Tricoles: Welcome to ASU KEDtalks, the podcast. I'm your host Robin Tricoles and I'm here with Gaymon Bennett, associate professor of religion, science and technology at Arizona State University. He studies modernity and contemporary religion and biotechnology. This morning we'll be chatting about Silicon Valley nativists, alchemists and Idaho. Hi Gaymon. Thanks for being here.
Bennett: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here with you.
Tricoles: Your ASU bio states that you work on the problem of modernity and contemporary religion and biotechnology. Would you talk a little bit about that problem?
Bennett: First of all, it's a nice way of, uh, being filled with academic jargon and sounding very important about the things that I do. Um, what it really means in lay terms is, how is it that new technologies are part of a now several hundred year history of imagining what it means to be a modern civilization. And what we invest in, when we think of ourselves as moderns. Where do we put our hope? Where do we put our identity? When we imagine problems, how do we imagine them such that they would have technological solutions rather than other kinds of solutions? A day after a midterm election, we can imagine lots of ways of dealing with problems in the world. But one of the ways in which moderns imagine changing the world and changing their lives is through the engineering of new technologies, which means that technologies, and then in the case of the work that I do, both biotechnology and high tech, invites us to reimagine ourselves, reimagine our bodies, reimagine our cultures, reimagine our civilizations as spaces that are amenable to certain kinds of technological innovations. Now that may sound really grand, but if we think of just simple things like our cell phones or like the so-called internet of things that link stuff together in the world, we fundamentally changed the way in which we relate to ourselves and we relate to one another. And therefore the ways in which we cultivate hope, imagine certain kinds of futures, re-imagine the past that we've lived relative to where we're going. All of that is the question of modernity, and the problem of modernity in relationship to technology, and it ties in for me into a set of big questions that typically, or at least historically, have been taken up as issues of religion and spirituality.
Tricoles: When we spoke before, you had mentioned the Silicon Valley nativists. Who are the nativists, and how do they get to be who they are?
Bennett: Yeah, Silicon Valley is a really interesting place relative basically to anywhere, but certainly relative to Northern California. And I know you have some connections to Northern California, but Silicon Valley sits in kind of the Southwest corner of the Bay Area, and the Bay Area at this point in its history is a kind of international hub of finance and technology and lots of other things, culture not least. It's a city of transplants in lots of ways. You know, if you go there, the upwardly mobile are the best and the brightest from all over the world really. And they come to the Bay Area to be there. But on the front end of the personal computer industry or the birth of the personal computer industry, the people who are involved in it really were kind of homegrown folks from that part of the world. Thus the legends of people building computers in their garages, which some of the time was basically true.
Bennett: There were these homebrew computer clubs that people like Steve jobs and other famous figures were a part of, and they were a homegrown set. And that matters for understanding the trajectory of the personal computer industry, because it means that the cultural formations in that part of the world, the ways in which people live their lives, what they thought was good, what they thought was important, the little rituals of everyday life about how we relate to each other, the physical landscapes that shape who we are and what we think is beautiful and worthwhile and all of this stuff that all of us have experienced in the landscapes of our lives and in the cultural places of our lives is definitive of the birthplace of the personal computer industry too. Which means that you can ask these really interesting questions like how did the culture of those little neighborhoods on the west coast of Northern California, which was saturated with the counter-cultural revolution and the longer history of the beatnik culture and some weird tangle with big government spending on the development of technology.
Bennett: All that stuff comes together in this very strange and local way, and here we are a half century later and it's this global international hub which, whose culture is in part the culture of the thousands of people and billions of dollars that flow through there every day, and yet it's indelibly marked by this very intimate cultural landscape populated by the natives of Silicon Valley who became the kind of heroes or antiheroes of global technology.
Tricoles: You had also mentioned that the history of alchemy includes stories about the soulful, even spiritual relationship between scientists and their work. How does that history compare with that of the Silicon Valley nativist today?
Bennett: In the spirit of short answers, you can ask me a second question about how I came to think about all that stuff because it's, it's related and that's the juncture point of Silicon Valley. Okay. Alchemists. There is a surprising growth of interest in the alchemists among pointy-headed academics.
