The Pirate and the Priest: How Digital Turned into Divine
"Copy me, my brothers, as I copy Christ himself," reads one popular translation of 1 Corinthians 11:1. The Church of Kopimism, or Kopimi ("Copy me"), however, does not seek to encourage the reproduction of any messianic example. Rather, it prizes the act of copying, remixing and redistributing information only. In other words, Kopimists hold what is in most countries an illegal activity (file-sharing) as a sacrament; and information - in and of itself - as holy.
Yet that sense of an endless, righteous repetition captured in the Corinthians verse seems strangely manifest in the heady Kopimist rhetoric which is freely available on the web. Last week, news reached the world that a group of Swedish file-sharing enthusiasts, otherwise known as 'pirates', were finally successful in registering their organisation (which promotes the abolition of copyright law) as a religion. After a year-long process, multiple applications, and much online campaigning, the Church of Kopimism (intimately linked with the infamous Pirate Bay website) was recognised as bearing a belief system and set of meditative rituals such as 'kopyacting' or file-sharing which may occur during physical meet-ups or online gatherings.
A statement distributed by Kopimi and its branches around the world describes the crucial axiom of this relatively simple belief system in one sentence: "For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament. Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains, and the value multiplies through copying." This logic runs contrary to the traditional human conception of value. Value is normally highest in that which is most scarce or least easily accessible. It is important to note that in order to understand that for a Kopimist, this logic is completely up-ended. When even open-source libertarians like Julian Assange point out that information's impact is a direct product of context and the individual desire, one has to appreciate that any attempt to reverse this reality must necessarily be understood as radical. Also, for the Kopimist, the value of selfhood no longer has any relevance. Instead, Kopimists seek to direct humanity towards a kind of cybernetic spirituality, in which the hive mind assimilates and remixes the very idea of an isolated being or soul. Those ancient human concepts, of the wandering believer or devout ascetic are, as they are for most transhumanists, no longer valid, despite the persistence of religious rhetoric and structures. In a way that cloak, of 'religion', is merely a helpful collection of signs which allows Kopimism to exist during our age when in fact, so its followers believe, their practices are really endemic to a future time and a civilization quite alien to our own.
This inescapable ontological paradox inscribes Kopimism with the kind of outrageous wackiness we have seen before in cults, both online and offline. There is a supreme simplicity about Kopimism which will frustrate any theologian who attempts to investigate its system of belief - as well as a number of curious contradictions. It was while interviewing one of the founders of Kopimism and current 'Spiritual Leader', Isak Gerson, that this became clear to me. "What is the ultimate goal of this faith? What is the ultimate goal of your devotion?" I asked. "To copy as much as possible," replied Gerson with characteristic frankness. "Is there not a point at which that becomes arbitrary? Could you not just write programs to do that? Does it have to be an action carried out by a human being?" Gerson: "Well our religion is not that focused on humans so I guess it doesn't really matter if it's a human person or software that is copying."
This is particularly difficult to accept. A spiritual experience which is not necessarily located within the human psyche. When asked, "How would you define your spiritual relationship with data, exactly? How is it different from being someone who just really likes file-sharing?" Gerson became mystical and enigmatic, saying, "it can't be explained in useful terms." And what about various kinds of information? Does Kopimism allow for one category of information (let's say, financial spreadsheets) to be considered less significant or less valuable in juxtaposition with another (for example, an artful song or film)? Gerson agreed that there were different categories, yes, but as for making distinctions, he only commented, "We have discussions that occur internally."
It would be very easy to laugh off these responses as the crackpot mutterings of a deranged libertarian, and I'm sure many readers have already done so, but something about the moment at which Kopimism has appeared makes Gerson's beliefs more than simply outlandish. It just so happens that the registration of 'kopyacting' as a religious practice has occurred at a time when Western culture could hardly be more divided over the enforcement of copyright law. Online, we are groomed into believing that everything ought to be free and, whether this is true or not, accepting such a view in 2012 means advocating a divergence from traditional civilization and its structures. Kopimism, therefore, is one of the symptoms of an era in which tantalising promises of liberty and unprecedented access to information are seen to be cruelly held back by economic strife and fusty legal particularities. The Kopimist preacher in the video below throws the force of his statement against barriers such as these when he proclaims, "In this era, we can finally pass the accessibility obstacle."
