Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

For this post, I’d like to use Burning Man as a starting point to look at broader cultural trends around the Bay Area, having just moved here recently after being in the Los Angeles area for a while.  Starting with a 2×2:

Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Technologism and Environmentalism exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, due to the fact that the former tends to focus largely on development (we even call software programmers “developers”), whereas the latter is mostly interested in maintaining natural and ecological balance through preservation and restoration efforts.  The Collectivism-Individualism split is also a pretty good representation of the liberal-libertarian divide that tends to characterize the politics of the region.

The Web, as a whole, has moved on from its anarchic heydey to a more collectivist (i.e. social) medium, so that progression is depicted at the top of the diagram from left to right.  The bottom-right corner include restoration and conservation efforts that involve environmental, historical, and artistic projects, which are often connected to the preservation of long-standing traditions, environments and geographic identities around the Bay.  The next big development in the top-left corner is probably Bitcoin, although even that medium is likely to follow a similar left-to-right progression as it becomes more mainstream.

Just because concepts exist on opposite sides of the spectrum though, doesn’t mean that they’re mutually exclusive — hybrid ideological concepts like Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Green Tech have managed to gain some traction, and have done fairly well for itself in recent years.  Generally speaking, concepts and movements that “scale” well all seem to involve some kind of hybridization of multiple ideologies, since it allows for its ideas to reach out to a wider audience base.

Compared to the rest of America, however, the things that Bay Area people are interested in tend to be far far away from what’s considered “normal” in everyday American life.  It’s largely why Burning Man — as famous and popular as it is — is still seen as the “gathering of weirdos” from all over the country.  As shown in the 2×2, the region itself runs on a slightly off-kilter axis, giving the city its particular political and cultural flavor.

Bay Area transplants, like those who migrate to Los Angeles, usually have a story to tell about why they chose to move there.  It is usually some combination of not fitting in socially with their hometown, political/cultural discord, personal/family hardship, and/or the search for economic opportunity and career paths for the future.  These stories come in various backgrounds, forms, ideologies and aspirations, but they all have one thing in common: a healthy skepticism of the status-quo.  Nobody goes to the Valley with the intent to settle down and live quietly — they’re there to make a difference, make a change, make a dent — in how the world works.

Much has been written about the various subcultures that exist in Silicon Valley already, so I won’t expound much on that topic.  I thought, however, that it might be interesting to look at Silicon Valley from a spiritual point of view, since that side of the story tends to be less talked about.  The collisions between technological and environmental spirituality in particular is an interesting topic to look at, due to the widespread influence of both in the Bay Area as a whole.

The Spirit of the Bay

The rejection of the status-quo, in a spiritual sense, is the rejection of modern institutional religions and the practices that they represent.  Depending on where you originally came from, this could be any of the major religious sects large enough to be considered “mainstream”.  The strongest objections to institutional religions are usually argued under the premise of being against religious fundamentalism, particularly against the idea of evangelizing one’s particular viewpoint onto others, against their will or consent.

When rejecting institutional religious norms, some people become pure atheists or agnostics, happy to have gotten rid of their affiliations with congregational practices altogether.  Most, however, end up joining alternative ritualistic traditions in order to satiate the desire for a shared common narrative.  Practices such as meditation and yoga have arguably become huge successes on the West Coast because they allow people to practice spirituality under the guise of fulfilling more “practical” needs, such as stress-relief, anxiety-reduction, mental health, and physical exercise.  These activities allows people get the experience of ritual without necessarily making their spirituality explicit or public — a necessary mask, perhaps, for those not wanting to attract unwanted attention.

Die-hard technologists might become singulartarians or transhumanists as a means of belonging to a spiritual community, adhering to the advancement of technology as a belief system in itself.

The greatest and most prevalent undercurrent by far, however, is neo-paganism, which encompasses the hodgepodge of beliefs that define the spiritual landscape of large Californian coastal cities in general, and the Bay Area in particular.

Paganism is a philosophically ambiguous term that encompasses a wide variety of belief systems — the particular brand of “open-mindedness” that West Coasters often identify with. In its contemporary forms, the spiritual practice generally contains aspects of nature worship/animism, references to indigenous/ancient/folk cultures, healing rituals, alternative medicines, polytheism, anthropomorphization, demi-gods, oriental/foreign mysticism, magic/spells, and more.

