Tobias Revell: The first thing I’m going to ask is actu­al­ly a ques­tion that came up with Ingrid this morn­ing. I’m going to ask it to all the pan­el mem­ber, but per­haps Ingrid if you ask it you can answer it first. Ingrid was won­der­ing would we rather live in a world with no mag­ic, or a world with mag­ic that is some­times used poorly.

Ingrid Burrington: But I already told you, Tobias, of course we’d rather live in a world with mag­ic. Why would you not?

Tobias: What kind of val­ues is mag­ic adding?

Ingrid: I think, as Warren put it very well, mag­ic is often a lan­guage used to describe that which we kind of do not yet under­stand, or that we don’t quite have words to con­vey. And I think that in some ways, it is a use­ful short­hand for an embrac­ing of uncer­tain­ty and appre­ci­a­tion of uncer­tain­ty, and main­tain­ing a sin­cere curios­i­ty and rev­er­ence for the unknown.

Tobias: Joanne, any thoughts?

Joanne McNeil: I saw The Giver on my flight over here, so I’m already think­ing about why an egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety can become real­ly oppres­sive. So even if mag­ic is in the worst hands, yes, there’s still a pos­si­bil­i­ty to divert that some­how. But, like Ingrid said, we live in a world with mag­ic as opposed to… Then again, it does mat­ter how poor­ly you see this mag­ic… Partially, yes.

Tobias: And Warren, I think we’re pret­ty clear on your answer. Pro-magic.

Warren Ellis: Yeah. I would also add that any­one that’s had a kid knows that we need to live in a world with mag­ic. And the process with that is the same as the broad­er process with dis­cussing we need to live in a world with mag­ic, but there needs to be peo­ple there to con­tex­tu­al­ize it for you and to go through the entire process of learn­ing about it with you, with­out los­ing the sense of wonder. 

Tobias: And you men­tioned briefly the end of sleight of hand and the end of the huck­sters in Las Vegas. Do you real­ly think that we’re out of sleight of hand trickery?

Warren: Oh, when every­one’s fight­ing over bloody wrist­watch­es yes, I think we’re at the end of the cycle and the big crash is com­ing. I think we have to be.

Tobias: Right. One of the things that has come up in all the talks is mag­ic as a force for good, as a force for nam­ing things. One of the things I think we’ve rec­og­nized all the way through this is that per­haps by cre­at­ing our own lan­guage and our own words, talk­ing about all the things we don’t under­stand, we can gain con­trol and pow­er over them. But there is also this poten­tial for mag­ic as a force for bad, as a force for decep­tion. Is there a way that we can either medi­ate or attempt to rec­og­nize what forms those two things take?

Warren: Framing it in terms of pol­i­tics, there’s a con­stant bat­tle and a con­stant push-pull, and you hope for the best pos­si­ble out­come but you have to go in under­stand­ing that it’s a fight. It’s a debate. It’s a broad con­ver­sa­tion that you have to stand up and be part of.

Ingrid: And against the thing about main­tain­ing a cer­tain curios­i­ty, it’s like the more ques­tions you ask of a mag­ic sys­tem, the more it starts to make sense. I mean, because when you said mag­i­cal lan­guage being for ill, the exam­ple that I tend to go to in recent years is the finan­cial cri­sis in 2008 when it was like, What hap­pened? Oh well, we had this math and it made all these deci— We could­n’t tell you how it worked.” But you could because some peo­ple were in on the take and some peo­ple weren’t, and most of the peo­ple who made lots of mon­ey off of algo­rithms they did­n’t under­stand walked away with­out real­ly any dam­ages, right? 

The more some­one tells you they can’t actu­al­ly explain how some­thing hap­pened the more it becomes clear that that’s an instru­ment of plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty. Which isn’t to say fuck serendip­i­ty, that nev­er hap­pens” but being able to ask ques­tions of something.

Warren: But that’s the per­fect way to frame it, because not only was it a polit­i­cal fail­ure, but it’s also the oth­er side not under­stand­ing magic.

Ingrid: And also try­ing to reas­sure peo­ple, like, Don’t wor­ry. These wiz­ards on Wall St., they know what they’re doing.” pri­or to that crash happening.