Bennett: There's something about their mystery and materiality and the combination of those two things, which seems to be seductive for those of us who stick our noses in books and stare at computer screens all day and forget to live in our bodies and think too much. And we, you know, we all want a little bit of soul and we want it to be material in some way, because academics are nervous about terms like spirituality and religion. And so if they can have soul and get it out of stuff, that would be really cool. And so alchemists seemed to be this very seductive proposition. And so there've been a number of books that have been written lately on the history of the alchemists and the alchemists have experienced a revival. Little did they know when they got chased out of the churches and you know, pushed out of the halls of science that one day, again they would be popular and seductive and have a certain kind of cache.
Bennett: But these books that had been written about alchemists, this is my long way around to a very straightforward answer. Um, the books that have been written about alchemists tend to say things like, you know, they were way more scientifically serious than we thought they were. And you may think that these alchemists were all about woo-woo and strangeness and cosmic forces and trying to turn lead into gold and trying to find the philosopher's stone so that they could live forever. But in fact, they wrote lots of stuff down and they were the first place where people really majored the relationship between like the size of the vessel you're doing your chemistry work in and how hot the fire is and the shape of the furnace. And so really there are much more scientific than we give them credit for and we should take them seriously.
Bennett: I read these books and I think to myself, no, they're not like us at all. And that's the reason we should take them seriously. And the way in which they're not like us. And I say not like us provocatively because I actually think they are a lot like us, but we are not admitting it. So the way in which they seem to be not like us is they weren't just trying to turn lead into gold. They were working on themselves as much as they were working on their materials. And the reason we know this is the idea that the individual person is somehow fundamentally separated from the physical environment is a very modern idea. And by the way, with the study of the human microbiome and ecology and complexity science, of course we're scrapping all of that. But along the way we had this moment in which we pictured ourselves as fundamentally separated from our physical environments.
Bennett: And so here are these weird little alchemists who seem to be these characters who think they can take this stuff over here, lead and turn it into this stuff over here, gold, no doubt along the way, there was some version of that. But most of the alchemists lived in a world in which you would have taken it for granted that there was a porous relationship between your inner life and your outer life and there was nothing you could do in the outer world that wasn't going to have some deep effect on who you were, and so you did this work with fear and trembling, not least because it could literally blow up in your face, but also because you were taking your own soul in your hands, the truest parts of who you were. You were not just trying to transmute the materials, you're trying to transmute yourself so that you could have access to the truth.
Bennett: The old version of all of this was such as I am, I don't have access to the truth, but such as it is, the truth can come get me. And so something deep was at stake in all of this. So why contemporary technology then? By any measure, the stuff that we're doing in contemporary technology is mind bending and beautiful and frightening and is touching on the deepest stuff in the world. If information in some way is a fundamental property of reality, and you begin to build machines that can twist and turn and dance with information, you're doing something pretty close to metaphysical, let alone questions around biotechnology in which we're reworking our own bodies. So I watched technologists do this stuff, intrigued by, fascinated by sometimes horrified by some of this stuff that goes on. And one thing that I see that's common in all of these spaces, or most of these spaces is that on the one hand, the technologists proceed with what they're doing as though it was just mechanical.
Bennett: We're just rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. And yet if you spend enough time with them, you realize that they pour their lives into this stuff, their identity, their sense of where they're going. So they're not, they don't think just, I'm producing a technology that's going to change stuff out there. If I produce this technology and it goes to the way in which I think it's going to go, it'll change my life. I'll get a better job. I'll become a billionaire overnight. I mean this is the crazy thing about Silicon Valley is all these geeks woke up one morning and they were gods of the universe because they had more money than everyone else. These are these massive moments of fundamental transmutation of people's lives. And so even at a surface level you say, wow man, something alchemical is going on, people are pouring their souls into their work and their work is transforming them. So from the point of view of the kind of questions I'm interested in, I want to say, be careful because the way in which you imagine your work is the way in which your work will imagine you. And if you think this is pure instrumentality all the way down, your life is going to be transformed by pure instrumentality all the way down. So this is where alchemy for me comes into this mix.
Tricoles: The nativists seem to have a unique view of life's peak experiences and a unique view of death. So this question is two-fold. What is the difference between peak experience during the 1960s and peak experience today in the Silicon Valley, and how do today's Silicon Valley nativists view death?
