Or Why The Internet Will Never Be Community
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law
Please forgive any lack of coherence that might arise, but I am typing this while on my way to being, or actually being horribly sick.
I have made no secret of the fact I have trouble with terms like techno Pagan, cyber coven, cyberhenge and other digitised expressions of Paganism. This is not because I have issues with techno paganism as it was first instituted, but because of the subsequent abuses of this term to refer to any use of digital media by Pagans.
Let us first define our terms of reference. The term techno pagan was originally derived from quite a progressive movement in the mid-nineties and had several very worthwhile impulses. On one hand in the mid-nineties the more common accessibility of the internet meant meeting people of a like mind became easier. This aspect of online ‘community’ is something I will return to later.
A second interpretation of techo pagan relates less to online mediums, and more to a postmodern, technology positive spirituality, still rooted in Paganism. An example would be the very modern phenomena of core shamanism as a personal practice, removed from tribal connotations. Under this same category is the question of the urban witch or shaman, working in a concrete jungle. How is a ‘Pagan’ spirituality to be found in contemporary culture? Is it necessarily retrospective, or are there true neo-paganisms? There have been several individuals like Grant Morrison, Peter Carroll and Antero Alli who have worked in a thoroughly modern paradigm. Equally the culturally common exertions into the experience of mind altered, spiritual realities through the use of ethogens belong in this realm of work. I remember my own experiences with hallucinogens and club drugs combined with the extremely high beat per minute music (ie trance) as unique and formative in my relationship with non-ordinary realities. The drugs debate always rages in the Pagan community, and for my part I have outgrown what was also part of my growing up (and growing inwards) process. But still, I feel this very urban, modern experience somehow belongs to a lot of what was originally in the spirit of techno paganism.
Arising from the question of technology friendly impulses, techno paganism also connects with technology. For example, placing a digitised wish on a USB stick, which becomes part of the altar and a focus of energy (ie like storing a wish or symbol in an envelope). Keeping a digital grimoire (something I have found ineffective for a working script or book as I have not, and will not work directly in front of a computer) is a possibility, or even a digital magickal record. The latter I find more feasible.
There is also an associated question with machines as artificial intelligences, or at least subjects of a magicians will. When a computer runs a program for astrology, or media (even music) it becomes a tool. Is this tool to be imagined as ensouled, to have a gender identity, individuality, a name? The question of ensoulment is an interesting one given the work with the spirit of animal, plant, and sometimes even stones in some forms of Witchcraft. Is there a proverbial ‘ghost in the machine’? In techno pagan work does a computer, palm, or other piece of technology take on the nature of a servitor or Gollum, soulless, but an objective extension of the magicians will? The nature of digital words and media is an intangible manifestation of ideas, so what is the relationship of technology with thoughtforms and the astral? All of these very fundamental questions were a major part of the techno pagan movement in the mid-nineties, and these questions still hold interest for me.
Still another aspect of techno paganism as a postmodern movement is the relationship to media, most obviously illustrated in our relationship to news and advertising. The work of the magician, the shaman and the witch is that of boundary walking, hedge riding – essentially having a foot in more than one world. This means waking up to what lies beneath and beyond what is immediately fed to us through contemporary media. Are we willing to look at a question from several angles? Out of an increased awareness of ‘black magick’ through media coercion, selective information sharing, and the myth of powerlessness in a power dominated world, what real world action will we take? What responsibilities to we have to educate and to wake others up? There are also those who work to create counter media, for example the far reaching influence of the magician Alan Moore and his graphic novel V for Vendetta, and the renewed importance and counter cultural significance of the 5th of November and the Guy Fawkes mask.
Some would call it a counter movement, but the ethical questions around technology are also techno paganism, working on one hand with the idea of progress, and on the other progress for progresses sake. Industrialisation, environmental destruction, media proliferation and brainwashing, apathy and inaction are rife. Are we really progressing, or are we becoming slaves to a presumed social construct? I feel we cannot engage with technology and industry without engaging with these ethical questions.
