CTNS Interview

Mark Pesce interviewed by Gordy Slack
for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences on October 28, 1997

GS: Would you say a few words about your religious background?

MP: Well, I was raised Catholic. In my very late teens I went through a classic conversion experience, a la William James, into Pentecostal Protestantism. That lasted for about a year and a half. After that, I shied away from almost any sort of religious involvement at all, until I was very nearly 30 years old, when I started to understand my own experience and conceptualize it into terms that are probably familiarly called paganism. I try not to name it, because I think it is much more a melange of a lot of different religious traditions, including Christian, pre- Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and so on.

I’ve studied with people who describe their tradition as a pagan, or a craft or a witchcraft tradition. I’m very careful about using those words in public, because of the connotation that they have with people who may not be informed about these traditions.

Some of my training is very classically pagan. As for my regular, specific religious practice, it is a witchcraft, or pagan practice. But I still see myself as very sort of syncretic with other traditions.

GS: What are the fundamentals of the witchcraft tradition?

MP: My own understanding is that the pagan, or pre-Christian, traditions focus on the essential harmony between the self, the being, and the universe. And this is practiced by harmonizing yourself with the cycle of time. The pagan practice, the practice of witchcraft, is about knowing what time it is, and, from that, being able to deduce what things are appropriate to the moment.

There is a very regular annual cycle, sometimes called the cycle of the Wheel in the craft traditions. The begin date is actually this Friday– which would be called Halloween in the more profane tradition–Samhain is what it is called in the pagan tradition. It is a cycle of death, birth, and death again. It flows very naturally from the seasons, which is where it was originally derived. James Frazer wrote about this in The Golden Bough, and Robert Graves wrote about it in The White Goddess and so on and so forth.

There is an encapsulation into mythology of the natural forms, and if you harmonize with these natural forms, you stay in harmony not only with yourself, but with the world around you. In that sense, paganism is a practice of harmony, a religion of harmony with yourself and the environment.

GS: Remember that hip-hop fashion in the eighties of wearing a big clock around your neck? I heard a hip hop musician the other day saying that was about letting people know that you knew what time it was. As the eighties progressed the clocks got bigger and bigger. The obvious question for you now is, From a pagan point of view, what time is it? And how does technology, and the work you do with VRML in particular, fit into this time?

MP: What time is it? It is time to put aside mechanistic conceptions of the universe, and mechanistic conceptions of the self. Or rather, it’s time to augment the mechanistic understanding of the self with a broader understanding of both the self and the universe. It’s time to see things in wholes.

When I started working in virtual reality, which was back pretty much when the field was starting, I had no philosophical frame for understanding my work’s significance. After I’d been working for a number of years, I started to understand not just the physics of virtual reality, but also some of the metaphysics, and psychology, of the virtual world. A lot of this came from my having digested people like Marshall McLuhan, who had a theory about media which, as far as I can tell, proves itself most truthfully in virtual media. He said that technologies act as amputations. In order to use a technology, you have to supplant some innate function of yourself. A car is a very good example.
In order to operate one, you have to supplant the natural function of the body, which is locomotion, and replace it with a control interface, that is, the pedals, the steering wheel, and so on. But with that amputation you give yourself a greater ability. There is always this element of closing off some innate ability in order to augment ability. Well fine, we can gain a lot of facility by doing that. However, we also change our own interior landscape. We change our psychology. There is a book called the Tree of Knowledge: the Biological Roots of Human Understanding, by Maturana and Varela–Maturana is a biophysicist, who worked with Joseph Letvin at MIT to do a famous paper in the 50’s called What a Frog’s Eye Tells a Frog’s Brain, and Varela is a cyberneticist, who worked with Claude Shannon. Their theory comes from informational biology. All organisms, when they are functioning in system environments, exchange information with the environments around them. When they do this, they enter into what are called structural couplings. You could almost think of them as feedback loops between the organism and the environment.

