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.
Tobias: It’s a human dressed as an algorithm who’s actually tormenting someone else.
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?”
— Zara Rahman (@zararah) February 27, 2015
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://twitter.com/destroywerk/status/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://twitter.com/tinymaddie/status/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://twitter.com/tinymaddie/status/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.
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.
Dedicated page for Haunted Machines at the main FutureEverything site.