CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Revenge of the machines: on modernity, (new) technology and animism

by Stef Aupers (Erasmus University Rotterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences)
Presentation at The 2001 International Conference in London. Preliminary version – Do not reproduce without the consent of the author

1. Introduction


William Gibson’s influential science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984) is mainly located in cyberspace.[2] ‘Case’, the hero in his story speaks contemptuously about the limitations of our earthly existence and refers to the human body as ‘meat’ or ‘prison of flesh’. Because of this, Case prefers to live in the immaterial realm of cyberspace where he meets a variety of strange characters like ‘Riviera’ (a cyborg with occult capacities), ‘Flatline’ (a deceased hacker whose soul is still wandering through the matrix) and ‘Linda’ (his dead, but virtually reincarnated ex-girlfriend).

    In short: Gibson imagines cyberspace as a sort of heaven where the souls of the living and the dead meet. Technology and religion, generally assumed to be incompatible realms, in his book are interwoven with ease. Of course, this can be considered as merely the result of his literary imagination. In fiction, by definition, everything is possible. Unexpectedly, however, several non-fiction authors also seem to be taking the relationship between technology and religion more and more seriously. The physicist and mathematician Margaret Wertheim, for instance, claims in her book The pearly gates of cyberspace: a history of space from Dante to the internet that the modern, scientific age resulted in an expansion of ‘physical space’ (on earth and in the universe) while what she calls ‘soul space’ has become increasingly marginalized. In her view, the rise and widespread application of the Internet changes this situation. She considers this medium a “technological substitute for the Christian space of Heaven” (Wertheim1999:16). In general, there are various indications that the ‘digital revolution’ triggers a variety of religious, esoteric and occult impulses. Even the scientific journal Technology and Society: An International Journal recently dedicated a whole issue to the ‘spiritual dimension of new technology’. Kevin Kelly, one of the authors, concludes that “computers have become a spiritual event for humans” (1999:388).[3] The journalist Erik Davis goes even further. With a reference to the sociologist Max Weber he claims in the article Technoculture and the religious imagination that “it is perhaps inevitable that the cosmological imagination returns, attempting to revive and reenchant the patterns and logic of the material world” (1996:11).[4]

    This paper is an empirical study of the assumed relationship between new technology and religion. I will limit myself to one specific manifestation of this relationship.[5] In his book TechGnosis: myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information Erik Davis (1998) writes about a group of ICT-experts who refer to themselves as ‘technopagans’, ‘technoshamans’ or ‘technowitches’. According to Davis these people assume that “the postmodern world of digital simulacra is ripe for the premodern skills of the witch and magician” (1998:188). Although these technopagans form a relatively small, marginal group, they can be seen as exemplary for a more general development of ‘technological animism’ or ‘technoanimism’ (Davis 1998:187). Apparently some computer experts see our technological surroundings as some sort of animated, living force, much like the premodern animist saw his natural surroundings. In a comparable way, the Dutch anthropologist Jojada Verrips (1993) speculated on different modern manifestations of what he calls ‘modern animism’ and wrote among others about ‘machine animism’ (Verrips 1993:71).[6]     

    If these loose speculations are correct then they are sociologically relevant. Sociologists generally consider the progress of science and technology as the main driving forces behind what Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ (1996:17). From this perspective, it is remarkable that religious impulses appear in the field of technology. Animism, according to classical authors such as Comte, Tylor, Marett and Freud, can even be seen as the most ‘primitive’ form of religion. Comte, for instance, compares the ‘intellectual level’ of the animist with that of the ‘higher species of animals’ (Comte 1979:49). According to the Freudian psychoanalytical approach animistic ideas are nothing less than infantile fantasies, neuroses and psychologically damaging illusions. From the typically evolutionary perspective of these authors, animism can essentially be seen as a primitive stage in the history of humanity that lies far behind us and will never return. If animistic ideas and sentiments still exist, then, according to these scientists, they will not be found among technological experts, who are, after all, the ‘pioneers’ of our rational, secular and disenchanted society.    

   These preliminary considerations lead to the following questions that I will try to answer in this study: is there any evidence of animistic ideas and sentiments among ICT-specialists? If so: how can it be explained that this ‘primitive’ form of religion appears in one of the most rational and advanced sections of society? In order to obtain empirically based insight into these questions I have performed a qualitative depth-analysis of a well-known American magazine on new technology: Wired Magazine (1993-2000). First, however, I will define animism and show the parallels that exist between the animistic vision on the material environment and technological developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. These developments, I will show, can be seen as the main condition for late modern technoanimism.


2. Parallels: animism, artificial intelligence and artificial life


The subject of animism has mainly been addressed around the turn of the nineteenth century by authors such as Comte, Marett, Tylor and Freud. Most relevant is probably the discussion between Tylor (Primitive Cultures 1977, first print 1889) and Marett (The threshhold of religion 1914, first print 1909). These authors wrote most substantially about animism in their search for what Tylor called ‘the minimum definition of religion’.

    The premodern animist, according to Tylor, saw his natural environment and the earth, the rocks, the trees, the moon and the stars, essentially as living objects with a soul. In other words: the material world was originally seen as charged with spiritual forces and, at a later stage, with well-defined entities or a variety of gods that gave each object its specific quality. Tylor considered animism essentially as a primitive (and above all false!) way of intellectual reasoning. If people have a soul, the animist falsely generalized, why wouldn't nature and the objects that surround me have one as well? Directly connected with this belief in the subjectivity of the material environment is the power that objects exercise over the human lifeworld. Premodern animists, according to Tylor, see themselves as surrounded by supernatural forces and, consequently, as having limited control over their direct environment. Trees, for instance, are for the animist not passive objects but entities with (sometimes) good and (sometimes) bad intentions. Tylor writes in this context: “Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter”(1977:426).

    Tylor’s definition of animism is criticized by various authors (Hamilton 1995:45-54). The most substantial counterargument, however, is given by Marett (1914) and concerns Tylor’s intellectualistic approach: animism, Marett argues, is not just a primitive way of philosophizing but is above all rooted in the emotional realm. Confronted with their natural environment, premodern people experienced mysterious and undefined powers (‘mana’). According to Marett, the experience of ‘mana’ could lead to the animistic philosophy and, eventually, to well-defined polytheism, but these ideas were just secondary intellectualizations of basic religious feelings. The basic religious feeling that premodern people experienced was humility, manifesting itself in both fear and fascination for the natural environment. Especially ‘awe’, a mixture of these feelings, is important because “of all English words awe is, I think, the one that expresses the fundamental religious feeling most nearly” (Marett 1914:13). According to Marret, animism is essentially one of the first intellectual manifestations of these archaic religious feelings.

