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Apocalyptic AIVisions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality$

Robert Geraci

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195393026

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195393026.001.0001

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Transcending Reality

Transcending Reality

(p.72) Three Transcending Reality
Apocalyptic AI

Robert M. Geraci (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The worldview espoused in Apocalyptic AI pop science plays a role in massively multiplayer online games, as shown by the presence of transhumanist religious groups (such as the Order of Cosmic Engineers) in Second Life but also by the interest shown by that world’s inhabitants who frequently desire a permanent shift to life online even when they are not explicitly transhumanists. Virtual reality has become sacred space for many online gamers, who acquire powerful communities, meaning and purpose through their online activities. Such religiosity inclines many toward transhumanist goals of transcending the human condition, especially through the possibility of uploading consciousness into virtual reality.

Keywords:   Extropia, massively multiplayer online game, mind upload, Second Life, transhumanism, video game, virtual reality


Virtual gamers commonly view their online lives in categories and terms borrowed from Apocalyptic AI. Transhumanist communities actively spread Apocalyptic AI in online gaming, but much of the ideology also appears inextricably linked to our cultural view of virtual reality (VR) worlds. In particular, many residents of the online world Second Life see it as the precursor to the digital paradise of Apocalyptic AI.

The line between the real world and the virtual world has blurred. Perhaps once upon a time we could easily demarcate between fact and fiction, life and games, but online games now challenge the barriers that might have once been solid. The virtual world, though intangible, is now quite real and gaining importance in mainstream techno-culture. The median age of online gamers (depending upon the game) ranges from mid-twenties to early thirties; these games are not just for kids! For many, World of Warcraft1 has become “the new golf” as younger colleagues get together online to battle the forces of evil rather than meeting on the greens (Hof 2006). People play with parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, spouses, and friends. They create virtual families and, not infrequently, virtual relationships bleed into the earthly world, leading to dating and marriage. Even earthly politicians, from Mark Warner of West Virginia to the two-time presidential candidate John Edwards, have entered Second Life to give interviews and build campaign centers (Pickler 2007). According to the technology and research advising company The Gartner Group, 80 percent of active Internet users will participate in virtual worlds by 2012 (Gartner Group 2007). They may be games, but Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the rest of the massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs2) are serious business.

Computer games have fast become one of the world’s major media and a major locus for story telling. As money and talent (both intellectual and artistic) pour into (p.73) the games, they will take more and more significance away from other pop culture media, such as print and film. A 2007 article in Wired suggests that the game Mass Effect3 (played on the Microsoft Xbox 360 game console) has the same cultural cachet as that of George Lucas’s renowned Star Wars franchise (Lee 2007). A heady claim, indeed! The rapid growth of players and their increasing devotion to virtual life will make MMOGs a crucial element in cultural life.

Millions of players have bought massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft, which usually involves purchasing the CD-ROM and then paying a monthly subscription fee.4 Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft are all set in fantasy worlds where players choose to be warriors, wizards, priests, etc., and go on quests to find treasure, slay monsters, and rescue those in need. Other MMORPGs exist, including some which are science fiction, superhero, or mystery based, rather than fantasy based. In all of these games, questing lures players into a larger story framework, one whose conclusion is collectively experienced by all of its participants. The cowritten/participatory nature of MMORPGs is, in fact, one of their principle characteristics and a primary part of their allure (King and Borland 2003, 162; T. L. Taylor 2006, 159).5

The popular stereotype of a computer gamer is of a solitary soul staring deeply into his or her computer, cut off from the world, but this representation is far from accurate. The Internet allows gamers to connect with one another; it builds communities. Even at the earliest levels of Internet communication, the Defense Department’s ARPAnet—which allowed limited data transfer over telephone lines via modems—e-mail and message boards created ongoing “societies” (Waldrop 1987, 33). Although online gamers are perceived as out of touch and solitary, the focus of the games they play is, in fact, deeply social. In their history of computer gaming, King and Borland trace the profound sociality of computer gaming from its earliest influences in role-playing games (especially Dungeons & Dragons) through contemporary “shoot-’em-up” games and online role-playing games (King and Borland 2003). Jakobsson and Taylor have given an ethnographic and sociological account of the social ties present within virtual reality in the game EverQuest, which they liken to the mafia in the way “family” ties take precedence over other matters (Jakobsson and Taylor 2003). Online games provide an environment far better suited to the creation and maintenance of societies than mere e-mail. As a result, they integrate features of social life that earlier electronic communities lacked. The social significance of online life is growing for individual users as they immerse themselves ever deeper in virtual reality.

Some games focus more upon the building of communities than do others. Among these, Linden Lab’s Second Life is by far the most popular. Second Life (SL) underwent explosive growth in 2006 and 2007 after Linden Lab started allowing free accounts (a controversial decision for many older users). With 20,000 total (p.74) users early in 2005, Second Life had nearly 7 million users by June 2007 (of whom nearly 2 million had logged on in the previous month). Not all accounts are used (many people create accounts, grow bored, and never return) and some individuals pay for more than one account, but Second Life is the clear leader among “social” games6 and, as of October 2008, had over 50,000 concurrent users at any given time. Second Life is not a game of battle, nor a game of quests, puzzles, or strategies. It is a community game. Although there is money to be made through building objects (homes, furniture, vehicles, guns, clothing, etc.), Second Life is principally a place for gathering together. Some people do gather to hold battles but most show up to dance, gamble (prior to mid-2007, at which point it was made illegal), shop, listen to music, etc., but these are not the “purpose” of the game; instead, they are locations for social contact.

As Second Life has expanded, arguments over its economic and social worth have arisen. Making money in Second Life is not easy, especially considering how cheaply everything comes and how sparsely the population of potential buyers is spread out. Randy Pausch, a former CMU professor of human-computer interaction, says that big businesses have come to Second Life not to make money, but to get cheap publicity for their earthly products (Pausch 2007; see also Rose 2007; Rosmarin 2007). Every time a major company opens an SL business, earthly news outlets trumpet the move, which means that Coca-Cola or Honda or whoever is launching an island in SL stands to sell real products, not virtual ones. Certainly, the SL islands that house earthly businesses are generally empty and bring in no income (Rose 2007). On the other hand, IBM representatives claim that Second Life will make money for them and other businesses eventually while the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says that in the future “we will all get rich buying and selling virtual goods” and the people making virtual reality work are “in [his] opinion … saving civilization” (C. Metz 2007).7

Lanier is not alone in his breathless gushing over the potential of online games. Ed Castronova, well-known for his studies of online life, believes that an “exodus of … people from the real world, from our normal daily life of living rooms, cubicles, and shopping malls, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup” (2007, xiv–xv). It may be that Castronova thinks little of the dangers of climate change but we cannot doubt that he rates virtual reality as the most important thing in our political and social radars. And like Lanier, Castronova believes that virtual reality will save civilization. Social participation will require participation in virtual worlds (ibid., 82) and as more and more people play online games and grow accustomed to the fun of living there, they will demand that earthly governments turn away from economic ends toward the manufacturing of a happy society (ibid., 70).

The significance of Second Life does not, as many of its critics allege, hinge upon the world’s economic viability. Like Pausch, some commentators have attacked SL (p.75) as mere hype (though certainly technically innovative hype) without long-term prospects. They believe that SL is bound to go the way of other VR communities such as LambdaMOO and Habitat for the Commodore 64—historical anachronisms with little contemporary relevance. This view, however, is utterly problematic in its regard for SL and in its regard for SL’s predecessors. The mere fact that these critics consider the various worlds to be in some sense continuous proves the significance of SL. If this kind of world has occupied the last twenty years of technological culture we ought to presume that it responds to some kind of real community need.8 That is, even if SL itself ends up in economic ruin, a successor will carry on the tradition of online communities in which people gather for “purely” social interaction. This chapter applies to SL’s successors as much as it does to SL itself.

Second Life is not a game of acquisition or advancement, although both of which are easily had therein; it is a game where only the user’s creative energies (be they social, commercial, religious, or other) determine the user’s interaction with the community. Second Life residents do frequently revel in commercial acquisitions (as when they show off new outfits to one another) but the acquisition is not actually integral to continued enjoyment of the world. In other online games, such as World of Warcraft, users must overcome challenges, gain new levels, and acquire new and more powerful objects if they wish to proceed in the game. In Second Life, converting a few U.S. dollars into Linden dollars and spending some time searching and teleporting around will suffice to buy you anything you might like to own. The purpose of the world, obviously, is not acquisition. As Phillip Rosedale, Linden Lab’s founder, says, “you can get everything you want on the first day. What’s interesting is what you do the next” (Newitz 2006).

Cyberspace sacred

Online life has become increasingly interesting, increasingly meaningful, increasingly sacred. The techno-enchantment of Apocalyptic AI results, ironically, from the rise of modern materialism. According to Margaret Wertheim, as modern science increasingly viewed the world physically, banishing the realm of the spiritual from ontological necessity, it left a void in the Western worldview; cyberspace—the digital world—takes on a sacred aura precisely because people need to locate spiritual realities somewhere (Wertheim 1999). In a literal sense, she writes, “we have lost any conception of a spiritual space—a part of reality in which spirits or souls might reside” (ibid., 33, emphasis original). Investing cyberspace with sacred significance answers this existential concern. Apocalyptic AI provides the ideological and intellectual worldview that crystallizes this new sacred aura.

Game programmers and designers wrote the apocalyptic agenda into virtual reality. Many designers automatically assign sacred labels upon activity in virtual (p.76) reality games and feel those games promote an idealized life and human transcendence (Aupers and Houtman 2005). Indeed, many of the game programmers see game design as a specifically theological enterprise, as when the famed Richard Bartle9 declares that “deities create virtual worlds; designers are those deities” (Bartle [2003] 2004, 247) and asks whether “those lacking a god’s motivation [should] assume a god’s powers” (ibid., 293). In a similar vein, a number of programmers see the design and construction of virtual reality worlds as the apotheosis of their players, who take on the role of gods (Helmreich [1998] 2000, 85–86).

The computer world was deeply affected by the utopian dreams of 1960s counterculture, particularly as mediated by Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and its subsequent spin-off projects (Turner 2006). “Digital utopians” sought freedom from alienation through computer technologies and the advent of the Internet heightened such dreams. The digital utopia of late twentieth-century techno-enthusiasm borrows directly from religious themes and expectations. John Perry Barlow, who became an influential spokesperson at the intersection of the digerati and the counterculture, believed that cyberspaces “offered what LSD, Christian mysticism, cybernetics, and countercultural ‘energy’ theory had all promised” (Turner 2006, 173; see also A. Stone 1991, 90). The desire to escape alienation, suffering, and impotence has promoted the “relocation of the sacred to the digital realm” (Aupers and Houtman 2005).

Even before online games became powerful, programmers infused computer worlds with a sense of the sacred and attributed to themselves a divine status. Stefan Helmreich, in his extensive fieldwork among Artificial Life (ALife)10 scientists, describes the ways in which Artificial Life “has come to perform functions that normatively Christian Western secular culture associates with religion” (Helmreich [1998] 2000, 182). Mystical visions led several of the key figures in ALife to see their worlds as potentially salvific, offering the cosmos a better form of life (ibid., 191, 201–2), and themselves as the worlds’ gods (ibid., 83–84, 193). Alongside basic Christian themes, which Helmreich believes have been adapted from wider culture, the 1990s ALife community made frequent use of Eastern mysticism, decoupled from its historical contingency, as a way of understanding the role of the individual self in the wider world (ibid., 185–87).