Warren: But unless you’re anoth­er wiz­ard, you can’t actu­al­ly make that judge­ment. It was a polit­i­cal, struc­tur­al, social, cul­tur­al fail, as much as any­thing else.

Tobias: It’s inter­est­ing. I’ve always imag­ined that as almost a Faustian deal that back­fired. Making the deal with the dev­il before the 2008 cri­sis and oil col­lapse. Warren, you men­tioned the fact that we often con­sid­er the dev­il to be the threat of oncom­ing AI, and in Joanne’s talk she was talk­ing about being algo­rith­mi­cal­ly gaslit. And we’ve already estab­lished that there’s a threat here from the sys­tems we don’t under­stand because we don’t have the words for them. Is the dev­il present, per­haps Ingrid or Joanne, in the form of some sort of algo­rith­mic sys­tem that we can’t pos­si­bly parse?

Joanne: Oh my. To get back to some ear­li­er talks, I do think it’s inter­est­ing that we’re using mag­ic as the short­hand to not describe things, that this is kind of like a pow­er of like okay, you don’t need to know. It’s just sort­ing itself out. But the con­tent of our talks was again and again need­ing the lan­guage to artic­u­late these frac­tured nar­ra­tives and pin­ning that down. Then also a point about what I meant by algo­rith­mic gaslight­ing was…I might need to get back to that.

Tobias: I think the key thing with the stuff you were talk­ing about was ulti­mate­ly there’s a human behind it.

Joanne: Yeah.

Tobias: It’s a human dressed as an algo­rithm who’s actu­al­ly tor­ment­ing some­one else.

Joanne: Yeah.

Warren: It brings you back to the old saw of the dev­il is just oth­er people.

Ingrid: What I was talk­ing about was kind of root­ed a lot in the weird kind of inven­tion of demons or hell. It’s fun­ny because before com­ing out here, I was think­ing about Paradise Lost and how you could hor­ri­fy­ing­ly trans­pose that nar­ra­tive of the war over Heaven as being a metaphor for star­tups. Pretty much any­thing that Lucifer says in Paradise Lost, you could prob­a­bly imag­ine the CEO of Uber say­ing. They’re just dis­rupt­ing the Heavenly orders, you know. They real­ly need­ed it. Disrupting, I mean.

Tobias: So, Warren you also men­tioned the impor­tance of folk­lore, and I’m won­der­ing how we fit folk­lore back into a cul­ture that’s per­haps begin­ning to erase bits of his­to­ry because sim­ply of the tech­nol­o­gy we’re using not sup­port­ing that his­to­ry. Ingrid showed a lot of slides and old engrav­ings from the 15th cen­tu­ry. That stuff, we would­n’t pos­si­bly be able to access infor­ma­tion 500 years in the future and our sto­ries and visions that we’re cre­at­ing now about our tech­nolo­gies. Are there ways that we can start think­ing about pre­serv­ing our folk­lore as a weapon?

Warren: I’m not entire­ly sure where to go with that one, to be hon­est. We might be 30 years on into what we var­i­ous­ly call the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, the Internet rev­o­lu­tion. That’s basi­cal­ly noth­ing. That’s no time at all. It’s still ear­ly days. We’ve still got plen­ty of time to work this out. Thing about inte­grat­ing folk­lore is that it it so ear­ly that most of us can’t actu­al­ly open dig­i­tal pho­tos that we took 10 years ago. We’re that bad at it, and we’re at the begin­ning of that process and that con­ver­sa­tion. It’s hard to con­ceive of dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion folk­lore. Yes, there are archives and memes and that’s the clos­est we get. It’s just a case of con­tin­u­ing to tell the sto­ries. It might just come down to some vari­a­tion on the oral tradition.

Ingrid: I don’t know. The point about archives is sort of inter­est­ing because I’ve been think­ing a bit about how accel­er­a­tion of time usu­al­ly has to do with how much of that time is being stored, like how much you actu­al­ly do and say is archived. That kind of makes things move faster, when you can account for it. But also to your point about archives kind of being less acces­si­ble, it’s inter­est­ing look­ing at who… Some of that inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty has to do with scale. Who can pos­si­bly read all of this, right? So we let the machines do the read­ing for us. And some of it’s also just who’s main­tain­ing them. 

