The Internet as Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

Time and space are the basic parameters of being in the world. Plants and animals fill their time and their space without question: the tree or the cow occupies its place in the world and its life-span completely and comfortably, seeking only to continue in them. Human beings as babies and children do much the same.

But the developing human brain loses or abandons this seamless occupancy of the world. People begin to question the size and shape of the space they occupy and the length of time they occupy it. They become restless and uncomfortable, they feel incomplete. Dissatisfied with the parameters of their being, they seek to change or escape them. This dissatisfaction has been called divine discontent. In Buddhism recognition of it is dukkha, the First Noble Truth.

Travel was for a long time one way to augment our limited experience of space. Unfortunately it augmented the experience of time only through discomfort. (Are we there yet?) But high-speed travel, eagerly pursued as a goal for the last couple of centuries and made more comfortable, shrinks time-between-places. At 50 miles an hour or so, motion begins to erase the experience of space, to diminish the awareness of traversal. Awareness of location begins to be limited to the vehicle, with little perception of the world outside it. At supersonic speeds the body has no experience at all of the distance traversed, only of the relatively brief time spent traversing it. At the speed of light the body would probably have no experience at all of either space or time.

However, since travel as we know it involves actually transporting the body, it provides no real escape from space and time. The body, however fast and far it goes, has to end up somewhere sometime.

Human beings discovered long ago that escape from limitations of time and space is possible through altering perception — by imagination, dream, stargazing, getting drunk, getting high, intellectual concentration, contemplation, art, mystical practice. Again, the escapade doesn’t last, since when it ends you’re right back in your own body, but it is a well-tested and popular tactic.

Symbolic language provides one of these means of altering perception. Writing and reading can occupy the mind with a symbolic experience completely excluding local awareness. Of course, eventually the book ends and you’re back where you started from. Although “you” may not be entirely the same person that started out to read the book.

The absorption of consciousness by symbol is heightened tremendously on the Internet. Virtual communication (all of which involves and much of which consists of reading or writing) is a mental or symbolic act that involves the body only in mental attention and some minimal physical motions. By almost disembodying consciousness, it erases awareness of location and lapse of time. On the Internet, corporeal consciousness is replaced with a tremendously versatile, almost purely mental existence consisting of immediate symbolic communication with other people, individually or in great although not clearly realized numbers, and access to symbolic reproductions of reality in the form of information, literature, images, music, games, catalogues of consumer items, etc. This wealth of symbolic reproduction is so extendable and can lead to so many connected and related reproductions that people can wander in it endlessly. Absorbed in virtual communication on the Internet, they successfully escape from consciousness of actuality, including mortality. Symbolic communications, active and passive, fill awareness to the point that the communicator is not aware of time, space, and the body that exists in such a limited region of them.

The Internet’s supply of channels of communication and of symbolic reproductions is already inexhaustible and still increasing.

To be free of the body, tied to no place in time and no time in place, yet having effortless, limitless access to everyone one knows, to all knowledge, and to immediate or securely promised satisfaction of desires would appear to be the condition of a blessed immortality.

What could possibly be wrong with it?

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The Internet as Heaven — 21 Comments

  1. When I was an undergrad at Cal, first wandering around the old and then the new main libraries in the very dawn of the internet age, my concept of heaven was of an infinite library, where any fact could be effortlessly sought by a disembodied intellect. Or perhaps not truly disembodied, because I loved the physicality of the stacks, the books on countless shelves, the papery collective smell of them. And I wouldn’t have wished to lose that physical interaction with humanity’s knowledge, contemplation, and recorded experience. I’ve reflected with some chagrin that the internet has become a sort of that imagined heaven. I didn’t imagine or anticipate the loss of attention span and social glue that now results.

  2. A very lovely post.

    In college in the late 1990s during the rise of the Internet I had a crisis of faith. In working through that, and not wanting to lose the beliefs of my childhood, I discovered the writings of Dr. Hugh Ross, a christian astrophysicist and author. He has written extensively on the compatibility of science and faith issues and I am grateful for it. (He’s in the Old Earth camp, BTW.)

    At first glance, your post seemed to travel along similar lines. Alas! It diverges but it does tie together symbolic language and altered perceptions in a way I hadn’t come across before. Brian MacDonald of The Invisible Ink Blog wrote a post today (June 2nd, 2014) explaining how stories affect our perceptions that dovetails nicely with your post. At least, that’s my perception.

    Thank you for the serendipity. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And thank you for the Earthsea books. I read them in junior high. Now I have more of your works to read and enjoy.

      • How old is the Earth? The scientific data says the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe is about 14 billion years old. Anyone who accepts this view is considered ‘Old Earth’ which is the majority position. The minority position is ‘Young Earth’. Adherents to this view believe our planet to be at most a few thousand years old. Many christians hold this view even though it has incompatibilities with the scientific data.