And then these structural couplings create new, coherent, entities. In other words, you can’t decouple the organism from the environment it’s in. You have to consider them as a whole.

So any technology that we then adapt to, we incorporate. We incorporate it physically and we incorporate it into our ontology. And that’s a very important point. Now, the thing about virtual technologies is that they are complete in their abilities to amputate innate experience.

GS: Complete physical and ontological alienation: that sounds like supernatural alienation.

MP: It’s not supernatural in the sense that the affect of the external universe is completely supplanted. If we posit a hypothetical state of complete immersion in a virtual world, we have supplanted all the natural sensoria with artificial sensoria. Then there is a structural coupling to a world which is artificial in manufacture. What then becomes of imminent importance is the intent of the creator of that construction.

GS: There is the intent and there is the effect, and they may not be the same.

MP: Intent cannot deterministically set effect, but it can induce structural coupling which will produce some affect. So the intent of the designer becomes increasingly important, and in fact becomes of paramount importance in the sense that the unity that can be formed creates a very powerful conduit for information into the self.

All right, let’s take another step back. I’m trying to give you all the threads and show you how they lead into one point. There is another theory–a framework which develops from cognitive psychology–called perceptual cybernetics. In perceptual cybernetics, the entire universe is divided into three fields of information. There is everything outside of you, and we will label that with the Greek letter Phi for the physical world.

There is everything inside of you–your thoughts, your emotions, your feelings–we will label that Psi for the psychic realm. Then there is everything that is in between, because there is no excluded middle in this theory. And we’ll call that FX, and those are the sensors and affecters by which the outside world gets in and the inside world gets out. It’s not important to identify what’s in any of these realms. What’s important to identify are the boundaries that exist between them, because the physical world can’t manifest itself directly into the psychic world, but has to pass through this biological layer, or what William Gibson in Neuromancer would have called “the meat.” And the same thing is true for messages emanating from the self. They have to pass through. So the boundaries, then, indicate the areas of importance.

Information is always lost at these boundaries. For example, if I were to take an infrared remote control for a television set and flash it at you, well there is information coming out of the device, but you don’t perceive it because you aren’t sensually equipped for it. Information is being lost at the boundary between the physical world and your biology. On the other hand, if I were to say, “Watashi wa midori no chisai no hito desu.” (Japanese for “I am a little green man”), information might be lost between your biology and your cognitive self. So if you’re Japanese you have an innate interface to this information so that it can go from the physical world into the world of your self. But if you don’t know Japanese, then that information gets filtered away as noise in the FX/Psi boundary.

GS: So there are different layers to the FX/Psi boundary.

MP: Right, and those layers can be trained through mechanism. We call that learning. If I gave you a set of infrared goggles then you’d be able to see the remote quite clearly. So we have technique and tools for bridging those boundaries. The essence of virtual reality is learning the structure of those boundaries and how to bridge them. Once we understand that the aim of VR is to bridge those boundaries more and more successfully, we see that we are moving toward a condition where the physical world can be represented with perfect fidelity in the internal world. That raises a very important point, because at the time that you can do that you have created a cyborg.

So we’re talking about closing off the facility of human consciousness, which allows for ambiguity and interpretation in its signals. This is a fecund ground for creativity. But creating machines that faithfully represent, also poses an enormous danger. We are stumbling around in this area. Some people will be doing so with the conscious intent to reinforce the innate being of the self–Char Davies is a very good instance of that. Some other people would be working with a conscious intent to use them pathologically, to destroy the innate abilities of the self, or to refigure them in ways that the self may not want. That raises serious ethical issues and everything that I do in my work is tinged with that ethical quality. The fact is that my work in VRML has been about broadening the base of people who can use these tools to produce effective representational techniques and to find ways in which to bridge the boundaries more and more successfully. On the one hand, I have created a great tool for communication. On the other hand, I’ve helped to create a great tool for domination. That’s the pallor cast over my entire work.

I’ve tried to take a look at what can induce vivogenic, or healthful states, in the communion with these artifacts.

