In March 1997 the comet Hale-Bopp whizzed past Earth. To most of us mortals, it appeared as a dollop of unfocused starlight amid the pinpoint clarity of the night sky. But for 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult living in a wealthy suburb of San Diego, Hale-Bopp's arrival promised final release from the confines of the flesh. The comet's smeary tail concealed a spacecraft that had come to liberate their souls and take them to the "level above human", a higher dimension of reality beyond human sexuality, literally in the heavens. Typical cult fare so far. What distinguishes Heaven's Gate from dozens of other crazy groups in history seeking salvation in celestial events is the unsettling way that their biblical millennialism embraced contemporary American life. They were no social outcasts living on the fringes of society in some anti-modern Edenic fantasy. They lived in the heart of upper-middle-class suburbia and supported themselves through a successful Internet-based company that designed web pages. Many of them were computer programmers. Yet they lived a bizarre genderless, communal life, wearing unisex clothing and close-cropped hair. The men were even castrated.
This story - with its conjunction of science fiction, Internet technology, religion and a desire to transcend bodily life - reveals the dark side of what Margaret Wertheim calls the "techno-spiritual dreaming" that pervades discussions of the Internet. Why the Internet elicits such a response is the subject of this engaging book. The connection between religiosity and cyberspace, Wertheim argues, derives from the possibilities for transcending bodily limitations that Internet technology offers us. Cyberspace is nothing less than a new realm of reality, a new kind of space that offers an alternative to the purely physical spaces of modern life.
Popular accounts of the rise of the Internet abound with tales of gender-bending masquerades, prepubescent boys playing out sexual fantasies while hiding behind the anonymity of the keyboard, net users trying out different identities in the safety of their sitting-rooms (or under the nose of their boss). These observations are, by now, commonplace. But Wertheim wonders what it means when we say that these redemptive techno-fantasies are conceived of as taking place in a new, non-physical space. Why "cyberspace"?
In answer, she takes us on a fascinating tour of various conceptions of physical and spiritual space since the Middle Ages, to show that the new spiritual realm of cyberspace is, in many ways, a repackaging of the Christian heaven: a space that had been written out of modernity by the development of a scientific notion of space as an infinite void. She is at her best when reading the 14th-century chapel paintings of Giotto, which marked the transition from the medieval world of Dante to the Renaissance. Giotto was one of the first to experiment with the illusion of three-dimensional objects in painting but he limited those experiments to depictions of earthly events, retaining a strictly iconographic representation of heaven. Gradually, as the Renaissance took root, reality (heaven and earth) became unified in a single, homogeneous, 3D space.
Wertheim loses her bearings a little when she follows the adventures of space in 20th-century physics, first in the relativistic space of Einstein, then in the 11-dimensional realm of hyperspace. She argues that the concept of space attains more and more importance in scientific theories (eventually, in hyperspace theories, becoming the origin of all forces and matter in the universe) and shows that cyberspace is the ironic return of spiritual space through the very mechanisms of science that produced Internet technology.
But why look for spiritual space in 20th-century physics? In the 19th century, as science turned towards more practical and technological pursuits and established its authority to describe the physical world, it increasingly became "natural science", abdicating its responsibility to describe other realms of existence, such as spirit and mind. These pursuits became the stuff of the humanities, literature, philosophy, history and art. It should not be surprising, then, that in Einstein's description of relativistic space there is no place for spirit. He had been freed from the burden of having to account for it. Wertheim sees this inability to account for spirit as the great failure of modern science. But how can it fail at something it wasn't trying to do?
If Wertheim wanted to see what happened to spiritual space in 20th-century science, she might have turned to a contemporary of Einstein, Freud, whose "discovery" of the unconscious was an attempt scientifically to explain emotions, beliefs and motivations. Freud conceived of the mind in spatial terms, likening memory to the city of Rome, with historical layers, piled one upon another, coexisting in the present. Though Freud was aware of their figurative nature, his attempts to map the psyche and create a topography of the mind can be seen as part of the process of relocating "spirit", in the wake of Enlightenment notions of physical space. Psychoanalysis, in Wertheim's terms, was a project to find a place for non-physical reality.
We moderns are bothered, I think, when scientific or technological explanations are put forward as answers to spiritual or philosophical questions. Which is why the story of the Heaven's Gate cult is both disturbing and absurd. The Internet draws our critical attention when scientists emerge from cyberspace claiming enlightenment. Those of us who aren't waiting for spaceships don't bemoan the fact that science can't answer philosophical questions - we celebrate it. The extension of scientific explanations to all aspects of human life at the expense of other modes of inquiry is surely one of the tyrannies of modernity.
Richard Heyman is a writer based at the University of Washington, Seattle