This preview is excerpted from a series of technomantic design articles I expect to publish in the near future. It makes a few references to parts of said work that are not part of the preview. I apologize if the article is difficult to read; the series will be published on a different site with a more contemporary theme. The contents are subject to change before the complete work is published.
To see tomorrow’s computer systems, go to the video game parlors! Go to the military flight simulators! Look there to see true responsiveness, true interaction.
—Ted Nelson, “The Right Way to Think About Software Design”
Humankind has always inhabited a conceptual universe that is every bit as important to it as the physical world. Language, symbols, myths, beliefs, philosophy, mathematics, scientific theories, organizations, games, sports, and money are completely abstract dimensions but as much a part of our humanity as rocks and trees.
—Myron Krueger, “Myron Krueger Live”
Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality—worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act.
—Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre
The word cyberspace today often denotes the Internet. William Gibson coined the word in his cyberpunk novels to mean a three-dimensional, graphical representation of the global computer network accessed via brain-computer interfaces called “cyberdecks” or just “decks,” which transport the minds of their users to:
[…] bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void… the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data. […] A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding […]1
The word became associated with similar ideas from around the same time such as Vernor Vinge’s “Other Plane” in True Names, and also with virtual reality: “a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person.”2 The term virtual reality was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987, three years after he had founded VPL Research to engineer and experiment with head-mounted displays, wired gloves, and other devices for interacting with digital content by moving one’s head, hands, and other parts of her body. It was not quite “decking” as Gibson had envisioned it, but it was a start. VR technology has improved since 1984, but we are still getting most of our data from HMDs and none of it over wetwired interfaces.
Cyberspace is partially a literalization of spatial metaphors about computing, which are plentiful. Consider, e.g., the World Wide Web, which you navigate with a browser (bearing names such as Navigator, Explorer, Safari, and Compass) when you go to a Web address. Before the Web we had bulletin board systems whose design was informed by the metaphor of posting messages on a physical bulletin board. Such metaphors are more or less informed by our embodied experiences as actors in physical spaces interacting with physical objects occupying those spaces, but they become their own things conceptually and, to some extent, somatically. When you “go into” a chat room, you do not experience physically walking into a room full of people who are socializing (there are 3D chat applications that simulate this), but rather you press some buttons on your keyboard and your computer screen responds with signs letting you know you have “gone into a chat room,” and you immediately understand that means messages you send can be read by people “inside” that “room” and not “outside,” and that there are certain rules and expectations that pertain to this new “environment.” You do not scan the room for a bar or check to see what color the wallpaper is (although you might pretend to:
/me looks around for the bar), but your body still changes in response: you act differently in a chat room than otherwise.
Magical or ritual spaces are other spaces we may physically or conceptually occupy. A common example of creating magical space is casting a magic circle wherein a ritual is to be performed, which can be done in a variety of ways from rearranging a physical space and actually drawing a circle there with some instrument, to simply visualizing the circle in the mind’s eye and performing some activity to activate it.3 However and wherever the circle is constructed it marks a non-trivial distinction between things within and without it: magical vs. mundane, sacred vs. profane, microcosmic vs. macrocosmic, etc. The circumscribed space maps to the magician’s mental space, providing a context wherein agents, actions, or objects within the circle become magically efficacious or are magically protected from outside forces. Like the chat room, this space facilitates certain activities governed by perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and permissions that are peculiar to that space.
Virtuality in Magic and Machine
The sacred can find many modes of expression; everything from a cathedral to a precious stone to the starry night sky can, in the right situation, be impossibly meaningful. The sacred enters cyberspace with us; we endow virtual objects with their sacred attributes. It’s essential to create a design that has places in which visitors can exteriorize their imaginings, place the sacred within themselves into the space, and sanctify it.
—Mark Pesce, VRML: Browsing & Building Cyberspace
A magic circle is magical because of what it represents; this applies as well to the athame or consecrated salt the circle is drawn with, and any glyphs or words of power inscribed therein—the symbol of Mercury and name of God represent the occult agents they are written for. Indeed, sorcery is rife with examples of representation. The poppet, e.g., typically represents an actual person, and the act of sticking pins into the doll represents the intent to actually injure that person.4 Neither the actual person nor actual injury is physically present at the ritual act. Compare that to the meanings of virtual in computing (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary):
- Of hardware, a resource, etc.: not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so from the point of view of a program or user.
- That is a computerized or digitized simulation of something; spec. (esp. in earlier use) simulated in virtual reality. Also: established or conducted using computer technology rather than more traditional means. Cf. virtual reality.