    It seems that the intellectualistic and emotionalistic definitions by Tylor and Marett can easily be combined into a threefold definition. In this paper I consider animism as (1) the attribution of subjective characteristics to the material environment, combined with (2) the assumption that objects actively and autonomously exercise influence over the human lifeworld, which is accompanied by (3) feelings of humility manifesting itself in fear, fascination and ‘awe’. This threefold definition will be the main focus in the following empirical analysis.

    Despite their polemic, Tylor and Marret agree on one point: as a result of the progress in science and technology, animism is bound to disappear from western society. Ironically however, contemporary developments in the field of technology have made the relationship between humans and their material environment more complex and, more specifically, problematise the clear-cut Cartesian distinction between subject and object. Due to the influence of scientists such as Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Allan Turing, a new discipline called Artificial Intelligence emerged after World War II.[7] Minsky formulated the basic goal of Artificial Intelligence as “trying to get computers to do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people” (cited in Turkle 1995:125). Not surprisingly, the developments in this field were accompanied by a philosophical discussion whether and to what degree high-tech computers and robots could already think.[8] Questions such as ‘can these complex machines reason?’, ‘are they conscious? ’or ‘can they feel?’ are, until today, the theoretical by-product of this discipline. In other words: because of the input of Artificial Intelligence, computers and robots are increasingly seen as subjective or intelligent entities. Originally, these technologists worked from a ‘top down’ approach. In this approach computers are programmed with a variety of well-defined rules, forms of behavior and actions and consequently behave intelligently but predictably. This ‘top down’ approach differs radically from the ‘bottom up’ approach that was developed in the late nineteen eighties. In this method of working, often referred to as Artificial Life, machines are no longer directly programmed. The technologists create an artificial context in which the artefacts are stimulated to learn, develop and evolve like biological organisms.[9] Noble (1999) and Turkle (1996) broadly summarize this development as ‘emergent artificial intelligence’. In their view, the key characteristic of Artificial Life is the open-endedness of the process and the unpredictability of the result. Speculating on the dramatic impact of Artificial Life,  Kelly states: “The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable and creative but, consequently, out of control”(1994:4).                     

    What do these developments in the field of modern technology have to do with animism? Apparently, there are parallels: like animists, technologists working in the field of Artificial Intelligence attribute subjective characteristics to lifeless objects. The attitude of these specialists therefore complies with the first criterion of the threefold definition of animism. It would, however, be false to simply conclude that these experts in Artificial Intelligence are late modern technoanimists. The crucial difference can be found in the fact that they actively construct intelligent entities such as robots, high-tech computers and ‘digital organisms’. This construction occurs on a basis of exact scientific knowledge and experiments that take place between laboratory walls. The attribution of subjective qualities to these machines is therefore not a false generalization, as Tylor suggests is the case with animists, but the logical result of a conscious and purposive implementation of human characteristics in these objects. In short: there is an objective foundation for the interpretation of technologists and philosophers that we are dealing here with intelligent entities. Despite the evident parallels, experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence are not animists.      

    Until this point, I have given a short overview of technological developments taking place between laboratory walls. In the next section I will explore what happens when Artificial Intelligent constructions, such as ‘smart’ household machinery, computers and viruses on the Internet, penetrate the ordinary lifeworld. That these ‘things’ have subjective characteristics has already been shown. The question is then: are these applications of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life also perceived as having autonomous power over the lifeworld and does this arouse feelings of humility: fear, fascination and awe? In other words: do they trigger technoanimistic ideas and sentiments? In order to obtain empirical insight into these questions I have performed a qualitative in-depth-analysis of Wired Magazine.


3. The technoanimistic discourse in Wired (1993-2000)


Wired Magazine (often referred to as Wired) is an internationally oriented American magazine that is mainly concerned with what the editors call ‘the digital revolution’. Its prime focus is new technology, varying from computers, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, various new gadgets and genetical engineering to space exploration, hacking, the Internet and the World Wide Web. The following is a general description of Wired by the editors:


             Wired magazine is the journal of record for the future. It’s daring. Compelling. Innovative. Courageous. Insightful. It speaks not just to high-tech professionals and the business savvy, but also to the forward-looking, the culturally astute, and the simply curious. Each month, Wired covers the people, companies, and ideas that are transforming the way we live.


The people that are highlighted in the articles are mostly renowned experts in the field of new technology, such as professors, researchers and engineers working at MIT in Silicon Valley. However, as the quotation already shows, Wired is not a professional journal for technicians. It is important to note that the experts usually give their personal view on a specific technological innovation or the influence it will have on contemporary society or society in the near future. Because Wired mostly covers personal speculations (and not exact scientific descriptions), the articles can be used as a source for sociologists of culture. For this study it is also important to note that Wired is not an obscure, marginal or religious magazine. It is a respected magazine that received several prestigious awards. [10] In short: Wired is not explicitly concerned with the relationship between religion and technology or, more specifically, technoanimism. This is a major reason why this magazine was selected for this research. If religious or even technoanimistic tendencies can be observed in a renowned and secular journal, this cannot be a marginal phenomenon.


3.1. New technology as an Artificially Intelligent force of nature


The fact that the animist attributes subjective qualities to his natural surroundings, the earth, the trees and rocks, has, according to Tylor, far reaching consequences. The animist sees himself as surrounded by intelligent forces and powers and, consequently, has limited control over his environment. In the context of this study, the question is whether the same attitude is reflected in Wired. To what degree do the authors see our technological environment as an Artificially Intelligent force and therefore as (relatively) out of control?

    The articles in Wired often elaborate on the far-reaching consequences of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life for the human lifeworld. Technologists, according to Johnson (Jan. 2000), generally find “the sociological implications as fascinating as technique itself.” In this context attention is paid to advanced Artificially Intelligent toys like ‘Barney’, ‘Tamagotchi’ (an artificial animal that learns, must be fed and eventually dies) and ‘Furby’. In Moody Furballs And The Developers Who Love Them (Kirsner Sept.1998) it is stated that the appeal of ‘Furby’ can primarily be explained by the fact that it acts as if it’s alive. ‘Furbies’ do not only behave like living creatures; each ‘Furby’ has its own character. They are also programmed to learn from interaction with children and, according to their manufacturers, show unpredictable or even irrational behavior:   


             (..) They wanted Furby to react unpredictably to stimuli. When awakened, Furby might cry or act startled; if one Furby was angry, another Furby in the same room might start singing to soothe it.


The author of the article assumes that the commercial success of ‘Furby’ is exemplary for the widespread advance of Artificially Intelligent toys in the lifeworld of children. He writes: “Furby could be the Australopithecus afarensis of an entire race of Artificially Intelligent toys.” Artificial Intelligence is not only implemented in toys but is also used in ‘smart’ household devices. According to some authors, this will eventually result in what they call a ‘living material environment’. An article on ‘MEMS’ (very small microchips), for instance, states that:


          Within 20 years, there will be no avoiding MEMS: They will be in every telecom line, computer, and coffeemaker – even in our own bodies. As these sensors and actuators – devices that react to their environments – permeate the world, the fabric of daily existence will come alive”(Leonard, Jan. 2000).


