For many today, the Internet seems to be a powerful presence. Why does it have such a deep resonance within our imaginations? How has it become so central to our contemporary life? And what does that say about the lives we live and our values? People find the phenomenon of the Web full of possibilities. Many believe that there’s something magical in its very existence and that it offers access to knowledge and powerful modes of communication that are fundamentally different from what we have had in the past. There is also the pervading sense that the Internet is changing us, both individually and communally, in very important ways.
One way of understanding the role of the Internet in our culture is to consider it as a metaphor and potentially part of a mythology that expresses some essence of what it means to be alive today. Many envision the Internet as an ever-expanding, boundless entity with near-infinite connections both to other people and to sources of knowledge. And this powerful pull of the Internet seems to me to come from its similarities both to our sense of our
outer world—that ever-expanding universe of which we are such a minute part—and to our inner world—the endless depth of our own psyche, imagination, and unconscious with its potential links to communal metaphors and myths. Both these worlds, the outer and the inner, are ineffable, boundless, and to a certain
extent mysterious, unknowable.
The Internet shares these characteristics and hence seems to offer a similar potential for knowledge, insight, even adventure. It’s cyberspace, after all, a place for journeys. One clicks on an icon (our computers do have their own “iconographies,” just as mythologies do). Microsoft Windows offers users an “Explorer” program to cross the threshold into the vast and unknown space called the Internet. The potential seen in the boundless, gargantuan phenomenon of the Web leads many people to make large claims: Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired,
calls the Internet a “planetary computer,” a “global computer,” and even a “large-scale sentience” with a distributed and vast intelligence that grows “smarter” by the second as millions of users provide evermore information merely
by clicking on a specific website because, in so doing, they indicate their preferences, their interests.
Is there transcendence here, one might ask, the kind of move beyond our ordinary life toward the ultimate mystery of the universe and the source of life itself? Kevin Kelly and others seem to think this is possible, that there is the promise of ultimate knowledge, the unknowable, in the Internet: “Currently,” he writes in What Technology Wants, “we are prejudiced against machines, because all the machines we have met so far have been uninteresting. As they gain in sentience, that won’t be true,” Kelly writes. “What technology wants is increasing sentience. This does not mean evolution will move us only toward one universal supermind. Rather in the course of time the technium tends to self-organize into as many varieties of mind as is possible. . . The universe is so huge, so vast in its available mysteries, that it will require every possible type of mind to comprehend it. The technium’s job is to invent a million or a billion varieties of comprehension.”
Much hinges on what Kelly means by technium, a word he coined because he found that “culture” was too “small” and does not for him convey a sense of “self-propelling momentum.” (I would point out that the word "culture" is also associated with organic growth.) Kelly reaches towards a new kind of mystical sense in defining his technium: it is “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” And this is not just
hardware and software, but all “culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations” along with this impulse (and here he quite anthropomorphizes technology) of essentially “what technology wants,” which is to generate more technology, more inventions, more connections. For Kelly, as for many enthusiasts of the Internet, the “technium” seems to be alive. But is it? And is it truly self-organizing, or is it just some version of Larry Paige
standing behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz?
But the real question at the end of the day about what this technology “wants” is: does it have any place left for humanity and the spiritual potential that Joseph Campbell alludes to when he talks about the myths human beings create out of their own dreams, their own imaginations, their own psyches. Or is this new myth a myth of the machine as an all-knowing and all-powerful deity—in short, a god? Or maybe it’s just all that smoke and mirrors, concocting something rather more illusory than elusive.