Bennett: Wow. What a question. So let's start with peak experience. So peak experience is a term that covers lots of things. And in the 1950s, 1960s, then taking off into the 1970s and and further on, peak experience was a term that was floating around and lots of people were using it. The Gestalt psychology of the Esalen retreat center. Some people listening to this will know what Esalen is. It's a beautiful retreat center on the west coast of Northern California. A place that by the people who go there, think of it as a kind of spiritual hot spot where you go to think about the big questions and how they relate to your lives. Places like Esalen and other groups thought about peak experiences as those moments of greatest awareness of our truest selves. And there are lots of versions of it. There's also the human potential movement, the self actualization movement, so-called new age spirituality, which we know is 101 flavors.
Bennett: But what they all share in common is this idea that you can have these experiences of self transcendence. And so during these years of what we now look back and think of as the countercultural revolution, this was really about good old fashioned work on ourselves that one does either in a kind of therapeutic mode or in a mode of spiritual practice. But it was also about an awareness of one's expansiveness or potential for expansiveness that could be glosses, the expansion of consciousness, that could be understood as the expansiveness of one's deep connections to the cosmos and to other people. This attention to issues around peak experience and all the things related to that idea of peak experience then connects into these founding moments of the personal computer industry. It doesn't explain everything, but it explains in part why something like the personal computer industry happened in Northern California, rather than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or some other places where there were super bright engineers. And of course along the way, those other places became an integral part of the acceleration of the movement that became personal computing. Okay. So that's the birthplace. And we can see how the personal computer is a kind of reflection of the same ethos, the same desires, the same appetites that might infuse notions like peak experience, the idea that you're becoming fully aware of yourself, you're expanding your own consciousness, but in expanding your own consciousness, you're connected into lots of other things. As I said in the, in the video, there's this really interesting blend there, culturally speaking, of a kind of Christian individualism, it's me who gets saved, and a kind of Eastern metaphysics, wow, everything is connected to everything else. And that has a kind of rough analogy to the way in which the personal computer is imagined.
Bennett: Okay. Now that was a very long answer to only part one of your question. I'll give a short answer to part two of your question. So how does that take form today? Well, there are of course people around who think in technological terms about that same stuff like digital immortality. The culturally surprising versions of that kind of thing are ideas like computers will get so powerful and so ubiquitous that we will effectively upload our consciousness onto a machine and we will continue to have an awareness of ourselves as a center of consciousness beyond our physical death. So there are versions of it around like that. But even if you're not willing to kind of go full metaphysical with digital technologies, and lots of people in the Valley are nervous about that kind of thing. It gets called stuff like transhumanism and you know, so it's somewhat controversial.
Bennett: So, but even if you're not into that, or if even if you don't take that particularly seriously, there are of course lots of ways in which all of us are going to experience digital immortality. We're now living our lives at a moment in which traces of my existence are being shed onto digital platforms. All of the time. My phone is recording everywhere I go and everything I do, my medical records are being uploaded onto the cloud. If I get brain scans, those things will get onto the circuits of this giant digital infrastructure as well. And there are speculations about what will happen when we begin to implant electronics into our bodies and into our brains in various kinds of ways. Whole aspects of our lives will be transmuted into digital traces and those digital traces will live well beyond our physical lives. And so there is a kind of pressing question for everyone around issues of digital immortality.
Bennett: How will we curate the lives that we've lived, um, when we're no longer here in this world? So all the way back to peak experience, then. There is the residue of those early counter-cultural moments all over the place. They're now taking highly technologized forms. Those forms are mediated now by markets and money and interests and chatter about disruption and the rest of it. But the residue of that stuff sticks around and it sticks around in these really heavy questions, big questions, significant questions, which are nonetheless being sort of answered by default through the elaboration of new technologies.
Tricoles: I understand that you're originally from Idaho, you later moved to Berkeley to attend graduate school, then to Washington state and most recently to Arizona. From talking with you earlier, it seems you're exquisitely in touch with the landscapes you've inhabited and how those landscapes affect the culture of the place. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Bennett: Yeah. Wow. You perturbed the still waters. So I moved to Arizona, um, for pretty straight forward reasons. The experiments that were happening in transdisciplinarity at ASU were right up my alley and I had had very cool collaborations with lots of people who, who work here at ASU, unrelated to the fact that they were at ASU, and in fact in three different cases, unrelated to the coincidence that they all happened to be employed at this particular institution. So I had been watching ASU and it'd been on my radar. And to make that part of the story short, a job came up in religion, science and technology. I had previously had jobs as a kind of philosopher, anthropologist in residence, in biotech and uh, related places. I kind of wandered the halls of the technology labs asking questions that the biologist might not ask.
