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Faith : September 23, 2001
The faith to come
The writer, who lives in Nalla Sopara, near Mumbai, is an artist who works with conventional media as well as interactive new media. He also writes on art, and on technology-related issues.
If faith is the fundamental expression of one's relationship with the energies that animate and bring order and direction to life and the world we live in, along with the belief in a possible transcending of the earthbound existence, then we are in the process of experiencing a radical shift in its expression in the current phase of the Information Age.
Today one can, from the comfort of one's home or from any cyber-cafe, fire up a web browser and log on to www.siddhivinayak.org to get a darshan of Lord Ganesha at the venerated Siddhivinayak temple kilometres (or thousands of kilometres) away in Mumbai and participate in the aarti performed. No need to wait in long queues or jostle for the best spot among the throngs of devotees. That is information technology shifting and shaping your traditional spiritual life.
It has become evident that cyberspace is much more than a breakthrough in computer interface design. With the arrival of virtual reality, simulated worlds and intelligent agents, it is emerging as a tool for examining our very sense of the real. Our understanding of what amounts to reality is gradually being stretched to the limits, posing questions about the existential nature of "real" versus "virtual presence".
Ontologists define technology as the extension of human potentials and capabilities, a sentiment echoed by the prophet of the Information Age, Marshal McLuhan, when he declared that network technology is the extension of the human nervous system and that "the medium is the message". Though the hypnotic fascination that we have for technology is akin to aesthetic fascination, it actually goes much beyond that. Our love affair with technology, especially with the computer and cyber worlds runs deeper than the play of senses and sense gratification. The allure of information technology is evident in the way we are reaching out towards a marriage between information machines and the human body, suggesting the beginnings of a future symbiotic relationship.
In many ways, this hypnotic fascination for digital high technology that seeks to meld the human organism with intelligent machines borders almost on the erotic. After all, Eros was defined by the ancient Greek philosophers as the drive for completion and fulfillment, but which, according to modern-day psychoanalysis, is actually a self-preservative instinct.
Laurent de Gaulle
In the technologically mediated and augmented reality that is being actualised into the present, human existence, especially the human body, is being increasingly evaluated as a long list of inadequacies. This is a sea change from such pre-modern notions of the human form as perfection embodied, or as the mirror image of Godhead, or as the site for redeeming accumulated karma. Logically, on the other hand, there is no reason why our average lifespan should not be 200 instead of 60 or 70 years, as we usually assume it should be. As our ideas about the human body change, so do our definitions of life and the body's location in the world, relative to the implied presences and energies we recognise as God or Spirit.
The reassessment of the human body and how it can be reconstructed and extended in the technologically augmented reality began with Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian media artist who, in 1997, implanted a micro-chip that could beam an unalterable signal composed of his identity to a database in the United States through the Internet. As an artist, he was making a statement about the way we sacrifice our freedom and privacy to runaway technology.
The very opposite attitude was demonstrated during the recent chip implant on a 44-year-old professor of cybernetics, Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading, Britain. Warwick's implanted chip switched on his computer, made his office welcome him in the morning, switched on the lights in the corridor, opened doors and even helped his secretary track him. Just a hint of the possibilities offered by this breakthrough technology.
At a personal and subjective level, the esteemed professor felt an intimate and comforting sense of connectedness with the machines around him, which he sadly lost when the implant was finally removed from his body. Whatever might be the positive outcome of such endeavours, the issue that has always been a thorn in the flesh for those who abhor the idea of digital implants is whether we are losing our human qualities through our over-dependence on machine (artificial) intelligence. But, as Professor Warwick points out, within a decade or so almost all our activities will be within a machine-augmented world - and the only way we can fully participate in such a reality will be through developing a symbiotic relationship with machines, through implants and wearable prostheses.
The advances in genetics, such as cloning and the mapping of the human genome by the Human Genome Project, as well as developments in nano-technology, which aspires to fabricate microscopic robots capable of repairing faulty genes within the human body itself, all clearly point to a not-so-distant future when we will be able to crack the gene responsible for ageing and engineer it to expand our life-spans indefinitely.
The attitude is that there is no compelling reason to accept things as they are. For instance, there is no reason to accept our vision as being confined to the visible spectrum: why not expand vision further, and into other parts of the spectrum, such as the infra-red? This can be applied to hearing, physical strength, speed, intelligence and many other aspects of human existence. The catalyst that is accelerating this change is, of course, the ubiquitous computer, a personal assistant augmenting the individual by enhancing his/her capabilities. This change in stature of the machine, as an active collaborator in human existence rather than a passive tool, is what leads to the possibilities that are suggested by "post-humanism", which is an ideology and philosophy woven around the evolutionary model of Charles Darwin.
According to post-human thinkers, we are on the verge of evolving beyond the human organism and technology is the catalyst that is ushering in this evolutionary shift. And the most important element that would mark the post-human stage in our evolution will be techno-transcendence, or the use of technology to overcome our physical and mental limits. As machines continue their rapid evolution, and as we increasingly tinker with our bodies and brains to repair and improve them, this will become more and more feasible.
The other feature of the post-human stage will be the attempt to link the brain directly into computers. Such brain-computer interfaces could amplify the processes that constitute the human mind to unimaginable levels. The computers could be small enough to be implanted within the body of the user. By far the most ambitious project of this kind is "migration through silicon" or "uploading", which involves putting the mind into a machine, the machine being a computer designed specially for this purpose.
Science, over the 20th Century, has come to be based largely on what is invisible to the human retinal vision: it offers us a world of forces and fields and their relationships. And today, in the early 21st Century, our everyday visible reality, when pitted against this picture of forces and fields, becomes a phantom reality maintained through consensual devices like semiotic stability, cultural continuity and uniformity of dogma, to name only a few. The machines that confront us today belong to the invisible world of fields and forces, with operational limits defined through phenomena like quantum tunneling, which are beyond the scope of human sensory experience.
Writers like William Gibson foresee a future beyond the black shadows of decadence, of high technology reshaping our cultural and religious experiences and the hope for a better life, a sort of transcendence. A transcendence that is accomplished through cybernetic prosthetics or through an escape to off-planet life or living in virtual worlds. In these visions of our future, technology intrudes into the hitherto sacred space of the human body and morphs into an agent that brings in transformation and transcendence. The future is not out there in the world, where life is full of pain and all-too-human suffering, but the hope of it lies inward, towards the nerves guided by the supreme all-knowing machines. In this sense, technology's newest venture is intrinsically similar to the one that has always been the domain of faith and religion.
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