Today’s random item from the Terence McKenna Archives is one that only mentions Terence in passing and, yet, feels more Terence-relevant than many of the items in the archives that feature him more heavily. It is a 1999 article in The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper (Jan. 22) profiling Erik Davis (who Rob Brezsny apparently once called “the next Terence McKenna”) as prelude to a local event for the release of his book Techngnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information at Santa Fe’s Plan B Evolving Arts. The profile, by Antonio Lopez, includes sections of an interview conducted with Davis by phone. I think those who pay attention to Terence McKenna will find this to be an interesting read. It’s a well-done profile of a writer (and podcaster!) whose work is well-worth paying attention to. He was also potentially the last person to interview Terence–it’s a long interview that I still think of as one of the best. The article includes a discussion of Davis’ visit to the Cyberthon in San Francisco in 1991, discussed in a previous blog post (Esquire, Apr. 1991), at which Terence and Tim Leary spoke along with VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and others, including Debbie Harlow, who told those in attendance that she had “received a newsletter put out by the criminal justice department of the state of Hawaii that quoted McKenna and Mondo 2000 on virtual reality and alerted judges to the possible dangers of this new “drug” (Spin, Apr. 1991).
Erik Davis speaking at Burning Man 2003 next to a picture of Terence McKenna, whose work provided the inspiration for the Palenque Norte theme camp.
The convergence of mysticism and pop culture is a niche journalist Erik Davis carved out one spoonful at a time.
Several years ago, in “Technopagans,” a story for Wired, Davis explored the neopagan world of Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) programmers and other Net practitioners and occult denizens in San Francisco [which features eventual Terence collaborator, and VRML co-inventor, Mark Pesce].
With the recent publication of his tome, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony Books), Davis has become somewhat of a de facto expert on the strange, secret history bridging technological culture and the spiritual realm.
“Personally I have always been fascinated by weird religious ideas, psychedelia and the occult,” he said. Moreover, he said, “I’ve always been a pop-culture junkie.”
“In terms of looking at new technology, I always look at it through a science-fiction lens because I’m interested in the mythic and fantastic aspects that are always part of the discussion of technology rather than tracking the business and technological aspects,” he said. “I’m interested in where the machine and psyche meet.”
In the early ’90s, such a connection became real in Northern California, where the Information Age and Aquarian Age mingled, symbolized by psychedelic mentors Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary exchanging with technological visionaries Jaron Lanier (an early developer of virtual reality) and Howard Rheingold. The Berkeley-based magazine Mondo 2000 served as a forum for the kookier aspects of the psychedelic-computer convergence.
Davis set out for San Francisco, where he attended the Cyberthon festival and gathering. “It was an attempt to be the Woodstock of virtual reality,” Davis said. “It was that whole San Francisco mixture of psychedelia and computer technology. When I was there, I saw that this is real. I wanted to know how it was that these ’60s psychedelia ideas became mixed up with information technology.”
Although the event proved pivotal in sparking Davis’ exploration of the netherworld of information technology and mysticism, the rhetoric of the movement remains a dream. “It did not develop into some great alternative culture,” Davis said. “The record is very bad. As I wrote the book over the years, I became more and more critical of the way that people use utopian, mystical and psychedelic language in order to hype technology. “There was some genuine, authentic experimental space that was really there and is still there but what I’m afraid happened is basically a certain kind of capitalism absorbed those energies and language with a purpose to sell something to consumers, like psychedelic screen savers that are in the offices of Internet startup companies that don’t do anything. “This is a true consensual hallucination, like Gibson said,” Davis said. “It’s not so clear what’s going on. In the end, I was rather disappointed in how these utopian dreams played out.”
Davis juggled to address an eclectic readership, which includes a cyber-theoretical, cyber-critical audience, smart new-agers and what he called “new consciousness” people, and those interested in underground spirituality. In addition, Davis believes Techgnosis appeals to those interested in the history of technology and contemporary culture from a journalistic perspective. “In response to that, my voice jumps inside the text,” Davis said. “It’s a symptom of how difficult it is to explain the moment we live in. You have to become a kind of pragmatic schizophrenic.”
“I’m trying to articulate the collective dreamworld of contemporary technological culture rather than just analyzing it,” Davis said. “Even though I use academic material and scholarly questions, I’m also equally interested in expressing something strange and fantastic about the times we find ourselves in. “For example, when I write about UFOs, on the one hand I’m very interested in the sociology of UFO believers. But on the other hand, I’m interested in catching the bizarre side of whatever it is that compels people to be fascinated with UFOs and looking at these perceptions that don’t fit into ordinary reality. “I’m not interested in whether UFOs are real but how people come to believe they are real. What is that about? It’s trying to do both things at once.”
Asked if he follows a particular spiritual path, the author remained cryptic. “I’m very interested in mindfulness practice,” Davis said. “I think paying attention to attention is one of the key tools for facing the Information Age.”