Thoughts on magic, religion, metaphors and technology…

So this is one of those posts that nothing good can come from. This is because it’s one of those posts that is inspired by something so profoundly clumsy and grotesquely insensitive that I stumbled upon elsewhere that I’m almost loathe to link to the original source. And I’m going to make it worse, I fear, because in order to get some kind of interesting aesthetic resonances I’m going to smash it together with a bit of horrific ethnic sterotyping, cod technology might-be-April-Fools technocrap and some wodges of clumsy Occidentalism. Nothing good can come from such clumsiness, and I want to start off saying before I go any further that I’m a bit ill and that the sheer depths of my ignorance on almost every aspect of what follows should not be underestimated. This is an extended riff around a theme. No more.

Basically the whole thing starts and ends with an extremely dodgy thread on Barbelith – more specifically a thread in the Temple section of the board. This section has the honour of being essentially the best board on the internet about Chaos Magick, paganism and alternative spiritualities. This is in itself a pretty good thing. On the other hand, it’s also a bit of a ghetto that doesn’t mix that well with the rest of the community. I find it even more problematic because for the most part I don’t believe in any of it. I’m basically interested in Magickal practice only in as much as I’m interested in how models of said practice that concentrate on language and sigils tend to intersect with structuralist and post-structuralist thought on language as a conceptual binding agent for the modernist universe. At which point, of course, I should shut up before I sound like a complete twat.

Anyway – back to the questionable thread in question, which has been posted by one of the fun new guys who have been turning up on the site pretty regularly since we opened up the site to Google spidering. The thread is called – rather depressingly – Al queda wizards and is, essentially, about whether Al Qaeda used practicing magicians in order to influence the success of their attacks on the States and across the world. Let me say straight off that it is, in my opinion, a pretty dumb insensitive thread written by a pretty dumb insensitive person. And yet the thread has tweaked my interest because of another post which reads as follows:

“But djinn and efreeti on the battlefield would be so cool, especially if they went up against the robot tanks and battlesuits that are in development.”

Which got me thinking about technology and the way we use it to make the dreamed-of real. Because whether or not we’re at such a place where technologies are able to meet the fantasy desires of human beings – and whether or not those dreams would inevitably have to come with deep-seated provisos and qualifiers and restrictions – it’s pretty clear that these fantasies and beliefs and aspirations and desires are starting to be made real. Moreover it’s increasingly clear that our aspiration is to do this – that technology is moving more and more towards the attempt to fulfil things that have been human fantasies for hundreds or thousands of years.

Let’s start with some simple examples – which fantasies have we seen become technologised and then become commonplace? A few hundred years ago, it was the magical objects that were the focus of our aspirational children’s fantasies – fairy stories of enchanted carpets that could whisk you anywhere you wanted, cave-doors that would only open if you knew the correct passwords, magical talking beasts that could aid you in your quests, objects that responded to your whim in some way from a distance. And these objects gradually become technologised in our myth-making as they become increasingly close to plausible. The talking horses and magic carpets became the talking cars full of gadgets, the magic carpets secret military helicopters hidden in atolls. The man who could call down the power of the sun became the man with the orbiting satellite. And then the cars in real-life got GPS and computer controlled suspension and cruise controls and the televisions started keeping programmes for you that you liked and the houses started turning the lights on when you got home or responding to your voice-print. Magic became aspirational fantasy technology became real-life technology. And it’ll keep happening. It’s not that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – it’s that the aimof all technological advancement is to aspire towards the appearance of magic.

Some fantasies were born from a scientific mindset – a modernist frame of being – but had no relationship to science itself. Many of these were fantasies of aspirational human powers – extensions and enhancements of the self that are best exemplified by super-heros and comic books. These characters – given their gifts by collisions of lightning and mysterious chemicals or by the rays of strange exotic suns – might as well have been purely mystical in origin for all their relationship to any laws of thermodynamics that I’m familiar with. But that too started to change. A few decades ago a fresh pass of the fantasy crystals of TV-land created the six-million dollar man. And technologists started to try and buildworkable jet-packs. Our sensibilities with regard to fantasy started to change and our super-heroic figures started blurring more in with the realms and limits of technological possibility. And now our soldiers are wearing nanofibre weaves that make them nigh-on indestructible and have extended senses that make normal humans look comparatively useless. Binoculars become smart-glasses, clothing becomes exo-skeletal or supportive and people keep working on the jet-pack every few decades. And why? Because fundamentally people want to fly like the birds fly and they’ll keep dreaming about it until someone has made it real – however long it takes.

And while the extreme ends of super-heroics are visible on the horizon, even now we can see traces of the future possibilities of implants and genetic development in the cyborgised grannies with hi-tech hips and knees. The next few hundred years will see the development of human beings in directions that will astonish us. Any sufficiently advanced (and rich) human being will be indistiguishable from a super-hero (or a super-villain – but more on that later).