Nearly everything about computing involves representation. Transistors represent binary digits (bits) which represent logically true or false states. These bits are recombined to represent words, images, sounds… When people imagine virtual reality they often think of heads-up displays projecting computer-generated environments, but in their own ways, Halo and World of Warcraft are virtual realities, as are Angry Birds, Pac-Man, and Zork. As are Google Maps, Photoshop, and the Windows desktop.
In both magic and computing, we must take care when juxtaposing virtual and actual:
Virtual: That is such in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality. In later use also: supposed, imagined. (OED)
Actual: Existing in fact, real; carried out, acted in reality. Opposed to potential, possible, ideal, etc. (OED)
Consider the example of hardware virtualization. With the laptop computer I am typing this on, I have installed software named VirtualBox that allows me to simulate other computers on this computer (the process is called hardware emulation, and the simulations are called virtual machines). Thus I can run Kali Linux, FreeDOS, and Windows 98 all from the same machine that is running my usual operating system. The virtual machines do not have physical CPUs or disk drives—those things are simulated—but I can actually install and run software on them. I can type on my actual keyboard or click my actual mouse and actually observe the consequences of my actions on the virtual computers’ virtual screens which appear as windows on my actual computer’s actual screen.
I can interact with software running on a virtual machine as if it were running on a physical machine, but there are differences between a virtual and physical computer. If I want to increase the RAM in a physical computer, I need to open the machine and insert a chip that physically contains more RAM addresses. On the virtual computer, I just change a digital setting that specifies how much of my physical computer’s RAM is allocated to the virtual computer as virtual RAM. And there is the trick: the virtual RAM maps to the physical RAM in a way that conserves something essential about what RAM does—a sort of RAM-ness—without sharing all of the qualities possessed by physical RAM.
The same is true of the rocks and trees in World of Warcraft, or the maze walls in Pac-Man, or the lamp in Colossal Cave Adventure: they all simulate real rocks, trees, walls, and lamps in ways that conserve something about our experiences of those things in the “real” world. The maze walls cannot be passed through (even by ghosts, curiously). The lamp turns on and off and when on, you can use it to see in the dark (lest ye fall into a bottomless pit or be eaten by a grue), but there are many other things you cannot do with the lamp in Adventure that you can with a “real” lamp, because the virtual lamp does not have all the qualities of a “real” lamp. It does not need them; it need only possess those qualities of a lamp that pertain to playing the game. Indeed, you cannot even see the Adventure lamp with your physical eyes; it exists only as the word ‘lamp’ and if you want to see it you must visualize it in your mind’s eye (assisted by the adjectives ‘shiny’ and ‘brass’). The word ‘lamp’ identifies what the object is, and in the context of the text adventure game is also identical to the object itself. The rocks and trees of WoW are identical to “real” rocks and trees in ways that allow us to identify them as rocks and trees. The words identity, identify, and identical all stem from the Latin idem meaning “the same”, but it is a sameness that allows us to recognize a difference. A tree whether physical or virtual is a tree and not a rock because a tree has qualities it shares with all other trees and which are not shared by rocks (cf., Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas). Within the simulated world of WoW, the appearance of rocks and trees informs the player’s expectations of how to interact with those objects and what roles they play in that world, because of how they correspond to the player’s experiences of rocks and tree in the “real” world.
So it is with the witch’s poppet in ritual space: it possesses something essential about the person it represents. Mappings between the doll and person could be symbolic but are more often iconic (the doll physically resembles the person) or indexical (the doll could be constructed with something belonging to the person, such as a lock of hair or piece of clothing). Made properly, the doll takes on the person’s essence or character (from the Greek ????????, kharakt?r, “type, nature, character,” from ???????, kharáss?, “I engrave”), effectively becoming that person within the ritual space, the context for the magical act. Manipulating the doll is both actual in the sense of the Latin actualis (“active, practical”), from actus (“act, action, performance”)—intended to have an actual (not merely supposed or imagined) effect on the person the doll represents—and virtual in the sense that the sorcerer is directly manipulating the doll, i.e., the virtual person instead of the actual person.
There are also digital artifacts that we do not typically think of as being virtual, such as digital image and audio files, as well as the software applications used to make and view or listen them. Although digital images and sounds grew out of studying physical photographs and analog audio recordings, and figuring out how to represent those things digitally, most users of Instagram or iTunes treat those applications as real things that display real images or play real songs. As the fidelity of digital visual and audio media improves, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish digital from analog, or between real and fake (cf., hyperreality). Digital images and sounds are usually adequate for ritual magic, and have the advantage that they are computational, i.e., they can be created, presented, or transformed by computers, thus they are especially fit for cyber-ritual magic.
The Desert of the Real
Mimetic representations do not necessarily have real-world referents.
—Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre
From the beginning, I cautioned about the “trap of realism” which would limit virtual reality to merely imitating life when it offered the possibility of something completely new. We should celebrate these new realities, explore them, and be confident that the worlds that we create are every bit as valid as the one we started in. Ultimately, reality is whatever we say it is.
—Myron Krueger, “Myron Krueger Live”
Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
—Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”
In the 1990s, some technnopagans performed rituals over IRC.5 All communications between the participants were text-based. Here is an excerpt from a script prepared by Christopher Penczak:
LEADER: In this space we create a temple. Our work today is prosperity magick and the temple is filled with the colors green, blue, and purple, to bring abundance in all our lives. The temple is filled with the finest of luxuries, gold and silver fixtures, fine silks, and all the modern conveniences you could desire. Everything you desire is in this temple.
LEADER: As we do our spell work, each member, in order, will send the group his or her intention for prosperity and manifestation. As a group, we will add our energy for a few moments, visualizing the outcome while we work in this temple together.
PARTICIPANTS: (Each person, in order, sends his or her intention to the chat room.)
LEADER: We release all these intentions to manifest for our higher good, harming none in the process. So mote it be.
PARTICIPANTS: So mote it be.6
Here, the computer is a medium for coordinating the interactions of the ritual participants who still employ usual magical techniques such as guided visualization and “sending intention.” In the subsequent decade, people performed “cyber-rituals” within the online, virtual worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft.7 Instead of telling each other what to visualize or what they were doing, the participants could show what their avatars were doing, interacting together within a graphical representation of a temple or other ritual space. The temple described by Penczak and shared by the common visualization of the participants guided by the shared textual description, and the Second Life temple shared by the common viewing of a collection of 3D-graphical objects, are both virtual realities of a sort. Like my virtual machines, neither temple exists in all the same ways a physical temple exists, but they both conserve certain essential qualities or attributes of a physical temple. The virtual temple is built so the ritual participants may actually perform familiar acts of magic or paganism within it, just as virtual RAM exists within a virtual machine so that it might be used to run actual software requiring RAM to run.
The ritual participants are able to map their experiences as embodied actors in a physical space onto the virtual space according to their familiarity with temple spaces, but because the virtual temple is not really physical, it is not bound by the laws of physics. Things such as gravity and impermeability may be simulated in order to facilitate realistic interaction, but they can also be omitted in order to permit fantastic interaction. When I intend to leave a “real” temple, I need to walk out of it while avoiding running into any walls, but in Second Life—as in dreams—I can walk through walls or fly away. Because I can fly, the temple need not be built on the ground; it may be erected on a cloud or asteroid, or just float by itself in space. It may be configured and interacted with in ways that are not only impractical in the physical world, but impossible.
The virtuality of a thing is what it seems to be, rather than its reality, the technical or physical underpinnings on which it rests. Virtuality has two aspects: conceptual structure—the ideas of the thing—and feel—its qualitative and sensory particulars. In a movie, the conceptual structure consists of the plot and the characters, and the feel consists of atmosphere, suspense, and style. In architecture, the conceptual structure is the idea of a building and the sense of where things are, and the feel is the sweep and style and detailing. In a video game, the conceptual structure includes the rules and strategies, and the feel includes the tuning, spirit, motion characteristics, colors, and other sensory aspects.8
It is easy to see how the virtual temple corresponds to what Nelson said about the virtuality of architecture: it possesses the conceptual structure and feel of a real temple sans the technical or physical underpinnings on which a real temple rests, hence it is virtually real rather than physically real. It is actually real (or really actual) in the sense that is facilitates action or activity, but really the word real is the problem here. From Latin re?lis ?(“actual”), in turn from Latin r?s (“matter, thing”), real firstly means: “having an objective existence; actually existing physically as a thing, substantial; not imaginary” (OED). The computer-generated temple is not real in the same way a concrete temple is, but it is real in a way the imaginary temple is not: we can behold it with our eyes, not just in our imagination. Properly, it is an (animated) image of a temple, from Latin im?g?: “a copy, likeness, image.” We might also call it a simulation, a simul?crum (“likeness, image”), from simul? ?(“imitate”). From Plato to Judaism and Christianity, and to the present day, there is a complex history of distinguishing among images, simulations, icons (from Greek eik?n, “likeness, image, portrait”), idols (from eíd?lon, “image, idol,” from eîdos, “form”—cf., idea), and phantasms or fantasies (from Greek phántasma, “phantasm, an appearance, image, apparition, specter,” from phantáz?, “I make visible”), as either legitimate or illegitimate (counterfeit) in various contexts.9
Today, we usually conflate ‘virtual’ with ‘digital’ or ‘simulated’, but the word comes to us from the Latin virtus: virtue. If we examine the etymology of virtue we see that its definitions are split into two general categories: (1) as a quality of people and divine beings, and (2) as a quality of things. The first sense includes definitions such as (all quotations here are from OED) “a moral quality regarded (esp. in religious contexts) as good or desirable in a person, such as patience, kindness, etc.; a particular form of moral excellence,” and, “the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being,” and thus, “an act of supernatural or divine power; a miracle.” The second sense includes “power, efficacy, worth,” such as:
- “with reference to a precious stone: magical power, esp. for healing or protection”
- “in Christian contexts: power or efficacy resulting from the moral or holy character of a thing; influence working for good upon human life or conduct. Also (in early use): miraculous power”
- “with reference to a plant, liquid, or other substance: power to affect the body in a beneficial manner; strengthening, sustaining, or healing power”
Definitions of virtual are also divided into two categories: (1) “senses relating to particular qualities or virtues” (cf., virtuous), and (2) “senses relating to essential, as opposed to physical or actual, existence.” In the first sense:
- “Inherently powerful or effective owing to particular natural qualities.”
