Cyberspace & Ritual Space: Intersections

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

A vision of cyberspace for Johnny Mnemonic (1995) based on Gibson’s stories (source)

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.

“I need a Sino-Logic 16, Sogo-7 data gloves, GPL stealth module, Burdine intelligent translator, and Thompson eye-phones.” (image and quote from Johnny Mnemonic, 1995)

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.

Solomonic circle for magical power and protection when evoking spirits of the Ars Goetia (source)

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Sacred Cauldron stone circle in Second Life
Sacred Cauldron ritual stone circle in Second Life

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.

Ted Nelson (the guy who invented hypermedia) proposed:

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

“What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” (image and quote from The Matrix (1999))

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).

“The Grid: a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.” (quote from Tron: Legacy, 2010; image from Tron: Uprising)

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.
—Myron Krueger

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:

Cognitivist model of human-computer interaction

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

How the computer sees us, by Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe

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

The parts of a physical computing system, by Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe

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

Milgram et al.’s Reality-Virtuality Continuum, from “Augmented Reality: A Class of Displays on the Reality-Virtuality Continuum”

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 conceptual integration network for blended spaces, from “Presence in Blended Spaces”

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.


The Locus Magicus of Virtual Reality

I have not posted much here for while because I have been very busy working to complete the robomancy and technomancy projects, but I would take a moment to write briefly about something that has been on my mind—and on my face—much of late.

Angelheaded Hipsters
“angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”

 

I recently acquired a Samsung Gear VR headset which is quite a lot nicer than my Google Cardboard one. I have dozens of ideas for sorcerous applications of this technology, but one theme I continue to explore through my technomantic and robomantic Work is telepresence. VR can teleport you to a virtual reconstruction of the Temple of Delphi, or a temple of Zhothaqquah on Cykranosh, or a place more abstract than could exist outside cyberspace. It has the potential to situate you in the same ritual space with participants who are physically far remove from your proximity. VR is immersive in ways the 2D (or flat 3D) interfaces I design are not.

Take StreetView VR for example. You can pull up Google StreetView on your smart phone or personal computer and look at a 3D photograph of many places. Here is the Museum of Witchcraft in Bostcastle, one of my favorite places in the world. You can continue “walking” down toward the harbor or go up the street into town.

Google Street View

StreetView VR shows you the same thing but you are more “in it.” You can be looking at the museum and physically turn your head around and now you are looking at the bridge across Valency. It is not in real time, and it is certainly not the best way to get in touch with the genius loci of a place (for that you need to take your body to wherever you wish to commune), but inasmuch as a photograph may be regarded as a magical link, the ability to immersively situate yourself within a photograph is pretty cool. You could also use a 360° camera to take photos of places to virtually work within, or set up a 360° live video feed in the midst of, say, a temple populated with your partners in maleficium.

It would not take much to develop responsive sigil overlays or other magical interface elements for this sort of thing, but even without such enhancements you may use your imagination to project or receive ætheric impressions.

Mergent Realities

[This is a guest post by Frater Kainos, who has been experimenting with the Oculus Rift. I am honored to publish it here on hyperRitual. // Joshua]

For I believe it could completely overturn our present ideas of reality and illusion, and restore rather than destroy the magic and mystery of existence. [1] // Ram-See-Dukes

On the 6th of June 2013 at around 10 a.m., we began the restoration in earnest. Innovations that currently sit in development stage, play alongside long-standing skills and tools to permit an immersion into created verisimilitude in long predicted and anticipated ways, and now ascend into experiences that further blur our concepts of reality.

In ’88, whilst the Second Summer of Love danced, Ramsey Dukes tangoed with philosophical questions of consciousness and the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), creating narrative and an accompanying paradox to illuminate the dark corners of the glimpsed emergent world. These considerations played off the back of those reality engineers and storywriters who laid down the rhythms years before my consciousness took shape. Now sitting here with my own set of Pygmalion’s Spectacles on the workbench next to me, I not only enjoy Weinbaum’s unfolding story of elfin professors [2], but contemplate my own meeting of such within immersion. Exploring such phantomatics takes me a step further in, and I begin to look beyond to the possible futures of experience that we now prepare à briser, with aplomb.

Leaping into the nascent current of created emergent reality seems paradoxically like the oldest trick in the book. Our imaginal realities have long beaconed us in as we look into the stars, the river, the clouds. Our minds wander within the perceived reality of sense, interpreting and decoding information from many more than the simple five often spoken of. Memory and other ill-defined and elusive processes betray internal worlds of creativity that imagine possibilities and experiences; recording, editing and playing back previous, current and future events as tools for success, distraction and peril. Infinite variety of experience awaits without seemingly doing anything tangible at all, save for perhaps sometimes slowing our selves as we gaze inwardly. Or perhaps, in the midst of evocation, calls made, the emergent form apparates, and we converse.