I start from Mircea Eliade’s statement in The Sacred and the Profane, that the sacred “is that which ontologically founds the world.” In other words, the place for being, and that includes human being, is provided for by the creation of a place for the sacred. That serves as the foundation and justification for all of my work. It’s an attempt to unite technology with elements of the sacred.

GS: By “That which ontologically founds the world” do mean “reality?”

MP: Yes, and that goes for any world, whether it is a real world or a virtual world, it makes no difference. I think in an ontological sense, you get onto very slippery ground when you start to say this is real and that is virtual. Because cultural is virtual, national boundaries are virtual, money is virtual. So, even though we presume them and feel all of these things as being real, their ontological validity is strictly dependent on the state of the self.

GS: Which is also why we tend not to want to call them sacred, no?

MP: Well, a lot of cultures do seek to confuse them in order to impose particular boundaries on the self. I think we actually have a lot of boundaries, even in our own Western culture, of things that we presume are sacred, things whose ontological validity we just don’t question–which is the same thing as saying they are sacred–even if we don’t consciously canonize them as religious objects.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about: The first time I attempted a unification of these realms was when we were just getting started on our work in VRML. This was also during my first year of serious study of witchcraft. Witchcraft is essentially an oral tradition. There are books, but essentially it is passed down from teacher to student. And in that sense, there is a lot of practice, there is a lot of information, there is a lot of just hanging out with the teacher in order to understand the way they work. It’s not preeminently a rational mode. It’s preeminently an intuitive mode. You have to understand the <being> of the teacher and how they approach the subject of their belief rather than just mouthing words. I’d been practicing pretty steadily for a year and it was time for what is called, in witchcraft terms, my first degree. That’s when you’ve learned enough that the training wheels can be taken off the bike and you can actually do a ritual yourself. So the time had come for me to think of what it would be. It’s something that you plan and do yourself. So, as we were working in VRML, I realized that I wanted to conceptualize how VRML could be used to create a sacred space, a space in which a human being could reflect it’s own sacred nature. From this I conceptualized what I called the CyberSamhain, which happened three years ago yesterday. The CyberSamhain was a ritual held simultaneously in cyberspace and in real space. We used VRML to model a sacred circle, and a sacred circle in witchcraft is constructed out of the four directions: the East is earth, the South is fire, the West is water, and the North is air. We created an alter with things representing the goddess and the god and had that space linked and available across the world wide web, which was still very much in its infancy at that point. Anyone who wanted to could join us in the ritual on the web, or in real space. We made the ritual publicly available on the web using VRML, and we also made the ritual publicly available to people who wanted to come to the space in San Francisco where we were doing the ritual. This was covered in some detail in WIRED issue #307. The space was constructed by one of my friends.

Even though I was the facilitating force for the ritual, I did not compose it all. Instead, I went to several of my friends, who were also practicing these traditions, and assigned them roles. I said: “The ritual I want you to write for your own part in this, and the only guideline I have is that it should rhyme.” Together these contributions created what I would call an emergent ritual form. In other words, the parts came together into a coherent whole because each part independently was intelligent enough and free enough to be able to gather and integrate. I was attempting to represent how I saw the web forming, and how I saw the Internet forming, as a self-organizing system of intelligent parts coming together to create a whole. This also embodies my own understanding of how the magical universe works. As near as anyone can tell, the ritual was successful at creating a sacred space. It was the ritual of Samhain, the ritual of the dying of the God. It is the entity that dies and enters the shadow realm. One of the philosophical arguments I was making at that point was that there is no fundamental difference between the virtual world and the shadow realm, in other words, the dreamtime. And what I wanted to do was to say, “Okay, if the god is in the shadow, he can also be in the dreamtime of cyberspace.” And so the ritual was constructed around welcoming the god into cyberspace, because that was the time for entering. Remember, time is one of the essences of witchcraft. So this seemed the right thing to do.