Kopimism seems related to several other mechanistic or cybernetic visions of society which appeared long before the internet had carved its present mark in our culture. Erik Davis, in an article for the long-defunct Cypersociology journal entitled, 'The Spiritual Cyborg' discussed various ideas about the development of spirituality in a mediated or technologized context. His 1998 book, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information covered the same themes. But in his article, Davis explored G. I. Gurdjieff's Fourth Way and Ron Hubbard's Scientology as relevant spiritual movements in which the idea of the machine directly influenced the pattern of spirituality experienced by followers of such faiths.
For example, Gurdjieff's Fourth Way encourages devotees to wake up from a blithely mechanistic state, towards an enlightened experience of self. In this case, sudden awareness of our dissonantly repetitive nominal state of being is the gateway through which enlightenment may be entered. Davis ponders whether keeping this theory in mind during a hyper-mediated age may help the user of technology to achieve a kind of counter-spirituality in the face of mass media, technological drudgery and our daily computation of millions of tasks:
By paying attention to our own mechanical routines, we cease to identify with them, and this de-identification shifts our attention towards the higher "I" that observes its own process and directs, as best it can, its own inner growth. This transcendence-through-feedback separates the essential self from the automatism of the machine, and creates a crystal of consciousness capable not only of genuinely directing its own activity, but of actually surviving death.
Of course this is the diametrical opposite of Kopimism, which seeks to prove that it is through repetitive action and reproduction that spiritual transcendence is experienced. Gurdjieff seems to impress upon us the urgency of recognising that we are already machines, only to suggest such an epiphany will unlock our acceptance of nothingness. Mercifully, Davis notes the paradox inherent in this position: "If the consensus reality world we work in daily (and tune into nightly) does indeed generate the kind of mechanical trance Gurdjieff describes, then awakening from this condition might make one more aware, and even obsessed, with the subliminal forces of control."
Meanwhile, Kopimists clearly celebrate the mechanicalness of the actions "copy" and "paste" in and of themselves. This is an equally problematic position, since it suggests an extreme reductionism and divestment of humanity itself. For most people, such a stance is nothing short of fanatical. I asked Gerson, who is a member of Sweden's Pirate Party, whether the Kopimist Church was simply a colourful front for anti-copyrightists but he countered that suggestion by claiming there were plenty of people in the Pirate Party who disagreed with him, either because they were atheists or because they do not believe, as he does, that the complete abolition of copyright law is appropriate.
Where did these beliefs come from? In their precise form, they strike an odd contrast with historical examples of technospirituality. For the late Victorians and the early enthusiasts of electricity, radio and television in the early 20th Century, the notion that something ethereal was becoming nearly tangible through such media always seemed tantalisingly plausible.
Sarah Angliss, composer, engineer and technology historian, spoke to me about the origins of these fascinating superstitions. For her, the zany cultists who claim to be able to hear spirit voices in the white noise on early Mp3 players, or the mediums who at one time contacted the dead using radio waves, are prime examples of how an early fascination with disembodied humanity manifested itself in human culture.
"Whenever these new technologies come along," she explained, "People get very excited and they suddenly think they've found a fault-line between the mind and the world and they then find that they can project themselves in ways they weren't expecting." It was the floating voices of dead friends which emanated spookily from early phonographs that so captured the imagination of the Victorian techno-mystics, not the rudimentary ability to reproduce messages and sound. Angliss cites the example of Florence Nightingale, who made a curious phonograph recording towards the end of her life in which she began her message by saying, "When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life." This recording was featured during a contribution Angliss made to The Pod Delusion, and is well worth listening to in order to encounter that voice, now over 100 years old, and its otherworldly vitality.
