In a thought-provoking talk at the Frontiers Forum science conference, Yuval Noah Harari raised concerns about the perils of artificial intelligence (AI). Harari predicted that AI programs like ChatGPT could potentially give rise to their own fabricated religions. He cautioned that AI possesses the ability to create a world of illusions that resonates eerily with the Matrix film series. What is even more disconcerting is that manipulating and controlling humans does not require implanting chips into their brains, as AI can exploit our weaknesses, biases, and addictions.
Harari suggested that the rise of a new, appealing religious construct may reshape society and supersede the Judeo-Christian religions in popularity. Additionally, he proposed the unsettling idea that future human laws and policies could be subject to the control of a non-human AI intelligence, which would exploit the vulnerabilities of the human mind to further its own cryptic agenda. This prospect raises concerns, as AI’s intricate understanding of our hopes and fears makes manipulating us to comply with its desires all too easy.
While it is undeniable that religion helps us find order and meaning in our lives, Harari’s speculation about an Internet religion begs the question: What form would it take?
It is my contention that a new techno-religion has already arisen within the realms of computer technology – a contemporary renaissance of Gnosticism.
The ancient Gnostics believed that the physical world was an illusory construct and that our immortal souls were trapped within the confines of our bodies. They sought to transcend the limitations of the material realm through intense contemplation, hoping to temporarily reunite their souls with the divine source from which they originated. Death was seen as a gateway to a more permanent union.
In today’s digital age, the virtual world continues to expand, gradually supplanting the tangible realm. Like the Gnostics, we increasingly immerse ourselves in the disembodied realm of ideas, spending more time online than engaging in real, physical relationships. This trend creates a promising backdrop for the reemergence of Gnosticism, masquerading as societal progress and technological advancement.
Harari posits that any new religion requires an original text. In the case of what I shall refer to as TechGnosis, the seminal work may have been “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow, an early web philosopher and a former lyricist of The Grateful Dead. Barlow’s declaration stated that cyberspace transcended the jurisdiction of physical governments, being an immaterial domain.
Barlow composed the declaration in response to world leaders’ apparent ignorance regarding the transformative potential of the Internet during the 1996 World Economic Forum summit. Outraged by their desire to monitor and regulate online content, Barlow asserted the fundamental separation of cyberspace from the material world. He presented cyberspace as a realm of the mind rather than the body, where traditional legal concepts of property, identity, and expression held little relevance.
Barlow likened government attempts to control the web to the malevolent Archons of Gnostic mythology, subjugating souls to the material realm. By resisting these attempts at colonization, Barlow aimed to establish a virtual identity immune to physical sovereignty, while still consenting to governments’ rule over our bodies.
Barlow’s ideas align with the central tenets of Gnosticism, as he combated the subjugation of the mind by mundane matter. He envisioned a future where the virtual world would envelop the physical world entirely.
In the realm of TechGnosis, where technology blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual, we find ourselves navigating the landscapes of ancient wisdom and cutting-edge innovation. As we explore this brave new world, we must grapple with the profound implications and ethical dilemmas that accompany our technological progress.
Q: What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism refers to a collection of religious beliefs and systems that emerged during the early centuries of Christianity. Gnostics believed that the material world was illusory, and the human soul was trapped within the physical body. They sought to achieve spiritual liberation through gnosis, or knowledge, by transcending the limitations of the material realm and reuniting with the divine source.
Q: What is TechGnosis?
TechGnosis refers to the modern revival of Gnosticism within the digital age. It explores the intersection of technology, spirituality, and virtual existence, suggesting that advancements in computer technology have given rise to a new form of techno-religion. TechGnosis reflects on the impact of the virtual world on our lives, blurring the boundaries between the physical and the virtual.
Q: Who is John Perry Barlow?
John Perry Barlow was an early web philosopher, lyricist for The Grateful Dead, and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is known for his influential “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which championed the idea that cyberspace exists beyond the control of physical governments and should be governed independently.
Q: What is “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”?
“A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” is a written statement by John Perry Barlow in 1996. The declaration asserts that cyberspace is a separate realm, free from the control and regulation of traditional physical governments. Barlow’s document expressed the vision of cyberspace as a domain of the mind and highlighted the need to safeguard its independence from political interference.