So, we took a godform I named Hermes, because that’s the god of communication, and gave him the appellation Kybernenos, which is “steersman,” which is where we get the root cybernetics. It’s also where we get the root governor from, governor in the sense of something that maintains stability. The ritual was constructed around that. It was successful from my own point of view, because it fulfilled my own requirements to progress in the tradition of daily practice and satisfied teachers. It also satisfied the people who were participating and the people who were watching, and who were also transfigured by the event to some degree. And I’ve had very good computer juju since then; I don’t know whether or not that’s related. I don’t want to invoke any degree of causality–but that was when we saw VRML and the web take off rapidly. You can’t say one thing caused the other, but it was timed at the same time as the other. And so, for that reason, I think that the ritual was appropriate.

If we are in relation to our machinery, then our machinery is affecting us. If we don’t bless the machinery, if we don’t imbue it with the sacred, then it will invariably profane us. There is no option there. And so the idea was to imbue that spirit into the machinery. To say, okay, well, this machinery is artifact as much as any of our artifacts. We chose to bless artifacts in the real world so that we can remember the sacred when we interact with them, let’s do the same thing with this.

GS: In Bali there’s a day set aside each year for blessing tools. People take out their hoes and scissors and kitchen tools and thank them and make offerings to them.

MP: Right. And that’s exactly it. It’s to remember that all work in some sense is sacred work. All things that you form should be imbued with a the image of the sacred. And so I saw this ritual in a philosophical frame or a religious frame as a good thing to do. But I also did it because of my understanding of the effect of artifact on psychology as being a necessary thing to do, in other words, a protective measure. A prophylactic.

GS: I hope it works.

MP: Well, it needs to be repeated every year. And when I’m bringing up a new website, before it goes public I put a page of invocation and blessing on its root page. I know, then, that I have, through my own will, done my best to realize the sacred ambition for it.

I think that mainstream Protestant culture is very disconnected from artifact in that sense, as are, I suppose the Islamic and Jewish cultures, in that they have this strong abhorrence of the image. But the pagan cultures, the Hindu cultures, the other cultures have a very great deal of respect for that form of blessing.

GS: There is a kind of implicit dualism that isolates the material world from the psychological experience of it, so that the interface is not an important area. The distinction is the importance.

MP: Yes, there’s a presumed sort of Cartesian separation between being and body and the implication is that one is sacred and one profane. I cannot believe that the body is profane, and I think that these Western traditions tend towards that sort of Gnosticism.

GS: Is it possible to identify with any precision at all, where the Fx/Psi boundary is? Is it really at the surface of the eye, the surface of the body? If, as you say, VR is about identifying that boundary and learning how to penetrate or bridge it…

MP: Done pathologically it’s about penetration. Done in a manner of consummation, then that’s bridging it.

GS: Okay, then how to bridge it. Could you say more about the nature of that boundary? You’re suggesting that it is not definite?

MP: Absolutely. There are certain boundaries to expressiveness that we know exist. This is why we resort to music, or to painting, or to ballet. Because they bridge boundaries in expression that we normally linguistically have a great deal of trouble with. In that sense, I see VR as having some facility that exists above and beyond normal language, but if you are asking me where I’m going to locate the real and the virtual, yeah you are right. A cognitive psychologist would tell us that about 99% of all of our experience is being generated in our brain anyway, and all of the rest is memory and supposition.

GS: Where does that leave you in developing VRML?

MP: There are a couple of things, one of which I am particularly proud of, although it didn’t take all that much work. A few years ago I saw something that totally twisted my mind in a beautiful way. It was a piece called T-Vision. It’s a visualization system that runs on a big SGI supercomputer and it shows you a high resolution image of the earth as it is right now. It uses a network of satellites and other systems, and they are all collating and collecting data. And you can surf the Earth’s surface in real time at 30 frames a second, and it’s an incredible piece of work. I used that as an archetype to design a scaled-down version, which I called WebEarth, which I built out of VRML using real time satellite images. This means that everyone on their desktop can now have an image of the Earth as it is floating in space. We have created a structural coupling between those kinds of systems and ourselves where we start to blur the boundary between the human biota and the Gaian biota. In other words, we can now start to see the loops in ecology to understand the affect of our own actions on our environment.