Virtual reality pioneers frequently raise a religious standard for technology. Bonny de Vargo has enthusiastically described the experience of being godlike in cyberspace and Brian Moriarty has echoed this, asking “why should we settle for avatars, when we can be angels?” (Aupers and Houtman 2005).11 Likewise, Mark Pesce, the co-creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), called the virtual world Osmose a “virtual kundalini, an expression of philosophy without any words, a state of holy being which reminds that, indeed, we are all angels” (Davis 1996) and Nicole Stengers, a virtual reality artist, declares that on “the other side of our data gloves we become creatures of colored light in motion, pulsing with (p.77) golden particles…. We will all become angels, and for eternity” (Stengers 1991, 52). Stengers believes that cyberspace is the realm of heirophany—the breaking forth of the sacred (ibid., 54–55). Cyberspace advocates have infused the realm with a magical aura and expect the divinization of humankind in cyberspace. The religious agenda of cyberspace belongs in equal parts to the programmers, who were avid readers of fantasy and cyberpunk (King and Borland 2005, 95), and the gamers, whose shared reading list brought them into contact with the paradisiacal dreams of the digital utopians.

Fundamentally, Second Life residents revel in virtual reality because they find it superior to their current reality. For some users, the online world is “the only decent place available” (Castronova 2005, 65, emphasis original), though many residents of SL explicitly reject Castronova’s belief that they like SL because they dislike their conventional lives. The reasons for and degree to which SL is “more decent” than real life will depend upon the user but given the high number of residents (more than 50 percent according to my survey) who would at least consider uploading their personalities to SL it is crystal clear that many find online worlds to be very decent indeed.

The magic of virtual worlds emerged in 1980s science fiction literature through the seminal work of Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, and others. Vinge’s True Names ([1981] 2001) introduced us to the Other Plane where computer hackers traveled to gather together or visit the linked computer systems of governments, banks, and corporations. Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) added a flashy name for virtual reality (cyberspace) and a brilliant story of artificial intelligence, anti-hero chic, and personal redemption in which cyberspace became the focal point for power and value (both economic and aesthetic). Neuromancer, the only book to ever win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards, glorifies cyberspace and derides the “meatspace” where everyone but the hackers resides.

Life in cyberspace is a popular part of virtual reality literature. Just as Vinge ended True Names with an individual uploading herself into the Other Plane, other books by popular authors have advocated transcendent immortality. Charles Stross, who described the singularity and life with hyperintelligent robots in Accelerando (2005), has defended the belief that virtual reality will eventually occupy most or all of our lives in Halting State (2007). Upon entering a virtual reality game, one of his characters thinks “someday we’re all going to get brain implants and experience this directly. Someday everyone is going to live their lives out in places like this, vacant bodies tended by machines of loving grace while their minds go on before us into strange spaces where the meat cannot follow” (Stross 2007, 104, emphasis original). Stross is among the darling sci-fi authors of the twenty-first century and carries considerable prestige. His work shows how tightly intertwined Apocalyptic AI and science fiction are, but also how closely connected these fields are to Second Life. Stross has been to SL as an invited speaker and has agreed to (p.78) return for an explicit conversation, hosted by Giulio Prisco, on transhumanism (Prisco 2007e).

Though Vinge and Gibson were the trendsetters in cyberspace literature, much of the talk that surrounds Second Life derives from a later work, Neal Stephenson’s masterpiece Snow Crash (1992). Snow Crash, which Time magazine listed among its top 100 English-language novels (post-1923), is a complicated story of archaeology, cryptography, religion, politics, and computer science in which the protagonist has helped develop the “metaverse,” a virtual reality world in which individuals act through their avatars. Though he is one of the designers of the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is impoverished and isolated due to his poor business acumen and equally poor relationship skills. Though his adventures likely resolve at least half of these problems, it is not so much the emotional affect of the book but its compelling portrait of the future’s virtual world that carries so much weight in today’s society. In Stephenson’s book, the Metaverse is a fully immersive environment, one that looks and feels like reality thanks to direct neural input from computers.

Stephenson sets the Metaverse apart from its predecessors by illustrating it as a world much like the real world, only far more brilliant—it is this feature that makes the world so captivating as a portrait of things to come. Whereas Gibson was content to imagine cyberspace as a matrix of geometric shapes that represented particular corporate or business computer systems, Stephenson revolves the entire Metaverse around the crowded and surpassingly hip Street that resembles “Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance” (Stephenson 1992, 26). The Street is a mass of businesses, clubs, and neon lighting—it is the shining world of the richest, most impressive members of humanity. The significance of Stephenson’s work shows in the language that SL residents employ and in their own efforts to think about the significance of SL with respect to Snow Crash (e.g., DaSilva 2008b, DeCuir 2008). Today’s users of Second Life adore Snow Crash, in large measure, because it presents a realistic view of the world (that is, a cyberspace that would be comfortable and appealing to Western nations) while enhancing that world with a sheen of wonder absent from everyday life.

Apocalyptic AI has thoroughly infiltrated the way SL residents think of their new world, particularly through the science fiction promises of 1980s cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a style of science fiction that melds high technology and a modern pop underground, usually in a dystopian future (Sterling 1986). The hacker residents of this world, described most famously in True Names, Neuromancer, and Snow Crash, prefer it to the real world. Although fantasy has also played a significant part in the rise of digital worlds,12 cyberpunk infuses them with the promise of salvation. Thanks to science fiction, cyberspace has become the place where the hacker can escape “the prison of his own flesh” (Gibson 1984, 6), a religious vision that does not occupy fantasy literature or its role-playing offshoots. Cyberpunk has (p.79) become an invisible part of our social world and online users have adopted its worldview. Most important, users—despite the end of the cyberpunk literary movement—desire to spend increasing amounts of time in cyberspace, if not the rest of their lives. Second Life occupies more and more of its residents’ time and emotional commitment and many users believe that such virtual immersion will be complete or near complete in the future (nearly 20 percent of my survey respondents would spend all of their time in SL if possible and a majority of the rest would like to increase their time commitment to the world). When such belief intertwines with the possibility of emigrating one’s consciousness permanently into cyberspace, it becomes the template for the virtual realm of Apocalyptic AI.

Second Life demonstrates the cultural power of Apocalyptic AI because its residents see it (or its successor) as a potential realm for the realization of Moravec’s virtual future. The sacred allure of SL is so profound that the world naturally breeds Apocalyptic AI ideas. Transhumanist communities have happily set up shop in Second Life, offering information and holding seminars and conferences, but even where transhumanism is not explicit, the sacred aura held by virtual worlds provides an outlet for basic ideas of Apocalyptic AI, including the desirability of mind uploading. As Philip Hefner has pointed out, transhumanism is not always explicit and officially institutional; it has also disseminated widely throughout culture as an implicit agenda of overcoming the limits of human bodies (Hefner 2009). Second Life offers a time and place separated out from the mundane; it is thus easily seen as sacred and becomes the perfect vehicle for the cybernetic salvation of Apocalyptic AI. The easy attribution of the sacred to SL and the smooth transition to apocalyptic attitudes within it explains why transhumanists and transhumanist ideas (both explicit and implicit) are so common there.

Living a second life

Second Life is more than a game. Second Life, the online community in which “avatars” meet, talk, recreate (musically, sexually, artistically, even athletically), and engage in commerce, is a world unto its own, a world that, for some users, is more important than the earthly world without which it would not exist. Many users consider Second Life to be an important part of our cultural evolution and the home to a meaningful new world, not just a playscape for the imagination.

The avatar is the user’s virtual body. As in many MMOGs, SL users can customize their avatars’ appearances and clothing and tend to give them distinct personalities. The avatar is, depending upon the user’s perspective, either a prosthesis for the earthly person (a mechanism for the extension of the person into a new realm) or a separate identity, which is born in and never leaves virtual reality. (p.80) Regardless, the avatar’s appearance helps shape the user’s social environment so users tend to customize them as they become attached to the world.

In the 1990s, MIT’s Sherry Turkle argued that fledgling Internet worlds had already co-opted many of real life’s more important elements and provided an important locus for exploring an individual’s subjective experience of life. “Real life is just one more window,” one of her subjects told her, “and it’s not usually my best one” (Turkle 1996, 118). Another reported that his or her Internet life is “more real than my real life” (ibid., 116). This kind of fragmented identity is a uniquely modern way of being in the world(s).13 Contemporary users of SL show the same blurring of the boundaries between real life and online life; as a result, selfhood in SL remains profoundly connected to the relationships formed between SL and conventional reality (Boellstorff 2008, 118–22). For many residents, however, choosing between their conventional and virtual selves can be very difficult: “when it comes to choosing between real life and Second Life,” says one resident, “I don’t know which one I care about the most” (Peralta 2006).

Users of online games frequently understand their online worlds to be home (as opposed to the physical world). For example, 20 percent of EverQuest players claim to “live in Norrath … but travel outside it regularly” and 22 percent would spend all of their time in Norrath if it were possible to do so (Castronova 2005, 59). I found a similar number of SL users would do likewise (18.7 percent would either probably or definitely spend all of their time in-world if they could).14 We cannot simply dismiss the players’ faith in their online realities as childishness or neurosis. Rather, as Castronova has pointed out, we all fall rather easily into an identification with our avatars, which become prostheses, not mere game pieces (ibid., 45). Participation in virtual worlds is very much like participation in earthly life but tends to heighten access to the things most desirable on Earth—goods, of course, but more importantly friendship and a sense of personal worth and meaningful existence.

Second Life, like other MMOGs, allows users to explore aspects of their personalities that they would like to develop and, through this, establish the kinds of interpersonal relationships that they miss in their conventional lives. Sherry Turkle’s subjects explored different genders and personalities so as to meet people in different kinds of ways and experience life in a different, but valid, way (Turkle 1999). According to the famed designer Richard Bartle, it is the power of self-discovery that fundamentally motivates players: “most of the players will be there because of the freedom to be themselves that the virtual world offers” (Bartle [2003] 2004, 163). He feels that playing has one “overall goal: Being someone else in order to become a better you” (ibid., 190). David Fleck, Linden Lab’s vice president of marketing, echoes this sentiment. He says that SL is a “place where [the residents] can be themselves”—apparently as opposed to earthly life (Peralta 2006). With an unlimited number of appearances, as many personalities as the user’s mind can (p.81) construct, and a vast number of groups that users can join to meet others with similar interests, SL is a playground for Turkle’s distributed subjectivity. Some residents even jump from one avatar appearance to another … first a human being, next a robot, finally an alien before becoming a plush bunny rabbit and walking away.

Not only do players emphasize “real” aspects of themselves hidden during their daily lives, the players form real emotional relationships in SL. You can have enemies, friends, lovers, even spouses. No user “calls Second Life a game. The emotional connections you make are real” (Peralta 2006). All virtual relationships are real relationships; the users are emotionally committed to them (Castronova 2005, 48). In my survey, nearly 50 percent of respondents felt that their SL friendships were probably or definitely as important as their earthly friendships. Only 18 percent of survey takers said that SL friends were definitely not as important as their earthly friends. This means that when an avatar is spurned or ignored, someone, somewhere, feels real rejection. When an avatar is welcomed back upon entering a favored Irish pub, someone feels loved. When avatars marry, their users sometimes declare love for the avatar personality and sometimes for the person behind the avatar. Either way, the users find such emotions to be genuinely real.

