Divining with Computers

The art of divination presents us with puzzling problems which I make no pretense to solve. A certain amount of communication goes on between diviners and non-human powers (whether living or otherwise or both). It is difficult to know exactly what this is: it might involve the diviner’s extra-sensory ability, it may involve spiritual agents, it might be telepathy, it might be sharpened human perception, or a combination of these possibilities.
—John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy

There are many forms of magical divination, but they all have one thing in common: supplementing conscious selection with unconscious selection or variety. Some magicians attribute the latter to spiritual agents (deities, angels, fairies, dæmons, ghosts, &c.), whereas others to the unconscious mind of the diviner herself.

Traditional divinatory media
Traditional divinatory media [3PC]

Computers and computational media may be employed as sources or amplifiers of variety, e.g.:

  • Sortilege methods where the computer pseudo/randomly selects or assists in the selection of one or more elements such as rune stones, Tarot cards, pages of a book, web pages, audio samples, &c.
  • Scrying methods where the magician gazes into computer-generated imagery (or other media) until she sees (or hears, feels, &c.) a response to her query
  • Computational fetishes that inform or inspire the magician with dreams or visions appropriate to her query

A computer could even simply provide a drum beat or other trance-inducing signal for the magician to spirit-journey or hedge-cross to.

People who believe that Tarot cards (e.g.) are intrinsically a more appropriate tool for magic than software created for the same purpose fail to understand either sorcery or technology. It is perfectly fine to prefer Tarot cards over software or computers, but Tarot cards are not the only means of divination by sortilege, and they were utilized because they were accessible, not because they were uniquely qualified for occult arts. Cultures that did not possess or recognize a means for producing picture cards created divination tools out of sticks, stones, or other media; or they observed the flights of birds, &c. The deck of cards as a medium is not what is fundamental, nor is any particular symbol set drawn on the cards (as the variety of decks attests). What matters is that there exist a source of randomness and a special and non-trivial correspondence between that source and the interpreter such that the variety of states in the source maps to a variety of meaningful signs in the interpreter.

Randomly or chaotically generated variation is sometimes used in generative art, much of which is made with computers because of their ability to generate and manipulate such data and map them to varieties of representations and interactions. Computers can also generate random data for electronic games (games and chance are old friends). The techniques to generate variety in computational art or games are interchangeable with those used in computer-based sortilege applications, and the realization of that opens a new world of oracular design possibilities from mobile applications to gallery installations. In the same way that a cup of dice or deck or cards can be used for playing games as well as portending events, the technology that allows us to play with computers also invites us to divine with them, and to create novel modes of divinatory play and playful divination.


Computers are especially well suited to sortilege methods like casting lots. The technical term for casting lots as divination is cleromancy, and it has been practiced from antiquity to the present. Some other forms of divination, such as cartomancy (i.e., divination with Tarot or playing cards), are quite like cleromancy: both involve interpreting a chance assortment of non-trivial symbols arranged by a mechanism beyond the magician’s conscious control (e.g., shuffling). The word sortilege, like sorcery, grows from the Latin sors, or “sort”—also “lot” or “fate” (the lots that were cast in Roman divination were called sortes)—suggesting divination is a means of sorting out (i.e., resolving) a situation, and a sorcerer is a person who takes control of her fate by sorting (i.e., re/arranging) things properly, either according to some cosmic design, or in harmony with the chaos underlying the drift of things.

Selection, Variety, & Randomness

In connection with art […] we shall indicate two aspects of chance, one where the origin of images is unknown because it lies in deeper-than-conscious levels of the mind, and the second where images derive from mechanical processes not under the artist’s control. Both of these processes have in common a lack of conscious design.

There is no absolute chance or random event, for chance and randomness are aspects of the way in which we structure our universe.
—George Brecht, Chance Imagery

W. Ross Ashby defined intelligence as “appropriate selection,” and its complement is variety: given a problem to solve, select the appropriate solution from the variety of available solutions.1 All tests of intelligence can be understood as requiring an appropriate selection from many possible selections. A selection’s appropriateness depends on the selector’s end goal (or multiple, competing end goals, which may be determined in part or whole by someone else, such as when someone designs an intelligence test for another person and defines the criteria for passing the test), and may not be the selection that is obvious to someone else.

When the selector does not possess enough variety from which to make an appropriate selection, it can add supplemental variety. E.g., if I am experiencing physical illness but I do not have enough knowledge to diagnose myself, I may consult my physician who has spent years acquiring information and instruments to have (I hope) ample variety from which to make the appropriate selection, i.e., the correct diagnosis. One way to supplement selection (i.e., amplify intelligence) is to add random variety to the system. Indeed, in explaining the supplementation of selection, Ashby gives classical examples of divination: “The Roman general, for instance, after having made many decisions, would often leave the remainder to be determined by some other factor such as the flight of the next flock of birds, or the configurations shown in the entrails of a freshly-killed sheep.”2

People today sometimes flip a coin to decide matters they cannot decide for themselves. The coin’s advantage is that it is simple and unambiguous: it is either “heads” or “tails.” Its disadvantage is that it is only heads or tails; it has only two states (ignoring any indeterminate states such as if it lands on its edge). In other words, it has very low variety. Thus, the problems that can be solved by a coin toss must be reducible to two outcomes. By comparison, using only the 22 Major Arcana of a typical Tarot deck, a simple, three-card deal yields 9,240 possible permutations, or 73,920 if reversals are allowed (i.e., a card has a different meaning when it appears reversed or upside-down).3 However, the ambiguity of the cards’ symbols and their complexity in relation to each other can make them much more difficult to interpret—to make an appropriate selection from.