Another author makes a similar statement:


          Your environment will become alive with technology (..) The walls will contain logic, processors, memory cameras, microphones, communicators, actuators, sensors (Johnson, Jan. 2000).


Although various authors in Wired assume that our material environment will ‘come alive with technology’ it is important to note that they often also think that technology increasingly will ‘lead its own life’. This distinction is important in the context of this study. If artificial constructions ‘lead their own life’ then this means that they withdraw from the rational control of their creators and, more generally, from that of human action. In this regard the material in Wired complies with both the first and second criteria of technoanimism: not only are subjective characteristics attributed to technological ‘things’, but these things are also believed to autonomously influence the human lifeworld. Many of the articles in which this development is represented cover the implications of Artificial Life and related techniques such as ‘ecological computing’, ‘evolutionary programming’ or ‘artificial evolution’ on society.   

    An example is the article Do-It-Yourself-Darwin (Frauenfelder, Oct. 1998). The author writes about the ‘Galapagos’ project, in which technologists allow programmed ‘digital organisms’ to evolve into more complex and more beautiful organisms. This is done by following Darwin’s law of natural selection or ‘survival of the fittest’. In a similar project, computer specialists constructed a ‘digital ecosphere’ where digital organisms can freely develop (Dibbel, Feb. 1995). The following statement is made about the leader of this project:


          Ray, convinced that his programs are as good as alive, calls them simply ‘organisms’, or ‘creatures’. Whatever they are, though, he’s been breeding quite a lot of them. He’s been breeding them with the full support of his university employers, with the financial backing of major corporations, and with the steadily growing curiosity and respect of fellow researchers in the fields of both biology and computer science.


Ray would like to continue his experiments on the World Wide Web. He assumes that the evolution of digital organisms will accelerate enormously in this ‘open climate’. However, he has no permission to do this since this evolution would be totally out of control. He is therefore compelled to continue his project within the limits of a closed computer system. He nevertheless does some predictions about the future of the World Wide Web:   


          Our global web of digital systems, he predicts, is fast unfolding towards a degree of complexity rich enough to support a staggering diversity of autonomously evolving programs.


According to various articles in Wired, Ray's prognosis is already realized. Several authors assert that during the nineties the number of forms and manifestations of artificial life on the Internet and the World Wide Web has rapidly increased. These digital organisms are, of course, programmed by humans but increasingly lead a ‘life of their own’. They demonstrate, according to Wired, specific (often human-like) behavior, they multiply, evolve and mutate. In most cases, these creatures on the World Wide Web are referred to as ‘viruses’, ‘bots’ and ‘personal agents’. Because of the rapid increase of Artificial Life on the Web during the nineties, this period is sometimes compared with the Cambrium Explosion in biological evolution:  


          In the annals of bot evolution, IRC in the mid –‘90s will probably be remembered as the bot equivalent of the Cambrium Explosion – a relatively short period 540 million years ago that spawned more new species then ever before or since (Leonard, Apr. 1996).


The article Viruses are good for you (Dibbel, Feb. 1995) covers the development of viruses. These were placed on the Internet by anarchistic hackers with mythical names such as ‘Dark Avenger’ and ‘Hellraiser’. Originally, the virus was nothing more than a kind of ‘digital graffiti’. The rapid evolution towards complex artificial life, however, can be explained by the battle between hackers and anti-virus teams such as McAfee. About this, the author writes:


             Once anti-virus software was introduced into the cybernetic ecology, viruses and the programs that stalk them have been driving each other to increasing levels of sophistication. This is nothing less than the common coevolutionary arms race that arises between predators and prey in organic ecosystems.


A digital organism that is related to the virus is the ‘bot’. Bots are also called ‘spiders’, ‘wanderers’ or ‘worms’. In Bots are hot! (Leonard, Apr. 1996) the author defines a bot as “a software version of a mechanical robot  (...) that performs functions normally ascribed to humans.” He adds to this definition:


             Even more important than function is behaviour – bonafide bots are programs with personality. Real bots talk, make jokes, have feelings, even if those feelings are nothing more than cleverly conceived algorithms.


The World Wide Web and especially MUD’s and newsgroups are brimming with bots that all have different functions, ‘personalities’ and ways of behaving. According to the author, some virtual communities are even closed nowadays because there where more uncontrollable bots than people. This often leads to confusion. Some bots are so ingeniously programmed that people do not immediately notice that they are talking to a virtual conversation partner. Vernon Vinge says in Singular Visionary: (..) there are MUD participants who are robots right now, some of them very good. You never quite know whom you’re dealing with”(Kelly, Jun. 1995). 

    Which kinds of bots are there and how exactly do they behave? The author states that “to unravel their taxonomic threads is no simple task: it demands a Darwin.” The first ‘software robot’, however, was developed half-way the nineteen sixties by a MIT professor and is called Eliza. She is the prototype of all contemporary bots. Wired did an interview with Eliza and asked her: ‘Do you know you are the mother of all bots?’ Eliza, who is programmed to be a humanistic (Rogerian) psychologist, answered: ‘Does it please you to believe I am the mother of all bots?’ Eliza is classified as a ‘chatterbot’. Her ‘offspring’ however, can be categorized in an amazing number of groups like ‘gamebots’, gaybots’, ‘hookerbots’, ‘checkerbots’, ‘warbots’, ‘annoybots’, ‘clonebots’, ‘killerbots’ and many others. In most cases, bots have the task to make life easier for people in MUD’s and newsgroups. For instance, they provide information and introduce new participants. Increasingly however, bots cause problems in these virtual communities. Leonard mentions two main reasons. For one, a programming error can result in an uncontrollable, mutating bot. An example is the so-called ‘floodbot’ that generates incoherent texts on the Net. More problematic, according to the author, are the bots that are deliberately designed to irritate people. An example is the ‘annoybot’ that can suddenly appear in discussion groups, will immediately reproduce itself and gibber subversive phrases. When this bot is thrown out of a community he will return in greater numbers. Other examples are the ‘guardbot’ (follows you wherever you go), the ‘spybot’ (monitors a conversation and sends the information to his maker), the ‘bumbot’ (does not go away before he gets money) or the ‘hookerbot’ (makes ‘indecent proposals’).

    In short: a growing number of different bots ‘live’ on the World Wide Web. Once on the Web, they autonomously evolve, reproduce and mutate without the helping hand of human beings. In the words of the author: “they ‘re breeding like mad in the hidden swamps of the digital wilderness.” About the dominance of these digital organisms in cyberspace he states:


             Bots are everywhere in the online universe – roaming the interstices of the World Wide Web; lounging about in MUDs and MOOs; patrolling Usenet newsgroups (..) They will not go away. The future of cyberspace belongs to the bots.


