Klint Finley: Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs episode 55. I’m your host Klint Finley, and our other co-hosts Sara Watson and Chris Dancy are still out this week. But that’s okay because we have Damien Williams back with us again. Damien’s a writer at afutureworththinkingabout.com, and he studies transhumanism, pop culture, and the occult. He’s also a philosophy and religion teacher at various universities in Georgia. So, Damien, thanks for coming back.
Damien Williams: Thank you for having me again. I appreciate it.
Finley: So, last week we covered a lot of ground, but where we left off was kind of this idea of corporations essentially becoming some sort of emergent non-human intelligence in and of themselves. That also got me thinking, before we ran out of time, about Kevin Kelly has this idea of the Internet as becoming essentially a super-organism. I find that somewhat dubious, personally, but that idea actually I think fits either corporations individually or even moreso the marketplace, or you could even say capitalism itself as some form of super-organism, as this kind of strange collective intelligence.
And we also have a previous guest, Alexander Bard I know has just put out a book essentially arguing that the Internet itself is kind of God, or a god that we have essentially made, this sort of metaphysical entity, if I understand his argument correctly. I actually haven’t read his book, so I shouldn’t be trying to represent it to you too closely. So I thought that would be a good chance to get into some of your more spiritual or religious and occult lines of thought. Do you see these topics intersecting artificial intelligence and transhumanism?
Williams: Oh, absolutely. One of the last things I did before the conference that I went to in Flint, Michigan, the Work of Cognition and Neuroethics in Science Fiction conference— That was the most recent conference I did, but before that I did a conference back in December, kind of like more of a pre-conference planning session called Magick Codes. A bunch of us there, a lot of people from the Internet, Tim Maly, Ingrid Burrington, Eleanor Saitta, one of your previous guests… We were talking about, specifically, this intersection of technology, Big Data, artificial intelligence, human augmentation, how all of these intersections with the perspective of magick and the occult.
And I think that there is actually a very very fruitful conversation to be had there, because we were talking last week about this idea that the perspective of the network and the various entities within or that comprise the network (Google, Facebook, Monsanto, whatever) how the understanding of their intricacies and their day-to-day operations begins to become so opaque that only a very very few are going to be able to understand it.
At the Magick Codes meetup, we talked about this in kind of the terms of the techno-priests. These are going to be the clergy of the network. These are the people who have a deep understanding of the occult or literally hidden knowledge of how the network operates, of how the marketplace operates. And while you might have various priests for various denominations, people that focus on the economy within the scope of the United States, that have some [?] understanding of how it operates in our world stage but they’ll focus on how it operates in the United States. And they’ll have certain priests that are even more closely aligned with a particular corporation. The corporate accountant for Google, the accountant and specific proselytizing agents for Facebook or whomever. These act as the people who understand and seek to operate within the market, the network as itself.
Now, this will be metaphorical if you want it to be metaphorical. And it can just be a handy way of talking about things, to kind of get across this idea that there’s a lot of spooky stuff going on that nobody really understands very carefully. But I think you can also do a lot of serious work with connecting these concepts of religiosity and the occult, of looking at the operations of magick in the context of technology.
We’re talking about a system that requires you to have an understanding of and a way of thinking about operations of cause and effect in the world that are in no way, shape, or form apparent to the vast majority of the rest of the world.
Finley: I should stop you there and ask you if you can really give your own definition of magick for our listeners who might not really be particularly versed in this area.
Williams: Sure. Magick as I’m using the term right now is going to be used to describe a system of cause and effect relationships that depend on emotional or intuitive resonance, a recognition of similarity between things that otherwise might seem dissimilar, and working to have effects on one part of that equation by operating upon another part.
So James George Frazer writes in his seminal work The Golden Bough, he gives the definition of magic, as sympathy and contagion. And he says that things that are like a thing, that have sympathy with a thing, can affect a thing. Or things that have been in contact with a thing, things that have contagion with that thing, can affect a thing. He says that all magickal operations are based on this idea.
Now, I think that that’s a very rough definition of magick. But it’s one that as a kind of starting point can allow us an inroad. And as the study of the occult and the investigation of occult thought and occult principles across cultures has gone on over the years, people have kind of worked to see if that definition always fits. It doesn’t always fit, but so far as a very rough, basic definition of magick goes it’s not a bad one. The psychologist Karl Jung talks about magick and the occult as those emotionally resonant encounters with immediate experience. Those things where we have a kind of unfiltered experience with the true nature of reality, and our brain’s and our mind’s trying to filter, trying to process that through our experience. So I think that somewhere in the midst of these things, you get a definition of magick that looks kind of like emotional resonance, cause and effect through sympathy and contagion, through an understanding of how something resonates, how something emotionally corroborates within you.