I don’t know if any of you saw this. There’s a sto­ry on Motherboard about, a few years ago Google Groups became the main archive for old Usenet threads. So all of these Usenet forums exist as kind of archived Google Groups, and the search func­tions on most of them are bro­ken. You can’t actu­al­ly do a cross-forum search across dif­fer­ent peri­ods of time to get some sense of what kinds of con­ver­sa­tions peo­ple were hav­ing. Which is a huge fail­ure in terms of how you’re going to main­tain an archive. So under­stand­ing your past if you have no real inter­face for it is kind of part of the problem.

Tobias: There’s also the des­per­ate scram­ble when Yahoo! bril­liant­ly decid­ed to get rid of old Geocities, to try and save as much of our ear­li­est Internet his­to­ry as pos­si­ble, which there was just no one inter­est­ed in doing that apart from the peo­ple who were per­haps there, try­ing to pre­serve that oral tradition.

I’m going to pose some ques­tions from the audi­ence. Some of the are quite flip­pant. Some of them are quite deep, so we’ll see how it goes.

Warren end­ed by call­ing for alchemists. Is that how you each see your role, and if not who are the alchemists?”

Warren: Well, I’m not an alchemist. I’m the beardy guy who wan­ders into town, tells you sto­ries in return for food, and then leaves in the morn­ing hav­ing used your kitchen as a toi­let. That’s not me. That’s you. I’m just the old guy who points at you and says, Do this,” and then runs away before there are any consequences.

Joanne: I guess the thing that’s inter­est­ing about that ques­tion, and what’s also inter­est­ing about the points that have been made pre­vi­ous­ly, is that talk­ing about tech­nol­o­gists as wiz­ards or magi­cians or hav­ing these divine skills, why are we reach­ing for that instead of phys­i­cal might as metaphor, like being taller, stronger, tougher? We see nin­ja” but that’s still kind of some­where [?] in there.

Tobias: Gurus as well.

Joanne: Guru, yeah. So still get­ting that spir­i­tu­al or mag­i­cal rather than over­pow­er­ing some­one phys­i­cal­ly. I think that’s an inter­est­ing way that they’re posi­tion­ing them­selves and also how pow­er­ful a tech­nol­o­gist actu­al­ly seems when you know what that per­son­’s skill set actu­al­ly is, if you know what this per­son is doing from 9 to 5.

Warren: This is why I keep evok­ing shaman­ism., because it does­n’t have that aggres­sive, dom­i­na­tive aspect. A shaman is a com­pan­ion on your journey.

Tobias: Ingrid, are you an alchemist?

Ingrid: I would prob­a­bly pre­fer to pur­sue witchcraft.

Tobias: Fair enough. And per­haps not here, but it’s worth expand­ing at some point, on the role that witch­craft has his­tor­i­cal­ly [cross-talk]

Ingrid: Yeah, totally.

Tobias: in the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple who fall out­side of what are the cul­tur­al and cul­tur­al hegemony-esque [mark­ers?]

Warren: Yeah, I mean hedge witch­es are always an inter­est­ing metaphor relat­ed to the cun­ning folk. They were the peo­ple who lived out­side the vil­lage or at the edge of the vil­lage (hence hedge”) but they were the peo­ple who accom­pa­nied the peo­ple of the vil­lage on to their jour­neys into these spaces and looked after them. A lot of local first aid was done by the hedge witches.

Tobias: Yes, exact­ly. And then when Western med­ical sci­ence evolves that becomes out­side [inaudi­ble]. All part of that history.

On the men­tion of the phys­i­cal, I was real­ly inter­est­ed in the thing you men­tioned about Google Glass being a con­tin­u­a­tion of the con­struc­tion of mono­liths. I’m inter­est­ed in why we see a need to put sym­bols on the earth.

Warren: I don’t know. I can trace back out intent to dra­ma­tize our land­scape 10,000 years ago but I could­n’t explain it to you. I can explain how it works, but I can’t explain the impulse. I don’t know why we feel the need to do it except pos­si­bly in some airy-fairy, we’re hard-wired for sto­ries, we see them every­where and we want to make them every­where, kind of way.