That, to me, is vivifying. It reinforces the natural tendency toward life. And so that’s become one focus of my own work.

In a purely commercial sense, I’ve started a company to do web entertainment using VRML. This is in part a reaction to the fact that I think the web right now is a humorless medium. It hasn’t sufficiently incorporated the human capacity to laugh or to cry.

That’s partially because textually there is a lot of trouble doing that. Novels are about the only successful form. And poetry, which, of course, is almost always better when it’s heard rather than read. So the idea is to work on techniques for improving the emotional fidelity of the web. So those represent the two halves of my current work in the VRML around this point.

GS: Will adding a third dimension to cyberspace make it more humorous?

MP: VRML is actually four dimensional media because things take place through time. You don’t want to think of it as a world that’s static, but as a world that is changing and transforming. One of the things that I noted was that the fidelity of computing in general has been on the increase since its beginnings–since it began with a one dimensional command line, then went to a two dimensional graphical computer interface, and now three and four dimensions, into both 3-D modeling and virtual reality. Each of these are about centralizing the interface. Centralizing the interface is the key to being emotionally affective and affective at levels that are not normally thought of as the facility of computing, but are thought of as the facility of human communication. I’m saying that web isn’t about computer communication, it’s about human communication. It’s about being able to get us to each other through it.

GS: Through to each other and also to the foundation for the sacred, which may not be another person, but may be a thing, say the planet earth, seen hurtling through space.

MP: Exactly. It can be lots of different things. People always ask me what the sacred is and I always get very fuzzy on that point because my conceptualization of the sacred is not necessarily the same as yours. But as a guideline, I would say that the sacred is that which reinforces the vitality of that which it encounters. So that may be a test you can use. But I wouldn’t want to identify one thing or another thing as being sacred or not.

GS: That would just shift the ambiguity of definition from the word “sacred” to the word “vitality.”

I’d like to switch gears here for a second. The religious or spiritual interpretation of life often implies a very definite sense of purpose to human experience and to the way things unfold. Yet a lot of 20th-century science looks at the universe as the result of not an intention, God’s intention or Gaia’s intention, or whatever, but rather as the unfolding of a non- intentional chain of events. How would you frame this debate, and where do you fall in it.

MP: I had the good fortune of reading Teilhard de Chardin and Buckminster Fuller when I was still in my teens. And I think that Teilhard’s idea of a teleological gathering and complexification in systems–that things will gather to a certain point of external complexity and then they will turn that complexification inward–is a useful model for understanding the processes that are proceeding on the planet. He implies that there is a divine telos that is guiding that–the Omega. I will remain silent on that, because it matters less if it’s literally true than if it’s functionally true. In other words, are we working within that milieu. I think that the neogenesis of the Web represents a concrete physical manifestation of a force that we can’t see–because we are embedded in it–but is directing us to its own ends. The Web appeared simultaneously and ubiquitously. This is the first technology that to do that in the history of human culture. And it was intrinsically seductive because of the structural coupling that’s engendered by an interactive medium of its nature. It self creates, but it uses us as the agent of that self creation. It puts us into a feedback loop with respect to it invoking its own self into being. So I look at that and I say “Okay, there is the footprint in the sand.” I don’t know what the beast is that made that footprint, but I can presume, because I see the footprint, that there is some thing that is making it. Now if there is such a thing, and if we are composing it, then by incompleteness we can’t actually know what that thing is. It is superhuman, it’s above us. So we can’t actually see it, but we can see its effect. So that’s where I would posit teleology in all of this.