Bennett: Um, but at least were kind of fun to talk about and maybe even consequential. But you know, for anybody who's been in that world, it's a life of chasing the grants and that sort of thing. And so a job comes open at ASU that's a good fit, and I had friends here to really encourage me in that process and really cheer for me as I went along. And I got a job at ASU, which was thrilling. Culturally, it was a big step. You move from the rainforests of Seattle and the, you know, the sort of geeky culture of both the Bay Area and then the Puget Sound and you move to the Arizona desert. So there's lots of sort of obvious ways in which that's a big transition. For me, two things about moving to Arizona were significant. The first was of course the job was everything it was promised to be. You know, this is what people don't know from the outside with ASU is there's so much talk about the experiment here that nobody knows whether or not it's just branding. But I was told by my colleagues here that this is the one place around where if you want to try something unusual, no one's going to get in your way and there's probably people around here can support you in doing it. Immediately that was clear to me. And that's made possible in part because of the big structures that are in place at this university. There's, and we all know the experiment in the New American University, which makes all of this possible, but it was also possible for me because my colleagues were such incredible human beings and were supportive and excited and capacious. And I had been in institutions where there was lots of petty politics and um, maybe all institutions have some of that.
Bennett: But in coming to ASU, I found so much less of that than in other places. And so that supercharged the work in really good ways. So number two was I moved to the desert and, I had grown up in the high mountain desert, but it's similar, but I mean, nothing competes with the Sonoran desert with reminding you, as I said in the video that life is lived in the shade. So moving to the desert was a major change in landscape for me. So for me, spiritual, landscapes had always been spiritual landscapes in this sense of places that shape who you are and what you want. And so it was a big change for me to move here. Uh, I couldn't see the water from my house anymore. I know. Poor me. Um, but that was a big deal. I was like a total change in vibe and change in scene. I went through some deep crises when I got here, personal crises and with my family. And to be in a new place and go through that kind of thing is so hard.
Bennett: My colleagues were an incredible support to me. You don't expect that in a professional setting. You don't know that you can take it for granted. But I had several friends, dear friends who are professors here who would check in with me regularly. So that was beautiful and that was unbelievable. But I also had to deal with the darkness in my personal life within this space of these new landscapes, the landscapes of the desert and the hardness and the brokenness in my own life had to be dealt with in the space of the hardness and the brokenness of the desert. But Phoenix and the larger Phoenix area, it's this sort of unexpected place of spiritual riches as religious people might say. And it's filled with people who struggle with the question of what it means to flourish in the desert. And it won't have escaped the notice of lots of people that many of the great world's religions and spiritual traditions were born in the desert.
Bennett: And so there's something about the desert, which on the one hand is physically very austere and almost as if you could like flip a negative image. And suddenly you see that this space of like ethical and spiritual possibility, maybe even intellectual possibility in the landscape of the desert is quite profound and quite powerful. And so I began a search for the ways in which in these great spiritual traditions, as I glossed them, the ways in which metaphors of darkness or shadow, as I say in the talk, are not just metaphors of brokenness or pain or loss. Although anybody's been through any of that kind of thing in their life, knows that it feels like you can't see. It feels like the world's closing in on you. There's kind of darkness to it, but they're also these little places of redemptive transformation, you know, in which those are precisely the places in which new possibility can happen where you didn't expect it to happen.
Bennett: And so I began to wonder, I was like, well, if all these spiritual traditions grew up in these deserts, there must be important metaphors of darkness that are beautiful metaphors. And of course you don't have to look very far before you find in many of these traditions references to being in the womb, being hidden in the shadow of the mother's wing, very famous reference in the, in the Jewish scriptures to being hidden in the cleft of the rock. And so these metaphors of darkness, which are both honest about the difficulties of life and the real limitations of existence are also these spaces of beautiful transformation. And so this became, for me, one way, another way of entering back into the landscapes of cultural anthropology. This work that I do on technology, studying the natives of places like Silicon Valley, it became another way of asking questions about what was going on in those places and how thinking about these places through a different set of concepts or metaphors might bring into view things that we might not otherwise be paying attention to.