- “Of a plant, liquid, or other substance: having potent healing properties; powerful, strengthening.”
- “Producing, or capable of producing, a particular result; effective.”
And in the second sense, of course, are all the definitions relating to virtual reality and virtual machines as we know them today.
The classical virtue of a thing is that thing’s essential, usually hidden (occult) character, which gives that thing its capacity to be efficacious (cf., mana). We read in The Lesser Key of Solomon:
Magic is the Highest, most Absolute, and most Divine Knowledge of Natural Philosophy, advanced in its works and wonderful operations by a right understanding of the inward and occult virtue of things; so that true Agents being applied to proper Patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced. Whence magicians are profound and diligent searchers into Nature; they, because of their skill, know how to anticipate an effect, the which to the vulgar shall seem to be a miracle.10
Such a notion of occult virtue was elaborated by Agrippa, according to whom some virtues are elemental and cause a thing to heat, cool, moisten, or dry, while others “are called occult qualities, because their causes are hidden, and because human intellect cannot entirely investigate them—whereby the greater number of philosophers attained this from very long experience rather than from searching by reason.”11 Agrippa’s occult philosophy inherited from Aristotle and especially from Plato, whose “Ideas are not only the essential causes of any species, but are also the causes of every virtue belonging to such species.” The occult virtues of stones and herbs correspond to the souls of heavenly bodies such that the former have agency within the latter’s province: a stone or herb imbued with (e.g.) Jovian virtues is inherently potent with regard to things governed by Jove, in addition to its more conspicuous or elemental qualities. Agrippa said:
Therefore if we wish to work with some quality or virtue, we must search for an animal or other thing that belongs to such an excellent quality, and from this take the part in which such a quality or virtue especially thrives. For instance, if we wish to promote love, we search for some animal that especially loves, which are pigeons, turtledoves, sparrows, swallows, and wagtails. From these we take the members or parts whose strength has the greatest venereal appetite, which are the heart, testicles, womb, penis, sperm, and menses. This must happen at a time when that animal is most affected by captivation and intensity: indeed then they greatly provoke and draw love. Likewise for increasing boldness we must search for a lion or rooster from whom we take the heart, eyes or forehead.12
The dove’s heart becomes a sign of love, able to represent love in a magical space, and not just in an abstract way but more concretely, as if the heart is love incarnate (“in the flesh”), yet it is precisely the immaterial essence of love rather than any fleshy instance of affection, which the heart-sign brings to bear. Again, sorcery is replete with signs, with things representing other things, which not only mentally imply other things but that embody or communicate those other things in a special way. In magic, signs possess a peculiar gravity and functionality: spells, enchantments, and curses not only refer to the sorcerer’s intentions; they (seemingly, virtually) cause her intentions to actually occur (cf., speech acts). This is not the finger that points to the moon; it is the finger that commands with a gesture. Magical glyphs, runes, wards, and sigils do not simply refer to mental concepts, but rather they are possessed of a mystical dúnamis (“power”) or enérgeia (“action, act, work”) that makes them active: they do not just mean; they do.