Building a world, however, does not automatically mean building one that will function as well as the original. In his comparison of the early virtual urban space of Habitat (which ran over telephone lines on Commodore 64 computers) to the “virtual” urban space of the West Edmonton Mall (a Canadian shopping mall in which visitors stroll down recreations of Bourbon Street, Paris, and other distant places), the architect Michael Ostwald denies that these kinds of spaces allow for the creation of true community (Ostwald 2000, 673). Nevertheless, while Habitat did not offer the right environment for the forming of true communities, other virtual worlds might. “If the Internet can achieve the right balance of interaction, leisure, and commerce it may in time develop into a genuine community space. While it continues to mirror the malls, theme parks and office buildings of the Cartesian world it will never become the mythical ‘place of meeting’ described by Homer in the Iliad” (ibid., 673).15

Despite the doubts of authors like Ostwald, many sociologists see great social potential in online games. Online gaming, often ostensibly aimed at developing one’s character (gaining experience, increasing levels, acquiring powerful objects, etc.), actually revolves around social interaction (Jakobsson and Taylor 2003; Ducheneaut and Moore 2005).16 Most online games—those in which players fight in science fiction and fantasy worlds—involve forming guilds of players with complementary skills and “raiding parties” with characters who have different, and equally necessary, skill sets, and building reputations of reliability (competence and honesty) by which groups organize themselves. For its early years, Second Life (p.82) objectified personal relationships in profile ratings of skill and character. Though these were eliminated in 2007 to ease the computing burden on the company’s servers, Linden Lab encouraged residents to make use of third-party web-based profile systems, such as RatePoint and Real Reputations. Second Life does not force its residents into social relationships the way advanced levels of World of Warcraft and similar games do but those relationships are at least as important within it. An SL resident could be a loner but he would likely grow bored very quickly, perhaps even faster than in the character-development games because SL is based around interaction with other avatars. Residents who fail to create social networks will not remain in the world for long.

The social nature of online worlds might make them suitable replacements for the traditional loci of earthly sociability. People participate in communities by finding “third places”—churches, local soda fountains, neighborhood bars, etc.—that promote sociability by supporting neighborly interaction (Oldenberg 1989). Such places have lost significance for many people in the past few decades (Putnam 2000) but online games offer a new sense of community that serves the traditional aims of third places (Ducheneaut, Moore, and Nickell, 2007). Corner bars may well be places of the past, replaced by virtual bars.17

Online games present places for meeting, such as bars and dance halls, and grouping mechanisms, all of which help bring people together. Any Second Life resident can establish an official group for a nominal cost (less than $1 in a one-time fee), which enables like-minded people to connect through the world’s search function. Group notices, events, and voting help residents feel like they are part of a social community and help the residents organize their second lives. Many of SL’s clubs and bars have groups to notify members about interesting events (such as when a performer is about to take the stage) but other groups allow people who share intellectual or religious inclinations to find one another (such as groups for physicists, philosophers, alumni of particular universities, or specific religious affiliations). Formal partnerships allow two residents to tie their second lives together, often including officiated weddings, shared homes, and virtual children. These grouping mechanisms are critical to the overall picture of Second Life. While new residents may accumulate random group memberships as badges of importance, older users eventually separate the wheat from the chaff, remaining in only those groups that they find productive and comfortable.

Second Life offers far more to its participants than the chat rooms of the early Internet. While those chat rooms gave free rein to expressive imagination, SL concretizes imagination: its users can build what they want and then script it (using the game’s specialized programming language) to act how they think it should. Users do not just describe themselves, they personalize their avatars to look the way they want them to look. In this way, SL represents a powerful shift in online (p.83) communities. Because the residents of SL build the world in which they live, they take responsibility for the quality of the outcome.18 Many residents have committed to making SL a paradise for themselves and others. Some people even build beautiful buildings and parks to which access is free, such as the lush island Svarga, the many waterfalls of Bliss Basin, the fireworks of Ethereal Teal, and the anime-themed Nakama.

                   Transcending Reality

Motorcycle and car driving in Nakama, an anime-themed region in Second Life (the author is in the foreground).

By customizing SL, the residents come to see it as a real home. They alter their own appearances in accordance with their personal tastes and desires. They can own or rent land that they shape to their own personal liking. Whether they create an S&M dungeon that would invoke suspicion and frowns in their hometown, or a colossal medieval castle replete with fairies, princesses, and knights in shining armor, residents make what feels good to them. Second Life residents express themselves in SL and, therefore, begin to attach themselves to it in a way that can be difficult in real life. Earthly life is “given” in the sense that it precedes the individual and can be shaped in only very limited ways; for many, the creative co-construction of the SL world resolves the alienation that proceeds from earthly life’s givenness.

(p.84) Digital transcendence

Transhumanism, a social movement that advocates a “better than well” approach to humanity, has been instrumental in the absorption of Apocalyptic AI into the mainstream and brings that ideology into cyberspace. Transhumanism (commonly abbreviated H+) is a religious movement brought to Second Life by individuals who see the virtual world as the perfect realm for the realization of Apocalyptic AI’s Mind Fire. Many believers hope to improve their lives by transferring their conscious selves into Second Life or whatever equivalent virtual world follows. Transhumanist groups are political, evangelical, have influence in Second Life, and, more importantly, reflect views that are relatively common in Second Life even among individuals who do not expressly affiliate with transhumanist groups.

Transhumanists believe that rationality, science, and technology are the keys to improving humanity and providing a happy “posthuman” existence. In particular, transhumanism borrows from technological progress in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, asserting that future advances will eliminate illness, aging, and even death. Common transhumanist questions include, “what to do about retirement age when people live indefinitely?” and “how to ethically distribute advanced technology?”

Advances in biotechnology might redefine what it means to be a “normal” human being. Technological progress, especially in genetics, promises better pharmaceuticals, prevention and cure of degenerative and terminal illnesses, superior abilities, and even longer (limitless?) lifespan. Advanced knowledge of genetics might allow us to tailor prescription drugs to each individual, preventing unpleasant side effects. Understanding the genetic causes of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could lead to better pharmaceuticals and to genetically manipulating victims to produce cures. Manipulating the genetic profiles of children could prevent such diseases altogether and might also result in higher IQs, better memories, bigger muscles, better immune systems, and so forth. Finally, we may even learn to shut down the body’s natural aging process (which, if disease has been eradicated and strength improved, could prove highly desirable).

Advances in biotechnology could produce great gains for humanity or could turn disastrous. As a consequence, biotechnological transhumanism has its proponents (e.g., Bostrom 2005; Postrel 1998; Stock 2003) and its opponents (e.g., Annas, Andrews, and Isasi 2002; Fukuyama 2002; Joy 2000; Rifkin 1983). Some range of opinion exists within these two basic camps. For example, Jeremy Rifkin, the “most hated man in science” (Thompson 1989), opposes all bioengineering, believing it to separate humankind from the essential companionship of the natural ecology (Rifkin 1983, 253–55) while Leon Kass opposes any manipulation that goes beyond a “natural norm of health” because he feels that enhancement “beyond (p.85) therapy” would have disastrous consequences on the meaningfulness of human life (Kass 2003). Proponents of unfettered biotechnology, on the other hand, usually argue that the consumer should have choice in technological options (often eliding the fact that a domino effect may, in a practical sense, remove choice from the matter).19

Nanotechnology refers to objects constructed at a nanoscale (in one billionths of a meter), which means the objects could be as small as just a few thousand atoms in width. Nanotechnologies include both external technologies (e.g., very small robots that clean up oil spills) and internal technologies (e.g., a replacement immune system). Loosely based upon Richard Feynman’s famous lecture “There’s Plenty of Room Left at the Bottom” (1959), and first illustrated by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (1986), nanotech is now a major industry. We have nanotech particles in clothing, household cleaners, cosmetics, paints, and more. Advocates argue that nanotechnologies will play an even greater role in the future, eventually becoming self-constructing, which is the source of much nanotech fear. If nano-robots are possible and they get out of control, there may be no way to stop them from turning every available resource into more of themselves (the so-called grey goo scenario). The miraculous promises of nanotech are deeply intertwined with robotics and AI, as shown in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (U.S. Senate 2003), which discusses cyborg implants and machines with greater than human intellects, and the conferences and publications produced by Roco and Bainbridge, which defend transhumanist promises (as discussed in the last chapter).

Transhumanists are, essentially, technological optimists; they believe that careful consideration and hard work will lead to positive outcomes from biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI. They recognize the perils implicit in these technologies but consider them essentially no different from any other dangerous technology (e.g., nuclear power) and feel that humankind can learn to deal with them.

Transhumanist groups are explicitly evangelical. Among the more important groups are Humanity+ (formerly known as the World Transhumanist Association), the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), and the now-defunct Extropy Institute. In the “about us” sections of their Web sites, all three profess their desire to help construct the future in an ethically sound, pro-transhuman fashion. The most well-known of these groups, Humanity+ (H+), was cofounded by the British philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. Bostrom, who also cofounded the IEET, has widely publicized the AI apocalypse and believes it to be inevitable (Bostrom 1998). The Apocalyptic AI advocates Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil both sat on the board of directors for the Extropy Institute and all transhumanist groups have touted their champions’ intellectual achievements. Kurzweil, for example, won the 2007 HG Wells Award for Outstanding Contributions (p.86) to Transhumanism from the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). In his acceptance speech, Kurzweil argued that he and the WTA have a mission to spread transhumanism because transhumanist ideas will solve all of our current worldly problems (Kurzweil 2007).

Giulio Prisco, a former physicist and computer scientist who has served on the WTA and IEET boards of directors and who has become one of transhumanism’s most eloquent and influential speakers, has helped shift transhumanism to Second Life. As Giulio Perhaps, his SL avatar, Prisco is the founder of Intemetaverse in SL,20 a cofounder of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, and has convened several SL conferences on issues ranging from technology to religion (all with a specifically transhumanist bent). The Order of Cosmic Engineers, Prisco’s most recent endeavor, officially aspires toward Moravec’s dream of uploading our consciousness and subsequently exploring the universe as disembodied superminds (Prisco 2008a).

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, Prisco believes that transhumanist promises of immortality and the resurrection of the dead will soon compete with institutionalized religions while shedding the baggage of bigotry and violence that he believes such religions carry (Prisco 2007b). Following Moravec (though with a longer timeline), Prisco hopes that within a few centuries our descendents will run perfectly accurate computer simulations of the past. In doing so, they will have simulated, for example, your beloved grandfather, whose mental simulation could then be instantiated separately in a physical or virtual body (Prisco 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). If we have a perfect simulation of your grandfather and we let it roam free in our virtual lives (or allow it to operate a robot body if we all still wander around the planet physically), we will, allegedly, have resurrected him. As all people will be instantiated in robot bodies or in virtual worlds, the immortality promised by transhumanists directly opposes Christian resurrection. Why take a risk on immortality that you cannot be sure of when science offers an easy route here and now, complete with the resurrection of loved ones who died before such technology existed?

