The Art of Steering

April 2022

Grotto-heavens (洞天, dòngtiān) are sacred Daoist sites in the mountains of the Chinese landscape. These natural and artificial caves are mythicized as transcendental gateways and portals to "paradisiacal realms.” 1 2 As we design the physical environment, we sanctify space for faith and contemplation to make sense of the universe and ourselves. We must keep similar mindfulness for the virtual landscape which we are increasingly inhabitating. Maintaining the energetic connection between ourselves and our shifting environments facilitates holistic healing and growth. We can trace parallel lines of thought between cybernetics and Chinese cosmologies as a way of understanding how the self is reflected, distilled, and dissolved by interfacing in both the physical and the digital realm. This knowledge, which must be the same as what our ancestors (even in the primitive world before the conception of language) understood, can then become part of the body’s daily practice.

Cybernetics provides the framework for our understanding of the interplay between humans and machines. The school of thought first arose in the 1940s as the cross-disciplinary study of complex, regulatory and purposeful systems (such as biological organisms, computational organisms and other automata). Defined by Norbert Wiener as the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” cybernetics can also be conceptualized as a form of thought that can be translated as universal language. Cybernetics is a precursor to the study of artificial intelligence (AI). Its core concept is circular causality, or feedback, which is a fundamental process necessary for the evolution of intelligent species like humans and AI. Its Ancient Greek etymology (κυβερνήτης, kybernḗtēs) refers to the act of steering a ship, an example of circular causality. This is how we begin to move away from viewing the self as a singular, solitary unit, and towards a vision of the self as a network or communication system that mirrors mechanical or computational processes.

Chinese philosophy views the body as a network operating within larger networks, and as a microcosm of the universe. The Daoist Eight Trigrams (八卦, bāguà) symbolizes eight interrelated principles of reality through the expression of yīn (陰) and yáng (陽) in as permutations of three. The trigrams can be converted to the binary values 000 - 111 with yīn and yáng representing 0 and 1 respectively. Each trigram reflects the interconnection between the universe and the self and corresponds with celestial and earthly phenomena. The trigrams can be paired to arrange the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching or Book of Changes (易經, yì jīng), an ancient Chinese cosmological text and divination manual that influenced Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s conceptualization of the binary numerical system in the 17th century. Binary encoding is the invisible landscape of cyberspace, and it is also present in the natural landscape, as the mathematical structure of our DNA mirrors the structure of the I Ching.5 Through the binary of yīn (0) and yáng (1), we can understand the emergence of 1 from 0, the emergence of the self from void.

The term “cyberspace” rose in popularity during the 1990s, and was visually explored in William Gibson’s cyberpunk science fiction work Neuromancer.6Conceptually, it refers to the system of digital networks that allow for global  communication, where virtual environments, such as the Internet, exist. It has an essence of being a nd creation, spatial and temporal qualities and various infrastructures.Gibson describes cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily,” as well as a decrentralized network of: “data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.”8 We are populating this domain, once an “electronic frontier”, 9 with interfaces, economies and ever-amalgamating simulacra, as we increasingly digitize our fiscal and social living functions. This rapid development of digital infrastructures necessitates discourse over the immaterial realm in which we find ourselves spending more and more time within. We can further map this space, and the self as it performs within this space, through the physical landscape of grotto-heavens.

The 10 great grotto-heavens and 36 lesser grotto-heavens were first organized systematically by Sima Chengzhen (司馬承禎) and Du Guangting (杜光庭) in the Tang Dynasty in Record of Grotto-heavens, Blessed Places, Ducts, Peaks and Great Mountains (洞天福地岳渎名山记, dòngtiānfúdì yuè dú míngshān jì).10 Sing-chen Lydia Chiang (蔣興珍), Ph.D, writes that “the mountain grotto serves as a conduit to a paradisiacal realm fashioned after an earthly political establishment.”11 The most robust depiction of grotto-heavens in Chinese literature is perhaps the Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源記, táohuāyuán jì), a fable written by Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) in 421 CE, which Chiang cites as the most influential work of Chinese utopian fiction.12 It narrates a fisherman’s journey along a river and his discovery of a hidden utopia within the river’s source: a grotto in the mountains. It is populated by a mortal agrarian community, self-sustaining and separate from the imperial world. 

