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 afu​ture​worth​thinkingabout​.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.

Williams: Absolutely.

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?

Williams: Yeah.

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.

Further Reference

The Mindful Cyborgs site, where this episode’s page has addi­tion­al links and credits.