Tricoles: So why do you study what you do?
Bennett: On the broadest level, these are questions that have never left me alone. I wouldn't have necessarily described any of this stuff this way for most of my life. But this question of how we relate to our physical environments and how that relationship transforms us. The way in which the physical and cultural landscapes of our lives are simultaneously questions of deep, spiritual and soulful consequence has always been an important set of issues for me in my life. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, and like lots of people that grew up in the world that I lived in. I had this incredible and intimate relationship to the landscapes of the high mountain desert and the Rocky Mountains and beautiful mountain lakes and very, talk about peak experiences. You know, those who have been around that stuff, you know, many of us who've been around those places, know that there's something transformative about being in them. But I also grew up in a religious household. Um, you know, it's Middle America and that's what life looked like. And in my case it was very positive and rich experience. I know for lots of people, um, institutional religion can be terrifying and life altering in negative ways. Uh, but in my case it was a very beautiful and rich experience, but there was always a kind of disjunction between the kind of peak experience I had, you know, when I was swimming in the lake in McCall, Idaho and the kind of peak experience I had when I would go to church. And so there was this sort of hanging question about, you know, how does all this fit together and you know, fast forward a long ways. You know, I have no answer to the question of how all that fits together.
Bennett: But along the way I had people who would kind of give me nudges and say, well, you know, if you're going to answer these kinds of questions, questions like the alchemical question of how the material stuff is soulful, you can't just flee to someone else's tradition or someone else's experiences. You know, I grew up, grew up on the West Coast and spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and in places like Berkeley, California, and there's a lot of rummaging around in other people's traditions to try to find answers to the questions that modernity seems to have left behind, some of which is actually quite powerful and beautiful. Not least the stuff around, um, technology and peak experiences that we've already talked about. Um, but in my case, I had people in my life who said, okay, like face up to the places you come from and the traditions out of which you come from -- organized religion, science, technology, press deep into those places.
Bennett: And if you can't find the answers that your heart is looking for, um, then fine, go somewhere else, but don't short circuit the possibility. And so that began a very long journey for me that was simultaneously intellectually enlivening because I think all this stuff, it's just kind of cool and I want to think about it, but also I'm deeply entangled in this. So if I have a picture of the alchemist or the technologist pouring herself into her works deeply in such a way that it transforms, comes back to her and transforms her. I see my relationship to my own work in very similar terms.
Tricoles: If you weren't studying what you do, what would you want to be doing instead?
Bennett: Is this bait to get me to talk about opera? Ah, okay. Well we'll, we'll to answer both at once. So the other love of my life over the years was music and singing in particular, um, maybe secretly we all love to sing and some of us should do that around other people and some of us shouldn't do it around other people. And I was, you know, I was to the, you know, I was above the 50% market in terms of doing that kind of thing in front of other people. And so, um, music was something I thought was going to be in my future. I thought that's what I would be doing professionally. Opera in particular. Who knows, those were fantasies of youth that might've amounted to something. But part of my decision to go to graduate school in the Bay Area, first I studied religion and theology in relationship to science and technology and then eventually studied cultural anthropology.
Bennett: But I thought I could study those things while continuing to study music, which I did with some, uh, somebody that was fantastic, a teacher in the Bay Area, and as life does along the way, I was faced with choices. I know it's good to have choices. Not all of us do. But I was faced with the choice of really needing to kind of go all in on one or the other if I was going to do it well. And so, you know, there are mornings I wake up and think, wouldn't it be great if my job for the day was just to sing a bunch of scales and then go to a rehearsal somewhere. But you know, a little good news in all of this is my love of singing was always just the singing. And so it turns out that is something you can keep doing even if you have, uh, other kinds of activities in your day. So I try to do little bits of that from time to time. So maybe, maybe that's what I would wish I was doing if I wasn't doing this.
Tricoles: Do you sing here in the area?
Bennett: Um, not really. Not really. Yeah, it's mostly personal consumption. Yeah.
Tricoles: And do you have a favorite opera?
Bennett: No, I don't pick favorites when it comes to operas.
Tricoles: If you're interested in more from Gaymon Bennett, watch the ASU KEDtalks video at research.asu.edu/kedtalks. Subscribe to our podcast through your favorite podcast directory, and find us on Facebook and Twitter @ASUresearch.