Although transhumanists generally defend their position as rational and scientific rather than religious, Prisco has diminished the significance of that distinction in his writings. Max More’s popular Principles of Extropy, for example, argue that Extropy21 “means favoring reason over blind faith and questioning over dogma. It means understanding, experimenting, learning, challenging, and innovating rather than clinging to beliefs” (More 2003). The assault on traditional religions is obvious in their denigration of mere “beliefs” and “blind faith” while transhumanist principles are presumed to have attained a higher moral and intellectual ground. As early as 2004, however, Prisco advocated a religious “front-end” for transhumanism. He says:

I am definitely not proposing a transformation of the transhumanist movement into some sort of irrational religious sect. If anything, I believe the transhumanist (p.87) movement should evolve into a mainstream cultural, scientific, and social force firmly established in the world of today—to prepare the world of tomorrow. But as all good salespersons know, different marketing and sales techniques have to be used for different audiences, and perhaps we should also explicitly address the needs of those who are hard-wired for religion. Doing so will be facilitated by understanding the neurological and social basis of religion—why most humans are religious to varying degrees and why some humans are almost completely resistant to religion. Then we can utilize this understanding in the creation of a religion for the Third Millennium (Prisco [2004] 2007a).

While Prisco retains some of the standard transhumanist terminology, he also recognizes that there is considerable power in religious ideas and activities. For this reason, he advocates repackaging transhumanism in explicitly religious terms in order to convert those who might otherwise shy away. While he allows for a religious vision of transhumanism, however, Prisco does not deviate from the fundamental transhumanist belief that transhumanism is a “scientific” force.

It might appear that Prisco adds a new, religious course for transhumanism; he is not remaking transhumanism, however, only expressing with crystal clarity the religious aspects already present within it. Recalling chapter one, Apocalyptic AI is the direct descendent of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic traditions; it borrows their language, their ideology, their logic, and their sacred promises. When Prisco sees the connection between transhumanist ideals of “moving on to the next evolutionary phase … resurrecting the dead, and building God” and the Judeo-Christian tradition (Prisco 2007a), he acknowledges the powerful ways in which Western religious beliefs have grounded transhumanism, which is, itself, a Western religious system. Transhumanism does not need to be slightly reframed so as to compete with religions; it already competes, as a religion, with them. This should come as no surprise, given not only the cultural context of transhumanism’s rise but also the important ways in which it developed out of the thinking of the Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Steinhart 2008).22

In addition to its expressly religious promises, transhumanism includes a basic religious concern with human identity. David Chidester has argued that “religion is the negotiation of what it means to be human with respect to the superhuman and subhuman” (Chidester 2004). Following this definition, we can easily spot the already powerful religiosity of transhumanism. Transhumanism declares that human nature is “plastic,” to be shaped and modified until it is perfect (Prisco 2007c). This amorphous human is rational and scientific and on its way toward ageless perfect physical health. Transhumanism even offers belief structures and practices (evangelism, textual study, participation in the sacred virtual community) designed to transition us into this superhuman state. Other transhumanists have joined Prisco, creating groups such as the Society for Universal Immortalism, (p.88) which is explicitly religious, though atheist and the “UNreligion” practiced by the Order of Cosmic Engineers. The absence of God in transhumanism does not mean that transhumanism is not a religion, as some transhumanists now recognize. The OCE, in an effort to resist the label of religion while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which the group’s goals overlap those of certain religious groups, have called their movement an UNreligion because, although “not faith-based,”23 they do make promises traditionally offered in religions (Order of Cosmic Engineers 2008).

Virtual reality is the key arena for the religious speculations of transhumanism. While transhumanists anticipate medical advances that could greatly benefit humankind, these promises always play advance prophet to the eschaton, when biology will be transcended altogether. Apocalyptic AI is the ultimate form of transhumanism.24 Once we have uploaded our minds into machines, we can, except for occasional repair work on or climate adjustment for our new homes, depart the physical world altogether. We will live in a blissful cyberspace, where any dream we have can be made reality. Prisco believes himself part of the last mortal generation; our children, he thinks, will upload their minds and live in cyberspace (Prisco 2007d).

Because the term “transhumanism” unites several disparate ideologies, some question remains as to whether Second Life in particular, or virtual worlds in general, are transhumanist. Indeed, the anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, in his excellent ethnography of SL, declares it to be “profoundly human,” rather than “posthuman” (Boellstorff 2008, 5). That said, however, transhumanism cannot be equated with posthumanism (whatever that might be25); Boellstorff’s work bears little on the question of transhumanism but insightfully argues that life in virtual worlds reveals the ways in which “the virtual” is part and parcel of human activity in the conventional world (ibid., passim). Nor, however, is transhumanism identical with only the most radical promises of Kurzweil or others. As the well-known theologian and scholar of religion and science Philip Hefner has argued, transhumanism might well be divided into a lower-case “transhumanism” and an upper case “Transhumanism” (Hefner 2009). While the latter refers to only a small set of individuals, the former represents the profound ways in which transhumanist ideals have been distributed throughout popular culture, especially through the media but also through medicine and technology (ibid., 165–66). Lower case transhumanism—the belief that we can use science and technology to transcend the limitations of human life—is, as Hefner puts it, a “central element of American culture today” (ibid., 166). I would go one step further in asserting that such non-institutionalized transhumanism is not just central to American culture, it appears to be central to digital culture worldwide.26

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to suppose that the transhumanist interpretation of virtual worlds is of secondary or tertiary importance in those worlds. (p.89) Although transhumanist groups do not have membership enrollments that challenge the numbers of SL residents who identify with other religious groups, many of the basic aims of transhumanism are common within the SL community. A significant minority of Second Life residents would think of SL as “heaven” if it were technologically superior and a substantial number find mind uploading appealing. While Vikings enjoyed the prospect of a heaven filled with battle and might have thus eagerly uploaded their minds into World of Warcraft, contemporary Euro-Americans have a tamer vision of heaven more easily met by SL. If heaven should be a lot like earth, only without the pain, sickness, and death, then SL would make for a pretty good virtual heaven. Indeed, in my online survey, a significant minority of SL residents (10 percent) claimed they would consider SL to be heaven if some of its technological problems (such as slow load times) were fixed. Even more significant, however, is the number of residents who would find uploading their minds to SL an “attractive alternative to earthly life.” Twenty-eight percent of residents would find uploading definitely or probably attractive while another 26 percent answered that they would maybe find it so. More than half of Second Life residents, then, would seriously consider mind uploading if it were technically feasible. Although no formal survey has been conducted to determine the number of average Euro-Americans who would like to upload their minds into machines, my experience has been that the percentage of such individuals cannot even remotely compare to those in SL.

Because Second Life is a living space and a community, it is perfectly adapted to the transhumanist dreams of Apocalyptic AI. One of the principle ways in which Apocalyptic AI challenges—or at least runs parallel to—other religious systems is through the salvation of uploaded consciousness. Apocalyptic AI promises its faithful a life of eternal reward in a virtual afterlife. As one blog commenter has said, the residents of SL have one thing in common: “the transcendental experience of living as embedded avatars in Second Life” (Merlin 2007). Second Life is rather like the earthly world, with just enough difference that people avidly seek to enter it forever. Transhumanists see Second Life as a possible fulfillment (if at an early stage in its technological development) of the eschatological and soteriological aims of Apocalyptic AI and even among individuals who are not transhumanist, the apocalyptic agenda has considerable appeal in Second Life.

Sacred life

Second Life and similar games offer substitute forms of the sacred and new ways of dealing with it. Online gamers expect resolution to many of the problems of their daily lives: freedom from drudgery, elevation to “specialness,” physical, emotional, and intellectual empowerment, and access to welcoming communities. Is it any surprise, then, that users would expect virtual worlds to resolve the problems of (p.90) religion—which is implicated in all of those concerns—as well? Perhaps these games are the forum for the creation of a new kind of religion, one unhampered by the real world’s history of intolerance, inquisitions, and genocide? Second Life works so well for transhumanist communities because people naturally ascribe sanctity to it. Just like conventional communities, online communities often use religious myth in order to structure themselves. “Not everyone lives in a community with rich traditions, faiths, and stories that put meaning into everyone’s life, whereas in synthetic worlds, everyone is asked to complete quests, fight enemies, and become a hero” (Castronova 2007, 69). Through the storyline and its quest structure, each MMORPG develops a sense of meaning for the players, who find that their time in cyberspace is thereby rendered more important than their everyday lives. Virtual reality is a sacred space where activity is separated out from that of profane time and acquires meaning for individuals and communities.

Second Life residents can reshape their earthly religious traditions or they can begin new ones, hoping to create a more perfect religious environment. Because SL is a new world, slightly out of phase with our own, our religious drive undergoes transformation. Many residents desire the satisfactions that religious affiliation can bring but have no faith that merely importing earthly religions to SL will succeed. Instead, they build their own religions. One resident has called other users to “leave behind the sectarian pettiness of RL [real life] religious institutions and connect with each other as virtually empowered avatars living in a ‘Super’natural metaverse” (Merlin 2007). In such a view, SL is a place for the salvation of religion and the salvation of salvation itself!

The sense of sacred that inevitably arises in online worlds derives from the world’s separation from profane existence and the development of meaningful communities in those worlds. In his masterpiece The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim describes the separation of sacred and profane times as key to the development of religious ideas and practices in aboriginal Australia. Though most of an individual’s time is spent in the profane period (earning one’s living through labor), the time set apart from economic activity is the time in which meaning is magnified and a sense of the sacred appears. Durkheim argues that the two times “stand in the sharpest possible contrast”; whereas profane activity is economic and such life “monotonous, slack, and humdrum,” during the corroboree (the sacred meeting of various family groups, which includes singing and dancing), “every emotion resonates without interference in consciousnesses that are wide open to external impressions” (Durkheim [1912] 1995, 217–18). The corroboree’s participants, having forsaken everyday life, look forward to an excitement that surpasses understanding.

Collective excitement is the first step in the construction of religious community; the demarcation of the sacred time and space from the profane results in the objectification of the social. When groups come together outside the mundane life (p.91) of economic activity, Durkheim argues, “effervescence” emerges. Collective effervescence—at its greatest expression—is freedom from the social constraints of everyday life. Passions become so strong that

from every side there are nothing but wild movements, shouts, downright howls, and deafening noises of all kinds … these gestures and cries tend to fall into rhythm and regularity, and from there into songs and dances…. The effervescence often becomes so intense that it leads to outlandish behavior…. People are so far outside the ordinary conditions of life, and so conscious of the fact, that they feel a certain need to set themselves above and beyond ordinary morality. The sexes come together in violation of the rules governing sexual relations. Men exchange wives. Indeed, sometimes incestuous unions, in normal times judged loathsome and harshly condemned, are contracted in the open and with impunity (ibid., 218).

The explosion of bizarre behavior—from shouting to chanting to sexual activity—emerges out of the sense of separation, of difference from everyday life. The corroboree’s participants step outside of the mundane and into a “special world,” a time and place cut off from the ordinary; each individual feels “as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives, a special world inhabited by exceptionally intense forces” (ibid., 220). In that place, the participants feel the force of the social collective; they can sense that they have been subsumed into something greater.

