A New Theatre of Magic

The key word in finding an illuminating path through the technological maze is “interaction.” These new technologies all have one thing in common: They can aid our interaction with others, with knowledge, information, and experience, and even the devices themselves. When we look toward what is known about the nature of interaction, why not turn to those who manage it best—to those from the world of drama, of the stage, of the theatre?
—Donald A. Norman, foreword to Computers As Theatre

Theatre is the most appropriate term here because the magician is stepping outside what he normally considers to be reality and creating a malleable universe of his own through his will, his intellect and his imagination.
—Ray Sherwin, The Theatre of Magick

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens:
A Study of the Play-Element of Culture

The mysterious
comes from beyond
our daily realities
will not
or cannot
until you
are in communion
with the as yet
your intuition,
your x-area.
The key?
Get out of your head,
into your space
and await
the invisible stranger.
—Viola Spolin, “Into Your Space,” Theater Games for the Lone Actor

In many ways, Technomancy 101 is about space.1 It is especially about the intersection of cyberspace and magic space.

The word cyberspace (from cyber as in cybernetics) originated in science fiction stories about the Other Plane, the Matrix, the Grid, &c. Today, it typically denotes the internet or virtual reality—real technologies, science facts.2 Cyberspace is partially a literalization of spatial metaphors about computer networks: the world wide web, which we navigate with a browser (bearing names such as Navigator, Explorer, Safari, and Compass) when we go to a web address or site. Before the web we had electronic bulletin board systems whose designs were informed by the metaphor of posting messages on a physical bulletin board.

Such metaphors arise out of our embodied experiences as actors in physical spaces interacting with other bodies occupying those spaces, but they become their own things conceptually and, to some extent, somatically. When we enter a chat room (“What’s a ‘chat room’, Grandpa?” please bear with me), we do not experience physically walking into a room crowded with people socializing (there are 3D chat applications that simulate this), but rather we press some buttons on our keyboard and our computer screen responds with signs letting us know we have become situated in a space wherein messages we send can be read by people “inside” the “room” but not “outside,” as if there were four walls. We do not scan the room for a bar (although we might pretend to: /me looks around for the bar) or check out what color the wallpaper is, but our actions and reactions—our interactions—are still governed by rules and expectations peculiar to this environment.

Concept art of the Matrix for the Shadowrun Returns video game (© Harebrained Schemes) [3PC]

We play a kind of pretend when we interact with, and within, a chat room; a sort of consensual hallucination: con-sensual meaning “to sense together,” and hallucination meaning “apparent perception (usually by sight or hearing) of an external object when no such object is actually present” (OED). The chat room is kin to all kinds of virtual reality: it is hallucination made real. Not really real but virtually real. In VR, our eyes and ears may be supplied with data that suggest we are standing on the edge of a cliff, but we are not in any real danger of falling although we might feel like we could. The virtual bodies we interact with conserve certain features of their physical correspondents while forsaking others.

“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 [3PC]

We sort of make believe also when we cast a magic circle wherein to perform an act of ritual magic.3 A circle may be cast by physically drawing it with some instrument or simply visualizing it in the mind’s eye, and performing some activity to activate it.4 However and wherever the circle is constructed it marks a non-trivial distinction between things within and without it: magic vs. mundane, sacred vs. profane, microcosmic vs. macrocosmic, &c. The circumscribed space is transformed into a special place (locus) wherein agents, actions, or objects become magically efficacious or are magically protected from outside forces. Like the chat room, this space facilitates certain activities while it forbids others, governed by perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and permissions that are peculiar to it. The creation of both chat rooms and magic circles is a kind of experience design. The space is not the thing, but the thing that gets us to the thing. See also: medium.

“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 [3PC]

In the 1990s, several technnopagans performed rituals within chat rooms where 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.5

Here the computer’s role was primarily to coordinate the interactions of the ritual participants who still employed 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.6 Instead of merely 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 mental visualization of the participants guided by its 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: neither temple exists in all the same ways a physical temple does, but they both conserve certain essential qualities or attributes of a physical temple in order that the ritual participants may actually perform familiar ritual acts within them.

Sacred Cauldron ritual space in Second Life [3PC (source)]

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 (real or imagined), but because the virtual temple is digital it is not bound by the same laws as physical temples. 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 enter or exit a “real” temple, I must walk through a doorway to avoid running into any walls, but in Second Life—as in dreams—I can walk through walls or fly over them. Because I can fly (or teleport), the temple need not be built on the ground but 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 material world, but impossible. Such is the freedom afforded by the digital realm.

Although digital media transformed greatly over the decade or so from IRC to Second Life rituals—just as they had from text adventure games to 3D MMORPGs—the mode of interacting with these media changed very little: typically sitting in front of a box, staring at a screen, typing on a keyboard. Motivated by play-ability, some alternatives were invented as video-game peripherals: joysticks, foot pedals, light guns, wired gloves, haptic suits, &c., which lend themselves to different perceptuomotor loops. Virtual reality technology was originally developed not to simulate (real or imagined) worlds but to involve more of our bodies more naturally in human-computer interaction: e.g., to change our perspective by physically turning our heads rather than pushing on a keyboard or joystick with our hands.7 But VR rigs whether commercial or custom-built were prohibitively expensive for most hackers and hobbyists back then.

“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” (1990) [3PC]

Things are quite different today, just a few decades later. Now you can get a 6-DOF VR setup, brain-computer interface, or hand or arm gesture controller for a few hundred dollars, and inexpensive microcontrollers and single-board computers, as well as new materials such as electrically conductive paint, make a variety of mixed-reality applications not only possible but far more accessible than ever before.