But the dove’s heart is a physical object, so how could we interact with it in a virtual space? Would a digital image of a dove’s heart carry the same power or energy? The domain of materia magica may pose some problems for the cyber-ritualist, as it is precisely matter that is missing from virtual reality. However, there are things we can do with audiovisual media that would be difficult or impossible to do materially, and which can still be sufficiently engaging, as many cinema goers and video game players can attest. Fortunately, magical agents have not only materials that represent them but also images, glyphs, words, tones, colors, gestures, etc. Sorcerers have compiled indexes of magical sign relations, called tables of correspondences—a correspondence being a “relation of agreement, similarity, or analogy” (OED). Magical correspondences are closely related to the idea of occult virtue. The 18th-century polymath Emanuel Swedenborg‘s Doctrine of Correspondences said that “every natural object symbolizes or corresponds to some spiritual fact or principle which is, as it were, its archetype or prototype” (OED)—that sounds familiar. Cf., Paracelsus‘s Doctrine of Signatures, which stated that a plant resembling a body part could be used to treat an ailment of that part. Cf., Frazer’s sympathetic magic:
If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.13
Simplistic though Frazer’s binary categorization is, by emphasizing iconic (similar) and indexical (contagious) relations he implicitly rejects the notion that magic is primarily symbolic. More importantly, however, we continue to see this weird connection between virtuality and actuality in magic. By virtue of similarity or contagion a thing can become virtually the same as another thing such that a change to the first thing seems to cause (or be correlated with) an actual change to the second. The connection is mystical or occult (recall Sørensen’s “opaque causal mediation”); it is not “real” in the sense of “having an objective existence; actually existing physically as a thing, substantial; not imaginary” (OED).
Perhaps Nelson’s virtuality applies also to ritual magic. Whether invoking gods, evoking dæmons, transubtantiating supper, reading oracles, laying hands, manipulating poppets, or charging sigils, there is always something non-trivial that is virtually rather than physically present in the ritual space, although unusual physical phenomena are sometimes observed. Returning to the poppet as an example: the doll and the act of injuring it have the conceptual structure and feel of the person and injury they represent, while the “reality” of the person and injury—the technical and physical underpinnings on which they rest—are absent from the ritual space. If the doll were to start bleeding (cf., weeping statues), then a weird physical phenomenon may be observed sans a “real” mechanism to make bleeding possible. While such phenomena may reinforce someone’s belief in the efficacy of sorcery (or the reality of gods or dæmons, etc.), they are typically incidental and not required for the magic to “work” or be effective.
A Tale of Two Matrices
Whereas the HMD folks thought that 3D scenery was the essence of reality, I felt that the degree of physical involvement was the measure of immersion. Instead of being concerned about the stagecraft, I focused on the play.
—Myron Krueger, “Myron Krueger Live”
Problems of distinguishing between virtual and real are not new. Ever since civilization began, magicians and illusionists have played with the boundaries between the physical world and illusionary worlds. Even so, the advent of the new electronic media has brought these problems to a new level.
—Kim Veltman, Understanding New Media: Augmented Knowledge and Culture
The 1999 film The Matrix featured an eponymous computer-simulated reality that occupied the minds of most humans in order to keep them docile while the robots who created the Matrix fed on the the humans’ bioelectricity. This Matrix was made to simulate the “real” world as it was at the end of the 20th century in as much detail as the robots could recreate, and while those humans who realized it was an illusion could hack it and so acquire extraordinary, magic-like abilities, for most inhabitants it was a mental prison. The Matrix is part of a long tradition of stories about technology gone out of control, which I believe are part of the tradition of stories about magic gone out of control: e.g., the golem of Prague, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and “The Monkey’s Paw.” But it is also a narrative about the negative or maleficent aspects of simulacra, and many people have noted its Gnostic and Buddhist themes of waking up to the illusory nature of material or phenomenal reality.14
Virtual realities are possible because we normally do not distinguish between perception and illusion.15 When you play a video game your nervous system quickly embraces the game as “real” and you forget that it is not until you step away from the game and recall the distinction between the game and the “real” world. This is not peculiar to video games; other kinds of games work the same way, as do pretty much all other human activities, including ritual (ritual magic is best performed when you are completely engaged in it presently and not worrying about how silly you might look or whether or not the magic is going to work). If you observe something while playing the game that does not “make sense,” it may remind you that you are playing a game (cf., Heidegger’s presence-at-hand and readiness-at-hand)—”like a splinter in your mind” (cf., cognitive dissonance).
The word Matrix as a name for cyberspace was first used in 1976 in the Doctor Who serial, The Deadly Assassin, wherein it denoted a neural-network computer made of the memories of deceased or disembodied Time Lords, and which had a simulated-reality interface. In 1984, Gibson used it as a synonym for cyberspace in Neuromancer, and his concept of it informed the Matrix in the 1989 role-playing game, Shadowrun (where it was a.k.a. “the Grid,” which was the term later used for a similar concept in Tron: Legacy, probably inspired by the “Game Grid” of the original Tron).
As in Neuromancer, the Matrix of Shadowrun is accessed with a cyberdeck and when people are connected (“decked in,” “jacked in,” or “plugged in”) their senses are supplied with computer-generated data that override sensory input from the physical world and represent a world of images corresponding to the computer systems, programs, and data of the Matrix. This technology, called “simsense,” can also be used to experience the recorded sensations of another person, like in the film Strange Days.