In addition to the virus and the bot, attention is also paid to the ‘personal agents’. In the article Super searcher (Whalen, May 1995) these are defined as “digital butlers that roam the Infobahn gathering data for you – based on your needs – and learn more about your interests over time.” In fact, the personal agent can be considered as an advanced bot and is, in a sense, the constructive counterpart of the destructive virus. In ‘Agent of change’ (Berkun, Apr. 1995) personal agents are labeled as our ‘alter ego’s’ on the World Wide Web, because, according to the author: “they will know what we are interested in, and monitor databases and parts of networks.”

    The articles in Wired on digital organisms show that the technological environment is no longer seen as fully under control. The virus, bot and personal agent are portrayed as a kind of ‘spiritual beings’ who live on the World Wide Web and have good and bad intentions. More generally, many articles describe new technology as an organic, uncontrollable and ‘irrational’ force of nature. This is remarkable: contrary to the classical modern perspective (of Descartes and Bacon), where nature is seen as a mechanical and therefore controllable machine, Wired portrays new technology as an uncontrollable, artificial force of nature. In the article Only connect, for instance, the World Wide Web is compared to the ‘ocean’, ‘the air’, ‘a biological system’ (Johnson, Jan. 2000). The author of Web of weeds (Levinson, Nov. 1995) makes in this context the following statement:


             Many of us are quick to laud nature as a model for technology. The truth is we prefer our devices to be unnaturally consistent. Yet the weed may be the prime mover of our digital works. The links that shoot across the Web may be the result of someone’s intention, but no one has planned or even knows the extend of the interconnections. There is no real librarian on the Web, no master gardener: links seem to spring up on their own. They thrive without tending, harking back to a world before agriculture.


Nature is not merely used as a metaphor. Increasingly, theories, concepts and methods of biological science enter the area of technological engineering. Technologies such as ‘ecological computing’ and others are often mentioned in Wired and are an indication for this development. In other words: the interpretation of new technology as an Artificially Intelligent force of nature also changes the practical working method. Johnson (Jan. 2000) makes a prognosis about this by writing: “The network of today is engineered, and the network of 2050 is grown.” According to the prediction of Vinge (Jan. 2000) this will happen within a few years. He writes: “By 2007, the largest control systems are being grown and trained, rather than written.” The authors of Out of control (Pauline, DeLanda & Dery, Sep./Oct., 1993) even state that every human attempt to fully control our contemporary technological systems is doomed to fail. They seek alternatives in irrational interaction with machines:


          Systems are getting so complicated that they’re out of control in a rational sense. To avoid self-destruction, we have to start thinking of our interaction with technology in terms of the intuitive, the irrational.



3.2. The rebirth of humility: fear, fascination and awe


According to Marett, the origin of religion can be found in what he refers to as “the birth of humility”(1914:169-202). Premodern people, he argues, felt primarily humble in relation to the supernatural and mysterious forces they thought surrounded them. This manifested itself in feelings of fear, fascination and awe. Up to this point, this analysis demonstrated that the authors in Wired often imagine their technological environment to be an Artificially Intelligent force of nature that is, to a certain degree, out of control. In the next section I will explore the question whether and to what degree this view is accompanied by humble, and according to Marret, religious feelings.       

    Various descriptions in Wired reflect a certain degree of fear, fascination and awe. One of the topics in this context is the expressed fear of advanced computers and robots. It is often argued that human beings are no longer the masters of their own creations: they will increasingly compete with, or even battle against, these complex machines. A concrete (if somewhat innocent) example is the chess computer. The article The last human chess master (Goldsmith, Feb. 1995) covers the battle between the chess champion Kasparov and what he refers to as ‘the Silicon monster’. Originally, Kasparov ridiculed the idea of being beaten by a computer. On a tournament in München in 1994, however, he lost his first match to ‘Fritz 3’. After that day, Kasparov has kept insisting that the computer would never be able to rival with human beings in the game of chess: “Chess is not mathematics”, he insists, “Chess is fantasy; it’s our human logic, not a game with a concrete result.” With the development of ‘Deep Blue’, the newest chess computer, his position is getting more and more problematic:


             Kasparov’s confidence when he speaks of beating ‘Deep Blue’ with intuition makes a listener want to believe him. But IBM’s Campbell calls intuition “just a very powerful evaluation function”. People play without knowing whether they are completely correct or not. Deep Blue won’t play unless it thinks it is correct.


The article about Kasparov and ‘the silicon monster’ Deep Blue is exemplary for the increasing battle between man and machine and the fear that this development evokes. A more radical and overall vision on this topic is given in the article Why the future doesn’t need us (Joy, Apr. 2000).[11] The author states:


          our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.


According to Joy, it is not inconceivable that mankind will eventually be caught up in “The Age of Spiritual Machines.” Of course these are futuristic speculations based on rapid developments in the discipline of Artificial Intelligence. Joy’s apocalyptic vision, however, is no exception. In Singular Visionary (Kelly, Jun. 1995) the mathematician Vernon Vinge simply assumes “that machines are about to rule the human race as humans have ruled the animal kingdom.” Another example comes from one of the most renowned experts in the field of robotics called Hans Moravec. In the article Superhumanism (Platt, Oct. 1995) Moravec’s vision is portrayed in the following quotation:


          By 2040, he believes, we can have robots, that are as smart as we are. Eventually, these machines will begin their own process of evolution and render us extinct in our present form (..) And in his own laboratory, he’s laying the groundwork that may help this evolutionary leap happen ahead of schedule.


Not only computers and robots but also the autonomy of the virus is experienced as a threat. In Viruses are good for you (Dibbel, Feb. 1995) the author tries to explain this deep-rooted fear of the virus:


          What scares you most about getting that virus? Is it the prospect of witnessing your system’s gradual decay, one nagging system following another until one day the whole thing comes to halt? (..) Or is it not, in fact, something deeper? Could it be that what scares you most about the virus is not any particular effect it might have, but simply its assertiveness, alien presence, its intrusive otherness? Inserting itself into a complicated choreography of subsystems all designed to serve your needs and carry out your will, the virus hews to its own agenda of survival and reproduction. (..) They are products not of nature but of culture, brought forth not by the blind workings of a universe indifferent to our aims, but by the conscious effort of human beings like ourselves. Why then, after a decade of coexistence with computer viruses, does our default response to them remain a mix of bafflement and dread?