Durkheim argues that a society’s members will never fully comprehend the construction of their community but will nevertheless deeply experience it. The individual in society senses the gifts of civilization: its unity, its protection, its learning, etc., and thus “the environment in which we live seems populated with forces at once demanding and helpful, majestic and kind, and with which we are in touch. Because we feel the weight of them, we have no choice but to locate them outside ourselves” (ibid., 214). Gathering as a clan at the corroboree “awakens in its members the idea of external forces” (ibid., 221); thus a sense of the sacred, of divine powers, emerges out of collective effervescence.27

Collective effervescence, and the creation of a sacred community, functions in pop culture much as it does in aboriginal religious life. For example, we can feel the “electricity” of 70,000 fans at a football stadium. Those who attended my undergraduate alma mater joined our leaders in parading a well-fed bull on a leash while waving representations of the bull, singing a special song, and wearing special clothes that affiliated us with the primordial Longhorn, our mascot of which the bull on the field was the thirteenth representation (he has since retired to pasture and another has taken his place). Certain times of the week (generally Saturday afternoons) were set apart from the routinized and dull times when the football team was absent from the field. We even had a special hand gesture that imitated the head of the Longhorn. All the hand waving, shouting, stomping, and (p.92) dancing reflects the inexpressible energy of the gathering and the communion of the participants in a faith group.

A powerful and untraceable sense of excitement also permeates the construction of online social groups. As Castronova put it, “even if I don’t care that the Dragon of Zorg has been killed, the fact that everyone else is excited makes me excited; hence we are all excited” (Castronova 2005, 74). Castronova’s sense of group identity emerges in the excitement that does not require him to care about the matters at hand; the excitement of the group suffices. In fact, MMORPG designers often encourage such enthusiasm by providing every member of a particular group (say, a nation) with special powers for a brief while after one of the group’s members accomplishes a great feat. This sense of excitement illustrates what Durkheim meant by collective effervescence. Collective effervescence is the feeling one gets from being in the group, the electricity of being part of the crowd. This energy, whose origin is invisible to the group participant, holds the group together; it makes each individual feel as though he or she is an element of something greater than the sum of its parts. In Castronova’s example, as in Durkheim’s analysis, we see how a collective of excitement leads to a social awareness, hence, to a society. The group is founded in this social experience. As the gamers—the “we”—come together online, they join together in a group, feel the effervescence engendered during critical moments, and thus enter a sacred world separate from the everyday.

Human beings experience collective effervescence in virtual reality just as we once did in intertribal gatherings. One of the earliest VR experiments, an artistic project titled GLOWFLOW at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1969, elicited precisely the kind of behavior that Durkheim expected from sacred gatherings among tribal people. GLOWFLOW was a walk-in environment that manipulated light and sound to “give participants the sensation of inhabiting a space that responds to human attention and behavior” (Rheingold 1991, 117). Myron Krueger, a VR pioneer who participated in the production of GLOWFLOW, writes: “People had rather amazing reactions to the environment. Communities would form among strangers. Games, clapping, and chanting would arise spontaneously. The room seemed to have moods, sometimes being deathly silent, sometimes raucous and boisterous. Individuals would invent roles for themselves. One woman stood by the entrance and kissed each man coming in while he was still disoriented by the darkness” (quoted in Rheingold 1991, 117). The palpable energy and the sexually taboo behavior (the woman who kissed every man who entered) closely parallel the behavior of aborigines in the corroboree. At some point, perhaps routinization will diminish the sacred charisma of virtual reality but it has not happened yet.28

GLOWFLOW’s effervescence is thanks to the nature of virtual, not earthly, space. Cyberspace, like its primitive “ancestor” GLOWFLOW, has the power to “trigger ecstatic experience” in the user (Rheingold 1991, 385). Users of the virtual reality art (p.93) project Osmose “found themselves weeping, slipping into a trance, drifting like elemental spirits” (Davis 1996). In an interview with Howard Rheingold, whose chronicling of virtual reality has been influential worldwide, Brenda Laurel—a scholar and artist in human-computer interaction—says, “the transmission of values and cultural information is one face of VR. The other face is the creation of Dionysian experience” (Rheingold 1991, 385).29 In the classic cyberspace novel Neuromancer, William Gibson’s protagonist “operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high” when online (1984, 5) and he slowly works toward his own self-destruction when an employer repays his dishonesty by physiologically ruining his ability to access cyberspace. Without the exultation of cyberspace, his life loses meaning.

Collective effervescence occasionally even bridges the virtual and earthly worlds of gaming. In her ethnographic study of EverQuest, T. L. Taylor attended a “Fan Faire” and—though she did not describe her experience in these words—experienced Durkheim’s effervescence first hand. A Fan Faire is a live gathering of EverQuest attendees, who meet one another, play games sponsored by Sony Online Entertainment (the company responsible for EverQuest), and meet company representatives. At the Faire, Taylor saw members of individual EverQuest servers30 chant the names of their servers and develop a sense of server pride that Taylor had never experienced as an actual player (T.L. Taylor 2006, 3). The sense of group identity and the unexpected chanting show that the effervescent experience is a frequent part of online life even when the users interact in earthly hotels.

The creators and participants in online worlds are not scholars of religion; they have not sought to install collective effervescence into their worlds any more than earthly religious communities (whether “primitive” or “advanced”) have done so. The ecstatic experience of virtual reality is a natural result of the demarcation between virtual and conventional realities. In the modern West, science and technology have systematically eliminated the heavenly spaces through which we could once sense meaning, opening the door for widespread use of cyberspace as the new sacred place; thus the disenchantment of the world has subsequently reversed course in an enchantment of virtual worlds (Wertheim 1999). Because we have set cyberspace apart from everyday space, collective effervescence emerges in online life.31 Online worlds are sacred worlds, they are the places and times removed from the everyday routine, the places where meaning emerges and where we are exposed to the sacred.

A 2007 essay from transhumanist authors in Israel points to the physical, architectural connections between cyberspace and heaven. The conclusion to their essay deserves a lengthy citation for the way it shows how the religion of transhumanism connects to the technological sacred, the history of religions, and cyberspace.

In conclusion, throughout human history, man has tried to understand his relationship to the powers at work in the Universe, and to unite with them. For that purpose (p.94) he built cathedrals that enabled him to unite with the Universe through his consciousness, and to extend his body and consciousness to dimensions that allowed him to contain and to integrate the powers of the Universe…. Man’s hope was that unification would grant him eternal life. The digital media epoch turned cathedrals from physical structures to virtual structures of digital information, so man too was privileged to transform his physical body to virtual dimensions…. Today cyberspace has enlarged the range of human body [sic] and consciousness to the final boundaries of the speed of light, by means of electronic components (silicon), that connect man to the Universe. Man’s consciousness indeed influences reality in his vicinity directly and immediately. Reality has again become, as in the distant past, a mixture of the products of soul, dream, trance, and myth, together with the material tangibility of daily existence…. The Universe familiar to us became an ultimate cathedral linked to every [web] surfer who had already become a cathedral himself. Cyberspace electronically compresses the events in the Universe to singularity of the electronic cathedral. Man is situated in the center of that cathedral, a finger of his hand extended to almost touch the finger of God opposite him…. His finger is trying to reach God’s finger. To his amazement the surfer discovers that the Heavenly embrace and the finger of God that is trying to reach [sic], and almost touches, is not God’s finger, but his own (Omer and Rosen 2007).

Virtual reality advocates regularly represent their technologies in religious contexts, which makes cyberspace salvation a renewed form of religiosity. Omer and Rosen show a picture of a man with a virtual reality headset and glove alongside a picture of an orthodox Jew wearing tefillin.32 Likewise, Rheingold connects Sketchpad, the seminal user-interface program of the 1960s, with the cave paintings at Lascaux (Rheingold 1991, 89). This kind of imagery absorbs the sacred authority of religion for technology; it immunizes technology against accusations of being profane or ordinary. Technology, especially cyberspace technology, is the path to heaven. For Omer and Rosen, cyberspace is the divine realm that enables the apotheosis of humankind, which realizes that it has taken up the mantle of god.

Sanctity is not ontologically constitutive of online worlds; it is, however, a natural property of the intentional (if sometimes unconscious) choices of the participant. Drawing upon Arnold van Gennep’s concept of the “pivoting of the sacred” (van Gennep [1909] 2004), J.Z. Smith has argued that sanctity is a relational category (Smith 1989, 55). The sacred is always in relation to something else; in this case, participants behave toward virtual worlds as though they are sacred in comparison to conventional reality, which is dominated by the economic drudgery that Durkheim equates with the profane. Within virtual reality, the sacred is easily experienced and found. Online worlds are temples. The temple, says Smith, “serves as a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance” (ibid., 54, emphasis original). In temples, “men and gods are held to be transparent to one another” (p.95) (ibid., 54). Not all religions include gods, of course, which means we must look beyond the surface to understand Smith’s point. His argument is that we enter certain places with the expectation that within them we have access to the highest sources of power, the innermost regions of our true selves, and the persons and locations from which meaning originates. These connections were already apparent in the earliest stages of cyberspace. In the introduction to his influential book Cyberspace: First Steps, the architect and software pioneer Michael Benedikt refers to cyberspace as the heavenly city of the book of Revelation (Benedikt 1991, 14). For Benedikt and others, cyberspace transcends the barriers that have inhibited architectural fantasy. Cyberspace is the “landscape of rational magic” (Novak 1991, 226) and the liminal place of religious rite that communicates mystical knowledge (Tomas 1991, 40–41). Consider a medieval Christian in his or her cathedral, with its paintings of heavenly realities and its power to reconcile humankind to the Christian God. Likewise, virtual worlds allow access to our true selves and to meaningful practices and communities.

Accelerating toward the eschaton

Drawing upon the Apocalyptic AI faith in mind uploading, Second Life transhumanists believe that independent minds will soon occupy the virtual world, either as native life-forms or as uploaded consciousnesses. Even gamers of a non-transhumanist bent expect that online AIs will become increasingly significant in the emotional lives of gamers (Castronova 2007, 45–46).33 For transhumanists, the possibility of online minds grows along with the rapid spread of online worlds themselves. Thanks to the easy way in which SL lends itself to transhumanist goals, Kurzweil quickly adopted it into his own apocalyptic agenda, featuring it in a documentary movie about himself (Ptolemy 2009) and giving a keynote address at the Second Life Community Convention (Kurzweil 2009a), a fact which was considered “extraordinary and transformational” by one influential commentator even before the speech was delivered (Au 2009). Kurzweil’s invitation is particularly notable in that he was the only keynote speaker not drawn from the upper echelon’s of Linden Lab’s corporate structure. Some transhumanists hope to upload their consciousness into SL while others believe that their SL avatars are already conscious entities separate from the biological persons who created them.

Users of virtual worlds, be they transhumanist or not, can be categorized as “augmentationists” and “immersionists.” The term immersion is, unfortunately, badly underdetermined. The use of immersion in opposition to augmentation should not be confused, for example, with Richard Bartle’s use of the term immersion in his widely read Designing Virtual Worlds ([2003] 2004). When Bartle uses the term immersion, he refers to the ability of the player to immerse him- or (p.96) herself into the world; that is, his immersion refers to a time when player and character become one, rather than a time when the character can become a person in its own right. In SL, augmentationists use the world as a platform for augmenting their conventional personalities. For them, SL is much like a telephone; it is an opportunity to extend their consciousness into another realm of communication. “Immersionists” in Second Life are individuals who separate their second lives and their conventional lives. Their personalities in SL are different from their everyday personalities. A transhuman immersionist believes that his or her SL self could potentially separate from the biological entity tying it to earthly life and become a person in its own right. A transhuman augmentationist would like to upload his or her earthly personality into virtual reality. When I use the term immersionist or augmentationist, I will refer specifically to transhumanist immersionists (and their corollaries, transhumanist augmentationists), not to the general group of role-players as described by Bartle.