Another grotto is described in the Scripture of the Five Talismans of Numinous Treasure (靈寳五符序, língbǎo wǔfú xù) as a "paradisiacal realm replete with palaces and aqueducts, phoenixes and dragons, fantastic trees, well waters that forever banish thirst, and other supernatural wonders."13 In this text, the utopia is witnessed by a recluse who has attained the way (道, dào). Franciscus Verellen also places grotto-heavens at the convergence of the mountain and the river: two sacred motifs in Daoist cosmology often depicted in traditional Chinese landscape paintings.14 These motifs will be further explicated as they are significant to understanding the positioning of grotto-heavens in Daoist cosmology, and subsequently, the positioning of the self in cyberspace.

Verellen describes grotto-heavens as an “interiorized ‘counter-universe’,”15 where rituals and practices of meditation and visualization, such as “swallowing the breath (嚥氣, yànqì),” take place.12 The self embarks on spiritual passage into the grotto, simultaneously, the grotto becomes the embodiment of the self, as it turns inwards seeking meaning. He writes: “The human body is a grotto, visualized as a mountain landscape inhabited by gods...The grotto as an idealization of sacred space can be considered as the object and the product of meditative projection, the discipline that enables the adept to make the hidden world manifest and recreate ideal and remote spaces around and within himself.”17

The grotto-heavens, located throughout the Chinese mountains, are interconnected by earth channels (地脈, dìmài), as well as to other ethereal phenomena.18
In this way, these individual sites become a system, another microcosm reflecting the relationship between the self and the universe. This is further reinforced by understanding the anatomy of the character mài (脈) used to describe the underground passages of the grotto-heavens, as well as the passages of the body in Traditional Chinese Medicine. 脈 is created by combining the radical ròu (肉) meaning flesh, with the character pài (派), a pictograph of a tributary, so that together they indicate the rivers of the body.

We construct internal and external realms for contemplation and habitation; we create the digital realm for the same purposes. Donna J. Harraway, in her influential cyborg-feminist essay “A Cyborg Manifesto”, also makes cybernetic connections between internalized meditation processes: “In visualization self-help, the sufferer learns in a state of deep relaxation... to engage in a kind of meditation on the meanings of living and dying from an embodied vantage point in the microplaces of the postmodern body.”19 Cyberception, a term coined by British artist Roy Ascott, refers to “transpersonal technology," which he defines as the technology of hypermedia and cyberspace: "transpersonal technology, the technology of communicating, sharing, collaborating...enables us to transform ourselves, transfer our thoughts and transcend the limitations of our bodies. Transpersonal experience gives us insight into the interconnectedness of all things.”20 The dimensional qualities of both cyberspace and grotto-heavensand offer the possibility for transcendence and transfiguration.

As with meditation and visualization practices, to enter cyberspace is to leave your body and social identity behind. David Holmes describes this space as “the electronic meeting place where disembodied communication takes place.”21 We have advanced to an era of increased interactivity, immersing the individual into virtual and augmented realities. The most literal connection between digital environments and grotto-heavens is perhaps the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE), a technology for immersive installations. Its name referenes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, directly engaging concepts of illusion and perception. Once the self is embodied in the virtual world, traditional taxonomies of identity (like age, gender, location, class, etc.) cease to apply. The user, subject of cyberspace, can create and occupy any persona. Our development of and within this virtual dimension has altered spatial and temporal perceptions of reality, if not eroded these boundaries entirely. Founders of digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow seem to suggest the latter, noting, “Certainly, the old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, based as they are on physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none.”22

Traditional depictions of Chinese mountains and rivers generally employ a flattening effect of the landscape; this can be also observed in contemporary Chinese photographer Taca Sui’s documentation of grotto-heavens. Light and texture are compressed to contrast two forms-- light and dark, concave and convex. This dichotomy is representative of the collapsing of exterior and interior surfaces that creates the grotto within the mountain. This merging of dual forms into a new entity reflects the formation of the self, as an individual that both interiorizes and extends outwards, both shaping and being shaped by its surroundings.