Another case that shows the fear technicians have for their own creations is Y2K. Not surprisingly, Wired dedicated various articles to this subject before the year 2000. Today of course we know that the fears of Y2K were, at least, exaggerated. That is not important in this analysis: what matters are the attitudes and emotions it evoked among technicians. According to Wired, the potential threat of a millenium crash demonstrates more than anything else the autonomous, uncontrollable and destructive force of our technological surroundings. In The myth of order (Ullman, Apr. 1999) it is argued that Y2K rightly corrodes the ‘religious belief’ and unconditional trust that people have in digital technology. The media attention on Y2K merely makes visible what the technical experts knew all along:


             that software operates just like any natural system: out of control. (..) Y2K is showing everyone what technical people have been dealing with for years: the complex, muddled, bug-bitten systems we all depend on, and their nasty tendency towards the occasional disaster.


In other words:


          The millenniumbug is not unique; it’s just a flaw we see now, the most convincing evidence yet of the human fallibility that lives inside every system.


Ullman vividly describes which strategy programmers use to deal with the, in essence, irrational and uncontrollable forces of the global computernetwork. Practically, the technicians generally solve this problem by working on a local level and think in short terms (this was the basic cause of the millenniumbug!). One of the psychological coping strategies of programmers is black, cynical humor (‘ha, ha, my system’s so screwed up you wouldn’t believe it!’). When they come to realize the interconnectedness of all local systems and the complexity of the problems, fear is often a reaction. Ullman gives an example:


             the job of fixing Y2K in the context of an enormous, linked economic machine was now a task that stretched out in all directions far beyond his control. It scared him.


In an article called The Y2K solution: Run for your life! (Poulsen, Aug. 1998) various experts are interviewed who did research on the millenium bug and came to realize that human beings still have limited control over their technological environment. Their reaction is summarized in the following phrase: “They were hand-picked to kill the Millennium Bug. They hunkered down and started cranking out code. Now they’re scared shitless.” If and to what degree there will actually be a millenniumcrash is not sure, according to Wired. In Preparing for Y2K (Ante, Jan. 1999) the author states that it is impossible to give a certain prognosis:


          If anyone tells you that they’re 100 percent ready for Y2K, they are lying to you or theirselves (..) There are just too many unknowns (..) It comes down to crossing your fingers. And you’ve got to be in a position to react to anything.


The articles on the autonomy of computers, robots and digital organisms, do not only reflect fear but also indicate feelings of fascination or awe. This complies with the hypothesis of Marret. In this context our Artificially Intelligent environment is imagined as a dynamic, complex and organic network that increasingly covers the earth. In most cases these articles are written about the global implications of the Internet and the Word Wide Web. In A globe, clothing itself with a brain (Cobb Kreisberg, Jun. 1995) for instance, the growth of the World Wide Web is related to the theologically inspired ideas and prognosis of Teilhard de Chardin. This priest invented the so-called ‘Gaia hypothesis’: he interpreted the ecosystem as a huge organism of which the whole transcends its parts and wrote about a material and spiritual evolution. About the relevance of his work for the growing Internet and World Wide Web, the author writes:


          Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness. It sounds a little off-the-wall, until you think about the Net, that vast electronic web encircling the Earth, running point to point through a nervelike constellation of wires.


The author quotes Teilhard de Chardin to describe the nearby future of the Internet: “We have the beginning of a new age. The earth gets a new skin. Better still, it finds its soul.” The ideas of Teilhard de Chardin have, according to Cobb Kreisberg, an enormous influence on many contemporary engineers, technological experts and techno-guru’s. The article One Huge Computer (Kelly & Reiss, Aug. 1998) covers a rather technical description about the possibilities of a ‘global nervous system’ that will be completely  ‘interconnected’. In this context, the authors also refer to the theological prognosis of  Teilhard de Chardin:


          (..) the closer it gets, the easier it will be for everyone to see. “Imagine a global network so complex it will be a kind of organism, a dynamic, richly interconnected medium wrapped around the earth 24,000 miles deep.” That’s not Teilhard de Chardin – it’s the 1997 annual report from Daimler-Benz North America.


In other articles Teilhard de Chardin is not mentioned but the ideas are similar. In The Digital Gaia (Vinge, Jan. 2000) for instance, the author writes about the ultimate consequences of ‘embedded computer networks’ and states: “As computing power accelerates, the network knows all – and it’s everywhere.” This statement about the omnipresence of the digital network has a religious connotation. The author of Only Connect (Johnson, Jan. 2000) is also fascinated by what appears to him as spontaneously growing information systems and, like Vinge, he portrays these systems as ‘omnipresent’ and ‘all knowing’. These characteristics are central to his analysis of what he calls the ‘Omninet’:


          Today’s metaphor is the network – a vast expanse of nodes strung together with dark, gaping holes in between. But as the threads inevitably become more tightly drawn, the mesh will fill out in the fabric, and then – with no voids whatsoever – into an all-pervasive presence, both powerful and unremarkable (Johnson, Jan. 2000).


In short: many authors imagine the Internet as a unity, a dynamically interwoven network that will increasingly ‘wrap up’ our entire planet. This essentially holistic attitude towards new technology has, according to the author of Getting lost (Thieme, Sep. 1996) huge implications for individual consciousness:


          Connecting on the Net, after all, is more like being cells in a body than being individuals. We lose and find ourselves in the emerging Self that is putting itself on the Net.


About this ‘transcendence of individuality’ another author states:


          The Internet provides a big leap forwards. As an organism grows more complex, it requires a sophisticated means of transferring data between its constituent entities. The Internet is little more than the nervous system of our human macro-organism (Williams, Apr. 1996).


The spiritual significance of the Internet is also demonstrated by Katz in The medium is the medium (Jul. 1995):


             It’s the spiritual side of the digital world that is little known and little explored (..) Yet in some ways it’s potentially one of the most significant parts. The ability of one person’s spirit to reach across space and connect with another’s is, to many, a spiritual act in itself.


To summarize: the articles in Wired show that the ‘out of control’ characteristics of our new technological environment are accompanied by what Marett sees as humble and essentially religious feelings. These are expressed in sentiments of both fear and fascination for what is imagined as the ‘brain of Gaia’. A mix of these emotions, summed up in the word ‘awe’, can also be found in Wired. This is illustrated in an article by Johnson:


             Evolving so far beyond our comprehension, the Omninet would have to be studied as we now study nature: by probing and experimenting, trying to tease out its laws. Maybe it would defy rational analyses, becoming an object of veneration. Faced with an artificial nature no longer of our own making, all we could do is stand back in awe (Johnson, Jan. 2000).