Paganism’s manifestations tend to be colored by the particularities of the local region, due to its emphasis on natural and provincial lifestyles.  If modern Christianity is about transcending one’s earthly self and prepare for heaven, contemporary paganism is about staying grounded and being “present” with yourself and your surroundings.  Pagans ally themselves with nature and the local gods and traditions of the land, finding inspiration and comfort in virtually everything they see.

Contemporary paganism is (some would say unfortunately) best represented by the recent manifestations and evolutions of the New Age movement and the various off-shoots that it has spawned since the new millennium.  In many ways, the New Age movement has had a long, remarkable, and unprecedented history: a holistic movement that encompassed multiple fields and practices simultaneously — music/art, spirituality, technology, politics, economics, and self-help/self-development — all organized under a unified identity system.

From New Age to Newer Age

The New Age movement first emerged in the 60s and 70s during the United States’ countercultural era, but actually hit its stride during the 80s and 90s as it began to grow into a formidable political and economic force.  As the Baby Boomers matured, the movement was able to influence mainstream audiences directly through the popularization of certain products and ideas, such as organic farming, green technology, and locally produced foods and products.  These developments, however, provoked the ire of incumbents, and the philosophy has been on the defensive ever since, despite its ascendancy.

Christians attacked New Age spirituality as being “dangerous” in its promotion of heathenism, polytheism, and witchcraft.  Rationalists and atheists were also quick to denounce the movement, saying that it was too nonsensical and unscientific to be taken seriously.  In the 80s-90s, the New Age movement lost popularity among traditional leftists as well, since it didn’t quite resonate with the socialist and progressive ideologies of its time.  As a result, the phrase “new agey” now automatically carries a negative connotation throughout America.

Contemporary paganism differs from the pre-millennial eras of the New Age movement (which encouraged positive thinking and self-esteem) in that it rejects the idea of transcendence entirely, focusing on the idea of “presence” as a core tenet and value.  For a lack of a better word, we might call this the “Newer Age” movement, explained by this video by JP Sears here.  The video is meant to be satire, but oddly enough, Sears is actually right on the mark in regards to some of the newer ideas that have been emerging in recent spiritual trends.

“Here in the Newer Age, trying to be spiritual is the most unspiritual thing you can do.” – JP Sears

Trying to “be spiritual” is trying too hard — why not just be yourself?  Why not embrace being in harmony with the disconnect and alienation inherent in modern societies rather than try to fight it Instead of “oneness” we have “noneness” — that our attachment to being “as one” with one another, is in itself, an illusion and a source of discontent.

From Transcendence to Presence

In the eyes of its detractors (including those from the “old” New Age), the ultimate sin of the Newer Age movement was its rejection of transcendence — in suggesting that there was value in respecting the world as it exists, the efforts put forth by evangelists to develop the world into “a better place” seemed foolish, misguided, unwarranted — perhaps even slightly evil — in an existential sense.  To outside observers, the Newer Age mentality might be seen as uncaring, apathetic, lazy and entitled. But it can also be seen as a legitimate response to the philosophies of what came before: an attempt by the next generation to find an “openness” appropriate for modern societies without losing their groundings in reality itself.  If you take away all of the slogans and symbolisms that ideologies themselves manifest, at the root of most political disagreements exist a simple spectrum that often goes unnoticed: transcendence vs. presence.  The right to change, the right to stay the same, and the right to define what change means.

Despite the constant barrage of onslaughts and mockery, however, neo-pagan, Newer Age movements continue to thrive, seemingly unfazed by the antagonism they face from detractors every day.  Figures are hard to come by and difficult to objectively assess, but the combined market for crystals/trinkets, self-help/spiritual books, psychic/tarot/palm readings, speakers/workshops, healing and alternative medicinal practices is likely many billions of dollars annually and growing, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. For something that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, neo-pagan ideas do enjoy a market and cultural presence that’s both massive and very active.

I would even say that the Newer Age movement is growing stronger, day by day. The reason?  It has managed to adapt itself fairly well to the medium that has the most presence in our lives today: technology.

