The new age virus

Ian Haig does a new media freak-out

A particularly virulent strain of the New Age virus can be found spreading rapidly throughout digital media culture—from VRML 3D worlds of transcendental self-discovery to the computer animation of the digital shaman, to interactive digital mandalas. While the current fixation with the new age is rife in rave culture, digital media’s particular fascination is with mysticism. The new environments of online worlds and interactivity often go hand in hand with a new age, touchy-feely cyber-induced hype.

Devoted followers of the cyber gospel, strung out on the flakey new technological Haight Ashbury, look to the likes of Timothy Leary, Mark Pesce, Howard Rheingold and Jaron Lanier, to inform their own utopian-new age cyber sensibilities. The popular rhetoric of interactive media makes things worse, as it is viewed as opening the doors to a new paradigm, the ultimate democratic medium that truly delivers on that collective 60s dream of individual empowerment.

The Heaven's Gate cult fanatically build their web pages, seeing the internet as the delivery system to a new plane of consciousness, a new level of language with Virtual Reality, Artificial Life and 3D space as the extensions of a new realm of human experience; while magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000 tune in and drop out to a cyber-consciousness of alternate realities, avatars and 3D texture mapping of the mindscape…

Digital Art in particular picks up on the more obvious ‘transcendental’ elements of 60s mysticism in regard to notions of ‘immersive worlds’ and interactivity, but with none of its psychedelic freakishness and weirdo graphic sensibilities. Instead what we’re left with is the rehashed, predictable and clichéd new age icons of crystals, magick, the Buddha, mandalas, digital dreamscapes and never-ending Mandelbrot sets. Such graphic icons are so culturally loaded with fuzzy 60s alternative consciousness, that redefining them as models for the digital age is nothing short of depressing. The strong smell of incense hangs over new age cyberculture like a critical cloud. Just plug into the headspace and trip out.

Historically, computer graphics have always had a thing going on with the daggy elements of early 70s graphic sensibilities, from Roger Dean and Hypnosis album covers to Pink Floyd. Just look at any Siggraph animation collection from the late 80s with their computer generated images of pyramids, unicorns and strange uninhabited lands—all testament to a culture out of step with the graphic pulsations of the time. By far the worst example of new ageism in cyberculture would have to be the annual San Francisco Digital Be-in; depending on where you stand you either go with the flow and paint your face and celebrate the dawn of the new age or run screaming for the nearest exit.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 21

© Ian Haig; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1997