In the Matrix, the appearance of and actions of absolutely everything is a metaphor for what is actually occurring. A decker who dodges the searing energy blast fired from the shoulder of the battle-armored guardian of the node isn't really doing that at all. His deck is engaged in a war of program codes and loose energy with the computer system that controls the node. The node and its security systems attempt to command the cyberdeck to do something, while at the same time the deck is trying to block the effort. The decker experiences the metaphor of this. He dodges (the deck successfully blocks the command attempt) the searing energy blast (the command attempt) emitted by the battle-armored guardian (the node's security system). At no time is any actual energy blast generated, nor does the decker really dodge. What he experiences, through the simsense interface, is a metaphor for the interaction of the decker's cyberdeck and the computer system with which he is in conflict.16
Here, the Matrix functions like a computer desktop interface wherein you manage data in “files” and “folders,” and delete data by dropping files or folders into a “trash bin.” The martial form (‘battle-armored guardian’) of the ICE is suggestive of its function, as is the style of interacting with it: the battle—an iconic sign of struggle between two parties vying for control—signifies a struggle for control between the decker and the system he is attempting to take control of. The simulation has the conceptual structure and feel of person-to-person combat even though that is not what is “really” happening.
The advantages of metaphorical design of interfaces are twofold. For one, it generates novelty. The desktop interface metaphor was successful at creating a new interface (regardless of anyone’s opinion about its quality or efficacy). Using the metaphor of sorcery instead of desktops generated the Sorcerer Linux distribution, in which the user installs new software by “cast”ing it and removes software by “dispel”ling it. The other advantage, and the one that metaphorical design is typically lauded for, is that it conserves things about the “real” world in order that users can intuit and anticipate how to interact with those things based on their accumulated experiences of living in the “real” world.
The disadvantages are also twofold. One is that the metaphor is like reality only different, and in order to understand the difference we must build a mental model of what is happening inside the computer in order to explain the difference, which can complicate interaction instead of simplifying it.17 An example is dragging the (icon representing the) floppy drive to the (icon representing the) trash bin in order to eject the disk from the drive. Typically, you drag items you intend to delete to the trash bin, based on the metaphor of throwing unwanted things away, so many users inferred (“intuited”) that dragging the floppy drive to the trash bin would erase the disk’s contents or remove the drive from the computer, not eject the disk from the drive. The latter functionality is based in how computers used to make images of disks in RAM in order to read data faster, and when you ejected the disk you also needed to delete the image, but that is not intuitive to someone whose first experience with computers is mediated by the Macintosh desktop, because it is not part of her cumulative experience.
The other disadvantage to metaphorical design is the more we try to simulate the “real” world the more we become constrained by real-world limitations (“You think that’s air you’re breathing now?”). Very little about Photoshop seems intuitive to many people until they have worked with the interface for a while, when experience and familiarity lead to its becoming “second nature” to them and they get a “feel” for where things are located within the interface and what they do. But at no time is interacting with Photoshop very much like working in a photo lab. Some of the photography jargon, e.g., “cropping” (which might be represented by an icon depicting a cutting tool), is conserved for the sake of familiarity, but if we were to replace today’s Photoshop with a three-dimensional, virtual world in which to manipulate digital images, it would be a step backward to furnish that world with a virtual knife, straightedge, and cutting mat in order to perform the function of cropping an image.
In addition to rejecting ‘virtual reality’ and ‘artificial reality’ (see below) as oxymorons, Nelson rejected as well the high importance of metaphor in software design. He cited VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, as an example of software having virtuality (conceptual structure plus feel) that was not based in simulating something from the “real” world. Some of VisiCalc’s principles were derived metaphorically from accounting worksheets, but rather than try to represent an accounting worksheet on a computer, the creators of VisiCalc made something novel and multidimensional. Cells could contain formulas that perform calculations or reference other cells, which a paper ledger cannot do. VisiCalc combined familiar elements from the “real” world with things existing only within the virtual world of the computer.
Using new media to mimic traditional magics is one way to generate technomantic designs, and such designs may help novice technomancers make the leap from traditional to new magics, but new media offer new—sometimes radically new—possibilities. You could use IRC or Second Life to simulate a “real”-world ritual in as much detail as those media will allow, or you could ask yourself, “what does my magic need to do?” and then discover within these new media new ways to mediate your magic. As Brenda Laurel advised, “Focus on designing the action. The design of objects, environments, and characters is all subsidiary to this central goal.”18
Like the dreamer who suddenly realizes that what she is experiencing is a dream and so she is not fooled by what she sees but is instead liberated to change her situation by altering the dream itself, or like Neo discovering that the world he inhabits is really a computer system and so some of its rules can be bent or broken, we may awaken to the malleability of code and our own freedom to design something new with it: free from the shackles of realism and tradition, and also free to incorporate (literally, “embody,” as in corpus) anything from reality or tradition as we see fit. A new cyberskin for the old ceremony, maybe, or perhaps something far different.
