We are a religious nation, even though that religious belief is rapidly fading and notoriously shallow. What we hunger for is real communion with the sacred, the unexpected voice of a mysterious god that occasionally speaks directly to our consciousness, as the old gods spoke to Moses and Mohammad or Achilles and Odysseus. This is why 200,000 people followed Horse_ebooks on Twitter. Horse_ebooks was our inscrutable god speaking in riddles.
This longing for the divine is why new spiritual trends reliably pop up to replace the ones we no longer believe—meditation replaces prayer, a transcendent experience in the silence of nature replaces a hack sermon delivered by a boring minister, a hallucinogenic epiphany rewires the brain as reliably as years of chanting in a monastery.
During our normal lives with our phones and tablets and social media accounts beeping at all hours, there is not much transcendence available. Twitter can be useful and it can be fun, but nobody ever turned down a beach vacation or a yoga retreat because they might miss something on their Twitter feed. Everything and everybody online is a "brand" trying to collect followers and customers. There's no mystery in that, no magic at all.
Horse_ebooks was loved because, every once in a while in the vast sea of crap where we spend so much of our brief dull lives, it would give us a message just weird enough to resonate. And so Horse_ebooks spoke in August of 2011:
"Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing."
What is that? A noble truth or a cry for purpose? It is both. It can baffle you to tears or inspire you to action.
Buddhist bells and Holy Bibles are popular on the iPads and Kindles and Androids because we want something spiritual on our devices, but these are ultimately just more apps produced by the same kind of people who make Candy Crush or Angry Birds. It's content and programming language combined for an obvious commercial goal.
There was no such clear intent with so much of what our various deities used to shout into our brains. We had to figure it out. Poor Jesus was driven bananas by the voice of Yahweh, baffling his own disciples with his abrupt contradictions and irrational behavior. The Old Testament prophets were full of certainty one moment and weeping like lunatics the next; it's a wonder any of their visions ever made it into print. In the astonishing theory by the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the gods spoke to everyone until about 4,000 years ago, when the two sides of human consciousness evolved into the single mental dialogue most of us experience today.
"Don't worry if you are not computer," Horse_ebooks said in another memorable tweet that was shared 3,154 times. Here we see the positive side of reading what you want into a sacred text. Some found it funny, but many saw it as profound. We live in a time of immense social disruption, as humans are rapidly replaced by computers and robots. If nearly everything we do for "work" can be done by a machine, what are we here for? "Don't worry," Horse_ebooks says. Whatever our purpose, it won't serve this mission to feel anguish over something we're not.
Suddenly, and without warning,
This wobbly world.
With today's announcement that Horse_ebooks was an intentional art project by a young New Yorker who works in social media, the obvious response is cynicism and talk of hoaxes and showbiz deals. Yet there is no need to feel "taken" by the project. Many fans had realized a couple of years ago that it wasn't really a robotic spam account of randomly chosen strings of text from low-quality ebooks, yet it was still enjoyable and occasionally deep. What was real about Horse_ebooks' nuggets of wisdom and weirdness is just as real today, and the supposed "hoaxer" behind the account cannot change that he selected sentences and phrases that resonated with many thousands of people.
Hinduism teaches that all paths to the sacred are legitimate paths, a philosophy borne of many thousands of years of differing practices and deities loosely assembled into a religion that now serves a billion people. Jacob Bakkila operated the oracle of Horse_ebooks, but who can say what was really speaking through the oracle?
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Ken Layne's American Journal appears here as circumstances warrant.