I’m here to invoke a few avatars of the world that we exist in today, and we’ll see where this goes.

"Wizards" overlaid on the image of a My Little Pony character in magician's dress

We’ve been talk­ing a lit­tle bit about mag­ic, and where there’s mag­ic there are wiz­ards. Isn’t it weird how we see the same group of peo­ple chant­i­ng out in the for­est late at night that we see when we’re draw­ing pen­ta­grams in the week prod­uct meet­ing? It’s just the same guys in hoods. There’s some­thing real­ly weird going on there, and I don’t real­ly know quite what it is with all the blood and Gantt charts.

So what do we do when we draw forth on the cap­i­tal of ven­ture and invoke all of this pow­er and cre­ate the infra­struc­tur­al mag­ic that builds soci­ety and that per­forms the bind­ing ties of civ­i­liza­tion? We get to use lever­age in weird ways in that con­text, to cre­ate all of this ambi­ent pow­er. But the first thing that you know, as any work­ing mage knows, the first thing that hap­pens when you bring up a lot of pow­er is that you have to fig­ure out how you’re going to chan­nel it. Now ide­al­ly, if you’re not an idiot, you fig­ure that out before you bring the pow­er up. Unfortunately this is Silicon Valley we’re talk­ing about, so that’s real­ly not on the table.

What a wiz­ard does, fun­da­men­tal­ly, the most basic thing that a mage does is they project intent. They take this struc­ture of a vision of the world and a will, and they push it out into real­i­ty. And they use that to bind some pow­er; they use that to direct some pow­er in the world. Often if you’re look­ing at basic sigil-crafting or some­thing, you take some set of invok­ing words of pow­er, you con­vey them into some graph­ic design, you con­cen­trate through that and you struc­ture intent by doing that, and then you use that to chan­nel what­ev­er demon­ic pow­er you’ve pulled up.

The thing is, pro­ject­ing intent in that con­text, when you say okay so look we’ve got this new wid­get that we’re build­ing and we need to under­stand what it means, that process by which we project intent is very poor­ly under­stood in many cir­cles. And if you don’t know how the mag­ic works, the thing that you end up doing is exact­ly as Natalie was talk­ing about, this kind of car­go cult where we man­age to invoke and cre­ate this mag­ic once, we don’t real­ly know how it works. So we bet­ter not change any­thing because we might acci­den­tal­ly break it, we might do just the wrong thing in the wrong moment. So you repeat the same things.

And that pro­jec­tion of intent hope­ful­ly at some point lets you bind mean­ing and bind that thing to have an effect in the world. So by the time you’ve say, sub­scribed 50% of all car­go flights out of Shenzhen for a six-week peri­od because you need to move your new piece of hard­ware to mar­ket so you’re just going to buy all of the air traf­fic in a big chunk of the world, hope­ful­ly by the time you do that you’ve actu­al­ly fig­ured out what this thing was going to mean in the world. 

The prob­lem is you can only project intent as far as you can see, and espe­cial­ly in col­lec­tive rit­u­als, this is real­ly weird and com­pli­cat­ed. The big­ger the cir­cle of mages that you’re try­ing to work with to cre­ate this group work­ing, and if you’re work­ing with 1,000 mages none of whom real­ly speak each oth­er’s lan­guages and that kind of thing, you have to have a much more precisely-understood intent than what you can get away with when it’s just like five of your friends down at the old decon­se­crat­ed abbey. You can’t get away with act­ing like a start­up mag­ic cir­cle anymore.

This is why all these lit­tle mag­ic mir­rors that we reflect the after­life with, I don’t know if you’ve seen the shelves and shelves and shelves of gri­moires that are used to spec­i­fy the col­lec­tive intent of the bind­ing cir­cles that invoke the pow­er for these things, but it’s kind of amaz­ing. Documentation is the excre­ment of col­lec­tive intent. We excrete in just kind of shock­ing quan­ti­ties. In anoth­er time­line, as Gene Spafford said of Usenet, it’s like a herd of per­form­ing cir­cus ele­phants, awe-inspiring, thun­der­ous, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excre­ment when you least expect it. But it turns out that doc­u­ment­ing the intent of a big group of peo­ple work­ing togeth­er is very much that same thing. 

And in the same way that if you’re try­ing to do some­thing with a lot of peo­ple, you need very care­ful doc­u­men­ta­tion. If you’re try­ing to do some­thing many times over, or if you’re try­ing to do some­thing that’s going to affect a large num­ber of peo­ple, you end up hav­ing that same painstak­ing documentation. 