Tobias: Well, that’s good enough

Warren: It’s as close as I get with­out anoth­er coffee.

Tobias: We’ll get you one soon-ish.

Another ques­tion from the audi­ence. With our recent his­to­ries and mem­o­ries being doc­u­ment­ed online, are we all becom­ing ghosts of our­selves?” https://​twit​ter​.com/​d​e​s​t​r​o​y​w​e​r​k​/​s​t​a​t​u​s​/​571279894669361152

Ingrid: It’s inter­est­ing. Yesterday at some of the open­ing talks there was a lot of talk about peo­ple’s dig­i­tal dou­bles and dig­i­tal oth­er selves and dop­pel­gängers. I was talk­ing about that yes­ter­day with Deb Chachra who’s in the audi­ence and we kind of con­clud­ed that per­haps actu­al­ly a more accu­rate depic­tion would be dig­i­tal shad­ow” inso­far as it can seem much larg­er than you and it can be dis­tort­ed and it often kind of casts some­thing very dif­fer­ent. But it still requires an agent. And then after you die there’s all that oth­er stuff of like who con­trols your social media accounts when you are dead is also an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion. But I think part of what keeps me going to these kind of con­ver­sa­tions is under­stand­ing that this is a very small piece of exis­tence, our machines. And it is very easy to believe because of the scale of our shad­ows and the vol­ume of data that we are able to store that it is all-encompassing, but you know, death is com­ing. It’s real­ly not that big a deal.

Tobias: And as we found out noth­ing lasts that long any­way online, so it’s not like it’s going to go on haunt­ing oth­er peo­ple after you’re gone too long. Joanne, if you would.

Joanne: Well with shad­ows, I’ve been [writ­ing] an essay that’s prob­a­bly going to take 5 years before I actu­al­ly get it togeth­er, but I can say what my Pinboard saves look like. I’ve been look­ing at exam­ple of sto­ries where a char­ac­ter cuts off their shad­ow just for that rea­son of hav­ing that sense of how to alien­ate your­self, how to dis­tance your­self, from this thing fol­low­ing you. Oscar Wilde has a good sto­ry that includes that, and there’s some car­toons, and it does feel like this hav­ing a com­pan­ion fol­low­ing you around, that pow­er is just…divorce your­self from it and move for­ward and pos­si­bly cre­ate your own form now, free of what is expect­ed of you.

Tobias: That’s inter­est­ing [inaudi­ble] unless you’ve got some­thing else to say on that.

Warren: I should­n’t, because this touch­es on one of my recent obses­sions. I’m obsessed with the logo art for Snapchat. It haunts me because they’re sell­ing this ser­vice with the ghost of a dead baby, and I don’t know why. I’m obsessed. So move on, or else we’re going to be here for hours. I can’t.

Tobias: That actu­al­ly leads on quite nice­ly to anoth­er audi­ence ques­tion, who was won­der­ing what the role of the famil­iar now is, and we’ve already had dis­cus­sions with think­ing about smart­phones and what­not, and now we’ve seen the watch com­ing per­haps as a non-magical device that’s devoid of mag­ic and that we under­stand the watch and the smart­watch entire­ly. Do we have a role for familiars?

Warren: The famil­iar might in fact be the metaphor for the algorithm.

Ingrid: One of the con­ver­sa­tions that I was hav­ing with some­body at Magick Codes about this was think­ing of Twitter bots as a form of famil­iar. So algo­rithm is kind of appro­pri­ate. There’s some­thing mag­i­cal about bots. They per­form things that we don’t always expect of them, and I also think there are cer­tain kind of Internet-personae crea­tures that exist on our plat­forms that we have sim­i­lar sort of rela­tion­ships to.

Tobias: Like @horse_ebooks.

Ingrid: Oh God, @horse_ebooks. So sad, right? Or like @RealAvocadoFact is a Twitter account that like, I don’t want to know who that real per­son is behind it. It’s far bet­ter to live in a world with the illu­sion that there is a talk­ing avo­ca­do on Twitter that’s telling me facts about cap­i­tal­ism. Why would I want to live in a world where that was just a person?