Technopaganism in Meatspace

The dual-worship of technology and nature — two things that Bay Area culture exhibits in abundance — could be easily explained by the term, “technopaganism” as an overarching concept. Being that the word “pagan” is still considered taboo in most circles, however, you’re not likely to find many who are willing to use the term in public, at least in reference to themselves.  (Perhaps, though, it simply does not have enough mindshare yet.)

People go to Burning Man to be a part of the “craziness”, for sure, but it’s a particular kind of “crazy” that embodies the contradictions that the Bay Area and tech industry deals with in its endeavors — hence the appeal for many who make the trip every year.  Take this sculpture/installation, for example:

Transformoney Tree, Burning Man 2012, by Dadara (Accessed from Wikipedia, 05/11/15)

Transformoney Tree, Burning Man 2012, by Dadara (Accessed from Wikipedia, 05/11/15)

An interactive artwork made out of money and modern materials using a natural object as a symbol — this is one of many examples where unexpected juxtapositions are used to represent the complexities that exist in contemporary, especially tech-heavy, environments.  Because of the ambiguity of its definition and its tendency to fuse with other forms of ideologies, it is difficult to point out what exactly is pagan and what isn’t.  But if you look closely, it becomes obvious that pagan influences are widespread in Burning Man and the Bay Area itself on multiple layers and fronts.

Burning Man is only a one week event out of the year, though, after which everyone just goes back to their normal, day-to-day lives.  What about the rest of world for the rest of the year?

Technopaganism Online

It turns out that the Newer Age is actually virtually everywhere. There are countless pagan allegories and references to neo-pagan ideals and values in the medium that best epitomizes the combination of technology and spiritualist narratives: video games. A few examples listed here:

Final Fantasy XII: A gigantic crystal that stores your memories and restores your energy -- most allegories in this vein are pretty ham-fisted and obvious in this way.

Final Fantasy XII: A gigantic crystal that stores your memories and restores your energy — most allegories in this vein are pretty ham-fisted and obvious in this way.

Dragon God from <i>Gods of War</i>: The idea that there are gods out there that interact with mortals while being fallible themselves (demi-gods) tends to be a pagan notion, often inspired by folklore and ancient spiritual narratives.  Makes for a good story, too -- you wouldn’t be able to kill/help/be-helped-by them, otherwise.

Dragon God from Gods of War: The idea that there are gods out there that interact with mortals while being fallible themselves (demi-gods) tends to be a pagan notion, often inspired by folklore and ancient spiritual narratives.  Makes for a good story, too — you wouldn’t be able to kill/help/be-helped-by them, otherwise.

<b>League of Legends</b>: Originally based off of a Warcraft 3 modded game called Defense of the Ancients, this game is currently the most popular video game in the world -- a billion dollar franchise in and of itself.  References: crystals, magic, healing, ancient runes, nature animations, folklore, etc.

League of Legends: Originally based off of a Warcraft 3 modded game called Defense of the Ancients, this game is currently the most popular video game in the world — a billion dollar franchise in and of itself.  References: crystals, magic, healing, ancient runes, nature animations, folklore, etc.

<b>From Dust</b>: The most recent game I’ve been playing as of the late.  Nature worship and references to indigenous cultures is pretty prevalent here.  (Although based on a fictional tribe, to avoid direct references.)

From Dust: The most recent game I’ve been playing as of the late.  Nature worship and references to indigenous cultures is pretty prevalent here.  (Although based on a fictional tribe, to avoid direct references.)

<b>My Neighbor Totoro</b>: The influence that anime and Japanese aesthetics have had on video game culture is fairly pronounced -- especially in regards to animism and natural mysticism.

My Neighbor Totoro: The influence that anime and Japanese aesthetics have had on video game culture is fairly pronounced — especially in regards to animism and natural mysticism. Pagan influences are also very present in comic-book culture as a whole as well. (ex. Thor, Storm, fantasy genres, etc.)

Looking at it from the other point of view — it’s actually very difficult to find earnest references to Biblical teachings or monotheistic deities in video games due to the cultural dominance of certain types of narrative styles within these mediums. Extreme Violence Simulator 2015, Capitalist Money-Maker Tycoon, New Ager Saves the Day (Again), Administration and Resource Management Party, Outdoor Sports Simulator…video games come in a wide variety of titles but none of them will preach to you about the virtues of worshiping the one and only true God.  When narratives do happen to cross the line into the realms of the sacred, however, in the vast majority of cases, they tend to reference pagan or neo-pagan values and beliefs first before anything else.

