A Reflection on Hacking and Magic

Related articles: A Concise Expression of My Synthesis of Cybernetics and Magic

When someone attacks you it is not technique number one (or is it technique number two, stance two, section four?) that you are doing, but the moment you are “aware” of his attack you simply move in like sound and echo without deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw something to you, you catch it. That’s all. // Bruce Lee, “My View on Gung Fu” (from Bruce Lee: Artist of Life)

Today I read two things that have been co-working in my mind: David Metcalfe’s review of David Chaim Smith’s The Blazing Dew of Stars, and Thomas Foster’s cultural essay, “The Transparency of the Interface: Reality Hacking and Fantasies of Resistance” (from the book, The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded). I do not have much time for writing just now so I will cut to the main theme that has been emerging.

Neo’s ability to manipulate the programmed/simulated reality of the Matrix is likened to computer hacking (Morpheus to Neo: “This is a sparring program, similar to the programmed reality of the Matrix. It has the same basic rules, rules like gravity. What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system; some of them can can be bent; others can be broken.”), but manifests practically/performatively as magic, as if Neo is able to merely will the program to change and it does. (This is similar to how Kevin Flynn is sometimes able to alter the Grid in Tron: Legacy.) The problem with the computer-hacking analogy is that computer hackers do not just magically will things to happen and they do. Rather, they work diligently at understanding the computer system and then introducing variety where it did not exist previously and often was not anticipated by the system’s engineers. But Neo never studies the Matrix code nor the architectures of the machines running it, which are surely things he knew about the systems he was hacking in the “real” world. So, how is he able to hack the Matrix?

The solution to this problem lies, I suppose, in the realization of the limits and purpose of the analogy. Morpheus was not suggesting that in order to hack the Matrix Neo needed to hunch down with a computer keyboard, a printout of Matrix memory dump, and a cup of coffee; he was telling Neo that in order to “hack” the Matrix, Neo just needed to know (on a gnostic level) that the Matrix was not real, that the natural “laws” that seemed to be in effect were actually illusions created by his own mind; and he was exploiting Neo’s “real”-world experience of hacking as thinking outside-the-box (even though much of “real”-world hacking involves thinking inside-the-box i.e. understanding how the box’s contents work) or hacking as gaining superuser access to administrative functions that can change the system on a deeper level, in order to do so. This is just how magicians “hack reality”; rather than assimilating technical information about the system we are operating with(in) (well, we might do that too, but more importantly…), we assimilate gnosis of how “rules of the system” can be “bent” or “broken.” Through altered states of consciousness we (be)come to real-ize that we are ourselves creating what is ordinarily taken for granted as having been already established, and that realization empowers us to introduce variety where it did not exist previously, bringing the hacking analogy full circle.

The way we do it does not look like typing at a keyboard; it looks like closing our eyes and making gestures in the air and then the scene changes. It looks like magic… because it is magic.

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