So what of immersion? Well you should know; you find your selves immersed in reality right now. Whether the technology of storytelling, the spoken word poem or pathworking, the teletube or the radio, we receive our cues of the reality we inhabit, and seeking such immersion seems to prove a primary toolkit. In speaking of current experiments of VR, we speak of visual and audio — often primary modalities — as providing our baseline for experience. For years we have viewed each other through the fourth wall of the theatre, the projection screen and many other modes, surrounded or alone, experiencing story and report of elsewhere and elsewhen. As mentioned earlier, we have participated in Droste-like experiences of watching others act out their own immersion. Fractally dissolving into worlds that might prove non-intimate but nevertheless tangible in their Inception :). I don’t think I overstate in applying Erik Davis’ assertion that the “characters, objects, and images take on the phantasmagoric force of alchemy’s visionary internal dramas” [3] to how this excites, inspires and motivates the magician.

So what of it? When donning the headgear of a VR helmet, our perception changes instantly. We can perceive a created space, a world. The internal electronics of the device track our head movements so that as we enjoy our six degrees of freedom; the world we now inhabit begins to become real. Now we add a soundtrack to our entered reality, and we enjoy surrounding soundscapes; our synced audio modality confirms our place in this world. With these two senses immersed, our more subtle senses act accordingly. Our sense of balance becomes more acute; our sense of height (if we experience it in the space) can promote fear and vertigo. Other senses not so well accounted for in this new world, stretch out and feel for input. We might be surprised to find that our sense of temperature fluctuates as our spinal axons engage, creating input from the reality that as yet does not accommodate.

With just the headgear (goggles and ‘phones), we inhabit a discorporeal existence. So far we apparate as only floating eyes and ears. We stand and sit in two worlds simultaneously. The manifest floor or chair provides our stability, while in the artificial reality we can never climb the stairs but float them. This tends to account for the cybersickness that some experience; a mismatch between ocular and sonic and kinetic. It takes time to adjust to the new duality. We have shifted half of our selves into the new world. We remain aware of both, but we do believe. It simply proves too tempting. The accurate motion tracking, the low latency, the acceptable resolution: It all floats around the blurry gradients of consciousness and we accept the new reality.

I cannot overstate the experience. Depending on the created reality we do seem to get a level of ill ease as we submerge, experience and emerge from an instantly available reality. We almost find it too easy, too quick, so training and experience become a necessity. Ginger! This fills the taste-void of created reality, at least for us, for now. But we might look to draw from the Pharmacopoeia … dimenhydrinate, cinnarizine, meclozine, scopolamine … These compounds may prove useful in the adaption process. In the meantime, having a fair-size bucket handy proves good practice, too, as we get well into these new worlds.

The temple we currently devise and construct takes the headgear a bit further. Already available technologies get experimented with in the temple architecture and facilities. Motion sensing input devices commonly found on gaming consoles, can provide us with the ability to interact with our reality using gesture. Programmed to recognise our moves, we can speak the language of body and have interpretation happen realtime. An array of such sensors can provide enough data to map the key points of the human body, so that an avatar can move with us. In setting up such an array, we become corporeal once more, further immersed and able to see ourselves. Floor pressure sensors can aid us, too. Depending on what we do with our feet or else, we can interact and move within new worlds in new ways. Wired gloves — the staple visage of VR experience proves exciting. The emergent tech of magnetic motion sensing offers us possibilities that make interacting novel. We might sculpt and create, model and massage, using gear that extends our concept of manual to intricate new ways of manipulation.

In turning to intelligence, it seems a matter of imagination. In one way, the mage who has invoked form into herself takes on the manifest form of the divinity. We can stand in greater awe, as the immersed priestess transforms into god before our eyes, and as we apprehend our god we can get ever closer to the divine.

Programmed intelligence can and does interact with us; crowds part, react and interact. Might we begin to lose awareness of the difference between real and simulated? Do our siblings’ avatars differ so that we can tell them apart from reality? All of a sudden, Ramsey Dukes’s paradoxes engulf us.

What of consciousness itself? These technologies hold the hopes of myriad possibilities, from gaming to therapy. In thinking of and exploring these techs, as a magician, we stand on new frontiers. With our highly trained skills in immersion in other realities, we can now seek to explore inner worlds of our own making, and see what proves possible in practice.

It remains naïve and wonderful that we can create immersive pathworkings, and we delightedly anticipate just how much our mileage will vary. It remains exciting to see how our focus and concentration can manifest with augmented reality. It remains tantalising to test how we can interact with each other, our new worlds and intelligences we have yet to meet in these realms. In exploring consciousness, we open the doorways to ever deeper and more complex realities. Our immersement becomes at least a potential aid to our exploring. As mentioned earlier (although more obtusely), these explorations do not form a new emergence, but a new mergence. The various technologies meet in new ways and make new possibilities. This alchemy of manifestation takes a curious and curated approach to our reality engineering, creation and exploration.

