Dispatches > The Buzz

New brands of idolatry

God as your personal assistant, the Internet as heaven, and the original high-tech pirates

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

Pop psychology as religion
John Gray has sold millions of books about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Now he's got religion in his latest chart-topper, How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have (HarperCollins). His message: "When you do your best, God does the rest." He explains how he spent nine years as a monk in Switzerland before dropping out, moving to California, and discovering the sacred path to The New York Times bestseller list: "Eventually, after asking God to show me the way, I learned that I could also ask God to show me the money." His relationship with God is the sort of nondenominational inoffensiveness that plays well on daytime television. Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mother, Father, and Allah are all interchangeable. In fact, the Divine seems to be whatever gets you through the night. "If you are an atheist or an agnostic, maybe your higher, intuitive intelligence will suffice," Gray sermonizes. "Regardless of your particular orientation, when you let go after doing everything you can, you will receive what you want." When card-carrying psychoanalyst and "Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress" Gray isn't teaching meditation, he's dishing out yeah-whatever advice like "Money can't buy happiness," "Don't think, just do it," and "What we believe is what we create." The spin of How to Get What You Want has crawled out of the ooze left by Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and a thousand and one PBS talking heads. Just believe in yourself, have good self-esteem, find "loving partnerships," give back to the community, and contentment will be yours. Mr. Gray sells because he parrots the spirit of the age: Religion must serve us as therapy and if God exists, He is just a hand-holder who helps get you what you wanted anyway. Where is modern skepticism and postmodern cynicism when we really need it? Heaven as cyberspace
Can America Online take you to heaven? Of course not, but a fleet of books has tried to explain a religious dimension to the Internet. Science writer Margaret Wertheim has written one more, the most historical and esoteric, titled The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (Norton). She says that the modern idea of the online world revives the supernatural world of Dante's Divine Comedy and medieval cathedrals. How does that work? Ms. Wertheim describes the mystical world of "cyberspace" as one where the identities and physical characteristics of normal life no longer matter. While surfing the Web or hanging out in a chat room, one can be anybody, anywhere, and explore away. Like the world of Middle Age art and iconography, the world involved does not exist physically-one can't reach out and touch it-but it is very real to the community. (She forgets that in Christianity, medieval and otherwise, one's identity is very important indeed, surviving, as Dante shows, even in hell.) "Where early Christians conceived of Heaven as a realm in which their souls would be freed from the frailties and failings of the flesh," Ms. Wertheim writes, "so today's champions of cyberspace hail their realm as a place where we will be freed from the limitations and embarrassments of physical embodiment." The author spends a few hundred pages explaining how this worldview once flourished, was beaten down by the Enlightenment, and has since returned with the new technology. By diminishing the importance of physical space, the rise of the Net makes people rethink their ideas on how the universe works. As the recent book TechGnosis (see World, Feb. 27) points out, cyberspace has become the religion of taste for an influential few. Ms. Wertheim is less optimistic about what she finds, saying that digital gnosticism is fueled by a "desire for the personal payoff of a religious system without getting bogged down in reciprocal responsibilities." For some, the Internet is a big telegraph line, for others a shopping mall, library, or singles bar. As "cyberspace" becomes less a vision of a new future and more the reality of cable modems and e-commerce, gnosticism is sure to die down. But those who hate their surroundings, their bodies, or their neighbors will almost always regard the sound of their dial-up connections as a hymn to a cyberpunk idol. The new robber barons
In every revolution there are a few visionaries who help define history-and in the computer kaboom Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are near the top of the list. They maneuvered, cajoled, and marketed themselves into legends. Now the TNT cable network is telling their stories in Pirates of Silicon Valley, which details their competition from their early days through the birth of Windows. Their pasts are a testimony to common grace. Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) enjoyed high-speed driving and all-night poker sessions at Harvard before dropping out to start Microsoft and making the Queen Mother of smart business deals with IBM that made him the richest man in the world. If Bill Gates seems the maneuvering master of the calculated risk, Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) seems so monstrous those watching it may be tempted to toss their iMacs out the window. Writer-director Martyn Burnke says every event is documented: Mr. Jobs starts out as an LSD-loving longhair who plays with pay phones to finagle free phone calls. He then shaves his beard and metamorphoses into the prototypical Silicon Valley manager-dictator. He starts behaving like a cult leader, talking to his employees about how Apple is "one big family" while pitting his employees against each other to make them work harder (then insulting them after all their massive overtime). Mr. Jobs then abandons his girlfriend and daughter to live on a commune in Oregon. Nice guy. This overheated personality may intimidate employees, but it proves no match for the quick-thinking Mr. Gates. Mr. Jobs's co-founder Steve Wozniak finally quits in disgust before Apple president Gil Amelio shows Mr. Jobs the door. (Years later, Apple would hit hard times, Mr. Amelio would resign, and Mr. Jobs would return.) Pirates of Silicon Valley is a remarkably realistic and well-acted look at the men behind the PC revolution. Those who want a look at the people who put a computer on every desk can receive a good introduction from this docudrama.

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