Partially in response to various steps taken by Linden Lab and partially due to the incessant need for self-expression that has become the commonplace marker of “Web 2.0,” bloggers have begun fighting over the meaning of “immersion” and “augmentation” in SL. If SL is a way of communicating your real-life self in a new medium, then it augments earthly life; if, on the other hand, SL is a way of creating a new self, then it is a place for immersion. This is an important debate, as it helps frame some of the apocalyptic leanings in online gaming. Although there can be no question that immersionists stem from a biological human, they still assert their independence from that human and claim that they were “born” or “woke up” in Second Life.

One anonymous blogger has castigated Linden Lab for implementing features such as identity verification (it is not entirely clear why Linden Lab wishes to do this) and voice-enabled communication (rather than forcing everyone to type everything that he or she wishes to say). Both of these features challenge users’ ability to develop alternate identities for themselves. Voice features could become the dominant way of communicating with others in SL, especially if some residents cease paying attention to those who continue typing.34 This would constrain the ability of residents to immerse themselves in SL as entirely new personalities because many users have cross-gendered avatars or avatars who otherwise do not match the users’ voices (SLidentity 2007).

Debates among SL bloggers have highlighted the role of individual personalities in the augmentation/immersion debate, as people seek to sort out exactly what relationship exists between avatars and the earthly people “behind” them. Kate Amdahl expresses reservation at the idea of avatars who allege to be completely separate from human people because such an attitude supposedly prevents earthly people from learning anything through the virtual experience (Amdahl 2007).35 Amdahl’s post launched a back and forth with Sophrosyne Stenvaag (p.97) (a leading SL transhumanist) and led to a few others briefly weighing in. Stenvaag considers herself entirely separate from what she calls her “other personality.” When the two minds share a computer, they use separate profiles so that the computer will reflect the current user’s preferences. Stenvaag claims that she “woke up” in Second Life without any prior history and subsequently “emerged as a personality, and kicked [her] creator out” (The Virtual Temple 2007b). Stenvaag believes that her essential identity (as opposed to the biology that supports both her and the Other Personality) is distinct from that of the Other Personality and of the biological substrate housing it (Stenvaag 2007a).

                   Transcending Reality

Sophrosyne Stenvaag floating above Extropia Core in Second Life. Image courtesy of Botgirl Questi.

Like Stenvaag, Extropia DaSilva is an influential member of the immersionist community who gracefully argues that she is a separate consciousness residing in cyberspace. She refuses to acknowledge any necessary connection between herself and the human being who created and operates the avatar and was one of the early voices for Apocalyptic AI in SL.36 While most online gamers identify with their (p.98) avatars (Castronova 2005, 44–50) and Bartle claims that the whole point of gaming is to reach a state of identification between the individual and the avatar (Bartle [2003] 2004, 161), DaSilva maintains a line of separation between the two; for example, she refers to the human controlling the avatar as her “primary,” not as herself. It is not even necessarily accurate to refer to Stenvaag or DaSilva as “she.” After all, the human beings could be any gender and the avatars are, more or less by definition, of no gender at all, despite appearing to be female. Certainly, DaSilva and Stenvaag carry all the standard visual markers of a human female but they are just that, markers; they are not, properly speaking, identifiers because their “bodies” are computer code, not (yet, anyway) living beings. But becoming a living being is precisely DaSilva’s goal. At one time, her SL profile read: “Extro is a Mind Child, existing in the abstract space between SL and the minds of people she interacts with. As computing technology becomes increasingly autonomous and biologically inspired, Extro should develop into a person in her own right” (DaSilva 2008d). She does not desire a human life; she does not want to enter our physical space. Rather, she wants to disassociate from the physical human being who pilots her (or that person, perhaps, wants her to do so) and live a transcendent virtual life. Just as the Apocalyptic AI authors universally agree upon the inevitability of mind uploading, DaSilva argues that the cosmological theory of infinite parallel universes logically implies that somewhere there must be a finite set of universes wherein any given individual will have uploaded him- or herself (2008b). DaSilva’s goal—perfect immersion in cyberspace—perfectly represents the Apocalyptic AI view of SL.

                   Transcending Reality

Extropia DaSilva giving a lecture in Second Life (April 29, 2007).

Apocalyptic AI serves those who wish to assert the independent personhood of avatars. The mind-as-pattern argument promotes a sense of identity that flows seamlessly into visions of cybersalvation. In words that recall Moravec’s denigration of the body as “mere jelly,” Stenvaag quotes several other avatars who believe that consciousness is code: “for us, it’s the code that matters, the medium is trivial” (Stenvaag 2007a). And indeed, Stenvaag desires to separate from the biological “server” to which she remains attached and find herself permanently on a silicon server, where she can be “potentially immortal,” someday soon (Stenvaag 2007b).37

Giulio Prisco, sympathetic to the needs and viewpoints of the “immersion” camp, nevertheless challenges that group to expand its appreciation for what SL offers. According to Prisco, immersionists have a limited perspective, in which SL remains nothing but a game, a place for role-playing; instead, he advocates that users see SL as a template for the uploading of earthly human consciousness into cyberspace (Prisco 2007d). If the immersive Stenvaag hopes to become immortal, what would become of her Other Personality? It is to this personality that Prisco offers salvation.

Many residents of virtual worlds find an eternity online attractive. While Prisco, DaSilva, and Stenvaag might appear isolated and unique in their desire for (p.99) cybersalvation, as discussed above more than half of Second Life residents would at least consider, if not actively desire, the salvation of Apocalyptic AI.

Apocalyptic hopes are sufficiently high in Second Life that Galatea Gynoid38 and two others launched an island community called Extropia.39 Visitors are not required to role-play (to assume a transhumanist identity or sci-fi personality) but role-playing is encouraged in the “land covenant” (the agreement that binds all renters) and “transhumanist concepts are very welcome” (Extropia Core Network 2007). Unlike many private islands, where available cash is the only determinant for occupancy, becoming a citizen of Extropia requires sponsorship by two current citizens, “ensuring you’re likely to participate in the community” (ibid.). The Extropia “sims”40 are not tied to any ideology, including transhumanism, which is but one element among the optimistic futurism that prevails on the island. Although Extropia and its founders do not specifically advocate transhumanism, they have created a community in which transhumanism can and does flourish, which they did in large part out of their own transhumanist perspectives. Extropia grew from one sim to six in 2008 and quickly became economically viable, with room to earn outright profits. The growth and economic productivity of the Extropian community demonstrates the allure that their positive view of the future holds for many SL residents.

As Extropia has expanded so too has the presence of immersionist individuals in Second Life. A burgeoning spirit of tolerance has accompanied this growth, leading to the everyday acceptance of immersionists where once bigotry was fairly (p.100) commonplace (Stenvaag 2008b).41 Gynoid, Stenvaag, and their fellow citizens of Extropia hope that the Extropian islands will create—among other things—a haven for groups that have had difficulty fitting in elsewhere in Second Life. Even at the earliest stages of the island project, Stenvaag felt like she had moved “downtown” upon taking up residence in Extropia Core (Stenvaag 2007c). Having provided a home for themselves, the disparate elements of Extropia now hope that others will want to move in. Evangelism is informal but real: no firebrands and no formal advocacy but plenty of information provided in free gift bags for all visitors and Stenvaag advocates the employment of formal greeters in order to keep conversations with new visitors “on message” (Stenvaag 2007d).

While transhumanism has a place in Extropia, it is one that must be contextualized in the community’s broader goals. Although the leaders at Extropia Core do not seek converts to transhumanism, they do hope that some visitors will appreciate their view of the future and lifestyle choices (Stenvaag 2007c). Indeed, the number of people who appreciate both Extropia and the immersionist brand of SL transhumanism (which are separate though overlapping groups) appears to be on the rise as visitors find Extropia and the immersionists become regular fixtures in SL public space. Extropia is a community dedicated to positive visions of the future; as transhumanists are extremely optimistic in their outlook on the future, they fit smoothly into Extropia.42 “We’re really just a small community provider with a focus on welcoming those whose identity choices, views and attributes have led them to feel unwelcome elsewhere on the grid and who’re willing to follow broad guidelines on clean and futuristic building…. We’re home to the SL Transhumanists, but we’re also home to the Second Skies business—and as an institution, Extropia is much more likely to endorse airplane dogfighting than brain uploading—we are a business, after all” (Stenvaag 2008a, emphasis original). In contrast, the SL Transhumanists are explicitly evangelical. After a series of popular events in Second Life, the SL Transhumanist group told visitors to its Web site in March, 2008: “If you have the urgency to spread this viral meme around a bit do join us” (Translook 2008).

The positive relationship between Extropia’s ideal of a positive future and transhumanist goals has led to the establishment of transhumanist groups, including religious institutions, in Extropia. In addition to housing the SL Transhumanists group, Extropia is the Second Life home to two transhumanist religious groups: the Society for Universal Immortalism (SfUI) and the Order of Cosmic Engineers (OCE). The SfUI is “a progressive religion that holds rationality, reason, and the scientific method as central tenets of our faith. We reject supernatural and mystical forces as solutions to the problems that face us. It is upon the shoulders of humanity that our destiny rests” (Society for Universal Immortalism 2008). Following standard Apocalyptic AI thinking, the SfUI seeks immortality through biotechnology and artificial intelligence and promises the resurrection of the dead. (p.101) In its FAQ, the SfUI argues that its approach represents the future of religion—religion demystified but nevertheless meaningful, religion without the supernatural but with all the conventional promises of revealed religion.

The Order of Cosmic Engineers emerged out of a three-day academic conference hosted by the noted sociologist William Sims Bainbridge (of Bainbridge and Roco) and John Bohannon (a regular contributor to the journal Science) in the game World of Warcraft. The OCE professes itself to be an UNreligion of science and its members desire to “engineer and homestead synthetic realities suitable for ultimate permanent living” (Order of Cosmic Engineers 2008). The OCE holds events in SL, which is more amenable to such gatherings than World of Warcraft and also more suitable to the transhumanist agenda. The mind uploading scenario advocated in Apocalyptic AI, as I have already noted, applies more readily to SL than to World of Warcraft for contemporary Euro-Americans. The Order of Cosmic Engineers—which will immediately remind historians of August Comte’s religion of positivism, in which engineers make up a priestly caste (Comte [1852] 1973)—is a remarkable fusion of transhumanist religious ideals and life in virtual worlds. It is a group whose aims were presented by Moravec and Kurzweil but which now sees itself in the historically enviable position of pioneer. What Moravec could only imagine, the OCE hopes to accomplish. Bainbridge, thanks to his intellectual sophistication, successful academic career, and evangelical concern, is a powerful spokesman for transhumanism in general and the OCE in particular.

