Electronic Revolution

The more disempowered people are, the more they long for magic, which explains why magic becomes the province of women in a sexist society. And what are most spells about? Usually procuring love, with the hexing of enemies running a close second.
// Erica Jong, Witches

One of the first books to turn me on to technomancy was William S. Burroughs’s The Electronic Revolution, wherein the author explains his ideas about the word virus and how to exploit it via manipulating and playing back media including photographs and audio tape recordings. Below is an excerpt from the text, which describes an essentially sorcerous operation against a small business that had offended Burroughs; seems petty, but the final paragraph maps the technique onto ‘the arena of politics’. As you read the excerpt, compare ‘tape recorder 2’ to a magical link.



Hungry for more? Here is the complete text (pdf).

See also: Cursing (and Hacking) Up

Burroughs Electronic Revolution

Cursing (and Hacking) Up

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
// Ephesians 6:12

Recent news about the Ashley Madison hack reminded me of something I have been wanting to write about on here for a while.

Firstly, I need to introduce the concept of punching up, which “is a term for deploying powerful techniques of criticism and rhetoric to critique and dismantle power structures, rather than to harm people disempowered relative to yourself. It (apparently) comes from comedy, in which the idea is to make fun of powerful people and institutions rather than disempowered people” (Geek Feminism Wiki). If you want to read more about it, here is a good piece from a few years ago.

I have a similar ethic about magical cursing, which I call cursing up. I love baleful and malefic magic; can’t get enough of the stuff, really. But I am not much for cursing my neighbor because he plays his music too loudly or got paint chips in my yard, or cursing a cafĂ© for serving me poisoned cheesecake (remember Burroughs and the Moka Bar?), or even cursing the Comcast or Dell technical “support” people who really rouse my ire (I am seeing red before I have even finished dialing the numbers to call them). Usually, I have adequate mundane solutions for such things. However, there are many problems in the world today for which I am, frankly, not clever enough to engineer solutions, so I sometimes practice magic either to aid the people who are, or wallop the ones causing the problems (you could say I literally get medieval on them, but my style of magic, while sometimes inspired and informed by my studies of medieval magic, rarely resembles the older craft).

Magic, especially witchcraft, has some history of use by marginalized people. In the introduction to her excellent book, Witches, Erica Jong writes, “The more disempowered people are, the more they long for magic, which explains why magic becomes the province of women in a sexist society. And what are most spells about? Usually procuring love, with the hexing of enemies running a close second.” My idea of cursing up is essentially that adapted to a different theatre and cast of characters.

OK, so, the AM hack. In the past couple of decades there have arisen some hacking and related efforts intended (or seemingly so) to disrupt the activities of, or expose the secrets or lies of, people or institutions abusing their power; e.g. Anonymous and WikiLeaks. Some people call it hacktivism. Others call it crime. What you call it might depend on which side of the power dynamic you side with (which is not necessarily the side you are actually on). It is, to me, similar to cursing up, and although hacking up usually means something different altogether, I shall call it that for the remainder of this brief article.

When you employ satire or maleficium or computer hacking to attack someone (or something, such as a corporation, government, or social or political movement), you should carefully premeditate on whether you are doing it for the right reasons, and what could be the consequences (including the unintended ones) of your action. The hacker or hackers, self-identified as The Impact Team, who perpetrated the AM hack claimed they were doing it because of the unethical practices of the company behind AM, and they acknowledged the pains the hack might cause to “many rich and powerful people.” But did they consider the collateral damage to the spouses and partners of AM users, or how AM has been used by LGBT people who need to hide their sexual identities or preferences for diverse reasons including personal safety? There are now millions of people whose livelihoods or very lives could be at risk because they, or just someone they know, facilitated participation in the ancient (and often sexist, and often complex) institution of adultery, over a medium they had fair reason to believe was private and secure.

And what about The Impact Team’s sexual moralism? Anyone can claim they are punching up. Homophobic Christians satirizing gay people can say they are punching up, but gay bashing is clearly not about overcoming an oppressive or despotic power structure.

The whole point of punching, cursing, or hacking up is to disempower those who are acquiring their power at the pains of others, or using their power to hurt others. When you hurt the people who are already hurting, in the process, you defeat the purpose.

Hacking Magical Links

You play with blood and hair and sweat and ends of fingernails,
The very things to do the deeds the Brotherhood demands.
// Black Widow, “Way to Power”

Sorcery has a long tradition of acquiring the physical likeness of a person or an object they had physical contact with, in order to confer magical influence over that person or their affairs. I have been wondering about the digital equivalent of that.

I tend to think of magical links like Elvis paraphernalia. At the very bottom of the spectrum are all of the mass-produced merchandise that pretty much anyone can get their hands on. Further up the ladder are goods of rarer quality, such as limited-edition collectibles. Next, objects associated with someone’s actual experience of Elvis — ticket stubs etc. Then, objects that belonged to Elvis, or that he physically interacted with. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy — appropriately — is the experience of having met the King himself. I suspect that any difficulty overcome or weirdness involved in obtaining the artifact amplifies its magical efficacy.

(I also suppose there are at least two types of magical links: those connecting the magician to her target, and those connecting her to a source of occult power to influence said target. The Elvis analogy applies to both.)

In today’s connected (pun intended) world, it is often pretty easy to find someone’s photograph online. What about hacking their computer or phone or one of their online accounts, in order to get at something more personal — and more rare? Would that be like going through their trash for discarded hair or fingernail clippings, or breaking into their house to take something in their possession? Is someone’s password or private blog entry a “good” magical link in the same way that their house key or diary might be? Would the thrill of the hack or the degree of effort involved in pulling it off affect the efficacy of the magic following it?