For instance, the wiz­ard Ives when he was orig­i­nal­ly build­ing some of his incan­ta­tions, spent ten years think­ing about small curves. Like, okay so we have this thing that we’re going to ship a bil­lion of, we don’t even real­ly have nota­tion in mag­ic for num­bers that big, but we’re going to try to do it any­way. So he spends ten years think­ing about these fine curves and these find details along with a lot of oth­er stuff, so that obses­sion, that kind of hyper, almost para­noid obses­sion with detail ends up being the shape of the intent that’s required to chan­nel this kind of power.

One of the things which is real­ly inter­est­ing, one of the rea­sons why mages spend so much time obsess­ing over the fine details of intent, is if you sum­mon pow­er and you haven’t fig­ured out all of the bits of intent, and you have loose attach­ment points sort of float­ing around in your rit­u­al, then what­ev­er’s near­by is just going to seep into that by default. Some intent will shape that and it won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be the one that you planned on it being. 

For instance, for all those of you who’ve ever tried to sum­mon a demon into a bank vault, you’ll know that it’s very very dif­fi­cult to get one of the Communist demons to show up in a bank vault. Because it does­n’t mat­ter how much you push the prop­er intent of the par­ty into that demon­ic cir­cle, you’re in a bank vault. This is not going to work very well. As it is below, so it is in Cupertino. 

It is very dif­fi­cult to replace a lot of the con­text of the intent of this kind of rit­u­al work­ing, and sim­i­lar­ly if you are build­ing a scry­ing mir­ror and the pri­ma­ry work­ing con­text is the blas­phe­mous back seat of Jony Ive’s Bentley, you’re going to end up with these weird arti­facts like a stocks app that you can’t delete. This is not rel­e­vant, it’s just some­thing that came with the con­text in which you did your sum­mon­ing. You can’t real­ly get rid of it.

So a lot of the work there goes into main­tain­ing accu­ra­cy, main­tain­ing coher­ence. One of the issues that you run into when you’re work­ing with a cir­cle of mages and you’ve got this kind of, Well we’re try­ing to struc­ture our intent for this work­ing,” the com­po­si­tion of the struc­ture becomes very impor­tant and rel­e­vant and does sort of inter­est­ing, weird things. If you have an all-male cir­cle of mages, then what­ev­er they sum­mon is only going to reflect half the world because that’s just how it is, right? So one of the real­ly inter­est­ing things that peo­ple will some­times do when they’re try­ing to cre­ate a new arti­fact is instead of say­ing, Okay, I want to make a thing which is new,” they say, Okay, I’m going to pre­tend that the world already con­tained this thing, and I’m going to make a thing which will stand in for this thing.” And part of the way that it gets invoked is just by say­ing, I’m going to pre­tend that this already exist­ed, and then I’m going to act and inter­act with the world as though this thing already exist­ed and I’m just going to wan­der around for a while and see how it feels.” And that feel­ing is part of the process of mak­ing some­thing already real. 

The prob­lem is in that line how it feels,” Because what that how it feels does­n’t say is to whom. To whom does it feel that way? If the set of mages that you’re work­ing with reflect the set of peo­ple who will ever touch that, then to whom it feels that way does­n’t mat­ter because it feels that way to the whom who touch it. Which is the way Silicon Valley works, which is the way a lot of us work unless we try to do some­thing else, unless we notice that this is an explic­it prob­lem in the world. For instance, this is very obvi­ous if you are some­one who does not have gigan­tic hands and you’ve tried to hold an iPhone 6. You will be very aware that there were no female mages on that design team, because they lit­er­al­ly made those things and played with them until they felt like they already exist­ed in the world, and then picked the ones that felt right. To them.

And this is endem­ic. This goes with the not know­ing how the mag­ic works. If you under­stand what you’re doing, and the thing that you’re try­ing to do with that intent, that is the same as under­stand­ing what it means to be the per­son who’s going to use this. It’s like back­wards mir­ror of neolib­er­al work on the self. In order to become the per­son who can shape the arti­fact in the way that the sit­u­a­tion requires, that the use case requires, you need to be capa­ble of liv­ing as though you were all of the dif­fer­ent users of the arti­fact, or some­how pro­ject­ing those peo­ple’s lives into the room. Which is dif­fi­cult, which is not some­thing that most peo­ple have train­ing to do, because what it lit­er­al­ly requires of you is to kill your own ego. As long as the ego of the design team is the ego of the mage, then you’re not going to be able to build a prod­uct that res­onates with any­one oth­er than that one per­son, oth­er than that one set of indi­vid­u­als. If all of the mages involved can do what they’re sup­posed to do and kill their egos, then they can start see­ing the world as it actu­al­ly is and start down this gnos­tic path toward some kind of mean­ing­ful summoning.