Feelings of ‘awe’ however, can also be triggered by a vision of technology on the micro level. In Invisible worlds (Jan. 1996), Yeskel demonstrates what happens when you ask a technological expert consistently about ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’. The author states: “after a few levels of questioning, you’re at the invisible domain; another level or two and you’re in the spiritual domain.” An image on the screen can be reduced to the memory of the computer and, eventually, to ‘bits’ and invisible electrons of which one can only observe the influences and effects. Finally, the author argues, the technician gets into an invisible and, in essence, incomprehensible world. Therefore, Yeskel concludes, the view of reality adopted by technicians does not really differ from the one his grandfather believed in:


          My grandfather believed in an invisible world. It was populated by angels, demons, and a beneficient god (…) My fellow technicians and I share a belief in an invisible world that is no less miraculous than my grandfather’s and, many would say, no less evident of a beneficent god (…) We do well to occasionally remember, with awe, the worlds that exist just out of sight. 



3.3. The animists: pagans, shamans and witches in cyberspace


By now it can be concluded that our technological environment is imagined in Wired as an Artificially Intelligent, relatively autonomous force of nature which in turn arouses ‘humble’ feelings of fear, fascination and awe. With this view and these sentiments, the sources in Wired comply with the posed threefold criterion of (techno)animism. Yet the most evident and explicit form of technoanimism in Wired is represented by a group of people who refer to themselves as technopagans or ‘technoshamans’(male) and ‘technowitches’ (female).[12] In this case an interpretation based on the work of Tylor and Marett is no longer necessary, since these people explicitly consider themselves to be (post)modern animists.   

    Wired dedicated three articles to this subculture. One is the article Technopagans: ‘may the astral plane be reborn in cyberspace’ (Davis, Jul. 1995) in which the author extensively explains what these people do and what they believe in. Generally, Davis describes technopaganism as:


          a small but vital subculture of digital savants who keep one foot in the emerging technosphere and one foot in the wild and wooly world of Paganism (..) they are Dionysian nature worshippers who embrace the Appolonian artifice of logical machines.


This paradox, the loose integration of two apparently incompatible realms, can be considered as characteristic of technopaganism. But what is a pagan?[13] In the contemporary (neo)pagan movement, people base their philosophy on ancient traditions such as witchcraft, the Celtic tradition and ‘Native Americans’ and try to live in harmony with their natural surroundings. The earth (Gaia), but also the trees, the plants and animals are essentially seen as living, animated and sacred entities for whom people should take full responsibility. In other words: (neo)pagans can be seen as animists. Despite the fact that pagans sacralize nature, there seems to be a remarkable interest in technology, software, computers and Internet among them. A relatively high percentage of pagans is working in the field of technology.[14] Some of these (neo)pagans consider themselves technopagans. They do not only see nature as animated and sacred but our technological surroundings as well. A characteristic technopagan ‘dogma’ is derived from the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark. Technopagans agree that: ‘Any sufficiently advanced form of technology will appear indistinguishable from magic.’

    Davis uses the technopagan Mark Pesce, one of the renowned inventors of virtual reality, in his article as an illustration. From his perspective, the ‘sacred’ natural elements air, earth, fire and water are nowadays replaced by silicon, plastic, wire and glass. As all technopagans he worships the magical powers of cyberspace. In a ritual gathering that he refers to as ‘CyberSamhain’, he places four computer screens in a ‘holy circle’. He explains these rituals by saying: “If we are about to enter cyberspace, the first thing we have to do is plant the divine in it.”

    The article The Goddess in Every Womans Machine (Borsook, Jul. 1995) indicates that a relatively great number of technopagans is is female. She writes:


             Technopaganism is the grand exception to the 85-percent male, 15 percent female demographics of the online world. It is one virtual community where rough parity- both in number and in power – exists between the sexes.


This large percentage of female technopagans Borsook relates to the assumption that ‘feminine’ principles like earthiness, emotions and intuition play an important part in pagan religion. The appeal of paganism to women she places in the context of other religions:


The article discusses several female technicians who occupy themselves with technopagan ideas, magical practices and ‘online-rituals’. According to Davis, one of these rituals is ‘genderswapping’ or the continuously changing of gender in cyberspace. ‘Legba’, a female technopagan, explains this in the following statement: 


          Gender-fucking and morphing can be intensely magical. It’s a very easy way of shapechanging. One of the characteristics of shamans in many cultures is that they’re between genders, or doubly gendered. But more than that, morphing and net-sex can have an intensely and unsettling effect on the psyche, one that enables the ecstatic state from which Pagan magic is done.


Davis and Borsook see the group of technopagans as a small subculture. In Zippies (Marshall May, 1994) the author writes about a growing movement that is, at least, related to technopaganism. The participants refer to themselves as ‘Zippies’ or ‘Zen Inspired Professional Pagans’ but are also called ‘cyber-crusties’ or ‘techno-hippies’. Analogously to the technopagans, these people aim to integrate the shamanistic and technological way of thinking. In general the Zippie is “someone who has balanced their hemispheres to achieve a fusion of the technological and the spiritual.” Whether this group cherishes technoanimistic views is not clear. According to the author, however, there were not less than 200.000 Zippies in Great Britain in the year 1994.

    In short: there are some articles in Wired about a small group of people that can be considered as technoanimists par exemple. Davis, who claims he was a ‘participant observer’ of technopagans for several years, gives the following explanation for the emergence of this movement:


             As computers blanket the world like digital kudzo, we surround ourselves with an animated webwork of complex, powerful, and unseen forces that even the “experts” can’t totally comprehend. Our technological environment may soon appear to be as strangely sentient as the caves, lakes, and forests in which the first magicians glimpsed the gods (Davis, Jul. 1995).



4. Conclusion and discussion


Various classical authors, such as Comte, Tylor, Freud and Weber, claim that the rationalization of western society inevitably leads to the marginalization or even disappearance of religious-mythical ideas and magical practices. This assumption is basic knowledge in contemporary sociology: with science and technology as driving forces, humanity will ultimately head for, what Weber called, a ‘disenchanted western world’. By this famous assertion he means:


          (..) dass es also prinzipiell keine geheimnisvolle unberechenbaren Mächte gebe, die da hineinspielen, dass man vielmehr alle Dinge – im Prinzip – durch Berechnen beherrschen könne (1996:17).


Apparently, these characteristics of a disenchanted world sharply contrast with the stories in Wired Magazine: mainly because of the implementation of Artificial Intelligence, new technology is often portrayed as an ‘incalculable force’ and ‘all things’ (literally speaking) can no longer be ‘controlled by rational calculation’. According to Wired, late modern people find themselves increasingly in a sort of simulated or artificially ‘enchanted garden’. Not nature, but the technological environment we created is experienced as mysterious. More important in the context of this research is the fact that there are technoanimistic ideas and sentiments in the technological field. Although the group of technopagans can be seen as the most evident case of technoanimism, it is surely not the only illustration of this unexpected development. How then can it be explained that we find ‘primitive’ religious or animistic impulses in this section of society that is assumed to be ‘responsible’ for the rationalization of western society? Apparently, a paradoxical development is taking place: technoanimism, I will argue, can be seen as a direct but unforeseen consequence of the accelerating process of rationalization. This process does not by definition instigate the disappearance of religion. On the contrary: it can be seen as the main driving force behind the emergence of this archaic form of religion. How can this be sociologically understood?   