The state of a coin is randomized by flipping it, a die by rolling it, a deck of cards by shuffling it, &c. The randomization process is a combination of physical dynamics between each token and its environment: neighboring tokens, the surface of a table, the hands manipulating the tokens, &c. The outputs of flipping, rolling, and shuffling have some things in common:

  • They are unpredictable, i.e., they do not repeat with any regularity (which would allow them to be predicted).
  • They are not dependent on previous output. If I roll a ‘4’ on a die, that in no way determines the next value I roll with the same die.
  • They are uniformly distributed, which means that any member of the set of possible values has an equal probability of occurring as any other member of the set. On a six-sided die, each of the values (1 through 6) has an equal probability of occurring. This changes if the die is “loaded,” i.e., weighted so as to tend to fall in a particular way.

Special electronic circuits called hardware random number generators or true random number generators (TRNGs) produce random data from measuring or sampling physically random systems such as atmospheric noise (noise is noise because it is random or entropic), thermal noise in a resistor, or radioactive decay. Psi experiments such as those conducted by Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) employ TRNGs (PEAR calls them REGs: random event generators) to test whether people can intentionally influence the devices’ output.

By comparison, computer software can only generate pseudorandom data, which are not actually random at all. Though they are difficult for an ordinary person to predict, if you know the algorithm and the seed, you can perfectly predict the data in a pseudorandom sequence, which is why pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs) are not acceptable for, say, professional electronic gambling systems or strong cryptography: they are too easy to cheat or break. Instead, electronic gambling and cryptographic systems use TRNGs.4 PRNGs are also ill suited for psi tests of intentional influence, because at any moment the PRNG’s current state determines its subsequent state regardless of what anyone thinks or wills it to do.

A question we must then consider is: when a divination system is randomized, what is really happening to make the system’s output correspond uncannily to the query being asked of it? Are occult forces manipulating the tokens’ physical dynamics? Or does the reader possess some unconscious ability to select the appropriate tokens or know what state the system is going to be in before it has transitioned to that state? Perhaps humans just find (even profound) meaning in any jumbled arrangement of symbols when we look hard enough. Reflecting on the ESP research of J. B. Rhine, Carl Jung developed his theory of synchronicity, which he called, “an acausal connecting principle.” Jung recognized a possibility for meaningful but unpredictable coincidences to emerge from the largely hidden (occult) dynamics of psychic activity.

Technomancy 101 features several projects that use pseudorandom data in different ways. ZenerTest uses Scratch’s built-in pick random () to () block to generate a pseudorandom number between 1 and 5 corresponding to one of the five symbols in a Zener card deck. Oraskul and Autouija do similarly in order to select one of 20 possible answers copied from a Magic 8-Ball. The Thebanet project attempts to get around the problem of pseudorandomness by having you select which tokens to read after they have been pseudorandomly resequenced. It is like shuffling a deck of cards or shaking up a bag of rune-stones and then picking a card or stone from the concealed set. The computer does not select for you; it merely re-orders the set of things you select from so that you cannot consciously bias your choice. Another method that may be employed is to rapidly cycle through a set of tokens (either in series or pseudorandomly; e.g., by using the next costume block) the diviner cannot see while they perform some gesture to end the cycling and present whichever token is present at that moment. You can see this technique at work in the AppleOfDiscord project.

Access to truly random data are possible using experimental extensions (there does not exist one at the time of publication, so you would need to make your own), but beware: many things that appear to be truly random are not (there are rigorous mathematical tests of true randomness). Perhaps the more important question is: are they random enough for magical divination?


Some divination techniques rely (ostensibly) on ideomotor phenomena: dowsing, using a pendulum, consulting a talking board, &c. Projects such as Autouija simulate these but actually rely on something more akin to sortilege, however using a touch screen it is possible to design interactions similar to an actual talking board.


Scrying involves gazing at an object as a means of trance induction anticipating mental images formed in the mind’s eye (daydreaming), or seeing images in the object itself (apophenia). Computer-generated images, especially ones involving algorithms that simulate natural (i.e., not man-made) phenomena, can be applied to such purposes.5 Although Scratch’s graphical capabilities are limited, you can do some interesting things by importing images generated outside of Scratch, as the Scrycloud project demonstrates.


Do technomancers dream of electric sheep entrails?

The use of charms, amulets, and other fetishes to induce divinatory dreams or visions may extend to computational media that are programmed to act at certain times or react to certain events such as the technomancer’s rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (cf. lucid dreaming masks).

  1. W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (Chapman & Hall, 1956) 271–272. You can read a legitimately free (not-for-profit) copy here.
  2. Ibid., 259.
  3. Without reversals, there are 22 possibilities for the first card drawn, 21 for the second, and 20 for the third; 22 × 21 × 20 = 9,240. With reversals, each draw effectively has two possible states (upright or reversed); 21 × 22 × 23 = 8; 9,240 × 8 = 73,920. Or you could look at it as (22 × 2) × (21 × 2) × (20 × 2) = 73,920, which is not the same as simply doubling the original number of cards and then going 44 × 43 × 42, because each draw removes two future possibilities; e.g., if you draw Death either way, you cannot also draw Death the other way in the same spread.
  4. Sometimes, the TRNGs are used to seed PRNGs. A seed is the value a pseudorandom number generating algorithm begins with, and restarting the algorithm with the same seed produces the same sequence of pseudorandom numbers, which can be useful in music and art when you want to generate something unpredictable but that is also repeatable at some time in the future.
  5. Also, a blank computer screen can make a fine scrying mirror.