The Body Electric
Rather than denying the body, virtual reality reconnects it to the life of the mind. I have always pointed to physical participation as the key distinction of virtual reality.
Personal computers have evolved in an office environment in which you sit on your butt, moving only your fingers, entering and receiving information censored by your conscious mind. That is not your whole life, and probably not even the best part.
—Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe, Physical Computing:
Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers
Whilst the state of ecstasy is usually described as ‘transcending the flesh’ it is important to note that the witches’ ecstatic vision grows out of the flesh as a plant does from soil. There may be visions of flying through the air, or going in through doors underground, but right from the beginning it will help us in our journey if we understand how rooted in biological experience vision is.
—Lee Morgan, A Deed Without a Name:
Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft
Brenda Laurel once wrote:
At every conference and in almost every interview, someone alludes to the notion that that VR encourages the further separation of mind and body. In the future world of William Gibson's Neuromancer books, the body is "meat," and the interesting parts of life (except maybe sex) are on the net. Vernor Vinge painted a picture of such a condition in his celebraed short story "True Names"—the mind accelerates into the net, clothed in pixelated radiance, leaving the body forgotten, slumped over a keyboard in some shabby basement room.19
I have been talking about escaping the tyranny of realism and how design of the virtual need not be constrained by physical requirements, but I want to be clear that I believe somatic experience is an important part of both ritual and virtual design. Even for deckers and astral projectors: although their physical bodies lie dormant, they are exploring virtual or astral spaces with their virtual or astral bodies. Indeed, the key to astral projection is transitioning from a state of thinking about being on the astral plane to feeling with all of your senses that you actually are there—in body as well as mind. Virtual reality should be “for taking your body with you into worlds of imagination, remote real landscapes, [and] fantastic new works of art,”20 not for neglecting the body in favor of the mind.
Virtual reality began not just as a way of making a more believable simulated world, but as a means of involving more of the body in human-computer interaction. Pioneers including Lanier and Myron Krueger sought emancipation from a model of HCI that looks like this:
That model is informed by cognitivism, a psychological philosophy that equates cognition with computation. Recall what Boden said about computers being symbol manipulators. Surely, there is some degree to which humans mentally manipulate symbols, and in order to conceive of computation and design computers our brains must be at least capable of modeling computation even if they do not compute per se,21 but human animals are more complex—more “squishy”—than boxes with screens and keyboards attached to them, and we interact with the world through very dynamic bodies. Embodiment or embodied cognition is a postcognitivist idea that:
[…] has become a much discussed concept in cognitive science in recent years [the 1990s], and many take it, together with situatedness, to be the defining feature of a new approach to to the study of mind commonly referred to as embodied cognitive science or embodied cognition. Embodied cognition offers a radical shift in explanations of the human mind […] which emphasizes the way cognition is shaped by the body and its sensorimotor interaction with the world. This is a reaction against the computer metaphor of traditional cognitive science, which views cognition as symbol manipulation, centralized and taking place inside the skull while the body only serves as some kind of input and output device, i.e., a physical interface between internal program (cognitive processes) and external world.22
Krueger was sympathetic to this postcognitivism, saying: “Artificial realities are based on the premise that the perceptual intelligence that all men share is more powerful than the symbol manipulation skills that are the province of a few.”23 Cf., Crowley on ritual magic: “[…] if [the student] have any capacity whatever, he will find his own crude rituals more effective than the highly polished ones of other people.”24 We might suppose that ceremonial magic or Qabalah, e.g., is akin to ‘symbol manipulation’ while simpler (more “primitive,” some might say, but I disagree) sorcery is more like ‘perceptual intelligence’, but even the most ceremonial magic involves the magician’s body in countless ways, and the Hermetic axiom, “as above, so below,” on which so many of ceremonial magic’s correspondences rest, is framed by our experiences as embodied entities inhabiting the apparently flat surface of a planet with an apparent division between earth and sky. There is no real up from a sphere; “up” is a feature of our (virtual) reality construction, not an objective property of the world we inhabit.
Although both were intended to bring more embodiment to HCI, Kruger’s artificial reality differs from Lanier’s virtual reality in being “a responsive environment in which a computer perceives the actions of those who enter and responds intelligently through complex visual and auditory displays.”25 In other words, rather than outfitting a person with a head-mounted display of a computer-generated 3D environment that changes as she virtually moves around within it, the person physically moves within the physical space which changes in response to her position, gesture, voice, etc. (cf., augmented reality, which superimposes digital artifacts over an otherwise unaltered view of the physical world). Although artificial reality takes the physical world into greater consideration than does virtual reality, Krueger is clear that the virtue of artificial reality lies within its virtuality (in Nelson’s sense): “In the long range [the responsive environment] augurs a new realm of human experience, artificial realities which seek not to simulate the physical world but to define arbitrary, abstract and otherwise impossible relationships between action and result.”26 Sounds like magic to me.
