23 September 2008

The Shape of the Divine

In Everyware, Adam Greenfield talks about the coming age of ubiquitous computing and makes an interesting assertion: in the creation of a responsive technosphere that responds to our every action we are reestablishing the ideal of an animistic universe. The spirits would be man-made and in that sense not separate from us, but everything could have the potential for a rudimentary consciousness and ability to respond to us, to interact with us, and to be fickle and not do quite what we wanted. (It will be interesting to see what rituals grow out of this.)

More to the point, he asserts that this drive towards creating an animistic universe exists because it has been absent from our cultural traditional for so short a time in the grand scheme of things that it's absence is a mere blip on the cultural radar. Nor is he alone in this assertion. David Noble, in The Religion of Technology present us with the argument, echoed by many others, that religion is still a motivating force in much of our technological development. Bruno Latour takes it a step further and says we have not even got past being proper Platonists yet, let along having come any further along the ladder of social and cultural advancement (We Have Never Been Modern), an the greatest flaw of modernism was failing to realize its own ideals in favor of merely assuming we were right and and didn't need to address the big picture because external variables were inconsequential.

The divine has always been part of our built environment. And, in many ways, it can be seen as the part of our built environment that does try to capture the big picture. That big picture may, in and of itself, have been incomplete, otherwise why keep looking, but it was present.

The history of the divine in the built environment is talked about enough that I am going to move rapidly to the present. I just want to take a moment to point out that the point of the divine in the built world is to make the the building, the space, the thing created, an object of transcendence, to move us, or inspire us, toward perfection. From the Greek search for perfect forms to the Medieval cathedrals to the exuberant displays of wealth of the Baroque and Rococo back to the search for pure and clean forms of modernism, there has been a notion of the transcendent all the way across history.

With the rise of the Industrial era, phasing into the Modern, and then the post-modern, there appears to be a break from this history of the divine, a removal of God-with-a-capital-G from the picture within the Western tradition. Yet, there are two key points here. One is that God-with-a-capital-G was a relative late-comer to the roots of the Western tradition, only spending the last 2000 years as something other than the belief of a small, rather oppressed, minority. Moreover, such monotheism seems to be something unique to the Western tradition (allowing for its origins in what we now define as the Middle East). From a perspective of the global Web of beliefs it is just a drop in the bucket, regardless of its current popularity..

Back to the beginning and the point about a return to animism. The divine has been present, though as it was before, it is again, not focused on one God, but rather on that which we hold to be transcendent, having properties if the divine. If the works of David Noble, David Nye, and others are to be believed, that thing which we hold to be transcendent is that elusive creation known as technology. Certainly it fits the criteria of the divine, and overarching, ubiquitous, undefinable force that has a perpetual and significant impact on our lives, or relations, and how we conduct ourselves.

We have replaced transcendence through external agency with transcendence through our own means, but the idea of transcending, of reaching the divine has not gone away. Much of what has come after the rigors of Modernism can be seen as a casting about for new forms to realize then, when Modernism itself clearly failed to produce. The monolith has failed us, so let's try the fluid, the imperfect, the incomplete, the ironic, the retro, the contradictory. Yet, as with the Modern, much of it is still a veneer over the simple necessities of functionality and usability. This is not to say that wonderful things do not sometimes result, but so do ridiculous things, much like everything that came before.

But today's changes in the built environment are also caused by another force: the monotheistic mindset. In holding our own creations as transcendent, we persist in doing so from the stance of one right answer, one true path to transcendence.

I would propose that the one true path we have fixated on is movement. Moving as fast as possible, through space with vehicles, through time with acceleration of technological advance, in place through media that brings the entire world into the here and now. But except for the last item, that is not transcendence. For movement to be transcendent, it must obliterate time and space and put everything in the here and now. The vehicle to move people between perfect spaces was the core of the Modern. Now we instead try to move spaces to people through idealized abstractions.

And that is the next item.

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