"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God..."
--- The Book of Revelation
For faithful Christians, death isn't the end but the beginning of a journey whose final destination is the Heavenly City of New Jerusalem, wherein the elect will dwell forever in the light of the Lord. In this weightless city of "radiance," adorned with sapphire, emerald, topaz, God himself "will wipe away every tear.."
It's one of religion's loveliest images, and the promise of this radiant space has sparked countless quests, over centuries, for this new Jerusalem or its equivalent.
More and more spiritualists believe that this promised and long awaited land is cyberspace, a notion explored in Margaret Wertheim's new book "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" (Norton, US$24).
Cyberspace is a new kind of radiant space -- infinite, mysterious, dazzling, yet filled with countless ethereal connections between people.
This new view of the invisible world of the Internet was perhaps inevitable. From the first, the Net has, in its typically idiosyncratic and unpredictable way, attracted mystics and seekers along with techies, nerds, and engineers hammering away at the software and hardware, the infrastructure, that make the Net and the Web work.
This may be the only space in which geeks and gurus seem attracted in roughly equal numbers, doing radically different things side by side for utterly divergent reasons.
The nerd culture and the spiritual one have little to do with one another, unless you consider the Mp3 player a miracle, as I do. Their paths rarely cross, and if they are conscious of one another, it's rarely remarked on.
They probably wouldn't get along anyway. The geeks are louder, and lots more quarrelsome; they also have a lot more control and understanding of the technology of the Net and the Web. Yet the two tribes are connected; both dwell and wander in the same realm.
The culture of the geeks is increasingly well documented in articles, discussions. The seekers are more remote, as Erik Davis details so well in his book "Techgnosis; myth, magic + mysticicism in the age of information (Harmony Books, US$25)". In "Techgnosis," Davis describes how the technology of the Net and the Web has unveiled a new kind of techno-mysticism, replete with utopian dreams, apocalyptic visions, digital phantasms, and alien obsessions.
The contrast between the two worlds is sometimes staggering. The mystics are nearly incomprehensible, the programmers obsessively literal.
Although pornographers, hackers and virus-makers have always attracted most of the attention, the pilgrims have, from the first, been walking beside them. Next to sex and e-trading, nothing keeps a search engine humming longer than typing in "spirituality," or "religion."
"I have experienced soul-data through silicon," Kevin Kelly, the former executive editor of Wired, declared in a l995 forum in Harper's magazine. "You'll be surprised at the amount of soul-data we'll have in this new space." He was right. It is surprising.
Cyberspace philosopher Michael Heim agrees with Kelly. "Our fascination with computers is...more deeply spiritual than utilitarian," he wrote in an essay. In our "love affair" with computing machines, "we are searching for a home for the mind and heart."
Wertheim's thinking is provocative, imaginative. E-mailing, messaging, connecting to distant people in sometimes powerful ways across great distances has always had a spiritual feel. The ability to share a personal, sometimes intimate experience with a presence about whom one knows absolutely nothing material - looks, age, ethnicity - is sometimes astounding.
Cyberspace, writes Wertheim, has in recent years become the focal point of immense spiritual yearning, one whose roots go all the way back to the Middle Ages.
But Wertheim, a commentator and science writer, takes a densely academic approach to this potentially riveting subject. Her writing is stiff, formal. There is, she argues, an important parallel between cyberspace and "the spatial dualism of the Middle Ages." Spiritualists or philosophers might know what this means, but hardly anybody else will.
Such prose is distancing. It repeatedly stops this book in its tracks. "In the parlance of complexity theory," she writes, "cyberspace is an emergent phenomena, something that is more than the sum of its parts."
What's frustrating is that Wertheim is clearly onto something. This is a new kind of space, it often does have profoundly spiritual overtones, and we spend precious little time exploring them. Unfortunately, her highly intellectualized approach obscures the very idea she's trying to advance.
Yes, we are in a similar position to the Europeans of the sixteenth century who were just becoming aware of the physical space of the stars, a territory completely beyond their prior conception of reality. But we are also radically different from them. We already believe in science and technology, many of us are more or less free of religious dogma and monarchical tyranny, and we have already witnessed technological advances beyond anybody's wildest dreams in just a few short years. The Europeans were just heading into the world's first Enlightenment, and we - those of us privileged to be working and spending time online -- are knee-keep in the second.
The idea of the Net as a new kind of space, a New Jerusalem is tempting and haunting. At times, I confess I've thought of the Web in almost that way, as a wondrous, connecting, providing -- yes, almost spiritual - place.
We do sometimes seem so busy and harried keeping up with our own culture that we forget to stop and wonder at it, or consider its inherently spiritual dimensions.
But long-winded, sometimes turgid essays on spatial schemes this kind of pleasing fantasizing less, not more likely. The spiritual nature of cyberspace is intensely personal and diverse, seen and found in the human beings who use it: the old people on SeniorNet who say goodbye to their friends before they die, the terminally ill children who exchange hopeful messages in chat rooms, the geeks who give one another online gifts of websites ("check out my site," are four of the neatest words heard online), software and upgrades, the scholars who rush to help a colleague in need of information in a distant part of the world.
Wertheim's book is much too cold for a subject like this. For we do live in a radiant city, where we sometimes glimpse a new heaven and a new earth.
If you'd like to pick this book up, head over to Amazon.