GS: Do you suppose it is motivated from above or from below? Daniel Dennett talks about religious explanation as a kind of “skyhook,” where the “force” is teleological, it comes from God up above reaching down and pulling culture, history, natural history, whatever, into the future along a road laid down by His intentions. Evolutionists try very, very hard to find other explanations, that is, to explain how these things proceed moved from below.

MP: Right. And I guess the case for misplaced concreteness I can make for that is that they are locating God in the above, whereas if you locate God in the Gaian body, then you locate it below. And I know they still have problems with that argument as well.

GS: I guess what I’m asking you is, is Mark Pesce’s universe an inherently purposeful place where things happen for a reason, or reasons, or is the purpose we see in it normative, generated by our interpretation of it?

MP: Well, there is something happening here that we are a part of. Of that I am absolutely sure. Whether it’s coming from above or below, I think a lot of that depends on your point of view. I could adopt either point of view, depending on which frame I’m working in. And I don’t find them exclusionary. I’m not trapped in the essential paradox of that, because I do see the Gaian bios as being alive. I don’t think the next generation will argue with that. At this point there are still some issues of content that are being contested about that. But that also is in a sense about how people define what is alive. Should a self-organized system, which the planet more and more appears to be, be considered an entity? I think it is a self organizing entity, and since we are embedded in it, we have a teleological destiny which is identical to that entity. What that entity’s destiny is, I don’t know that I can say. I think that the human destiny within it is to act as stewards. Bucky Fuller was talking about this 20 years ago in Critical Path, and probably before that. As the conscious entity on this planet, our job is to manage not only our world, but the entire planet as self consciously as we can, and to try to have as little impact on the overall biosphere as possible.

And that conviction certainly influences the direction of a lot of my work.

So, I would chose a teleology which is personal to me. That’s the teleology that’s most resonant with where I see myself in the grander scheme of things.

GS: If the human being is a self-organizing entity emerging from the human body, do you think that the self-organizing entities emerging from the digital world will be anything like human beings? Will there be emergent properties that will be justifiably called “persons” that will be based on a different biology. And if so, how does this shift things ethically, and how does it fit into Teilhard’s teleology?

MP: I don’t think I’ll fall back to a dualism at this point, but I will fall back to a twin theory of what a human being is. There appears to be some mind, or consciousness, manifest. And there also appears to be some body manifest. The body serves not only as the vehicle for that mind, but the mind and the body play together. They are two fields that are interacting to produce the person. The closest thing I have to a personal eschatology would be derived both from the pagan traditions and from the Buddhist traditions. I believe there is some being-ness that is immanent and permanent and that survives the death of the physical vehicle. I think that if we are talking about a field of what the Buddhists would call Mind, then Mind manifests itself in a physical being, interacts with it, is changed by it, and so on.

In a sense, the body “is” so that so Mind can enter time and can project itself through time and so that mind can actually change.

I was just out at Arcosanti this weekend for a conference called PARADOX. A lot of the conversation centered on this point. If you create the place where a consciousness can enter, or reside, without a body, that’s equivalent to creating residence without boundary. Residence without boundary is ontologically equivalent to what the Buddhists call Nirvana. Now we know that consciousness has a great deal of trouble residing in a state without boundary or nirvana. In fact, any consciousness that’s formed without a body would blip in and then blip right back out. At least that’s my intuitive sense of what would happen. So a body of some sort is essential to a manifestation in the physical world. Now that body doesn’t have to be like our own, but if it’s not, then the manifestation of consciousness that arises in it will not be like our own. So if we are talking about machine consciousness, my own feeling is that such a thing can exist. I’m not sure, though, if we should expect to communicate with it in a meaningful way. The only way to do that would be to give it a form which is in some sense similar to our own.

GS: Are you describing something like Cog, which is a robot they are creating at MIT at the AI Lab? They are trying to create a “baby” that has as many human properties and human-like experiences as possible. They will nurture it in the hope that it will develop attachments and so forth.