It is easy to see that most HCI today still involves people looking at screens and manipulating things with their fingers. Recall the comparison I made between rituals mediated by IRC and Second Life. The IRC ritual is mostly visualized in the mind’s eye, with text messages between participants guiding their visualized content and coordinating their activity. The upgrade to Second Life involves real-izing the visual content as three-dimensional, computer generated graphics, however the mode of interacting in that space is mostly commands and dialogue typed on a computer keyboard just like with the chat ritual. Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe have suggested that if a computer could see what humans look like based on what inputs and outputs we share with it, we might look like this (cf., the cortical homonculus):27
This “sad creature […] can’t walk, dance, or jump; it can’t sing or scream. It can’t make grand sweeping gestures. And it has only one direction in which to look.” By expanding to physical computing, we can map more physical activities to human-computer interaction:28
Krueger’s artificial realities are made possible by physical computing: transducers converting light, sound, movement, etc., to electrical signals that can be interpreted by a computer (as sensors) and vice versa (as actuators). The human’s sensorimotor interaction is mapped to sensors and actuators placed in the environment that make it interactive. The environment becomes sensorimotor (there is Decken’s sensation-action paradigm of computing, again); it becomes alive, in a sense, awakening to the presence of the person within it, and this responsiveness in turn gives the space a peculiar presence of its own. Physical computing also allows us to reconsider the roles of magical materials and ritual objects in cyber-ritual design.
While we wait for Fuchi Industrial Electronics to deliver the simsensual Matrix experience of the future, there are things we can do presently to bring the world of the computer “outside the box” and into the physical spaces our bodies and ritual objects occupy, merging the physical and virtual in ways that break out of the frames imposed by desktop and workstations models of computing, and making more interesting magician-computer interactions. Thinking more about physical computing can also help to build better virtual realities.
All Our Cyberspaces
More recently, David Benyon has applied Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s Conceptual Blending to Paul Milgram et al.’s mixed reality to create what Benyon calls blended spaces.29 Milgram et al. proposed that reality and virtuality are endpoints on a continuum:30
Conceptual Blending (a.k.a. Conceptual Integration) is a theory of how new concepts are generated by blending elements from input “spaces” according to basic conceptual schema that arise from our experiences (and biological heritage) as embodied actors in physical space.31 It is based in the imaginative faculty but applies to reasoning and other cognitive functions, and owes a good deal to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s conceptual metaphor theories.32 Jesper Sørensen has applied Conceptual Blending to the study of magic,33, and Manuel Imaz and David Benyon have applied it to software engineering and interface design.34 I have alluded to it throughout these essays when I talk of mapping between technology and magic; Conceptual Blending is what makes techno-mancy possible.
Benyon’s blended spaces are generated by mapping elements of physical and digital spaces onto an actual (not merely conceptual) space that blends them seamlessly: seamless because the mapping is informed by the sort of fundamental schema that inform so much of how we think, so we experience the blend in a “natural” or “intuitive” way (recall what Krueger said about ‘perceptual intelligence’).
Benyon’s blended spaces focus on presence, which he considers “as interaction between the self and the content of the medium within which the self exists, and place is this medium.”35 Traditional virtual reality struggles with presence: your vision may be immersed within a digital environment in which you can move your point of view around by turning your head, but if you physically step forward you may trip over or run into an object that is not visible in the virtual space. You become reminded of the difference between the physical and virtual worlds; presence is replaced by dissonance.
This essay began with space-related metaphors in computing. I shall end it by proposing to expand the notion of “cyberspace” to embrace all the various spaces—physical, digital, virtual, conceptual, magical, and ritual—in which we interact with or through computational media: an inclusion rather than a conclusion. This includes the World Wide Web, chat rooms, Bash, Windows, Photoshop, Candy Crush, virtual realities, responsive environments, and blended spaces. It includes the space in which the potential of any computer program or human-computer interaction is revealed—unfolding, as it were. It includes the physical space wherein a computer interacts with a human or any other subject or object, as well as the mental, social, and cultural spaces that computers now facilitate and populate. It includes all computational media that allow for the transmission of ideas no matter how concrete or abstract. These are not just spaces but places: loci of occurrences and our experiences of their occurring. What might the genii locorum of these spaces have to teach us about potential sorceries therein? As Viola Spolin said, “If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach.”36
Tank, load the jump program.