These are, at least for me, the roots of techno paganism, but in recent years those using this term do not seem terribly concerned with these roots, using the term to denote activities like video blogging, blogging, and involvement with social media (definitely an oxymoron). Social media and blogging are a regular part of our everyday culture, and Pagans using such mediums are not ‘techno-pagans’, but people who happen to be working in the same social environment. If you doubt me (because Pagans mainly read pagan blogs etc) look up blogs on babies, or christianity, or stamp collecting and see the generalised use of these media across our common culture.
There are many arguments in the air around this redefinition. I have been kindly mentioned in a post by the blogger Niall MacSiurtain (AKA Mr. Abhainn) on this whole area of techno paganism. This can be found here. I called to task his previous post, referring to a blogger who uses social media to promote her blog as a techno pagan, as if using social media and blogs was a great expression of techno paganism, or that indeed the use of Facebook, blogs, twitter (and whatever else is in vogue) is inherently an achievement in its own right. MacSiurtain acknowledges that he “…was using the terms technopagan and cyberhenge rather glibly as a means to illustrate how when the terms were first employed they were a niche for those disconnected from a community and peer support system but that more and more of us are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.”
The use of social media does not make one a techno pagan, and the zombie like use of social media (something I am guilty of) is so far from the strong intentional culture building work of the techno pagan of the mid-nineties. The issues of the use of social media and its true effect on the work and will of the magician has recently been explored on the blog of Scarlet Imprint, who, in spite of being a business involved in self-promotion, have taken the brave step of stepping out of social media like Facebook. I strongly recommend this post by Scarlet Imprint which can be found here. Beyond their immediate points I would also like to challenge the idea of facebook as social media or peer media, with the recent addition of a feature to pay to make sure people actually see your post (called ’promote’) and constant changes in privacy settings, copyright of content, and what you can choose to see. Nowhere is the lie of social, person centred media so evident as on facebook.
In general online written material is treated with little or no respect. I have had my work reposted on more than one blog in the last year without any attribution of source. Many pagan resource sites are copy and paste of other peoples work, often unattributed. Plagiarism is commonplace.
Online relationships are not ‘real’, they do not resemble in any way real world relationships and trolling is very common in online pagan communities. For those of you not familiar with trolls, they are people who hide behind anonymity (either through pseudonyms, or multiple identities) and harass and attack people, peoples core beliefs, or generally piss people off. These are (admittedly) often people with existing social issues and narcissism that are validated by any response, even a negative one. That is to say, they are people with ‘issues’, but this does not justify their effect.
Many people I have met over the years online who self-identify as techno pagans have had a poor knowledge base, often bragging about having a high level of attainment without some very rudimentary knowledge. I also regularly encounter people who brag about levels and lines of initiation (often falsely - which when one lives in the real world and has real contact with members of various traditions, this quickly becomes clear or can be clarified). The claiming of false acquisition in initiatory lineaged traditions is a common ‘troll’ behaviour in Pagan and esoteric circles. There are people that will swear they do three hours of ritual a day and have had every mystical or magical experience in the book (hey, who am I to be sceptical?) to those who are at least honest enough to admit their online activity through reading and interacting is their main or only practice.
In general one gets people with grandiose titles (high priestess, arddraoi, Grandmaster) followed by a pseudonym (crow hawk, chicken breast) or even using a deity name without any deeper understanding of the attributes or biography of this deity. All of these things I have learned through long, tedious, yet always courteous online ‘conversation’. I recognise the irony of this coming from someone called Frater Docet Umbra, but I use a pseudonym for reasons of professional insulation, yet real world people, and those who bother to ask know me as “that Brian fella”.
My experiences of so called cyber covens and groves (or Henges) have also inspired certain scepticism. The issue I have dates back to the days when cyber covens were in vogue, and a popular medium was the MSN group format. Most of these so called covens were huge, lacked social cohesion, community or any commonality, being little more than reposts of pagan trivia. I have not, in all my years, found a functioning socially equivalent coven or group. Many online ‘communities’ of this nature are little more than forums for mental masturbation – personally satisfying (I’m part of a ‘cyber coven’!) but ultimately devoid of the deeper dynamics of a working and growing environment out of the social encounter.
