Douglas Rushkoff is an American futurist and a visionary, and once a month or so he sends me a newsletter about this current work. Recently, he told me about something called ”Russian Cosmism” and how it informs today’s religion of technology. This was all new to me.
Rushkoff says it’s a Silicon Valley ”religion,” and one that doesn’t really care for people – at least not as we are in our present form.
“Technologists may pretend to be led by a utilitarian, computational logic devoid of superstition, but make no mistake: There is a prophetic belief system embedded in the technologies and business plans coming out of Google, Uber, Facebook, and Amazon, among others,” Rushkoff says.
If he’s right, it’s ominous.
This prophetic belief system, Rushkoff maintains, is a techno-utopian and anti-human sensibility, born out of a little-known confluence of American and Soviet ”New Age” philosophers, scientists, and spiritualists who met up in the 1980s hoping to prevent nuclear war during the Cold War era – but who ended up, he says, hatching a worldview that’s as dangerous to the human future as any atom bomb.
Rushkoff tells the story of Russian Cosmism in his latest nonfiction book of essays, titled “Team Human.” He pieced the reportage together through interviews with some of the people involved in California’s Esalen “track two diplomacy” program.
“The idea was to forge new lines of communication between the Cold War powers by bringing some of the USSR’s leading scientists and spiritualists to the ”New Age” Esalen Institute in California to mix with their counterparts in the United States,” Rushkoff says.
So what did they do there? They set up a series of events at Esalen’s Big Sur campus, where everyone could hear about each other’s work and dreams at meetings during the day and hot tub sessions into the night. That’s how some of the folks from Stanford Research Institute and Silicon Valley, who would one day be responsible for funding and building our biggest technology firms, met up with Russia’s “cosmists.” They were espousing a form of science fiction gnosticism that grew out of the Russian Orthodox tradition’s emphasis on immortality. The cosmists were a big hit, and their promise of life extension technologies quickly overtook geopolitics as the primary goal of the conferences.
If this is begining to sound a bit outlandish and trippy, it’s because it is.
“Self-actualization through technology meant leaving the body behind – but this was okay since, in keeping with the gnostic tradition, the body was the source of human sin and corruption,” Rushkoff says.
According to Rushkoff’s account in his new book: “The cosmists talked about reassembling human beings, atom by atom, after death, moving one’s consciousness into a robot and colonizing space. The cosmists pulled it all together for the fledgling American transhumanists: They believed human beings could not only transcend the limits of our mortal shell but also manifest physically through new machines. With a compellingly optimistic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too gusto, the cosmists told America’s LSD-taking spiritualists that technology could give them a way to beat death.”
”Self-actualization through technology meant leaving the body behind — but this was okay since, in keeping with the gnostic tradition, the body was the source of human sin and corruption,” Rushkoff recounts.
The idea that lit up the turned-on technoculture was that technology would be our evolutionary partner and successor — that humans are essentially computational, and computers could do computation better,” Rushkoff says. “Any ideas that could be construed to support this contention were embraced. And so Stanford professor Rene Girard — whose work had much broader concerns — was appreciated almost solely for his assertion that human beings are not original or creative but purely imitative creatures. And, even more thrilling to future tech titans like Peter Thiel, that the apocalypse was indeed coming, but it was the humans’ own damn fault.”
So where has all this led to?
Rushkoff puts it this way: “As a result, we have Facebook using algorithms to program people’s emotions and actions. We have Uber using machine learning to replace people’s employment. We have Google developing artificial intelligence to replace human consciousness. And we have Amazon extracting the life’s blood of the human marketplace to deliver returns to the abstracted economy of stocks and derivatives.”
To make a long story short, Rushkoff summarizes it this way, while also issuing a stark warning: “We are not being beaten by machines, but by a league of tech billionaires who have been taught to believe that human beings are the problem and technology is the solution. We must become aware of their agenda and fight it if we are going to survive.”
I have never heard of Cosmism. Have you?