Which brings me to the religious and mystical aspirations like the idea of djinn and efreeti on the battlefield. Fundamental dreams and concepts that have lived in the narratives of cultures for millennia. And immediately I’m drawn to attempts to bring about religious events with technology that I’ve read about in Wired. Unfortunately I read it in an April (Fools?) issue of Wired so I don’t know if I believe it or not (I’m thinking not), but the story remains online and it’s scary and plausible enough to support the weight of my flimsy argument even if it’s not true: How a hologram, a blimp and a massively multiplayer game could bring about the end of the world. The article suggests that a prophecy says that a temple made of light will descend onto the site of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem – and some rather nutty technologists are proposing to make it happen with mist, some holograms and a convenient blimp. Apparently, there’s no collision with what is understood by the religions in question (Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity) except that a lamb must be sacrificed onto the altar and they’re wondering how its blood could be spilt on something with no physical substance. Prophecy is a different thing to fantasy, and this story may be total bunk, but the promise remains – could technology be used to satisfy another few aspirational desires in ways that – to all outsiders – would look like magic…

So what about djinn and efreeti on the battlefield? Will they be battling robots? Well, we already have concepts of smart dust, and self-organising swarms and motes. We already have illustrative science fiction concepts that place distributed technologies in the Middle East. Who’s to say that resurgent interest in technology combined with non-Christian value systems might not generate technologies that are built around radically non-Western metaphor sets or aspirations? Who’s to say that cultures that are based around the ultimate stability of the nation-state might not concentrate on representations of the enhanced body politic, the ultimate Westerner/Viking/ThunderGods, while cultures who have a different relationship to statehood, a different relationship to land and a different land to have a relationship with (or who are concentrated around religious identities, or in extreme cases have an understand of warfare at the cellular guerilla level, or have a more nomadic heritage – but generally just have a radically different set of metaphors and aspirations to cast into matter in the heat of technology) might view their goal to make the very land itself swarm up and fight back – to make the powerful spirits of their traditions emerge from narrative and into reality.

The world of the future, then, is full of the products of our fantasies but is it a better place? As ever it’s impossible to say. The story of the human race is no different from that of most other creatures – there’s always a tension between what’s good for the individual and what good for the collective or the environment or ecosystem within which they operate. And fantasy is a singular thing, the product of one mind wanting to put itself in the centre of an idealised future. But not everyone can be in the centre and so as individuals get catered for more and more, there’s ever more reason for people to ignore the collective and concentrate on their own gain. Arguing that the future is full of dreams fulfilled doesn’t make it necessarily Utopian – it simply means that individuals are able to experience things they’ve only dreamed of before. Whether the indirect consequence of this is that they’re also forced to experience a degradation in society and the environment that they’ve only dreamed of before is unclear. Most likely balances will be struck, equilibria found, and fantasy will move on through to the creation of more authentic experiences, new and more vigorous attempts to become the individual godheads we all secretly crave to be (in one field or another). And only the variety of cultural backgrounds that we have around us can hope to provide us with enough metaphor sets to provide us with enough new avenues for discovery to last us in the longer term. The future we’re looking towards may be one where memetic biodiversity is severely threatened as all our dreams come true.

Addendum: Think of this as the product of an unsound metabolism and don’t take it too seriously. The satisfaction I’m getting from such a large mind-dump is enormous, but don’t take that as sufficient reason to believe that anything within it is even slightly plausible. It might get edited for sense over the next couple of days as I try to find out what it’s supposed to be about.

9 replies on “Thoughts on magic, religion, metaphors and technology…”

Crikey, stop apologising! There’s a short story about at least some of what you’re on about, I think it was by Greg Bear (or was it Greg Egan) where an Islamist state builds an AI, and its outlook is totally different from the usual must-destroy-humanity stuff, or the star trek fluffbunny crap, just loads of worshipping god and hailing all the works of god as good, including itself, all the plants and animals, etc. Fairly interesting idea for a short story…
But then, djinns and efreets on the battlefield would be like that bit in Return of the King when the army of the dead traitors comes in and magically saves the day. Bit of a cop out I thought.

May I humbly suggest that if you DO edit this, don’t change this post but post the edited version here (or elsewhere). Would be a doubly interesting read to see how/why/where you edited the original.
As for the content. My head’s still spinning and I don’t want to make myself look daft so I’m keeping schtum. It IS making me think though.

You should read the books of Iain M. Banks, whose novels are set within a futuristic culture (aptly named the Culture) in which these kinds of ideas are explained at length.

May I just add David Brin’s short story “Life in the Extreme” from 1998 to the list. It fits so well. By the way, this story also premonitions your mass amateurisation of everything… maybe you’ve been channeling him? 😉

Holy Computer
In a similar, though rather more straightforward vein to Tom Coates’ post about magic and technology, Genevieve Bell writes about the religious uses of technology that she’s witnessed during over 2 years of fieldwork across Asia. It’s a powerful statem…

Updike, Roth, and S. try a new place this week, an Olde Boston favorite with lobster newburg and various varieties of scrod. The kind of restaurant where people insist scrod is a species of fish. How’s your scrod? Updike asks….

Hi there, i’m one of the people from the ‘ghetto(!)’ (Maitreya at the moment) and was thinking that maybe one thing that you could do is to try and see it from the thread starters viewpoint, someone who believes in Magick, and then maybe you won’t find the person as dumb and insensitive as you maybe do at the moment.
For the people that believe in and practise Magick it isn’t that far out an assumption to suspect that the terrorists could of actually had their own occultists working to increase the chances of the terrorist attack being ‘succesfull’, even if it does stink like it does. Maybe in asking yourself why the thread offended you, you would be able to learn something about how you perceive Magick, and why you don’t believe in it?
None of this was intended to offend you, sorry if it did, i just find it interesting that you’d think the person who brought the subject up as being dumb/insensitive when other’s who believe in Magick didn’t get that impression.

links for 2004-09-11
japanese paper robots (categories: paper robots) How to be a Programmer: A Short, Comprehensive, and Personal Summary (categories: programming) HISTORY OF ROBOTS IN THE VICTORIAN ERA (categories: history robots) Daily Yomiuri On-Line: Robots on the ma…

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