When you look at the gaming industry through this lens, you realize these influences are practically everywhere, and that the next generation of kids is eating this stuff up.  If you’ve played any of the major games that came out in the last few decades, chances are good that you’ve been influenced by some of their ideas in some way as well, even if it doesn’t ever leave the realm of your subconscious.

Given the gradually increasing interest in narrative design by the tech community as of the late, it won’t be too long before many will be forced confront the awkward connections that have always been there, but never really been made explicit until now. As silly as the term “technopaganism” might sound on the surface, the goal of being at peace with the devices that we use on a day to day basis is something that everyone wants, and as long as that desire continues to exist, the general spirit of it will continue to be a source of inspiration and hope for many out there.  To find that perfect balance between stillness and development, individualism and collectivism, transcendence and presence, the sacred and profane.  Burning Man is intriguing to so many people precisely because it hints at answers to many of the unanswerable questions that we have about our existence in itself.

How these narratives will play out in mainstream culture, however, is yet to be seen.  Perhaps they will continue to be part of deeply personal and private practice, never to see the light of day in everyday conversations.  Or perhaps there will be a great awakening of sorts, tipping the balance of spiritual power in an unexpected direction.

Either way, the story of the technology sector’s spiritual development is going to be an interesting one.  Perhaps the next big disruption in the Valley will happen in the inner lives of ordinary people, leading to a profound change in the way we interact and interpret with the world as a whole. Will our technological devices pull us out of our reality, or deeper within?

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About Ryan Tanaka

Ryan Tanaka is a writer, musician and technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of ritual, gaming culture, and themes in UI/UX . Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. “Will our technological devices pull us out of our reality, or deeper within?”

    Yes.

  2. In the eyes of its detractors (including those from the “old” New Age), the ultimate sin of the Newer Age movement was its rejection of transcendence — in suggesting that there was value in respecting the world as it exists

    Isn’t modernity – the mode of subjectivity underlying the newness of every new or newer age – not itself a transcendental concept? Modernity or the will to overcome what has been and make the future against the elders seems to haunt also the most willing presentists.

    From the old world where I live the Californian mythology is characterized by dreaming westwards but being stuck at the west coast, the west end of the west. Now instead of coming to an end, finding peace, growing old and calm down, the dreaming advances into Hollywood movies, science fiction, technological inner spaces. This is coincidental with the invention of new religions, which seem to not revolve any longer around a traumatic experience in the world, which should be overcome in an act of salvation or dissolution of the self, but as an energizer for well being on a long trip: the more Gods which support, refresh and entertain us and which we worship in return, the better.

    Many countries envied you for SV for more than 2 or 3 decades but it has been impossible for them to reproduce or transplant it. Following Venkat’s no-cultural-ether theory this should have been easy, once smart technocrats have identified the structures and players and their links but nothing relevant has happened yet. Apparently it is easier to create a fake local beer and invent deep, authentic traditions than building a zombi SV. The masters of the simulacrum have created the first authentic culture of the new millenium and it is left to be seen if it spreads or being bound to its local conditions.

    • “Isn’t modernity – the mode of subjectivity underlying the newness of every new or newer age – not itself a transcendental concept? Modernity or the will to overcome what has been and make the future against the elders seems to haunt also the most willing presentists.”

      Yeah, that’s a good observation — sort of like how a lot of secular movements often emulate the forms and functions of sacred ones, even if they might present themselves as being mutually exclusive.

      Why did we decide to explore space first before the sea? Kind of an interesting thing to think about. If we were more of a “grounded” kind of culture, we might have gone down instead of up.

      • Not actually true. We reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960, before the moon. The entire Age of Exploration (15th century) was about the seas and huge risks were taken by way more people than all the astronauts in the history of space exploration. With the development of the submarine and sonar, the sea floor was extensively mapped. Both poles were reached. Circumnavigation underwater was achieved. Now AUVs from the world’s militaries and research institutions like Scripps and MBARI swarm the oceans and there’s even OpenROV. There’s sensor nets blanketing the oceans.

        In this case I think the method is simply inappropriate. It is about engineering and costs/returns, not spiritual values.