Architect Camile A. Silva finds a similar convergence of the self in cyberspace, writing, “The ‘coming-together’ of matter and spirit, or mind and body, not only defines the state of virtuality after experiencing immersion, but it also encounters, in this state, new forms of perceiving space.”23 Ascott also understands the self as it operates between dualisms, “To inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time, and to be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time is giving us a new sense of self, new ways of thinking and perceiving which extend what we have believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities.”24 Harraway’s cyborg is a hybrid creature that traverses the boundaries between human organism and machine. Marcos Novak’s neologism “trans-architecture” describes an architectural practice that functions between both physical and virtual parameters, simultaneously deconstructing them.25 The ephemeral nature of cyberspace necessitates paradigms for digital architectures that can shift in flux with these realms, embodying the nature of the grotto and the self.

Novak also coined the term "liquid architecture" as “an architecture whose form is contingent on the interests of the beholder; it is an architecture that opens to welcome me and closes to defend me.”26 This idea of refuge lends itself to the image of a cavernous mountain opening inwards to enclose the intrepid explorer. He writes, “The architect must now take an active interest not only in motion through the environment, but also account for the fact that the environment itself, unencumbered by gravity and other common constraints, may change its position, attitude, or attribute.”27 The lack of rigid boundaries in the digital dimension begins to realize a dematerialized image of the self and its enclosures, disembodied, amorphous and liquid in nature.

We describe performing online activity as “surfing the web.” Following the naming structure of computational systems as hardware and software, the human system can be considered as “wet-ware”.28 The grotto-heaven is where the river is birthed from the sacred mountain: “An out-flowing stream is a frequent iconographic feature in the depiction of grottoes, showing the mountain’s interior as a source of life, of renewal, and as a place of passage-- the stream providing the link of communication.”29

Water winds its way through other spiritual architectures as well. In Imdat As' architectural analysis of traditional Ottoman and Turkish mosques, he writes: “A fountain is generally associated with the act of ablution...the sound of water has the capacity to impart a sense of tranquility and spirituality, symbolic of metaphysical cleanliness.” 30 He presents a case for a new paradigm of religious structure-- the “convergent mosque”, which engages both physical and digital space, requiring both to exist: “The mosque of the information age can function as a ‘village well’, and theoretically, the entire Islamic community can be brought around it, in ways that could not be imagined prior to the digital age.”31

Cyberspace allows for the unprecedented global spread of cultural and regional knowledge. Once the self has rendered in virtual space, it can be dissolved towards larger groupings of selves, towards culture and community. Immersion in interactive 3-D worlds can also create a sense of presence and connection to cultural and ancestral knowledge. One study found that Inuit Elders felt a sense of connection towards their cultural heritage while experiencing 3-D virtual renderings of traditional Thule and Silit-Inuvialuit dwellings.32

Perhaps what makes our consciousness human is not just our occupation of our corporeal vessels, or the space we inhabit in any given moment, but the shared feelings of meaning we can inspire and extract from interconnectedness. Ceila Larner and Ian Hunter warn that there is a danger in losing our wet, human qualities to the digital medium: “As we move into virtual reality we run the real risk of exchanging our mortal souls for a future haunted by a wraithlike simulacra of our outlived incarnations, sailing for ever through cyberspace to the leitmotiv of the Flying Dutchman.”33

There is some irony to the logistics of water conveying the human experience into cyberspace, as water will literally destroy physical digital electronic components. Yet as we hurtle towards the singularity (the moment at which AI surpasses human intelligence, and our exponential technological growth brings an end to the anthropocene), it is imperative to deconstruct the digital hegemonies of the dimension we are increasingly occupying, to bestride the division between human and machine, to venture inwards before we can nurture sustainable cyber relationships, interfaces and architectures that are communally minded.