        I am a christian as is Dr. Ross. We both accept an Old Earth view and reject the idea that science and reason are incompatible with Christianity. Simply put, the God of the bible declares Himself to be both Lord and Creator. Therefore, there can be no incompatibilities between the scientific data and the words of the Bible (when both are being properly interpreted/understood) else Christianity is a false religion. So far, Dr. Ross and his organization have an excellent track record. They answer skeptics’ questions and explain how the two are compatible and can be integrated in a logical, rational manner. It’s why I like them so much.

        So the reason I labeled Dr. Ross as Old Earth was to avoid confusion with the predominant Young Earth position because he and his organization are associated with Christianity.

        Their website is reasons dot org if you’d like to learn more. Dr. Ross also teaches a Sunday School class that includes a skeptics forum where Dr. Ross and his colleagues answer participants’ questions. Audio recordings of the class are archived online at paradoxes dot org.

  3. “What could possibly be wrong with it?”

    Beware of wishes fulfilled… Apophatic theology in Christianity, as well as its non-Christian counterparts, is quite sober about human limitations in imagining things such as eternal happiness: “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined”. Internet is a wonderful invention and there is nothing wrong with it, execpt that it is used by us — human beings. And there happens to be something wrong with us, it seems.

      • Thank you. Actually, it was Michel de Montaigne who made a similar observation in a quite memorable way: “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”

        Et in Internet ego — and I would insist on reading “ego” in a Freudian way. 😉

  4. Pingback: Internet versus Realtà. 3 considerazioni » Giuseppe Granieri

  5. Upon re-thinking: one of the serious problems that the concept of Heaven (of whatever sort) creates is that it, explicitely or implicitely, assumes that the limitations of the human will shall be removed or at least made loose. In Heaven our will shall manifest itself less openly, in a less noticable way, because it will meet less obstructions, or none at all. But in our present condition we are not ready for that, no way — imagine ourselves becoming more potent, endowed with Power in its basic sense, i.e., the potency for forcing one’s will on others and, more generally, on the reality. It would be as if all of us, inhabitants of Heaven, were equipped with personal Rings of Power of the same sort as in Tolkien’s novel (or, as if our dreams immediately turned into reality, as in UKL’s “Lathe of Heaven”)… No wonder that Christian teachings put so much effort on muzzling one’s thoughts and wishes as well as acts; one might muse whether this is actually a pre-condition for entering the Heaven, not for the sake of obedience as such but rather simply for allowing the co-existence with other, separate and independent beings.

    Now, the Internet may serve as a toy example of the Heaven, which allows us to expand our abilities, decrease inequalities, hide our weakness. How does it work on us — does it make us better people, actually? Yet, perhaps, “what is impossible with man, is possible with God”. Our inability to imagine a functional Heaven (and we are able to think of it no more than a caterpillar may imagine its future life of butterfly) may be, paradoxically, reassuring, in a way similar to that in which Death was Iluvatar’s dark and misterious gift for Men — rather than curse — in Tolkien’s universe. If it were us, humans, in our current miserable condition, to design the Heaven, we would be doomed. Only if it is out of our control (“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”) there still may be some hope for us. A bitter hope of Job still may be better than none.

    • There are more descriptions of hell than of heaven within the pages of the bible. Of course, it is assumed that the major teachings of Christianity won’t be violated in heaven. So with that restriction we are free to speculate.

      With his training in physics, Dr. Ross has put forth some interesting speculations in his books regarding the potential physics of the new heaven and new earth. He also has a very interesting analogy comparing gaining admittance to heaven to getting a doctoral degree. In short, getting a doctoral degree cannot be achieved on one’s own. The degree candidate must accept their own limitations and ask for help from the faculty. Those who attempt to complete the requirements otherwise always fail.

      I think your comments about the will are exactly on target with one addition. In the christian formulation of heaven, one’s will is not so much loosed as it is purified. Blaise Pascal said that human beings seem to be a unique enigma: They are both great and wretched simultaneously (noble yet capable of evil). Thus in heaven the tendencies to do evil imparted by the inheritance of original sin (the wretched part) will somehow be removed. This leaves the greatness part and presumably creates an idealistic environment where humanity can flourish in communion with one another and God.

      This view has the added benefit of explaining why some people who are otherwise morally upright choose hell. Some people do not wish to commune with their creator preferring instead to be alone. God therefore grants their request. Thus hell can be defined as existence without God (in an impure state) and heaven as existence with God (in a pure state).

      • As for the speculations about physics of the new Heaven and new Earth, it is quite remarkable that — as observed by specialists — almost everything one can read in the Gospels about the Resurrected Jesus (and for Christians this is the main hint about what human nature in Heaven may be like) seems to confront and contradict the common beliefs of that time about what life after resurrection was supposed to be. Totaliter Aliter.