That being the definition that I’m working with, you can take a look at things in the technology side of things, and we can start to see a kind of understanding of action at a distance. We can see the hidden, occult operations of programmers, of people who are seeking to get very specific outcomes by operating on very particular [?] components, ritually operating within very particular symbolic frameworks. People who are using particular coding languages, people who are using particular setups of hardware because for their purposes, for their end goals, these are the things that get the job done. These are the things that have the resonance and the capability, the power, the efficacy, to do the work.
And they might be one of very very few within a small group, a small cluster of people, that understand their operations. That truly understand how these programs, how these codes, how these sets of hardware, all interact together.
Finley: It seems like that metaphor works at least as well than… I’m thinking kind of corporate branding and the way every part of a corporate experience is executed, both internally and externally to the corporation. I keep thinking about all the requirements that you have to do as an employee of a large corporation like say, Starbucks, as essentially ritual work, that you get like a binder that’s this grimoire of things that you have to do a particular way.
Finley: So as a journalist, I’m always getting press releases and talking to people who work for these corporations and they will say the damndest things because they have requirements that they always talk about a certain product in certain language, that they always say these right, magickal words that are what they think of as the right things that they have to say all the time.
Williams: Absolutely. That is absolutely true. A guy by the name of Dennis Lorusso actually does work specifically on the religiosity of corporate culture. He talks about these ideas of the ritualization of corporate interactions and bringing about this kind of religious or ritual space within corporate structures, within something like a Starbucks where you’re talking about how the people in each individual Starbucks store interact with each other, how they regard each other. And talking about corporate retreats and talking about building this community that has this tone and this tenor of religious, spiritual engagement and bringing that kind of conceptualization, that kind of understanding of what you’re doing to the corporate workplace, and how powerful and potentially dangerous that can be if you’re not aware of it. If you’re being operated on by that without being aware of it.
Finley: I mean, the vast majority of people who are a part of it are completely unaware of it. We’re kind of drifting off and making this sound really hocus pocus‑y, I guess, but it really is… To kind of divorce it from the magickal and occult language, we’re just talking about the way that people’s lines of thinking and emotions are manipulated. And these corporate structures have a tendency to… People are participating in them without even really thinking about what they’re actually doing and how they’re actually operating on other people and being operated on, themselves.
Williams: Absolutely. There was actually a claim that was made, and I don’t know how far we can take this claim and the depths of its truth. But the claim was made that all of the people that were really active in the magickal and occult scene of Britain and the US in the 1950s, that from the 60s to the 70s as they began to be disillusioned, they took the skills that they had cultivated over those times and [some?] ways of thinking that they had cultivated, and in the 80s started to apply them to corporate marketing and brand consulting, and started the kinds of ways that people are using advertising and ad agency work these days.
Its one of those off-handed kind of anecdotes, but you take a look at the principles that were developed in chaos magick (chaos magick being the school of magickal thought first developed by Austin Osman Spare in the mid/late 1940s), take a look at his work, how you operate this language, how you operate with unconscious manipulation through and via linguistic deconstruction and reconstruction. And you can see many many of those techniques or things that are strikingly similar to them at play in contemporary marketing techniques.
Finley: There’s even some pretty explicit connections. Ramsey Duke, I think his real name is Lionel Snell? If I recall correctly (I might be wrong) isn’t he a marketing exec or advertising executive? That’s like his day job?
Williams: Yeah, he had a deep background with the marketing and advertising community. And a lot of his consultation and a lot of his work and a lot of the people that he worked with ended up being ad execs and ad consultants. So this thought, this thinking, it does continue out. It does have a connection to that world. But like I said, I just don’t know if you can make the claim that most of the people who were involved in that went out to that. Definitely a non-zero number.
Finley: Yeah. I’m just kind of thinking about some of the core people at least from the original chaos magick people. There’s Peter Carroll, who has his own company that sells I think supplements and stuff. And so I guess you could make the argument that he applies those same lines of thinking towards not advertising consulting, but just actively advertising his own company brand. And then Ramsey Duke, obviously. I forget who the other—there were kind of three big guys, weren’t there?
Finley: And I forget who the other one was, but was it Ray Sherwin? Or am I thinking of somebody completely wrong?
Williams: I’m trying to remember. There’s a specific quote that I was trying to remember as well that talks about, it says something along the lines that if a magician wants to truly make use of their skills in today’s world, they need to go into advertising. I’m trying to remember precisely who that was, and it’s escaping me at the moment. I’ll try to remember that.
I also wanted to say, taking it back from the overarching structure of corporate America to the specific question of more human augmentation and transhuman idealism. The idea of the magickal process and the magickal refinement as laid out by people like Aleister Crowley and Osman Spare and members of chaos magick community and members of the Golden Dawn community and members of the Western esoteric study groups. People like Anton Faivre in the early 90s talking about the resurgence of what was called Naturphilosophie, this idea of this natural, holistic, understanding of humanity’s philosophical and metaphysical and spiritual place in the universe.