To this end, already, we observe the swapping and sharing of realities via the nets and on chips. These Reality Exchanges (RelX, pr. Relics) can prove nodal and compact. A single piece of silicon or data set on a drive, becomes the unit of code (spelled and syntaxed) that facilitates our experience. RelX now get swapped — manual included or not. A RelX forms a token, a totem and the process. Such artefacts gets created by the likes of me, and shared with others with love and curiosity. For as a curator of reality, an initiate of experiential creativity, my worlds, my environs, my entities and AIs become larger and more corporeal, as they get explored, enlarged, recoded and recycled.

But nodal experience forms only one direction. It seems obvious, when known, that the proprietors of large scale sim world Second Life (Linden Labs) already test out integration with the development pre-production models of the VR headgear, Oculus Rift. Second Life, for all its sim-sins, provides a huge and flexible reality that immersive experience will only benefit from. Of course, such corporate giants are not nearly the only fruit. Open-source initiatives such as Open Sim can beckon the immersive experience, too. So in building a grid, I can break and make reality any which way I want. For in doing so, I already and will continue to explore the magical and mystical in each of the realities I inhabit. Blurring realities with intent :)

In turning to the vanguard of electronic wizardry, looking at the excellent work of our thaumaturge myridon, hyperRitual, we find a mage exploring the possibilities in novel ways. His exploration of programming code and robotics, and their application in ritual, proves inspiring. It was browsing his essays and experiments that I realised: by building a quadcopter with dual mounted cameras, I can drive the copter in first person. My six degrees of headset motion tracking, combined with the stability and flexibility of the copter, means that I can explore my blue planet reality in new ways. With a decent transmitter and some improved solar tech, the sky might not prove the limit. Of course, the war drones, gaining so much criticism, already show us the piloted death from above. But for a mage of aspiring peace, the opportunity to explore the world this way, allows me a bird’s eye view. Shall we all meet as hovering automatons? We can fly together and explore great heights. The ethical implications of personal drones have already emerged on the nets; the reality of it seems not so far behind.

And yes, it seems no doubt that such mergences of technologies show their neutral nature. For as with the mage, the variable morality of possibilities and what works will ever test our resolves. And yes, I remain sure that these techs that I currently pursue will get consumed like all else. Those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing will ever hawk their wares at the stall of ease. But like so much of the hidden world of subcultures, many of us pursue these experiments to our own, equally occult, ends. You might meet me somehow, someway, and I will gladly exchange RelX with you. But with no doubt, this for me forms an extension of Punk, Rave, Mage and Hacker. So… D.I.Y! If you do come to me wanting realities created … Think of a number and start multiplying. I enjoy the rare and refined companionship of magicians who have the knowledge and will to explore every reality they can think of … And our plans might indeed change many worlds.

Frater Kainos


  1. Ramsey Dukes, Words Made Flesh, 1988.
  2. “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, 1935, 6/35 Wonder.
  3. Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Information Age, 1998.

Meta-Magick in Second Life: An Interview with Philip H. Farber

In a sense, the rituals are always the same — they are the bits and pieces of behavior that our brains are wired for. What’s new are the tools we can use. When magicians in the Middle Ages suddenly had access to printed books, for instance, or forged tools and talismans, it allowed us to increase the intensity and practicality of the rituals. Now we have computers and the ‘net. I think exploring those tools as magical media is important in a few different ways.

hyperRitual: Phil, you wrote about online magic over 10 years ago. Some things have changed since then, for example we now have Second Life and Meta-Magick. Would you please explain how you became involved in this new project, what it is, and what possibilities you foresee for it?

Phil: Way back when, reading Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, I had the idea that cyberspace would be a 3D, second world kind of place, and that we should be able to create imaginative environments for ourselves in virtual reality. I immediately started speculating on VR as a magick medium, a place where we could create temples and symbols and so forth quite easily. The whole immersive VR thing has never really taken off as a mass phenom, with Second Life being one of the few exceptions — and even that isn’t all that well-known to the vast majority of web-surfers.

I’ve been following the work of Gina Pickersgill and others who have been taking NLP and a variety of healing modalities into the 3D environment of Second Life. Gina took me on a tour of her “Healing Pool” area of SL, in which she created a magick circle and ritual area. I was very impressed by the physical response the ritual area prompted in me and realized that we had the means for doing something really cool.

