Gladden, Matthew E. “Technomancy and the Conjuring of Virtual Worlds: The Utilization of ‘Digital Magical Practice’ as Organizational Strategy.” Presentation at the 3rd DELab UW International Conference: Ongoing Digitalisation of Economies and Societies. Digital Economy Lab, Uniwersytet Warszawski, Warszawa, September 29, 2017.
Historical and conceptual background
Efforts to formally define ‘magic’ and to identify the aspects that distinguish magical practice from other human pursuits have been made from both a theological perspective (e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas) and, more recently, an anthropological perspective (e.g., Frazer, Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Tambiah). Frequently cited elements of magic include its use of esoteric symbols, gestures, and speech that are only understood only by a small, elite group of initiated practitioners; its use of specially prepared ritual instruments; its attempt to harness the power of invisible, intelligent, nonhuman entities (such as demons or nature deities) to produce specific physical effects; and its attempt to manipulate hidden (or ‘occult’) forms of causality rather than obviously explicable physical causality.
As early as the 1970s, scholars noted that the practice of computer programming reflects several such aspects of magic as it is traditionally defined. For example, conventional computer programming requires mastery of an esoteric body of knowledge passed down between generations of programmers; it employs arcane symbols arranged in elaborate sequential scripts structurally similar to magical incantations; and it allows computers to perform highly complex, seemingly ‘intelligent’ behaviors by means of causal processes that may be comprehensible to programmers but which to ordinary computer users appear quite mystifying.
Toward the future of ‘magical’ digital-physical ecosystems
In this presentation, we argue that it can be expected that the ‘magical’ aspects of computing technology will be transformed and enhanced over the coming years through the development of increasingly sophisticated technologies for virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and ubiquitous computing (UC) that converge to create ‘magically responsive’ digital-physical ecosystems and ‘enchanted’ cyber-physical societies.
Magical aspects of VR systems include not only their reliance on ritual implements and arcane gestures by users but – on a deeper level – their ability to immerse users in alternate worlds with differing physical laws; their manipulation of sympathetic links between physical objects and their (virtual) copies; their reliance on occult rather than obviously explicable causality; and their ability to allow users to control their environment through emotional performance rather than technical skill.
The role of AI in enhancing the ‘magicality’ of future computing technology world can be seen in at least two respects: (1) the growing use of AI to mediate human beings’ control of smart homes, self-driving automobiles, and other networked systems; and (2) the effort to develop code-generating AI that can simply be told what a new piece of software should be able to ‘do’ and which then works behind the scenes to write and implement all of the code needed to accomplish that on behalf of its human masters – thereby allowing human beings to control complex computer systems through an act of artistic creativity and sheer will, without the need (or ability) to understand how the AI translates those wishes into executable programs. Such a relationship to computing technology is stereotypically magical insofar as it manipulates hidden forms of causality; harnesses invisible, intelligent nonhuman entities to produce physical effects on behalf of their masters; and allow users to control complex systems through a mere display of emotion and volition, without the need for mastery of some practical technique.
Finally, the growth of ubiquitous computing and the ‘Internet of Everything’ means that it will not simply be a handful of specialized devices (like desktop computers or smartphones) that are ‘magically responsive’ to human beings’ wishes. Rather, thanks to the presence of networked embedded AI and dispersed nanorobotic actuators, our entire surroundings can potentially be transformed into an ‘enchanted’ cyber-physical system ready to respond to the thoughts and desires of its human inhabitants. This, too, would deepen the magical experience of hidden causality, the harnessing of nonhuman intelligences, and the control of the environment through emotional rather than technical manifestations.
Distinguishing future technomancy from the historical ‘magical practice’ of computer programming
We suggest that there are at least three ways in which the growing prevalence and convergence of VR, AI, and UC technologies can be expected to create a new form of magical (or quasi-magical) practice that differs qualitatively from that represented by historical computer programming.
First, in the case of traditional computer programming, the existence of the computer as a physical object that serves as one link in a complex chain of physical causality is continuously obvious; it cannot easily be denied or forgotten. However, VR and ‘smart environment’ AI technologies seek to hide their own existence as technological instruments from their human users, even as they interpose themselves between such human beings and their environment and serve as mediators of that relationship in increasingly intimate and powerful ways.
Second, while conventional computer programming creates an eminently ‘magical’ gap between the initiated elite who have mastered the esoteric details of programming languages computer architecture and those ordinary users who have not, future AI and UC technologies promise to blur such boundaries by allowing anyone to command the behavior of a computationally enchanted environment. However, we would argue that there will always be a special role for those human experts who have a deeper understanding of such cyber-physical systems and are aware of ‘tricks’ for manipulating its behavior and ingeniously exploiting its potential. Indeed, numerous works of science fiction have explored the concept of the near-future ‘technoshamans,’ ‘technomancers,’ or ‘virtual adepts’ who are so intuitively attuned to the computational nature of the surrounding environment that they can essentially ‘reprogram’ the world around them through a sheer act of will. While the current state of VR, AI, and UC technology does not yet support such technomancy as a serious magical practice, there already exist self-professed proponents of ‘technoshamanism’ who eagerly look forward to such a future.
Finally, future forms of technomancy enabled by evolving VR, AI, and UC technologies can be expected to display a very different relationship to organized enterprises such as commercial corporations than did the conventional computer programming developed a half-century ago. Early programming languages were often developed in academic or governmental settings and then later commercialized as lucrative applications became apparent. However, the new technomantic worlds are being born commercialized, fashioned not as intellectual experiments but as proprietary elements of multibillion-dollar industries. Large corporations are serving as the primary architects and gatekeepers of these magical worlds, which are created explicitly to advance their long-term business strategies. Such magical worlds are not strategically significant simply because they constitute a new profit-generating product or service that can be offered to consumers; rather they create a new digital-physical strategic sphere within which organizations are expected to compete vigorously against one another for data access, influence, power, financial resources, and customer loyalty. This raises the question of whether the intentional creation, inhabitation, and manipulation of such heterotopic digital-physical worlds by professional organizational ‘technomancers’ can be fully documented, analyzed, and explained solely through the use of traditional management concepts – or whether it can be more robustly described and meaningfully interpreted by incorporating conceptual frameworks from the theological or anthropological study of magical practice. If pursued to its logical conclusion, such dynamics could eventually result in the creation of new transdisciplinary fields such as ‘strategic magical practice’ or ‘organizational technomancy’ that provide theoretical and practical frameworks for the effective management of such novel cyber-physical systems and their expert users.