Being able to do that process where you kill the ego is a big part of fig­ur­ing out what the mag­ic actu­al­ly is, because that lets you step out­side of your posi­tion and say, It’s not about what the farmer is going to do with our scry­ing mir­ror, it’s what the farmer is try­ing to do with their crops and our scry­ing mir­ror is sim­ply part of the process by which they come to know the future of their crops. They don’t real­ly care about the mir­ror. It’s just a tool like their rake.” But you have to be able to step into that farmer’s posi­tion before you’re going to be able to see that.

I’m going to jump to the next avatar now.

"Mystics" overlaid on an illustration of a crystal ball

The dif­fer­ence between a mys­tic and a wiz­ard is real­ly inter­est­ing in the con­text of the sys­tems that we inter­act with because wiz­ards know what they’re doing, in the­o­ry. Often they’re bum­bling idiots, too. But the the­o­ry is that a wiz­ard knows what they’re doing and that they’re struc­tur­ing their inter­ac­tions with real­i­ty, that they have agency in the after­world. But mys­tics don’t. Mystics are kind of the wan­der­ers. They’re the peo­ple who are sort of, Let’s see. I think if I rub my fin­gers over the Eye of Horus here, and I put grand­moth­er’s lock­et on the altar, then we’ll be able to see her.” That’s the mys­tic mind­set. It’s sens­ing the hid­den. So I pick up this fea­ture­less black piece of glass and I know that there’s some way to talk to the demon inside it, but it’s a fea­ture­less piece of glass, what do I do with it?

So we start explor­ing it and feel­ing our way into this, and a lot of the time it’s like the adven­ture game where you’re, I don’t know, can I lift this table and flip it off the stage. Is that a thing that the audi­ence sup­ports?” (It isn’t.) It turns out that the pix­els are wrong, I can’t do it. It’s just I…click click click. 

So we have this struc­tur­ing of our inter­ac­tions with these sys­tems, which is actu­al­ly a sub­al­tern posi­tion with respect to the sys­tems that we inter­act with. Once we do kind of start to get a bit bet­ter of a pic­ture, it becomes a rit­u­al invo­ca­tion but it’s still an invo­ca­tion from a sub­al­tern posi­tion where we don’t real­ly under­stand quite exact­ly what hap­pens and why it works. But even­tu­al­ly you gain a cer­tain degree of com­fort. And com­fort in a sys­tem like this means you have space to play, and play it turns out is real­ly real­ly impor­tant, because play is how we explore and how we build fluency. 

But we can be play­ing from a posi­tion of, I don’t real­ly know what works any­more, but I’ve fig­ured out a few of the verbs. And I’ve fig­ured out a lit­tle bit of how I can struc­ture these inter­ac­tions and now I can sort of explore and know that I’m not going to acci­den­tal­ly run into the demons because I’ve fig­ured out the demons are over there. So I can go play over here and it’ll be fine. And we don’t get to change the rules because you’re not a wiz­ard who just kind of breaks that bar­ri­er entire­ly but you’re kept in this posi­tion of still being an out­sider in the oth­er­world; you don’t get to change the rules but you do at a cer­tain point get to play and explore.

Then even­tu­al­ly you become one of the hold­ers of the gnos­tic wis­dom of the ether. and you pass it on in that kind of rit­u­al and incan­ta­tion­al frame that we’re all famil­iar with of, So if you do this and you do this and you do this, then it does the thing that we need it to do, and we don’t real­ly know why.” But that does­n’t mat­ter because we have the gnos­tic knowl­edge and there­fore we can print the fuck­ing paper and go have lunch, or what­ev­er we’re try­ing to do.

So what do we do when that does­n’t work, when grand­ma does­n’t show up when you rub the lock­et on the thing? There’s the next step of the nego­ti­a­tion that we fall into, where we real­ize we had even less agency than we thought we did in the inter­ac­tion. It’s like look, I’ve already sac­ri­ficed every­thing on the altar, there’s noth­ing left to kill, what do I have to do to make this thing actu­al­ly fuck­ing work? 


So we cre­ate our own gods so we can blas­pheme them.

Because one of the real­ly impor­tant func­tions of the pow­er rela­tion­ship with the deity is that you’ve got some­body to blame. You need a per­son­i­fied struc­ture that you can blame in order to just psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly be able to con­tin­ue inter­act­ing with this sys­tem where you have absolute­ly no agency. 

Then even­tu­al­ly you get to sup­pli­ca­tion, and some­times sup­pli­ca­tion works, not nec­es­sar­i­ly because it actu­al­ly did work. It’s ran­dom, it’s glitch, it’s what­ev­er, right? But some­times sup­pli­ca­tion does sort of work. And you still don’t have any agency but you real­ize a spe­cif­ic pat­tern of sup­pli­ca­tion did work, and then you run into the risk of becom­ing a monk, becom­ing the ascetic who has real­ized that sup­pli­ca­tion works, and it’s like, Okay, if I only ever touch these three things in this order…” And it’s not just rit­u­al now, it’s this like, All oth­er things in the sys­tem are impure. I must refrain. I will be holy and good and then the print­er will work.”