Myron Krueger, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, called VR “a whole new realm of human experience in which the laws of cause and effect are composed by the artist, which sounds pretty magical to me. Do you suppose that what you propose is just a cyber-skin for the old ceremony, or is something genuinely new happening here?

In a sense, the rituals are always the same — they are the bits and pieces of behavior that our brains are wired for. What’s new are the tools we can use. When magicians, in the Middle Ages, suddenly had access to printed books, for instance, or forged tools and talismans, it allowed us to increase the intensity and practicality of the rituals. Now we have computers and the ‘net. I think exploring those tools as magical media is important in a few different ways.

First, we can add intensity to our work. Recent studies have shown that watching your avatar potentiates learning in a variety of ways. It’s a weird and fairly pleasant feeling to watch your self-imagined avatar interacting. Probably more of us have experienced that thrill playing video games, and it’s even more intense when you have the power to customize the avatar and have a much greater flexibility of behavior. In the language of neuroscience that I’ve been working with, it’s a great way to get your mirror neurons involved — and these are the parts of the brain intricately tied in with our ability to create symbols and metaphors.

Second is the sense of connection that many people feel when using the ‘net. When the ‘net first started gaining popularity in the ’90s, quite a few theorists claimed that it would be a kind of dry and emotionless realm because it wouldn’t substitute for the sense of connection that humans feel in face-to-face encounters. In reality, humans are way more flexible than these theorists considered and we not only adapt, but find ways to intensify the connections. This is illustrated by the popularity of, for instance, social networking, cybersex, and so on.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I think we have to place all of our new technology in contexts where it can be used for things other than simply making money. In a sense, we have to spiritualize it, to realize that our human aspirations and imagination are more important than the financial bottom line.

There exists a popular notion (which I disagree with) that video game playing lacks imagination, that it is only slightly less passive than watching television. On the other end of the spectrum, magic often involves active imagination — projected visualizations, intended hallucinations, and the like. What do you think about constructing virtual artifacts that mediate our magical experiences? What happens when instead of interacting with entities on the “astral plane,” we interact with SL items that simulate such entities with more or less fidelity? Can we simultaneously and/or complementarily use both astral and virtual entities in magic?

I think the “astral plane” can best be defined as the realm of imagination and when we create imaginatively in any media, we are simultaneously using that media and the “astral” as well. When a traditional magician uses pen and ink to write an invocation, or creates a sigil on paper, or forges tools for ritual use, he or she is already using both the imaginative and the “real.” I think that using SL will be a difference of tools, but not of kind.

Anyway, as I said, I was very impressed with Gina’s virtual temple space and thought it as powerful as many “real world” temples I’ve visited. As to how the Meta-Magick entities will turn out in SL, that’s what we’re going to experiment with in this workshop. I think it’s going to be very cool and very effective, though I suggest we all allow for a learning curve.

Similar to the previous question, but let’s talk about body consciousness for a moment (which, by the way, was important to Krueger who said that physical participation is the key distinction of virtual reality, and “rather than denying the body, virtual reality reconnects it to the life of the mind”): What do you think about physical interaction with Second Life, with most of it mediated by a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse (but note that developments in gestural interfaces, e.g. the Wii remote, are making available a greater variety of physical interactions)? What may be lost or gained by, say, watching your SL avatar perform the LBRP when you press a key sequence, vs. getting up and doing the motions yourself?

There was a study not too long ago in which participants watched their avatars run on a treadmill or not run on a treadmill. The ones who watched themselves run felt much stronger urges to actually get on a treadmill and exercise. Very simply, watching human-like images activates our mirror neuron system and our minds make an internal model of the behavior and, in effect, try it on for size. The MNS is composed largely of motor neurons, of brain cells that otherwise are used to move muscles and perform actions. As a result there is something visceral about watching an avatar of yourself move. It’s even more powerful when you are controlling the avatar yourself.

It’s somewhat like the response we have when we read a book or watch a movie. We sympathize with the characters, feel what they do, and perhaps even emulate it in our lives. It might be an even stronger response using a personalized avatar, because the image is even more strongly self-identified.

With that said, I always like to emphasize the idea that magick is about what we do in the world. What we do in the temple, in ritual, is preparation, alignment and configuration of self so that we can better act in the real world. Do the ritual in your real, astral or virtual temple. Then get your ass out into the world and make use of what you’ve done.

Hear, hear. Where can people go to get more info about this event, participate, contact you, etc?

Event page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/?sk=messages&ref=mb#!/event.php?eid=159160737432788

Registration: http://www.virtuallyspiritualsoulutions.com/Workshops.html

It’s a free workshop, but we ask that everyone register in advance, so we know who to expect. We also ask that if you are new to SL, you get in and practice moving around and using the basics before the workshop.

Check out the video, “Phil Farber in Second Life Magick and Virtual Worlds.”