    In his work, Weber (1988) shows that functional- or goal-oriented rationality increasingly dominates western society since the seventeenth century. With the gradual institutionalization in the bureaucracy, science, the economy and, more importantly, technology, this goal-oriented rationality gains relative autonomy towards human beings. Once institutionalized, Weber points out, these subsystems obey to their own rational laws and have their own internal dynamic. Because of this, the modern individual experiences these systems more and more as autonomous external forces on which he or she has no influence. Basically, this autonomization of goal-oriented rationality is the reason why Weber wrote about western society as a ‘stahlhartes Gehäuse’ or suffocating ‘iron cage’ (1988:265). In a similar context, Mannheim (1940) compares the anxieties of modern man,  aroused by their rationalized environments, with those of premodern people:


             Just as nature was unintelligible to primitive man, and his deepest feelings of anxiety arose from the incalculability of the forces of nature, so for modern industrialized man the incalculability of the forces at work in the social system under which he lives (..) has become a source of equally pervading fears (Mannheim, 1940:59).


In short: the work of Weber and Mannheim point out that the process of rationalization manifests itself as a ‘blind’, autonomous force over which people have limited control. When we look more closely at the development of modern rational technology, Ellul (1965) confirms this assumption. In The technological society he states:


          A whole new kind of spontaneous action is taking place here, and we know neither its laws nor its ends. In this sense it is possible to speak of the “reality” of techniques- with its own substance, its own particular mode of being, and a life independent of our power of decision. The evolution of techniques then become exclusively causal; it loses all finality (Ellul, 1965:93).


Weber, Mannheim and Ellul write about the process of rationalization that increasingly dominates western society thereby expelling religious and magical-mythical ideas. Unintentionally, however, their writings can also explain the technoanimistic impulses as found in Wired. If technology, based on purely rational principles, withdraws more and more from the control of humans and is increasingly seen as an autonomous, opaque or even ‘irrational’ reality, then the step towards technoanimistic ideas and sentiments will be small. The developments in the technological disciplines of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life after the Second World War, may have been decisive in this step. The specific combination of autonomy and intelligence in our new technological environment creates a fertile ground for late modern technoanimism and explains the feelings of humility that can be found in Wired. Like premodern people, these technical specialists are confronted with an autonomously ‘behaving’ environment of which they can no longer completely comprehend its ‘deeper’ laws. There is, of course, an important difference. This incomprehension is not caused by a lack of scientific knowledge as Tylor assumed was the case with premodern animism. On the contrary: late modern technoanimism can be interpreted as the ultimate result of a superior level of scientific and technical knowledge. Artificially Intelligent machines are an example of this. However, when these advanced creations enter the lifeworld it becomes increasingly difficult to fully understand them. Like in premodern society, this opens up a large space for magical-mythical and especially animistic representations of our material environment.

    From this perspective, technoanimism can be seen as an unforeseen and irrational side effect of the accelerating process of rationalization. Rationalization does not by definition equate disenchantment but can also mean reenchantment. Generally, the conclusion of this paper resonates with the work of the sociologist Ullrich Beck who claims that  “in the risk society the unknown and unintended consequences come to be a dominant force in history and society”(1992:22). This statement refers to potentially catastrophical side effects of rationalization such as the greenhouse effect or nuclear disasters. Apparently, as my research indicates, technological progress is also accompanied by the mystification of technology itself.



Adler, M.   Drawing Down the Moon. Boston: Beacon, 1986.


Beck, U.   Risk Society: Towards a new modernity. London / Newbury Park / New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992 (translation of Risicogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, first print 1986).


Cobb, J.J.  A spiritual experience of cyberspace. In: Technology in Society: An international Journal, Vol.21, no.4, 1999: 393-407.


Comte, A.  Het Positieve denken. Meppel: Boom Pers, 1997.


Davis, E.  Techgnosis: myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998.


Davis, E.  Technoculture and the religious Imagination. A digitally Remastered Remix of an Improvised World-Jam delivered at Metaforum III, October 1996.


Dery, M.  Escape Velocity: cyberculture at the end of the century. New York: Grove Press, 1996. 


Ellul, J.   The technological society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1965 (translation of La Technique ou l’enjeu du siecle, first print 1954).


Gibson,  W.   Neuromancer. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995 (first print 1984).


Hamilton, M.B.  The Sociology of Religion: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives. London/New York: Routledge, 1995.


Hanegraaff, W.   New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esoterism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden / New York / Koln: E. J. Brill, 1996.


Kelly, K.  Out of Control: the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world. Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1994.


Kelly, K.  Nerd Theology. In: Technology in Society: An International Journal, Vol.21, no.4, 1999: 349-354.


Luckmann, T.   The Invisible Religion: The problem of religion in modern society. New York / London: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1967 (translation of Das Problem der Religion in der Moderne Gesellschaft, first print 1963).


Luckmann, T.   The privatization of Religion and Morality. In: Heelas, P., Lash, S. en Morris, P. (ed.), Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity. Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.


Luhrmann, T. M.  Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.


Mannheim, K.   Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction: Studies in Modern Social Structures. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1946 (translation of Mensch und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus, first print 1935). 


Marett, M.A.  The threshold of religion. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1914 (first print 1909).


Moravec, H.  Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge / Massachusetts / London / England: Harvard University Press, 1988.


Noble, F.  The Religion of Technology: the divinity of man and the spirit of invention. New York: Penguin Books, 1999 (first print 1997).


Pesce, M.  Reductionism versus Holism: multiple models of the spiritual quest. In: Technology and Society: An International Journal, Vol.21, no.4, 1999: 457-470.


Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W.S.  The future of religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.


Tylor, E.B.   Primitive Culture Vol. 1. Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom. New York: Gordon Press, 1977 (first print 1889).


Turkle, S.   Life on the screen: Identity in the Age of Internet. New York / London / Toronto / Sydney / Tokyo / Singapore: Simon & Schuster, 1995.


Verrips, J.  ‘Het ding “wilde” niet wat ik wilde’: enige notities over moderne vormen van animisme in westerse samenlevingen. In: Etnofoor, VI, 2, 1993: 59-79.


Weber, M.  Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie 1. Verlag Tübingen, 1988 (first print 1920).


Weber, M.  Wissenschaft als Beruf. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1996 (10e druk).


Wertheim, M.  The pearly gates of cyberspace: a history of space from Dante to the Internet. London: Virago press, 2000 (first print1999).


York, M.   The emerging networks: A sociology of the New Age and Neopagan Movements. Rowmann and Littlefield Publishers, 1995.