Tobias: Okay. Another ques­tion from the audi­ence. What is the rela­tion­ship between the dri­ve for hack­ing in open source and the emerg­ing dis­course of mag­ic in tech?” https://​twit​ter​.com/​t​i​n​y​m​a​d​d​i​e​/​s​t​a​t​u​s​/​571279688259244033 So if we’re look­ing at some­thing like Apple’s It just works” ver­sus the kind of open source move­ment which in this coun­try per­haps takes a quite neolib­er­al form but in oth­er places does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly, what is the rela­tion­ship between those two things in this dis­course, do you think?

Warren: I could be flip­pant and say both those kinds of peo­ple prob­a­bly work in caves. But it’s a sim­i­lar thing. If you’re going to hack togeth­er open source stuff, you’re spend­ing a lot of time in a small room work­ing with some fair­ly arcane texts in order to enact an action in the world.

Tobias: It’s also a ques­tion of whether you’re look­ing for kind of a gen­er­a­tive mag­ic, maybe, or a mag­ic that can be trans­ferred beyond you.

Tobias: What’s the difference?

Ingrid: Well, the dif­fer­ence between closed and open source maybe being— and I think this is often a flaw in a lot of open source is the idea that pure­ly by hav­ing the code out there it’s open. But it’s like if you have some­thing that can be taught, that can be fur­ther dis­trib­uted, there is a cer­tain kind of— I mean, that’s how I learned. I don’t know for any­body else, but that was a huge part for me. And hav­ing stuff that is avail­able, that’s a dif­fer­ent kind of mag­ic. But it’s that mag­ic that hap­pens when humans actu­al­ly work togeth­er and aren’t ass­holes all the time.

Tobias: We’ve agreed that mag­ic is a form of agency, right? That mag­ic gives you agency over—

Warren: Yeah, the basic def­i­n­i­tion of mag­ic is caus­ing change in the world through the action of your own will. And that is exact­ly the same as writ­ing code. The code is a con­struc­tion of your will to cause the change you want to see.

Tobias: But there’s also a cer­tain lit­er­a­cy gap before you can get there, right?

Warren: Yeah, but mag­ic was­n’t open to every­one. You always had to study it. It’s not a thing you could just do. You need­ed to go and read the arcane texts, and you need­ed to write your own code. That’s why most wiz­ards were crazy and lived on their own.

Tobias: And that’s, as you said, what forces these peo­ple to the fringes of soci­ety, because they were seen as some­how that pow­er could be threatening.

Warren: Yeah, I mean that extends through putting away peo­ple for incre­ment­ing an inte­ger or being able to read code. It’s the same thing as the fact that mag­ic prac­ti­tion­ers were forced to live on the edge of the vil­lage because they were weird and they could do things you could­n’t do.

Ingrid: Or if they weren’t liv­ing on the edge of the vil­lage they were kind of exclu­sive­ly at the beck and call of the state.

Warren: Yeah. Popes and emper­ors, patrons. They were paid mon­ey to do this until they fell out of favor and got sent to Manchester.

Tobias: A ques­tion, per­haps for you Warren, from an audi­ence mem­ber again. Why aren’t smart­watch­es mag­i­cal?” Most peo­ple don’t under­stand their work­ings or can’t see them. https://​twit​ter​.com/​t​i​n​y​m​a​d​d​i​e​/​s​t​a​t​u​s​/​571283263186186240

Warren: Most peo­ple don’t have a close under­stand­ing about how an ana­log wrist­watch works. You know there’s cogs and shit and you’ve got to wind it, but if you threw a box of the con­tents of a wrist­watch at peo­ple, most peo­ple I would say would not be able to assem­ble them into a work­ing wrist­watch. Not under­stand­ing how some­thing works is not the same as well, it’s mag­ic.” You know there’s a process there because you can see the cogs and shit. You just don’t know how it goes togeth­er. And a smart­watch frankly is no dif­fer­ent from that.