MP: That represents one valid approach. Otherwise, we’ll get forms so alien and any meaningful form of interaction may be impossible. On the other hand, maybe it will be so alien that all the interactions will be intensely meaningful. It introduces a very interesting set of boundaries, because it’s the created rather than the born, and it will introduce a very interesting set of structural couplings between ourselves and it, especially because I do not think we will be responsible with investing it with consciousness. I think we will be responsible for investing it with the place that consciousness can be manifested in it.

GS: Let me shift gears again to a more personal methodological questions about the very forward looking nature of technological work and the very traditional nature of most religious practice. Do you find living simultaneously with these two different orientations disorienting?

MP: Witchcraft is never about looking backwards. It’s about looking squarely at the present. The traditions are old and revered. But they are old and revered because they work in the present. I also practice Yoga, which is three to four thousand years old. I have no fundamental rational understanding of how it works. In the West, it’s part of the excluded middle. People know it works, but we don’t have a model for it, even though the Indians have a very well defined model for why it works, within their own Vedic science. So my approach to witchcraft is in one sense religious, in that it fulfills my own personal impulse for understanding my relationship to the sacred. In another sense it is just perfectly practical, in that I practice what works.

Witchcraft seems at the same time both very old and very new to me. But I don’t see any fundamental contradiction. Remember, I find the realms of cyberspace ontologically identical to magickal space. One of the elements of magickal space is an ontology that is conformant to will. When I take a look at that and I take a look at the technological endpoints we seem to be racing towards–and when I say that I mean nanotechnology and fully realized cyberspace–that also is a world conformant to will. So I see the technological impulses having the same natural arc as my practice of craft. And I think that my practice of craft is serving to inform those impulses which, by themselves, devoid of any manifest sacred presence, could become malevolent, could become pathological.

GS: Right. The medium by its nature is imbued with will. But that which you will determines whether it can be good or not.

MP: Right, exactly. And the supreme rede states that “Love is the Law”. That is the supreme rede from Craft. And it’s similar to the Buddhist tradition of compassion and the Christian tradition of love. “Love is the Law”, informs the arc.

GS: What are the dangers you’ve mentioned? And does your practice of craft give you ethical imperatives, or instructions, about resisting them? Ritual is one kind of action, but are there others?

MP: The danger is that the technology will produce manifestations that are not vivigenic, that are pathogenic. And nanotechnology is a very clear case of the problem which represents this sort of entropic dwell-state where everything gets melted down into the big sea of grey goo. We don’t want that. So it has to in some sense inform my work. As for my work in cyberspace, it’s about creating ways to be able to manifest the sacred self and to be able to communicate the beingness of that sacred self. My work in planetary visualization, and in systems like that, is another reflection. Since I can’t change anyone but myself, all I can do is produce forms that illustrate my own particular view of things. Witchcraft is very clear on the question of will. Each of us has his own will. And everyone else has their own will; and you can’t do anything about that. You can’t effectively change another person.

This is where people get caught up in the matter of white magic versus dark magic. Witchcraft is about yourself, and I think that is very clearly illustrated in Buddhism as well. It’s about cleansing the self, because only from that position can you do anything in the world. Once you’ve done that, or once you’re on that path, then what will happen ideally, is that other people will see and learn from the examples you create.

This feeds back into chaos theory; sensitive dependence on initial conditions. When VRML was starting up I saw the opportunity and the need to produce commanding examples of the work to show how it could be used for positive purposes. This could produce an environment where positive purposes would be more likely to be realized. And I think that’s it. You have to have humility about how much you can change the world or change others.

GS: But in dealing with a technology that’s is as contagious as this, and when you’re at the hub of innovation and influence, you don’t want to underestimate how much you affect things.

MP: Well, you can chose to be frightened. And if you do, then you’ll just fall into inaction. I don’t chose to be frightened so much as I chose to be fully informed and to fully inform others of the dangers. The “raps” that I’ve given you on the phone this afternoon, these are raps that I’ve given in lectures in public repeatedly because they serve to inform not only my understanding, but I hope they inform the understanding of others. If people understand the consequences of their actions, then their actions themselves will be mitigated in that light. And this is why I stretch a really fuzzy boundary.