Appendix I: Quoted articles from Wired Magazine



Ante, S.E.  Preparing for Y2K: Been There, Done That. January, 1999.


Berkun, S.  Agent of Change. April, 1995.


Borsook, P.  Listening to Silicon. March, 1994.


Borsook, P.  The Godess in Every Woman’s Machine. July, 1995. 


Cobb Kreisenberg, J.  A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain. June, 1995.


Davis, E.  Technopagans: may the astral plane be reborn in cyberspace. July, 1995.


Dibbel, J.  Viruses Are Good for You. Februari, 1995.


Frauenfelder, M.  Do-It-Yourself-Darwin. October, 1998.


Goldsmith, J.  The Last Human Chess Master. February, 1995.


Gruber, M.  In Search of the Electronic Brain. May, 1997.


Johnson, G.  Only Connect. January, 2000.


Joy, B.  Why the future doesn’t need us. April, 2000.


Katz, J.  The medium is the medium. July, 1995.


Kelly, K.  Singular Visionary. June, 1995.


Kelly, K. & Reiss, S.  One Huge Computer. August, 1998.


Kirsner, S.  Moody Furballs And The Developers Who Love Them. September, 1998.


Leonard, A.  Bots Are Hot! April, 1996.


Leonard, A.  As the MEMS Revolution Takes Off, Small Is Getting Bigger Every Day. January, 2000.


Levinson, P.  Web of Weeds. November, 1995.


Marshall, J.  Zippies! May, 1994.


Pauline, M. & Landa, M. De & Dery, M.   Out of control: A trialogue on machine consciousness with Mark Pauline, Manuel de Landa and Mark Dery. September / October, 1993.


Plat, C.  Superhumanism. October, 1995.


Poulsen, K.  The Y2K Solution: Run for Your Life!! August, 1998.    


Thieme, R.  Getting lost. September, 1996.


Ullman, E.  The Myth of Order. April, 1999.


Vinge, V.   The Digital Gaia. January, 2000.


Whalen, J.  Super Searcher. May, 1995.


Williams, D.  The Human Macro-organism as Fungus. April, 1996/


Yeskel, F.  Invisible worlds. January, 1996.



The classical assumption that scientific and technological progress are the main driving forces behind, what Weber called, the ‘disenchantment of the western world’, is basic knowledge in contemporary sociology. In this paper, however, it is argued that the implementation of digital technology also stimulates the religious-, or more specific, animistic imagination. A qualitative analysis of Wired Magazine (1993-2000) shows that various computer specialists, who are ‘supposed’ to be the pioneers of a rational, secular and disenchanted society, can be seen as ‘technoanimists’. They consider our new technological surroundings as an intelligent, autonomous force and express feelings of humility. Exemplary for this phenomenon is a group of ICT-experts who refer to themselves as ‘technopagans’. Paradoxically, the explanation for this unforeseen development of ‘reenchantment’ can be found in progress in the technological fields of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. More generally, the ongoing process of rationalization seems to provide a good explanation for the contemporary emergence of technoanimism.                        



[1] The author would like to thank Dick Houtman, Peter Mascini and Anton Zijderveld for their constructive criticism on an earlier draft of this paper and Archie van Riemsdijk for editing.

[2] Gibson invented the term ‘cyberspace’ several years before the rise and widespread application of the Internet. Nowadays, the term has been added to the everyday vocabulary.

[3] See also other authors like Cobb (1999) and Pesce (1999).

[4] Like most authors writing about the relationship between technology and spirituality, Davis escapes the clear-cut distinction between emic and etic; between participant and observer. He seems to have affinity with the mystic stream of thought, but is also rather detached in his philosophical and sociological oriented analysis of technomysticism. In this paper his ideas primarily have a ‘sensitizing’ function.  

[5] The ‘religious imagination’ in American technoculture has not crystallized into formal organizations, dogma’s and settled rituals. It consists primarily of various individual ideas that share substantial similarities. This study therefore complies with the well-known hypothesis of Thomas Luckmann (1967,1992) that the marginalization of the Christian church should not be interpreted as the disappearance of religion in general. De-christianization goes hand in hand with the growth of non-institutionalized, individually constructed varieties of spirituality or better: ‘invisible’ forms of religion (see also Stark and Bainbridge 1985). 

[6] Verrips article covers a variety of empirical illustrations: for instance, he considers ‘living objects’ in commercials on television (like dancing sausages, talking soupcans or screaming devices) and films where machines behave like human beings (like the raping computer in Demon Seed) as evidence of modern forms of animism.   

[7] For a summary of the developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life, see for instance Kelly (1994), Moravec (1988), Noble (1999) and Turkle (1995).

[8] The classical test to decide whether a computer can be considered intelligent is the ‘Turingtest’. One or more people are placed behind a computer and have to ask ‘someone’ (a human being) or ‘something’ (a computer) on the other side of a screen various questions. Based upon textual interaction they must decide whether they are talking to a computer or a human being. If they can not make the distinction within a free-floating conversation of five minutes then the computer can be considered intelligent.  

[9] Chris Langton is generally seen as the pioneer of Artificial Life. The physicist Doyne Farmer formulated the criterion that must decide whether Artificial Life can be considered ‘really alive’. Life, he argued, has “patterns in space and time, self-production, information storage of its self-representation (genes), metabolism (to keep the pattern persisting), functional interaction (it does stuff), interdependence of parts (or the ability to die), stability under perturbations and the ability to evolve” (cited in Kelly 1994:346).   

[10] The most important awards Wired has received are ‘Best Digital Magazine’ (1995), ‘International Typographic Design’ (1995), ‘Editorial Excellence Award’ (1995), ‘Best International Smaller publisher’ (1995), ‘Magazine to watch during the late 1990’s’ (1995), ‘Journalists of the year: Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe’(1995), Best Broad Interest Magazine’(1995), ‘Runner Up, Best International Major Publisher’(1996), ‘Excellence Award’ (1996), ‘Excellence in Business Award’ (1996), ‘Best Digital Magazine’ (1996), ‘National Magazine Award for Design’ (1996), ‘National Magazine Award for General Excellence’(1997) en ‘Editorial Excellence Award’ (1997).

[11] This article in Wired by computerexpert and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Bill Joy resulted in an elaborate discussion in the American media about the dangers of new technology.

[12] The ‘cultural critic’ Mark Dery (1996) also writes extensively about technopagans in his book Escape Velocity: cyberculture at the end of the century.

[13] For an elaborate discussion of neo-paganism, see for example Adler (1986), Hanegraaff (1996) and York (1995).

[14] Davis refers to the research on (neo)paganism conducted by Adler (1986). 16 percent of her respondents worked as a computer programmer, system analyst or software developer. Another 5 percent also worked in the technological field (see also Luhrmann 1989:106).

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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