        From an engineering perspective, properly exploring the oceans is actually a lot more difficult than at least earth-orbit space stuff, and a lot less immediately useful. Immense pressures, radio doesn’t work, etc. Space is just more expensive.

        From a biology/chemistry perspective, there’s also a far bigger to-do list underwater (until we find alien life), so it looks relatively under-explored. Despite all this, the oceans have been heavily explored. It’s just not enough relative to the stuff to-do.

        Space gets harder than oceans once you go beyond earth-orbit stuff, and that stuff is way less developed than the oceans.

  3. dazhuang2 says:

    @Venkat: Why did you refer to Greer as a zero-summer in a Twitter post?

  4. It’s inaccurate to claim that ‘new age’ popped up in the 60s — to do so ignores probably the most interesting new age / silicon valley connection.

    The term ‘new age’ is a variation of the term ‘new aeon’ — a term for what is variously called the ‘age of aquarius’, the ‘aeon of horus’, etc. The idea that the current age is coming to an end and a new age of enlightenment (as opposed to apocalypse) is about to begin is one strongly related to thelema — and this is where the west coast connection comes in, because Jack Parsons (a rocket scientist who was instrumental in starting NASA’s JPL and much of the other post-WWII explosives work to the west coast, and thus is responsible for some of the concentration of the tech industry in the valley pre-Fairchild) ran the California thelemic lodge, as well as socializing in show-business circles. He famously attempted a ritual to bring about the new aeon by creating a moonchild, with the aid of L. Ron Hubbard (who ran away with his wife, and only much later formed the church of scientology) — in other words, even the term ‘new age’ is inextricably linked to the social nexus of cold war big science and show business represented by these two figures.

    I’m not going to claim that Parsons is singlehandedly responsible for the new-ageyness of the valley — that ignores an even longer history (for a hundred years prior, movements formed in the burnt-over district of New York state had moved west to create intentional communities, and while the most famous is Salt Lake City, many of these communities ended up in California and Oregon) — but that instead, he’s responsible in part for the particular flavor of Bay Area new-ageyness and its strong association with both show business and tech (as opposed to other places, where strong supernatural belief is associated with politics or with physically dangerous professions like sailing and mining).

    • That’s an interesting angle I hadn’t considered — the history of SV even goes back to the Cold War, even in its spirituality!

      • I did always think that there’s was a connection between the New Age movements and the Space Race in some way, but this does make a lot of sense.

  5. I never seem to have enough time to post nowadays, so I’ll try compressing things down:

    Technopaganism strikes me as spot on, a paradox of old new age stuff was it’s focus on “oneness” when a reconstructive-pagan perspective tends to pull away from that; ontological plurality at base etc. personal gods and self-constructed traditions.

    There has been a separate framework I’ve seen in the old-school new-age, focused on “awakening” in the context of altered states and increased emotional openness, and a conception of the earth as a passive mother, but for whatever reason that has not transferred in the same way, possibly because it is incompatible with certain models of ideological self-replication.

    I think probably though, burning man style technopaganism and “crystal tech” fantasy should probably be kept apart; they both have the 60s in their past, but it seems to me that they take very different approaches to it, one building off of the impromptu communes, fluxus, situationism and hippy practices of the late 60s and 70s, and the other powering itself off the good vibrations of the 80s and early 90s bookshop spirituality.

    One uses these kinds of ostensibly weird frameworks to relatively traditional fantasy narrative ends, the other uses much more of the practical oddness without necessarily containing requiring much consistency of taking on classically new age ideas.

    This isn’t a hard and fast distinction by any means, but I suspect collapsing it too quickly muddies up the interesting stuff present in your earlier diagram about what “burning man for the rest of the year” actually looks like.

    • One interesting thing I neglected to mention in the article is that the way tech is depicted in gaming cultures tend to be overwhelmingly dystopian, even though the medium itself has always been reliant on it to survive. The irony of it isn’t always noticed, but it does have an effect on the way people think and think of themselves when they use these types of products.

      Some might disagree, but I do think that this is a “problem” that the industry needs to start taking more seriously, if they’re looking to improve their standing in the world on political/cultural levels. Lets Play videos are a big thing now among the youth — not because of its technical innovations, but because it simply humanizes the experience of working with machines in a way that people can relate. The “value proposition” of the product itself is only half of its story.