Tobias: So going back to the idea of pow­er and the threat of pow­er that per­haps wiz­ards, alchemists, and [shamans] have over sys­tems, your work with the astrol­o­gy of the Five Eyes agen­cies. It’s obvi­ous­ly some­thing where a cou­ple of peo­ple are point­ing out on Twitter that you’re doing a very sim­i­lar thing where you’re chal­leng­ing the hege­mo­ny by devel­op­ing a lan­guage for, in your own terms mak­ing it humor­ous, mak­ing a joke out of it. We’ve got sort of dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions here of mag­ic. Is there some­thing per­haps that’s not quite whole­some enough about hijack­ing mag­ic as a joke?

Ingrid: Not quite whole­some enough?

Tobias: As in, if you’re using mag­ic because it’s an arti­fact that peo­ple are uncom­fort­able with and you’re using it to chal­lenge the hege­mo­ny rather than for its own inher­ent properties.

Ingrid: I’m still not sure I total­ly under­stand your question.

Tobias: Okay, so you’re using the sym­bols of mag­ic in this very visu­al piece. It’s some­thing that any­one could look at and say, That’s an astro­log­i­cal piece.” It’s obvi­ous­ly then got the sym­bols which are equal­ly sort of arcane of the Five Eyes agen­cies in the mid­dle, but we’re not actu­al­ly nec­es­sar­i­ly going to use it to lit­er­al­ly try and debunk those agencies.

Ingrid: No. Well, that would be kind of sil­ly of you to try to do that. I don’t think, at least that kind of art and that kind of mak­ing a joke out of that ide­ol­o­gy is more about…given the uncer­tain amount of fear that sur­rounds that, espe­cial­ly state intel­li­gence agen­cies, there’s an ele­ment of— 

Warren: Not debunk­ing, defanging.

Ingrid: Defanging is a bet­ter way to put it, yeah. Because at the end of the day, for all of the bad clip art and all of the avail­able data cen­ters to store inter­cept­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions, these are most­ly men in office parks mak­ing deci­sions, and they’re humans. And they’re not wiz­ards. And the cult that exists around the assump­tion that you actu­al­ly can get some kind of per­fect knowl­edge from total sur­veil­lance, which is a cult that exists both at the lev­el of the state and the lev­el of the cor­po­ra­tion. I keep being con­fused when I meet peo­ple, like, they think that data tells you true things. These peo­ple exist. I spend prob­a­bly too much time around skep­tics and around peo­ple who are will­ing to give things the ben­e­fit of the doubt, but I think by pos­ing this ques­tion of like, to what extent is this not all that dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed from a sys­tem like astrol­o­gy— I’m almost more wor­ried about offend­ing astrologers than I am about offend­ing the state. I read my horo­scope all the time. 

Tobias: It ties in quite neat­ly with some­thing that Ian Bogost wrote recent­ly about the cathe­dral of Big Data, how this is the new kind of church and per­haps that’s much like his­tor­i­cal­ly mag­ic was used to chal­lenge the dom­i­nant monothe­ism of the church. There’s an ele­ment of that here.

I’ve got two final ques­tions before we break for lunch which are a lit­tle lighter, and they’re for each of you.

The first one is what kind of com­put­er sys­tem or tech­nol­o­gy would you most like to haunt and why?

Warren: Well that would require me dying first, and I’m not up for that.

Tobias: Okay. So you don’t want to remain around as a ghost?

Warren: No, no. I want to remain around alive.

Tobias: Okay. Well, we’ll see what we can do.

Ingrid: Part of me now wants to fig­ure out what’s going on inside Snapchat.

Tobias: That’s where they all go.

Warren: Don’t take me there again. Don’t. I won’t come out.

Tobias: Joanne?

Joanne: I don’t know that I want to haunt a machine. I don’t, I’m sorry. 

Warren: I could think of spe­cif­ic peo­ple, but not a machine.

Tobias: And then the very last ques­tion before we go for lunch. White or black mag­ic? It’s an audi­ence question.

Warren: Well, black obvi­ous­ly. Is the ques­tion about would you want to go to Heaven? No, none of my friends would be there.

Tobias: Alright. Join me in thank­ing our morn­ing speak­ers, Warren Ellis, Joanne McNeil, Ingrid Burrington.

Further Reference

The Haunted Machines site.

Dedicated page for Haunted Machines at the main FutureEverything site.

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