All of this is about [?] alchemy, especially the Jungian study of alchemy. All of this is about refining the human being, refining the nature of the practitioner. Of making perfect the internal will of the practitioner. This is at the core of a lot of contemporary thought about magick from the 19th century to now. And this idea finds a very clear mirror in a lot of the ways that we talk about human augmentation these days. This kind of perfectibility, this getting to a place where we are this kind of purposefully reflexive subject. We’re constantly adapting to our environment and our environment is adapting with us, and we are in this kind of state of perfection of potential. We have perfected the potential of what we can come to be.
Within Faivre’s work talking about Naturphilosophie, talking about Western esotericism, he talks about this idea that magick was seen by many as a way to kind of reverse the fall of man, [?] the very Christian ideal of original sin. To take that and to reverse it to actively, on an individual level, seek to undo that work and to make our souls perfect again. But back in the magickal context, it becomes the responsibility of each individual magician, the responsibility of each practitioner, to perfect your soul. To find the gold from the dross, as it were.
And that mirrors, like I said, very clearly this kind of individualistic way we tend to think about human augmentation these days. Even though there are many so-called communities of grinders and biohackers out there, this idea of becoming what you envision yourself as, this idea of perfecting your vision of yourself and becoming who you want to be, is still this very individualistic model of augmentation. It pays a lot of lip service to the idea of integration and mutual adaptability within the ecosystem, but so much of that still seeks to bend the ecosystem to our needs and our desires, rather than integrating us within the ecosystem and adapting to the overarching needs and overarching desires of the thing itself.
Which mirrors the way a lot of people talk about the difference between magick and religion. Magick is seen as imposing the will [inaudible]. You are imposing your will on the spiritual world, the natural world. You are bending it to your desires. Whereas many see religion as integrating their self or making their self subject to this overarching will, this overarching kind of spiritual ecosystem. But more recently, many have seen that that line is blurrier than we like to think it is. That the difference between invocation and evocation, the difference between calling a spirit to do your will and petitioning something to solve a problem for you, is a matter of perspective, and it’s a matter of where you happen to be standing at a given moment. It’s not as clear a division as many like to make it out to be.
Finley: Maybe just one last thing before we wrap up. We started out in the last episode talking about some good and bad examples in pop culture kind of wrestling with some of these ideas of non-human consciousness and intelligence enhancement and all of that sort of thing. But we didn’t really talk about what we would like, more specifically, to see as an outcome of these types of technologies. So I was wondering if maybe you could talk about that a little bit. What would you like to see as kind of a best-case scenario for this technological vector?
Williams: Honestly, and it’s going to sound a little weird, but honestly the title of your show kind of hits home for me in that regard. The concept of mindfulness within the context of our technological adaptations and our augmentations and our “progress” is, I think, the best possible outcome, the most best-case scenario that I can envision for this. This idea that we come into, through the use of our technology and also through a more concurrent shift in our perspective and possibly values about and in relation to our technology, the sense of making the changes that we make purposefully, intentionally, mindfully. Rather than simply making changes and hoping for the best in their outcome, or blindly decrying any potential for change and saying, “It’s all going to end in atomic fire.”
There’s no guarantee that it ends in atomic fire, but there’s no guarantee that it ends in happiness and rainbows, either. We have to, at every step of our augmentation, at every step of our technological vectors on that path we have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing, and what does the implications of our actions look like?” What is the ultimate responsibility that we will bear for what we do?
And that’s not in an admonishment kind of tone. That’s not to say, “Oh, you better think about what you’re doing before you do it. Maybe then you won’t do it.” It’s to say think clearly about what it is that you are choosing. Know the responsibility that you will have to bear. And then, if it is still truly important to us as a species that we continue on this path, to do so, but with open eyes and open arms to the responsibility that we will eventually have to carry.
In the eventuality that we do manage to create a machine mind and machine consciousness and that we’re aware of it… (That’s to say that maybe we’ve already done so and it’s Google and we just don’t know yet.) But in the eventuality that we manage to make one that we know we’ve made, we’re going to have to recognize that responsibility to it and responsibility of its actions falls not just on it, but on us as its creators. And the way that we create it, the starting principles with which we create it, the values with which we undertake its creation and its education will matter. And to recognize that even right now, even as we are ten or fifteen or twenty or fifty years out from actually managing that kind of intentional creation of a non-human algorithmic intelligence, a machine consciousness, even now we need to be considering what we are building into those basic starting principles. What we’re building into as assumptions, as foundational assumptions, the work that we are using to eventually get us to that point.
Ultimately that’s what I want to see come out of it. A more intentionally mindful, purposeful awareness of our choices and the consequences and the potential implications of that.
Finley: I think that’s a great place to stop. So thanks again for coming on and for sharing your wisdom with us.
Williams: Thank you so so much for having me. This has been a really really great conversation. I’ve enjoyed it so so much.
Finley: Thanks. Me too.