision and hearing. The Noble Apes exhibit early signs of 'intelligence' with discrete behavioural responses to the concepts of space, time, vision and intriguingly, fear, desire, identity and language.

Tom is also probably the world's first A-Life hiphop artist, having released a CD companion to Nervana, The Nation of Nervana, featuring, lyrical highlights such as "this is about the genetics of sound; in order to find true genetics you need to look at very detailed genetic patterns". In places The Nation of Nervana demonstrates an almost ecclesiastical aesthetic, with ethereal choir-like vocals juxtaposed incongruously with textbook beatbox rhythms. Despite, or more probably because, of its idiosyncratic subject matter, The National of Nervana is a compelling journey through the nether-regions of digital space.

Also of note in the cyberspiritual realm:
Elvishnu, by New Zealand artist and prankster Tessa Laird, is an analysis of two of the great religions of the modern age; Hinduism and Elvis.

Lindsay Colborne's satirical Pursuit of Happiness explores spiritual numbness, using the four Noble Truths of the Buddhist Dharma and Western popular cultural cliches.

Honor Harger
Australian Network for Art & Technology