  6. The internet connects us more than it divides us, even socially, provided we use it to do so. It connects us with each other and with our moment-by-moment unity with all things and forces. As UKL here outlines the deep personal dynamic it empowers, her words uphold my utter conviction that, as a 13th Century buddhist sage words it,
    “First of all, as to the question of where exactly hell and heaven exist, one sutra states that hell exists underground and another sutra says that heaven is in the west. However, closer examination reveals that both exist in our five-foot body. The reason I think so is that hell is in the heart of a man who inwardly despises his father and disregards his mother, just like the lotus seed, which contains both flower and fruit at the same time. In the same way, heaven dwells inside our hearts. For example, flint can produce fire and gems possess value in themselves. We common mortals can see neither our own eyebrows, which are so close, nor heaven in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that heaven exists in our own hearts.”*
    Now I am waiting to see if Ms LeGuin will go on to explore possible answers to her pertly-worded closing question!

    *http://www.nichirenlibrary.org/en/wnd-1/Content/172#p1137

  7. Heaven and Hell are all around us. Hell is humans who are cruel, perverted, haters, etc. to all of creation. Heaven is humans who treat others (and the rest of creation) the way they want to be treated; without cruelty, perversion, prejudice, etc.
    The old Estonian pagan religion had a small ceremony to thank Nature for its gifts. Parts of the religion are still alive among Estonians. Maybe Nature and God are the same. I don’t pretend to have answers to all theological questions; but religions become so complicated and divisive as well as bureaucratic.

  8. This is so simple. Heaven is what we think it is. Other thoughts on this topic remain fascinating, however.

  9. Although this is wonderfully argued, I can’t help but read some irony in it–as if she’s seeing how far she can go with this, stacking one side so high its flipside (“The Internet as Hell”) seems equally plausible. This detachment from the physical world does have something hellish about it, as if we’re trying, through our machines instead of our theologies, to escape what makes us human.

    Running with Carlton’s idea, this piece suggests our mind’s involvement in our varying concepts of heaven. (We stack up the evidence that fits our liking.) I’m not unhappy but for me eternal life, no matter how nice, would be hell (thus my disbelief), while for most the nothingness I expect is distasteful. For Irja “perversion” will be excluded from heaven (what, no gay elephants?), while for Daniel heaven means being purified (divested of our “evil” animal instincts). I’m afraid the multiplying of divergent beliefs goes beyond religion–their number is more like 7 billion!

  10. By perversion I mean things such as murder, child abuse, etc.–I don’t mean homosexuality or anything that does not hurt humans, animals, environment because of a desire to hurt. Perhaps perversion is too strong a word…or perhaps its definition takes in too many areas. As for gay elephants, I’d welcome them. My theory about homosexuality is that it is a natural state of being, and that its evolutionary outcome is to prevent overpopulation. Of course, even when gays adopt they themselves are not adding population. And if lesbians decide to give birth, well, that’s fine with me. For people who believe in God, you would think that they would trust God to make decisions about these matters. Take, for instance, those who refuse doctors or vaccinations…they must not trust God enough to have realized that God made doctors. Praying and anointing with oil do not create healing–well, praying may help, but not cure. These folks, I guess, are not perverse (especially parents of sick kids), but they lack common sense and trust in their own deity.

  11. The internet is the reconstruction of the Tower of Babel. Instead of just the reconstruction of a common language, it will reconstruct in a cybernetic way all human sensations and fantasies eventually. Who cares about power over others when we can experience anything in the virtual world without impacting anyone or dealing with messy physicality?

    I think we ARE trying to escape from what makes limits us as humans, and also to become more than human once was. We are probably supposed be something more than just organic beings. Especially if we ever want to get into space. We will probably become to some degree cyborgs so we can live in and travel in the vastness of space.

  12. The internet as heaven: this, exactly. When I entered grad school in 1997, I was given access to what we then called “the World Wide Web” for the first time. I flung myself in headfirst, staying up until the computer lab closed every night, gulping down all the information I could swallow, then more, more: new delights at every turn. Outside the screen was hell: family tensions, financial stresses, the workload of an accelerated degree program, the suicide of a loved one, and an ocean’s distance from trusted relationships in a day when no one back home had free long distance calls or e-mail. In the Net was solace and unbounded adventure: an endless labyrinthine tangle of information, thought, story, connection, amusement, education, perpetually expanding, inviting me to take part in a million possible ways.

    I have never really gotten over the Internet, though I have, over time, built up a resistance to its spell, and found some other kinds of adventures and solaces to be even more worthy. But those nights in the lab, clicking links and switching search engines, giddy with possibilities, are still vivid: the best high I’ve ever experienced.