"Monsters" overlaid on an illustration of a claw

But there’s a flip­side to all of this, and this is the inter­est­ing flip­side because the inverse of the wiz­ards are the mon­sters. And it turns out that the mon­sters are the amaz­ing ones because of course the mon­sters are us. And there’s a rea­son why we per­sist in deal­ing with all of these sys­tems, even when we don’t have access to the ven­ture cap­i­tal that makes us into wiz­ards who are sort of still men (well, most­ly all men) but who can sort of break the boundaries. 

We per­sist because we get to be mon­sters some­times, and that’s kind of amaz­ing, and it con­tains with­in it this real­ly inter­est­ing dual­i­ty where the net­work comes out and bites us. But it’s not the bite that’s like the net­work just shat all over your Cheerios. It’s the bite that turns us into crea­tures of the net­work, and all of a sud­den we’re just sort of part of it, and we act with the net­work, and we find our­selves falling into one of these sto­chas­tic net­work col­lec­tives. We find our­selves by these pow­ers that pre­vi­ous­ly just looked like things that were sort of con­ve­niences in our world that were restruc­tured, we sud­den­ly real­ize that we’re nine feet tall and we’ve got giant claws and we’re run­ning amok in the vil­lage, and we can kind of do what­ev­er we want. 

And it’s this weird time-limited thing because the moon only stays up so long, but the net­work has giv­en us a cer­tain kind of pow­er which is not the pow­er of the wiz­ards to rede­fine the rules of real­i­ty. We’re nine feet tall, but we’re just nine feet tall. And there are claws, and that means that we can total­ly go find the ass­hole banker and gut him, but we have to do it in the world. We don’t get to step out­side of the world, exactly. 

And then the inter­est­ing bit is that at the end of all of that, we turn back into our­selves and the sun ris­es. And we still live in the vil­lage, and then we go and try and repair all the dam­age we’ve done in the night. Then the moon ris­es again. And we exist split between the net­work and the insti­tu­tion, but it’s still sort of a way to take some of that pow­er from the wiz­ard, who’s not using it for our end. He does­n’t care about the banker in the vil­lage who real­ly needs to be gut­ted. All he cares about is, Hey look, I made a Bentley that can hov­er. That’s cool.” But we can still sort of steal some of his pow­er in that context.

"The Dungeon Master" overlaid on a photo of a 20-sided die

So here’s our last avatar, and it turns out one of the things which I think is real­ly inter­est­ing about all of this non­sense is that it lets us talk about a lot of stuff around pow­er and tech­nol­o­gy and soci­ety, and it lets us talk about it open­ly and hon­est­ly. So if I walk into a board room in Silicon Valley and I start talk­ing about the pow­er dynam­ics inher­ent in the programmer/user rela­tion­ship, no one in that room has any inter­est in that con­ver­sa­tion. They would real­ly like me to shut up and go away as quick­ly as pos­si­ble; please can we get secu­ri­ty in here already, what’s tak­ing so long, oh my god. 

But if we go talk about mag­ic, they’re actu­al­ly inter­est­ed, and we can have that con­ver­sa­tion. And it lets us sur­face a lot of this stuff around pow­er and intent in ways that are not real­ly easy oth­er­wise. So if we’re talk­ing about how we build big infra­struc­tur­al sys­tems and we want to talk about the intent of the design team that’s doing the design work there and how the sub­tle things that that design team did­n’t think about will shape the impact of that infra­struc­ture at scale, there’s a lot of real­ly sub­tle stuff that’s hap­pen­ing in peo­ple’s heads, things that peo­ple aren’t real­ly aware of. There’s all of these lit­tle fine details. 

People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to think about the fact that oh, this tech­nol­o­gy that I’m build­ing may mean things that I did­n’t intend it to mean. That’s a very uncom­fort­able con­ver­sa­tion for a lot of com­pa­nies to have, for a lot of engi­neers to have, for a lot of fun­ders to have. But in many cas­es they also just can’t see it. They are not primed to think about their impact on the world that way, and a lot of the stuff about mag­ic… (And I think this is part of where this came from oth­er than the bits that were the prac­ti­cal joke that went way too far) A lot of what we’re actu­al­ly doing here is get­ting that key to unlock this stuff and to start actu­al­ly talk­ing about it.

Thank you.

Further Reference

The Haunted Machines site, where Eleanor has a short piece The Mage’s Intent.”

Dedicated page for Haunted Machines at the main FutureEverything site.