The act of entering cyberspace is the act of entering a new realm, like entering the grotto-heaven. The mountain is the machine, the place for rebirth, the landscape that inspires digital pilgrimage. The river is the self, the stream of consciousness and communication integral to the human experience. Therefore, the grotto-heaven must be everything that can take place at this intersection, the possibility to be distilled through cyberspace into a more pure form. Only digital introspection can clear the increasingly turbid division between the material and immaterial. Our digital infrastructures must allow for a fluid nature aligned with shifting technologies, and of the self as it ebbs and flows between physical and virtual worlds, towards compassionate connectivity and culturally resilient communities.

  1. Franciscus Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” Cahiers D'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): 265-90
  2. Sing-chen Lydia Chiang, "Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales," Utopian Studies 20, no. 1 (2009): 97-120
  3. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd revised ed. (Camb. Mass; MIT press, 1961)
  4. Margaret Mead, “The cybernetics of cybernetics.” Purposive Systems (pp. 1-11). 1968
  5. Martin Schonberger, I Ching and the Genetic Code: The Hidden Key to Life, 1992
  6. Lance Strate, “The Varieties of Cyberspace: Problems in Definition and Delimitation.” Western Journal of Communications 63, no. 3 (1999): 382-412
  7. Ibid, 382.
  8. William Gibson, Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books: 69
  9. Maggie Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace.” Architectural Design, no. 118 (1995): 1-113.
  10. Verellen, "The Beyond Within,” 265-90
  11. Chiang, "Visions of Happiness," 97-120
  12. Ibid, 98
  13. Ibid, 99
  14. Verellen, "The Beyond Within,” 267.
  15. Ibid, 276
  16. Ibid, 269
  17. Ibid, 281-282
  18. Miura Kunio in the Encyclopedia of Taoism, edited by Fabrizio Pregadio (Routledge, 2008).
  19. Donna J. Harraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181
  20. Roy Ascott, “The Architectures of Cyberception,” Architects in Cyberspace, Architectural Design, no. 118 (1995), 38-41
  21. David Holmes, Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace, London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1997.
  22. Sonia K. Katyal, “Technoheritage,” California Law Review 105, no. 4 (2017): 1111-172.
  23. Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace,” 9
  24. Camile A. Silva, “Liquid architectures: Marcos Novak’s territory of information,” LSU Master’s Theses, 902 (2005). 29
  25. Ascott, “The Architectures of Cyberception,” 38-41
  26. David Holmes, Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace, Longon: Sage Publications LTd, 1997. 
  27. Maggie Toy, Architects in Cyberspace, Architectural Design, no. 118 (1995), 9.
  28. Camile A. Silva, “Liquid architectures: Marcos Novak’s territory of information,” LSU Master’s Theses, 902 (2005). 29
  29. Ascott, “The Architectures of Cyberception,” 38-41
  30. Marcos Novak, “transArchitectures,” Telepolis: Magaz in Der Netzkultur, ed. Heise Zeitschriften Verlag (2003)
  31. Novak, Marcos. “Liquid Architectures of Cyberspace.” Cyberspace: First Steps, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.
  32. Toy, Architects in Cyberspace, 44
  33. Ibid, 26
  34. Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” 267
  35. Imdat As, "The Digital Mosque: A New Paradigm in Mosque Design," Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 60, no. 1 (2006): 54-66
  36. Ibid, 54
  37. Peter Dawson, Richard Levy, & Natasha Lyons, “‘Breaking the fourth wall’: 3D virtual worlds as tools for knowledge repatriation in archaeology,” Journal of Social Archaeology, 11(3): 387-402
  38. Harraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 149-181
  39. Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace,” 26