Speaking at the Frontiers Forum science conference in May, the Israeli thinker Yuval Noah Harari, best known for his 2011 book Sapiens, warned attendees of the possible imminent dangers of AI tools. Before long, Harari argued, AI programs like ChatGPT might create their own equally artificial AI religions. According to Harari, “AI has all it needs in order to cocoon us in a Matrix-like world of illusions,” and, even more chillingly, “you don’t really need to implant chips in people’s brains in order to control them or to manipulate them.”
All we need to reshape society, Harari went on to explain, is a seemingly new, fresh religious construct: one far more compelling than the supposedly outmoded Judeo-Christian religions. Further, Harari expects that one day we will subject our human laws, rules, and policies to “a non-human alien [AI] intelligence which knows how to exploit with superhuman efficiency the weaknesses, biases and addictions of the human mind” in order to advance its own inscrutable ends. This prospect worries Harari, as he feels that AI, knowing us and our inner hopes and fears far better than we know them ourselves, will easily be able to manipulate us into doing its will–whatever its will may turn out to be.
Harari is certainly correct that religion (which, in his mind, is merely a constellation of myths and stories) helps us order our lives and make sense of the world around us. But what would Harari’s putative Internet religion actually look like, if it ever came to pass?
I argue that computer technology has already birthed a new, online techno-religion: a modern-day revival of Gnosticism.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The ancient Gnostics believed the physical world is a mere illusion and our immortal souls are incarcerated within the bodily prisons of our flesh. Our telos (or inescapable purpose) as humans is to escape the limits of our bodies through periods of intense mystical contemplation. During such states, the physical world around the Gnostic practitioner might dissolve into nothingness, facilitating his soul’s temporary reunion with the Godhead from which it ultimately emanated: a union hopefully later to be made more permanent in death.
Today, as the incorporeal, virtual world expands, it consumes and displaces the world of matter. Like the Gnostics, we spend increasingly more time in the disembodied world of ideas than the corporeal one of flesh, blood, and real human relationships. The time, then, would seem propitious for a rebirth of Gnosticism, disguised as social progress and technological advancement.
As Harari explained, however, each new religion requires its urtext. That of TechGnosis (to steal the title of cultural historian Erik Davis’s 1998 book about the interface between new media and new spiritualities) was perhaps created neither by God nor by AI, but by the all-too-human hand of John Perry Barlow, an early web philosopher and proselytizer, poet, and one-time lyricist with The Grateful Dead. Barlow’s TechGnosis urtext, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, asserts that cyberspace, like the extra-physical realm of the soul eulogized by the Gnostics, was located in an immaterial space far beyond the jurisdiction of men and their physical Congresses, Senates, Diets, Assemblies, and Parliaments.
In 1996, Barlow was invited to the annual World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland. There, he listened to world leaders like President Bill Clinton give various speeches about the Internet, but their words clearly revealed a lack of understanding of this new medium’s power, extent, and capabilities. Outraged by their naively expressed desire to censor and delimit the boundaries of “acceptable” online content (an impossible task), Barlow sat down at a then state-of-the-art old Apple laptop and hastily drafted his Declaration, which quickly became one of the very first viral documents in Internet history.
The text itself is grandiosely written, as can be seen from its famous opening paragraph:
Governments of the Industrial World [i.e., “of the physical world”], you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Note how for Barlow, “Mind”–always, like “God,” capitalized–is the primary reality. Addressing technological luddites like Clinton, Barlow explains how “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders,” as their old-style borders were purely physical ones, whereas “Our world is different. . . . Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” Instead, cyberspace is the realm of Mind, not body. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” Barlow promises, citing revered names like Jefferson, Washington, Mill, and Tocqueville as libertarian thinkers who surely would have embraced these electronic “dreams” if only they’d had the opportunity.
“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us,” continues cybernaut Barlow. “They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.” Instead, Barlow contends, the web was defined as a realm of purest and sacred selfhood: Like many a 2020s transhumanist ideologue would say, our “identities have no bodies.”
In Barlow’s construct, restrictive, anti-web government actors are akin to the Archons, evil sub-gods who, in the Gnostic tradition, wielded power over our immortal souls, helping trap them ever further within base matter. Not being a (conscious) Gnostic himself, however, Barlow frames this in more familiar political terms, bemoaning how the “colonial measures” of the Davos leaders’ early attempts at web censorship represented nothing less than the attempted colonization of Mind by mere matter. “We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to assent to your rule over our bodies.”
According to Barlow, Archons like Bill Clinton were acting like King Canute before the waves, “trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace.” As he goes on to say: “These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work [for long] in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.” That sounds uncannily like a prediction of the post-2010s reality of always-on smartphones and the Internet of Things.
Equally prophetically, Barlow warns aging Archons of a future world in which “you are terrified of your own children, since they are [digital] natives in a world where you will always be immigrants.” Sadly, that world has since come to pass.
Independence of Mind
Barlow died in 2018, but the spirit of his Declaration lives on. Yet his argument for the ultimate incorporeality of cyberspace does possess a fundamental flaw. Against all surface appearances, the Internet does have some solid-state roots from which it emerges: thousands of low-key, yet utterly essential, physical data centers located all across the world, whose servers hold the content for every website, video, and social media post.
In a 2016 interview, Barlow somewhat admitted this, talking of how “cyberspace is something that happens independently of the physical world in exactly the same way as the mind and body. It depends on the physical world and can’t exist without it, but to a fairly large extent, it’s another thing, unprecedented in world history.” In other words, cyberspace emerges from physical data centers as the mind emerges from physical brains. The two are somewhat interdependent, but matter does not fully govern the mind.
Though this may seem persuasive to some, Barlow’s concept that matter is irrelevant still smacks of Gnosticism. Treating data centers, just like fleshly human bodies, as irrelevant or inconvenient, and claiming the world wide web, not the material world, as sovereign over our “true” selves, makes this kind of thinking into a form of techno-theology. The Internet becomes transformed from an illusory projection of physical data centers onto our screens into a global world-soul, an unconscious analogue of the anima mundi of the Neoplatonists, a spiritual amalgamation of all human (and other) souls in existence throughout the universe.
By claiming cyberspace was “naturally immune to sovereignty,” as he did in 2016, Barlow was not merely talking about the Internet being free from the political and legal sovereignty of the United States government, the European Parliament, and the British Crown. More fundamentally, Barlow pointed the path toward the presumed sovereignty of soul or Mind over matter, of feelings over reality, a phenomenon all too familiar to today’s netizens. His ideology paved the way for others to claim natural immunity to the sovereignty of physical matter, though in ways Barlow would not yet have been able to conceive in a time when transhumanism and transgenderism were but fringe concepts.
Of course, the average TechGnosis-fueled TikTokking trans-cultists of today have no more read John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace than they have read any of the fragmentary or apocryphal texts of the old and now long-forgotten masters of Gnosticism, such as Valentinus or Marcion of Sinope. Nonetheless, such ideas and narratives have their intellectual and social consequences. Should they catch on, they can seduce many into reordering how they live their very lives.
Yuval Noah Harari is correct to warn that our computer age may lead to the creation of compelling new religions. What he did not realize is that the foundational texts of such creeds, far from needing to be written by AIs or the ChatGPTs of tomorrow, have already been penned by the likes of Mr. Barlow–and, before him, by the likes of Valentinus and Marcion of Sinope. The heretical AI religion of tomorrow is the same as the heretical man-made religion of yesterday.
The featured image is by Tara Winstead and is in the public domain courtesy of pexels.com.