Reading about Saint Teresa's experiences of transcendence, I am reminded of the hope that the early internet could allow a kind of escape from embodiment. It's clear now that this has not come to pass. Our online selves are subject to constant surveillance, our digital and physical locations incessantly tracked by all sorts of different agents. Thus we find ourselves just as trapped in our bodies as always — but now suffering from new maladies like back pain and "text neck" from hunching over screens, and eye strain from staring into them.
Yet it's true that digital worlds can still offer a sort of escape, even now that the shine of newness has worn off the internet. Highly immersive online environments, especially those provided by video and computer games, allow participants to be mentally transported out of their seat and into an imagined space that is likely utterly different from the one in which their body exists. The best-designed games can offer occasional moments of what really does feel like rapture: flying, running, or floating through perfect landscapes which might as well go on forever, almost leaving your body behind.
Beyond gaming, the internet as most of us use it nowadays doesn't offer too many opportunities for this sort of transporation. VR has been much-discussed as a groundbreaking chance to escape the limits body for brief periods, but for those users who experience motion sickness from VR, the ironic end effect is just a reminder of the inconveniences of embodiment. And the high cost of VR equipment means that immersive virtual reality experiences are still far from accessible to most people.
Perhaps one day we will all be able to fully leave our bodies behind by uploading our minds to the cloud? 20 years after The Matrix, this idea still feels like a dystopian nightmare. Yet there is also something nightmarish about the experience of being always "extremely online", while also continuing to navigate the offline world. It can sometimes feel we are trapped between these two spaces, unable to be totally present in either one. No one can be online enough to respond to every email, DM, and trending topic on Twitter, and yet so many of us are always complaining that we are too often online, unable to disconnect. This feels like the opposite of transcendence.
Perhaps the tech pessimists have always been right, and the offline world is where we must look for ecstasy, in the same places (bodies) humans have always found it: dance, music, sex, in movement rather than in screens. But could we also find possibilities of transcendence in a radically reimagined internet? A space built to be occupied by people as they are, not by people-as-consumers. An internet that is more a destination than a path, more a forest than a stage, more a neighborhood garden than a city center choked by billboards and CCTV cameras.