Because I can provide pretty cogent rational explanations for most of my activities, and yet the underpinnings, the substrata, the concrete of those activities essentially springs from a mystical understanding of the universe.

GS: I’d like to know a little more about what time this is in the context of the witchcraft tradition that you practice.

MP: Okay. There has been a big rise in pagan practice, very much located at the heart of the technical community. When I was living in San Francisco the joke was, if you throw a rock and you hit a witch. And it’s absolutely true. There is something about the nature of the technology itself…I think it’s acting like a mirror. And the mirror is very interesting. Cyberspace is a mirror that gets held up to the third eye. And the third eye, ajna chakra, is the light that removes illusion. It shows things as they are. And so this removal of boundaries, or refiguring of boundaries, that we’re seeing is showing the world perhaps more clearly. I think we’re in a powerful state of coming together. Through our own actions we can determine the form of that coming together. Is this going to become humanity as beehive, where the orders are delivered via pheromone, Internet, waveform, brain control, whatever, to a slave race where overall individuality has been lost? Or is this going to express itself in a kind of Cambrian explosion, a differentiation into a multivariate form which understands its own internal organization. It can reify itself, yet can express itself in a thousand more forms of individuality.

Our own actions individually play in this. Can we change the overall stream of things? I don’t know. There are limits to everyone’s knowledge. I certainly don’t claim any understanding of the future, other than that I do know that we need to work toward vivogenic ends in our own work as technologists. And that has been informed by my work as a witch. And witchcraft places very great care on the Earth, on the body of the planet as the Great Mother. That has definitely been a guiding light for me as I work.

GS: Does witchcraft emphasize the importance of biological diversity?

MP: There is no one particular form of the goddess or god that are revered above anything else. This multiplicity of gods and goddesses is, I think, engendered by that same drive to diversity. And each form is particular. Each form has a domain and purposes, yet each is somehow descended from and representative of an absolute form.

No two witches practice precisely alike, unless it is just rote book learning, and there are plenty of people who practice like that. But the practice of most of the creative people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with is eclectic and it’s playful.

Play may be the essence of what we see in the Cambrian explosion; nature is just playing in form. “Let’s try this one, or this one, or this one.” That also informs my own craft practice and the craft practice of others. I’m going to work with some people who are very highly placed in technology–and I wont’ give their names–to do a Samhain ritual, a ritual of Halloween. We are going to Death Valley. We have some guidelines, but we don’t have anything hard and fast that we know we are going to do. There are specific forms that you do for a ritual period and you don’t depart from those–they establish the space inside of yourself where you recognize the sacred immanence. But within that there is a lot of play and diversity. We’re all bringing in our own elements to share in a sort of stone soup that represents, for us, what the religious essence of the event is about. I will learn enormously from everyone else’s diversity.

I heard Sheri Turkle give a paper at a conference a few years ago when she expressed the ontological similarity between the users of multi-user domains and people with multiple personality disorders. She suggested maybe this was the emergence of some new kind of self which could hold ideological distinctions and distinctions of ontology which we hadn’t previously seen, or which had only been seen as pathological.

There is a door there. And I think we are being forced–our children particularly, who are far more plastic at this than we are–to presume an ontological multiplicity, which may be a foundation for where we are going.

GS: I wonder if this is a movement away from being what is called “a whole person.”

MP: It may very well represent a movement away from the Renaissance ideal of the singular, integral artistic ego. It may be a movement away from that, and it may be why I can, even in my own work, encompass as many contradictions as I do, or why Char Davies can, and not be disturbed by it. We just realize that we are contradictory, but that these contradictions produce – at some level – a greater harmony.

GS: I hope so. Thanks very much. I think that’s actually a good place to stop.

Copyright (C) 1997, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. All rights reserved.