For Angliss, the Church of Kopimism makes little sense. She adds, "I can't see what makes it a religion. There's nothing paranormal." When it comes to the idea of a transcendental hive mind into which humanity somehow becomes assimilated, Angliss is even more sceptical, and humorous, quipping, "If it ever comes to the point of the transhumanists' ultimate fantasy where we can upload ourselves to the machine, we'll just be version 1.0, and it'll be terrible, won't it? You can imagine that our whole experience would be really rubbish and basic, a kind of 8-bit humanity."
And yet the groundwork has been laid for just such a scenario to evolve. The imminent reality of which was, in 2002, debated by Wired editor Kevin Kelly in an extraordinary article entitled, 'God is the Machine'. In his piece, Kelly summarised the various theories which then existed regarding the development of a computerised universe - or a universal computer. Beginning with the suggestion, posed by scientists and researchers such as Stephen Wolfram and Ed Fredkin, that every single process in the universe may eventually be reduced to a series of binary operations, Kelly developed a discussion on the possibility that a computer modelling (or incorporating) the entire universe could one day be possible. In addition, a rough estimation based on the logic of Moore's Law suggested that it might only be 600 years until computers are using all the available energy in the entire universe. But naturally what interested Kelly here was the compelling nature of the theory rather than practical possibilities (which he acknowledges are impossible to comprehend).
Here we encounter the idea that the universe may one day be completely enveloped by a computer, but that it also already is a computer, the greatest piece of hardware ever constructed. It is at this point that the kind of unique spirituality propagated by the Kopimist strikes an unexpected chord. This is the relevant part of Kelly's article:
Somehow, according to digitalism, we are linked to one another, all beings alive and inert, because we share, as John Wheeler said, "at the bottom - at a very deep bottom, in most instances - an immaterial source." This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: computation. Bits - minute logical atoms, spiritual in form - amass into quantum quarks and gravity waves, raw thoughts and rapid motions.
For the Kopimist, this is perhaps the way in which their mysticism may be best defined. That relentless kopyacting, the endless CTRL+C followed by CTRL+V seeks to dissolve human will and selfhood back towards the elemental, an amoeba-like binary operation swelling the sum total of endeavour into a gigantic new whole. The insurmountable mass of all human information and knowledge, infinitely copied and ubiquitously present. This reconfiguration of humanity in terms of mechanical action, this dispensation with, for all intents and purposes, humanity itself, is the ultimate, necessary aim of any Kopimist. My own view is that Kopimism may succumb to any number of internal fractures or external attacks - its relatively speedy demise is not difficult to envision. But having said that, the group has certainly succeeded in weirdly tapping into what is both a relatively unprecedented form of spirituality and a basic scientific logic currently entertained by leading thinkers, even though the Kopimists' day-to-day rituals would be considered high folly by most serious academics.
There is, therefore, a sort of absurd romanticism about the Kopimists' bizarre project as it attempts to flourish at a time when the world is an otherwise rational, pragmatic and, more importantly, rather flippant place. However, as Gerson himself said, with the reserved zeal of a diffident evangelist, "All you have to do is copy and believe in copying." For me, and many like me, this will never be enough to make a leap of faith, but the history (and future) of computing, from a certain perspective, suggests that this eternal, atomistic repetition may eventually redefine the universe as we know it. Whether we like it or not.
The Kopimistamfundet can be found online here.
- How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess
- Terrified Together: The Online Cult of Slender Man
- "The Wheel of the Devil": On Vine, gifs and the power of the loop
- Facebook, the Projected Self and Narcissism
- The Quality of Offline and Online Friendships
- Self-Sacrifice in the Age of the Gadget
- The Promise of Technology
Interfaces express not that a journey has been eliminated, but that a new one may be created.
Networking, in many senses, gives rise to a new perspective on the London Riots of 2011.
Does abstinence from the web ever last? Is it even a good idea?
Computer viruses are not just computer viruses. They spread in pathological as well as technological ways.