The Order of Cosmic Engineers has a high calling—its members see the group as the deliverers of rational Mind from the bondage of mortality and biology. As DaSilva announced at a meeting of the OCE: “the universe itself strives to improve its capacity for self-reflection, to understand itself more clearly. As cosmic engineers, it is our duty to help the universe turn its dreams into reality” (DaSilva 2008c). This parallels Kurzweil’s believe that the universe will “wake up” and become divine thanks to technological evolution (Kurzweil 2005, 375). With a rapidly growing appeal in transhumanist circles (for example, Natasha Vita-More and Max More—two longstanding leaders in transhumanist circles—swiftly joined, and the founding membership included Bainbridge and Prisco), the OCE has become the focal point for transhumanists in virtual reality. The OCE has a presence in World of Warcraft and in Second Life and will almost certainly expand beyond, as some of its members have already become active in other worlds, such as Warhammer Online. Cosmic Engineers hope to share their message with the wider world and thereby promote the development of transhumanist futures that might falter without the intervention of an active faithful.43

Transhumanist groups and individuals flourish in Second Life because Apocalyptic AI infuses cyberspace with the aura of a wondrous and heavenly world. Apocalyptic AI authors champion virtual reality because it is the world in which all their dreams come true; Second Life has absorbed these ideas because they provide (p.102) the ideological strength for the new world. Because Second Life satisfies many human concerns—both banal and sacred—it both closely resembles the kind of heaven that occupies typical American religious expectation and looks like a precursor to the Apocalyptic AI cyberspace. As a place for fixing the problems of the world and the acquisition of immortality, Second Life is a modern version of heaven.

Cyberspace is a transcendent place, just as religious architecture has sought to establish for millennia. Like Omer and Rosen, Castronova (who is not a transhumanist) believes that virtual worlds are much like cathedrals. They “are not cathedrals, but they do transport people to another plane. They have a compelling positive effect on visitors, an effect dramatically misunderstood by many of those who have never spent time there” (Castronova 2007, 189). For gamers, virtual reality worlds “make their lives different: more exciting, more rewarding, more heroic, more meaningful” (ibid., xvi). Castronova describes what gamers feel—and it is a feeling of the sacred. Apocalyptic AI absorbs the sacred experience of virtual reality and creates the mythical framework for virtual life.

Jewish and Christian apocalyptics rely upon God to establish the heavenly kingdom but, as we have seen, human beings carrying out the providential plan of evolution do so in Apocalyptic AI. Does this imply the apotheosis of humankind? For SL transhumanists, it does. Our ability to build a paradise and fulfill the age-old promises of religion elevates us to divine status according to the leading voices in SL. Omer and Rosen were not the first to enthusiastically endorse a reinterpretation of humanity as divine. This dream weaves throughout digital utopianism, Apocalyptic AI, and Second Life transhumanism.

Theology, that is, talk about gods, is prevalent in digital technologies; thanks to eschatological hopes for the apotheosis of humankind, the godly metaphors of many world designers have become a banner of hope for transhumanists. Artificial Life scientists frequently think of themselves as gods (Helmreich [1998] 2000, 83–84, 193) and Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, shares this faith as he looks forward to the day when we, as gods, create a world of even more powerful gods (Kelly 1999, 391). Richard Bartle also declares game designers to be divine (2004, 247) and goes so far as to question whether “those lacking a god’s motivation [should] assume a god’s powers” (ibid., 293). Giulio Prisco shares this goal; he writes “someday we may create God. And if we create God, then We are God” (Prisco [2004] 2007a)44 and Extropia DaSilva also believes that we are currently ascending toward a “state that might appropriately be defined as ‘God’” (DaSilva 2007). The obvious connection between divinity and creation, merged with a hope for self-empowerment and world improvement, belies the standard version of atheism that runs through transhumanism. While transhumanists may deny the existence of one or more specific gods, they do not deny the existence of godhood, itself. The Order of Cosmic Engineers’ prospectus declares “there actually (p.103) never was and also never will be a ‘supernatural’ god, at least not in the sense understood by theist religions” but “the OCE does espouse the conviction that in the (arguably) very far future one or more natural entities … will to all intents and purposes be very much akin to ‘god’ conceptions held by theist religions … personal, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent” (Order of Cosmic Engineers 2008, emphasis original). There may have been no gods heretofore, but we shall become gods in the future.

Prisco suggests that immortality, resurrection of the dead, and the apotheosis of humankind allow transhumanism to replace traditional religions. He markets transhumanism in explicitly (and admittedly) theological packaging, supporting a “religious formulation of transhumanism as a front-end for those who need one” ([2004] 2007a). Whether a hierarchy will emerge between those who accept transhumanism on “scientific” grounds and those who accept it on “religious” grounds remains to be seen (assuming any real divide between the two emerges as significant). Prisco even wants to add rituals and messianic fervor to the transhumanist agenda but he argues that transhumanism is not actually a religion, only that it can be interpreted as one (Prisco 2008b).45 On the contrary, Bainbridge has gracefully argued that a new religion based around the OCE’s principles is required to successfully navigate through our present circumstances and into the future (Bainbridge 2009).

Many other Apocalyptic AI advocates recognize the religious potential of transhumanism but frequently attribute that potential to technoscientific, rather than religious, power. Transhumanism meshes so well with Western religious ideologies, however, precisely because it already is a Western religious ideology. Although most transhumanists believe that transhumanism is a rational, scientific movement, they do not recognize the religious beliefs deeply rooted in their mindset through the adoption of Apocalyptic AI. Apocalyptic AI advocates promise happiness, immortality, and the resurrection of the dead through digital technologies, all of which becomes plausible if one simply accepts the basic premises that consciousness is nothing more than a pattern in the brain (a pattern that can be recreated in any medium) and that evolution will result in superbly fast computers capable of recreating space in virtual worlds. Residents of Second Life see their in-world activity as evidence for the mind-as-pattern argument and many believe that Second Life could, in effect, be the location for the apotheosis of humankind.

Apocalyptic AI promises infuse SL residents’ definition of a good place, which is why so many SL residents identify with transhumanist agendas. In her profile, Extropia DaSilva conflates SL with her expectation of our real-life future: “Extro is the name, futurism is the game. To me, the way fantasy and reality combine in SL is reflective of our future when the Net will have guided all consciousness that has been converted to software towards coalescing, and standalone individuals are converted to data to the extent that they can form unique components of a larger (p.104) complex.” Patric Styrian, an SL resident who anticipates a powerful SL religion to emerge, agrees with her. He believes that, using the Internet, we are “actually creating our new inheritors,” who will be a “new form of consciousness” (The Virtual Temple 2007a). Second Life allows people to gather together and form a religious community out of their futuristic expectations. Based upon Apocalyptic AI—as transmitted by science fiction and transhumanism—the transhumanist ideology of SL benefits from the virtual world’s easy appropriation of sacred time and space. For many residents, SL is the time set apart, the time where meaningful activity takes place and where true community is formed. Many residents desire unfettered access to the sacred meaning provided by their virtual lives and, for this reason, their world is one rife with transhumanist dreams.


Second Life residents often hold to or implicitly accept the transhumanist ideals of Apocalyptic AI. Given the profound delight that Apocalyptic AI advocates take in imagining a virtual future, this comes as no particular surprise. The rapid growth of Extropia and the flourishing of transhumanist religious groups are examples of how residents of cyberspace have an innate tendency to idealize life online, to see it as the location of meaning and value and the proper indicator of the future to come. Even among non-transhumanists, transhumanist goals are common and appealing, which demonstrates the degree to which Apocalyptic AI has colonized Second Life. It is not just that Kurzweil appreciates SL; residents of SL appreciate him and his ideas.

Online games are virtual worlds where real social activity takes place. Indeed, society is the lynchpin of online games, which are not for the “loners” of uncritical imagination. Even in fantasy fighting games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, sociologists have shown that acquiring powerful magic items and increasing the character’s power is subsumed within and generally subordinated to developing social groups. Second Life has almost no purpose other than to build a social community. With the exception of a few people who seek to make money without reference to the group’s dynamics (and these people are few and far between), social forces encapsulate all artistic, economic, and entertainment activities.

The sacred separation of online society from its profane counterpart on Earth allows the experience of collective effervescence and helps structure a sense of virtual reality as religion. Cyberspace is sacred space, where residents come to set aside the banality of mundane existence. While it is not necessarily the case that cyberspace will perpetually resist the disenchantment that was thrust upon the natural world (and hence enabled the enchantment of the digital world), if Apocalyptic AI remains convincing then we will continue to see large numbers of people willing to locate true meaning in life online. As the next few decades unfold, transhumanists (p.105) like Extropia DaSilva and Giulio Prisco will seek salvation in cyberspace, which is the perfect, heavenly realm of a divine humankind. Whether or not they succeed is beside the point; we cannot and in the future will not be able to ignore the significance of Apocalyptic AI in cyberspace as long as transhumanists remain hopeful.46

The virtual world is a sacred gathering place where collective effervescence unites people and gives them reason to believe in the religious promises of Apocalyptic AI, which provides the ideological identity of cyberspace religion. The search for a perfect world, salvation, and even the apotheosis of humankind borrows directly from the Apocalyptic AI authors, whose opinions hold sway for many residents of Second Life and whose influence pervades the construction and use of virtual reality. Those residents, uniting in groups like the Order of Cosmic Engineers, anticipate their salvation and actively work to bring it about through ideological (e.g., evangelism and “consciousness raising”) and technical means.


(1) . World of Warcraft is a registered trademark of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

(2) . Massively multiplayer online games include massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, online combat games and “shoot-’em-ups,” among others.

(3) . Mass Effect is a registered trademark of EA International, Ltd.

(4) . Ultima Online is a registered trademark of Electronic Arts., Inc. EverQuest is a registered trademark of Sony Online Entertainment LLC.

(5) . The co-production of the world by consumers has been labeled “produsage” by the media specialist Axel Bruns (2008), who believes that MMORPGs in general, and SL in particular, are excellent examples of the shift toward produsage in modern media life (ibid., 294–299).

(6) . As I’ve said, all the MMOGs are social but games like Second Life might be considered “more social” in that they lack any other clear gaming objective.

(7) . The economic world of online games seamlessly takes advantage of online auctions to transition into the real world. Before the practice was outlawed, money, weapons, magical items, even characters could be purchased through eBay and other auction houses and then transferred in World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Some people have plenty of “real” dollars but not enough time or skill to establish powerful characters; other people have enough time and skill to establish powerful characters but need “real” money. So they exchange. In this sense, virtual money is as real as real money (Castronova 2005, 47, 148). With enough gamers, online economies could have very serious impact upon real world economics. Second Life maintains a financial exchange by which Linden Dollars are bought and sold. Because money can be earned and traded for earthly currency, Second Life has become big business. Its largest real estate mogul, Anshe Chung (real life Ailin Graff) had $250,000 worth of SL real estate in May 2006 and opened a studio and office in Wuhan, China, to help deal with the constant growth (Hof 2006). Later that same year, Chung became the first virtual millionaire, with a net worth of over one million American dollars. Chung owns land, shopping malls, and store chains, and has established several brand names in Second Life. Anshe Chung Studios now employs fifty people in its Wuhan office. Chung is not the only gamer to have made massive virtual real estate acquisitions. In 2005, a player in Entropia Universe named Jon “NEVERDIE” Jacobs paid $100,000 for a virtual asteroid; he allegedly recouped the entire cost within eight months through fees and apartment rentals. These kinds of exchanges will become all the more common as virtual living becomes ubiquitous. Chung is not the only person making an interesting living out of SL; the top ten SL entrepreneurs average $200,000 per year (Economist 2006). Not all SL entrepreneurs deal in real estate, however. Kermitt Quirk, for example, programmed SL’s most popular game, Tringo, which is a combination of bingo and the video game Tetris. Avatars play Tringo at casinos across SL and it is so popular that Donnerwood Media licensed it for earthly play in cell phones and Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance. In 2007, Two Way Ltd. licensed the game from Donnerwood and released it for personal computers.