I have seen better uses of technology in recent years, but only in conjunction with real world work. An example are some of the mystery schools, such as Servants of the Light who have used new technology to streamline the way they distribute information to students of the school. This is a school with lodges, training weekends and physical structures to support its existence (ie real world community). I have also seen similar mystery schools rise and fall because they lacked the initial outer support systems and social structure to build an extended online community upon.
Also, the realm of peer learning coming into play in something like the OBOD courses with student forums, allowing peer exploration of questions. These are of course schools, and online learning has become ever more popular in the last number of years – but the fact that they survive and continue lies in the fact they are rooted in the reality of real people, real groves, real events – the real world creates true social situations.
The internet has also been used for synchronised workings, but time specific work or meditation is common in many larger esoteric orders.
At the time I came onto the scene I was still a minor so websites were important as a learning medium. To be honest at this time I already perceived a lot of rubbish online, and books became a major, even the predominant means for me to get a better grade of information.
At the time I came ‘online’ (late in life by modern standards at 15 or 16) Yahoo groups was a predominant forum for Pagan conversation and people actually had conversations. There were lengthy debates around questions of community, as well as places to meet real world people – for example through the now as good as defunct An Fainne list.
I was interested in the work of the then OTOF (now defunct) and travelled (with stops) about 6 to 7 hours to meet a real world person to talk about their work. I have used the internet as a means to come into contact with people, and I have spent innumerable hours meeting people, having wee chats, coffee and (depending on the time of day) pints. I have travelled the length and breadth of this country to work with others, and to pursue a path that is anchored in the real world.
I came to the conclusion that this is where my work was, and essentially withdrew from internet land for a few years.
I must admit that by moving to the middle of nowhere and taking on responsibilities and roles beyond the craft based and artistic, beyond my function as a co-creator I lost a bit of myself and my sense of role, I have withdrawn to a very personal pagan-esque practice, and I have reached out through online mediums to interact. But I have not found my interactions satisfying. I have found some new ways to express my path within the local community, yet not by any means a pagan or pagan friendly community. I find myself still looking for ways to live in the social encounter but I have yet to encounter this online.
From the death of yahoo came mediums like facebook, which though distracting, do not offer a medium for any real online exchange of ideas. It is a medium that encourages frivolity and I feel social detachment. The amount of time people spend online on facebook is shocking, and I wonder, if I didn’t do this (which I do) what would or could I have done with this time? At least in the era of yahoo one had real content, debate, and the possibility to encounter something of the other person through their position. Now one gets instagram photos of food, cat pictures and random quotes and pictures (I looked at the first 5 items on my timeline) and I really wonder what is being communicated? What is being said?
One medium I still enjoy, though not a completely interactive medium, is that of blogging. Blogging is the sharing of position, opinion, viewpoints – working through thoughts and reflections, and some of the most intelligent, interesting and worked through writings in the realm of paganism are often to be found in this medium. What I enjoy about this medium is that one gets seed thoughts which arise out of peoples practice. Most pagans rightfully don’t post the exacts of their ritual and meditative work, but realisations, after images that arise from walking a path are often shared. From these seeds are grown an offering of words, of ideas, given freely. This is the ideal for me, yet I also encounter a lot of bubblegum and noise in blogging, with no real content. I have been heavily criticised for acknowledging this trend, but in the end each to their own. I will read what I find relevant, interesting and useful. As the amount of information online increases I look for position, opinion and content that comes from walking a path.
I am wary of online ‘community’ because I do not honestly believe it does or can exist. I happily meet people online, network with people with whom I later build community, but that community is not online. I will change my personal circumstances in the summer to step back into the work I really enjoy – the work with people, with groups, and with true and tangible community. As I do this I will step offline again, because I am awake to what has been mistaken for techno paganism – pagans mushrooming in front of computers, often unproductively. This is not a judgement, but it is not something I would equate with the counter cultural impulses of techno paganism. I do not like the term techno pagan because its current bastardised use is much like how the term Wicca is used for everything one thinks goes with strip mined crystals. Social media, advertising, online obsession are signs of our times, but let’s not pretend we are active or dynamic in our use of online mediums, that we are techno pagans, or techno shamans. In honesty I feel we are more victims than masters of our online destiny.
Love is the law, love under will