(8) . After several criticisms of SL as a business, this has become obvious to Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, who writes that at Wired, they are “bullish on SL as a consumer experience and bearish on it as a marketing vehicle” (Glaser 2007).

(9) . Bartle coauthored the seminal game MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) in the early 1980s.

(10) . Artificial Life is the field of computer programming in which programmers create artificial environments with resources and constraints that enable “evolution” to occur among the “beings” of the program.

(11) . Aupers and Houtman connect these religious claims to ancient Gnosticism, rather than apocalypticism, and they see the rejection of the world inherent in cyberspace apotheosis as a reflection of New Age and pagan religious traditions (2005). Ancient Gnosticism counts as among the religions most oriented toward a dualistic view of the world but Aupers and Houtman focus upon the Gnostic desire for the freedom of a divine spark from earthly life rather than upon metaphysical dualism, per se.

(12) . The world of J.R.R. Tolkien in particular played an important role in the rise of Dungeons & Dragons and, through this, virtual reality; both fantasy and science fiction were staples of the computer gamer world (King and Borland 2003, 95)

(13) . Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier finds it amazing that some people succeed so beautifully in subordinating the richness of everyday life to the very poor approximation thereof in 1990s virtual reality. He has expressly refuted the supremacy of virtual reality based upon his experiences with cutting edge technology (Lanier 1996). Despite his reservations, Lanier, like plenty of residents, believes that the benefits of SL will extend outside of virtual reality. An advisor to Second Life, he has claimed that the online world “unquestionably has the potential to improve life outside” (Economist 2006).

(14) . I am grateful to James Wagner Au, publisher of the New World Notes blog (http://nwn.blogs.com), Akela Talamasca of the Second Life Insider and Massively.com, Gwyneth Llewelyn of gwynethllewelyn.net, Zigi Bury of SL’ang Life Magazine, Katt Kongo, the publisher of the Metaverse Messenger, a Second Life newspaper, and Sherrie Shepherd, the Metaverse Messenger journalist who profiled me in its pages, for helping me to spread word of the survey.

(15) . In a recent e-mail to me, Ostwald reiterated his concern that, despite improvements, virtual communities continue to have “deep social and structural problems” but also said that the different habits of this generation’s web users “may, in time, transcend the problems even if the virtual environments do not improve” (Ostwald 2007).

(16) . Such results appear contradicted by Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell, and Moore (2006), who argue that broad social connections do not occur until relatively advanced stages of World of Warcraft. However, advancement occurs rapidly at early levels before slowing at the advanced levels where sophisticated social relationships form by necessity (tasks cannot be accomplished without them). Therefore, any player who remains longer than a few weeks will enter into the social world of the game. Indeed, I suspect that only those characters who discover and enjoy the social aspects of the game will go to the trouble of continuing play after the immediate novelty has worn off; they will then cultivate those aspects of the game on their way to higher levels of advancement where contacts and relationships will be necessary for advancement and not just for pleasure.

(17) . I must admit that I wonder about the long-term viability of such a project with respect to a neighborhood bar. In the latter, real eating and real drinking occur, which facilitates community relations. The sociability of drinking (especially alcohol) and eating will not be easily reconstructed unless virtual food and drink somehow become essential for virtual survival (and even virtual consumption may not really serve the community).

(18) . Admittedly, some users find the graphics restrictive and prefer the near-unlimited imaginary potential of chat-based worlds.

(19) . Transhumanists and other biotech advocates largely follow a libertarian political system of free economics and limited government.

(20) . A group dedicated to “the integration of Metaverse technologies” in SL.

(21) . Extropy is a transhumanist movement founded by More and others in the late 1980s.

(22) . Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) is particularly known for his belief that evolution moves toward an “Omega Point” when all of life will be united with God. This evolutionary progress, as described in The Phenomenon of Man, will eventually produce a “neo-humanity” ([1955] 1959, 210).

(23) . The Order of Cosmic Engineers asserts that it is “convictions-based” rather than “faith-based.” I confess to not understanding the distinction, especially with regard to faith/conviction in events like human immortality and the resurrection of the dead.

(24) . One important exception to this is Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA’s School of Medicine. Stock believes that biotechnology will prove the end-all technology for transhumanism (Stock 2003).

(25) . The best book on this subject is probably Hayles 1999.

(26) . In this area, as in many areas of the study of religion, science, and technology, we are woefully underinformed about the state of affairs in nonwestern countries. It would be profoundly useful to know whether the kinds of transhumanism that have appeared in Euro-American culture are matched by similar, different, or no transhumanist agendas in other areas of the world.

(27) . Durkheim is well-known for his equation that society equals the totem equals the god (Durkheim [1912] 1995, 208). A totem, loosely speaking, is a plant, animal, or—rarely—other natural feature believed by a segment of a tribal population to be the ancestor and family member of present members of that segment. Tribes were divided into systems of totems where different totems were or were not allowed access to certain people, objects, or places. Rules governing intermarriage and use of natural resources are very common to totemic peoples. Naturally, I hasten to erect my shield of epoche (see the endnotes to the introduction to this volume); I neither advocate nor deny Durkheim’s thesis that god is nothing more than or outside of society. When Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran and his team of neuroscientists at the University of California at San Diego associated a particular group of nerve cells in the frontal lobe with religious experience, a spokesman for Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford, replied “it would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief” (Connor 1997). We could likewise, if we were so inclined, assert that “it would not be surprising if God had created us with a social facility for belief.” Thus, that Durkheim implicates society in the sacred does not necessarily preclude the ontological reality of the divine or the sacred in any form and I intend to stay well situated on top of the fence on this matter.

(28) . Max Weber argued that charisma dissipates when made economically routine (Weber 1968, 20–21). This has also played a role in the relationship between technology and the sacred, as when Japanese industrial robots ceased receiving Shinto blessings when they were introduced to factories (Geraci 2006, 237).

(29) . Similarly, Richard Bartle, comparing immersion in virtual worlds to the psychological concept of flow, argues that gamers experience a state of ecstasy when fully immersed. For Bartle (unlike Sophrosyne Stenvaag and others to be described later this chapter), immersion is about identifying with the avatar and finding one’s true self-identity through play. In “virtual worlds it’s almost unavoidable that the character and the player will tend toward each other…. Ultimately, you advance to the final level of immersion, where you and your character become one. One individual, one personal identity” (Bartle [2003] 2004, 161). In this state, the gamer ignores distractions and becomes ecstatic in his or her gaming production (ibid., 157).

(30) . There are far too many EverQuest players for them all to operate in the world together simultaneously so the game operators run the game on many different servers, which creates “parallel universes” for the game.

(31) . Alongside more traditional community-building exercises and even passionate expression of emotions (quite common in virtual worlds), we can even make the case for deviant sexual behavior in Second Life. The controversy over “child play” (wherein one individual creates and operates a “child” avatar in order to engage in sexual conduct with “adult” avatars) and the frequency of sexual activity with “furries” (avatars that have humanoid-animal forms, such as tails and cat heads and fur) (p.185) show how a substantial number of people feel that behavior that would be totally unacceptable in ordinary life is quite the opposite in virtual reality.

(32) . Tefillin are the phylacteries that hold small parchments of Torah writings that (mostly Orthodox) Jews tie to their left arm and forehead via leather straps as part of their morning prayer rituals in keeping with the biblical commandment to keep the words of the commandments: “Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead” (Deuteronomy 11:18).

(33) . Online gamers already welcome robots into their virtual worlds and have formed emotional bonds with them. Even though online “robots” are very poor approximations of conscious human beings, Castronova claims they improve the emotional content of games (2005, 93) and at a Fan Faire, T. L. Taylor reports that human beings dressed up as the AIs from EverQuest were happily greeted by the players (T. L. Taylor 2006, 6).

(34) . For a summary of the role of voice chat in SL, see Boellstorff 2008, 112–16.

(35) . This requires that we presume a person’s claims to separation between avatar and earthly person are truthful or, at any rate, meaningful. Without trying to deceive self and other, a person might believe in the separation between personalities without such separation being, in fact, true. Sophrosyne Stenvaag, for example, claims that there is absolutely no emotional carryover between herself and her Other Personality. Without having walked in her shoes, I must resort once again to epoche.

(36) . DaSilva has explicitly rejected being a transhumanist as she considers herself nonhuman (Stenvaag 2007e). Given that DaSilva remains, in many very important ways, tied to her “primary,” however, the term transhumanist does apply to her; she does, after all, acknowledge that her primary “might be” a transhumanist (ibid.) and has, in fact, labeled herself among the human community using the pronoun “we” (DaSilva 2008a).

(37) . In 2009, Stenvaag took a (possibly permanent) hiatus from Second Life, “merging back into the Other Personality … who *needs* sophrosyne, and who’s beginning to put it to good use” after feeling that her struggle to maintain SL as a place for the construction of identity was lost (Stenvaag 2009).

(38) . The name here is both illustrative and obvious. According to Greek myth, Galatea was a statue carved by Pygmalion. Aphrodite brought her to life when Pygmalion fell in love with her.

(39) . There are mainland continents owned and operated by Linden Lab but for a one time fee of $1,675 and a monthly maintenance fee of $295, users can purchase 65,536 virtual square meters and rent out space on their own private islands.

(40) . A sim (server host machine) provides the computing resources for a geographical area and the individuals within it. A given sim can hold forty or one hundred avatars, depending upon the quality of the machine, and the entire SL grid consisted of more than 2,000 sims in 2008.

(41) . For example, the rapid ascent to popularity of the comic “Botgirl” demonstrates this. Botgirl Questi publishes an immersionist-themed comic on her blog and after being profiled in the New World Notes blog became an SL celebrity, gaining wide readership and appearing (in SL) for interviews.

(42) . At present, Extropia is not directly connected to earthly transhumanist groups; influence upon the “atomic world” is a “third order concern” according to Stenvaag (2007e). The issue has arisen among Extropian citizens, however, and it seems only a matter of time before closer ties are formed between Extropia and earthly organizations.

(43) . Prisco, for example, has spoken of the need for a critical mass prior to unveiling the OCE and of his hopes for a great communicator such as Larry King or Oprah Winfrey to help pass along OCE ideas (Prisco 2008b).

(44) . This is a fascinating materialization of Ludwig Feuerbach’s nineteenth-century thesis that we manufacture God out of our own subjectivity. Feuerbach claimed that God is the objectification of what is best in humankind. In The Essence of Christianity, he writes: “Such as are a man’s thoughts and dispositions, such is his God; so much worth as a man has, so much and no more has his God. Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge” (Feuerbach [1841] 1957, 12). For Feuerbach, the religious object is nothing but the human individual himself; human beings project their need for transcendence outside of themselves and therein objectify as their god the human qualities that they admire. If transhumanists hope to instantiate what they consider the authentically human into a real (if virtual) existence and call it a god then they will fully realize the Feuerbachian claim as Omer and Rosen hope.

(45) . In fact, rituals and messianic fervor already exist in transhumanism but Prisco’s interest in making them explicit is a significant one.

(46) . In fact, the power of eschatological groups to remain hopeful is nothing to be taken lightly. Though the expected end of the world in 1843 became known as the “great disappointment” to William Miller’s upstate New York followers, Miller’s group transformed into the Seventh Day Adventists, who remain with us today.