Mixed-reality and blended spaces combine the virtual and physical, digital and material, in ways that involve more of our bodies in our interactions with computational media, taking advantage of our perceptual intelligence8 and sense of presence,9 and possibly enriching our interactions beyond “the poverty of our ocularcentric metaphysical tradition and its representationalist æsthetics.”10 It is a kind of magic to conjure the imaginal or conceptual into the perceptual—to reify it, make it real—but without falling into the trap of realism, of merely imitating what already exists when we might create something new. Although mixed reality takes advantage of the kinds of physical actions we are used to performing—pushing, pulling, lifting, grasping, pointing, &c.—the interactions we design need not merely represent things from the natural world, but may also represent unnatural, preternatural, or supernatural ontologies. We live in a time of wondrous and unprecedented opportunity for our cyberspaces and magic spaces to collide and explode in a wonderful myriad of diverse forms.

Heretofore the discourse about doing magic with computers has been dominated by a conflation of cyberspace and the astral plane, which foregrounds an active mental or subtle body that is both metaphysically and ontologically distinct from a dormant physical or gross body, and which privileges ideal forms (including in-form-ation itself). This began with the first ever mention of something like cyberspace, viz. the Other Plane of Vinge’s True Names, and proceeds through a long list of exemplars including the Penczak ritual mentioned above. But cyberspace—computer space—is much more than virtual reality or online spaces such as the Internet or “the cloud.” It is also: the space between a computer and its user (or rather, its inter-actor); the space wherein a computer acts on, reacts to, or interacts with the physical world; the space in which the potential of a computer, computer program, or computational media is realized; and the space wherein a computational mechanism is conjoined with its correlated discourse.11

Technomancy 101 takes a different tack by focusing on interaction and interactivity, and emphasizing the performativity and materiality of artifacts whether physical or digital, over the virtuality of digital artifacts. It rejects (or at least refuses to privilege) Gnostic and Cartesian dualism and Platonic idealism, and is instead more aligned with an enactivistic philosophy of mind (the mental is always already physical). Some of the projects featured here are indistinguishable from typical computer applications (save their occult themes); others stand quite apart from how people today usually interact with computers; but in all cases action is key: doing magic with computers.

As virtual reality pioneer Myron Krueger said: “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.”12 Play is indeed the thing, and the theater analogy is appropriate. Theatre is the first virtual reality: stories brought to phenomenal life, to be seen and heard with eyes and ears, not just played out in the imagination. Connections between ritual and theatre have been explored by Aristotle, Antonin Artaud, Victor Turner, Antero Alli, et al. An obvious difference between theatre and ritual is that the former is usually observed by an audience (θέατρον, théatron: “a place for viewing”), whereas the latter is typically performed in secret and involves the participation of all who are present, but there are innumerable shapes that haunt the liminal in-between, from participatory theatre to ritual performance art.

Technomancy 101 is about acting with technology,13 and the programming language we use is explicitly modeled on theatre: it involves a stage on which one or more sprites act according to one or more scripts that have been prepared for them. The sprites can sense things about their environment, including each other and—via various apparatus—the physical “plane” in which the computer hosting the sprites is situated; and they can be programmed to respond accordingly. Thus our design of magician-computer interactions involves the coordination of human and other-than-human bodies (that may connote other-than-human persons) of diverse kinds—virtual, physical, digital, material, natural, artificial, imaginal, ætherial, strange, familiar—whose inter/actions converge on the performance of a magic act: a deed of occult significance. It is therefore kin to the design of magic rituals although ornate rites are not our focus. There may be elements borrowed from ceremonial, celestial, and natural magics, but ours is an electrical (or electro-alchemical) magic for the cyborg sorcerer’s Body Electric: embedded within its blended digital-physical-conceptual space; extended through its attendant sprites and objects of power; and enacted to transmute (essential change) or transmogrify (formal change) the sorcerer’s experience—even her very reality—according to how she engages with the space and its contents.

Technomancy 101 was developed in the spirit of liberation from the mental prisons that constrain what we think magic and computers are, are about, and are capable of, and it may require a leap of faith.

Tank, load the jump program.

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.
—Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater

  1. Technomancy 101 is to space as my forthcoming robomancy book is to bodies, although ideas about both spaces and bodies permeate both works.
  2. “Cyberspace means (a) the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures; and (b) includes the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.”—Foreign Economic Espionage in Cyberspace (National Counterintelligence and Security Center, 2018) 2.
  3. I do not mean ‘ritual magic’ in the academic sense of ‘ceremonial’, ‘high’, or ‘learned’ magic, but something much more inclusive. Although not all rituals are magic, and not all magic involves ritual, I regard ritual as the major component of the praxis of magic. For more about magic ritual apropos of technomancy, see “Ritual As Algorithm.”
  4. On the subject of magic circles I recommend William Kiesel’s Magic Circles in the Grimoire Tradition (Three Hands Press, 2012; Ouroboros Press 2015).
  5. Christopher Penczak, City Magick (Weiser, 2001) 269–271. There are similar scripts in Lisa McSherry, The Virtual Pagan: Exploring Wicca and Paganism Through the Internet (Weiser, 2002) 103–126. The online rituals of McSherry et al. are explored in Douglas E. Cowan, Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet (Routledge, 2005).
  6. Many online articles about this have vaporized in recent years, but see, e.g., Morgan Leigh and Mark Elwell, “Authentic Theurgy: Ceremonial Magic in Second Life,” in T. Hirashima, A.F. Mohd Ayub, et al. (Eds.), Workshop Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Computers in Education (Putrajaya, Malaysia: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education, 2010) 260–267; and Robert M. Geraci, Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life (Oxford University Press, 2014) 119–124.
  7. “Today, computer graphics allow us to make this kind of [conceptual] information perceptual. Virtual reality goes a step further by engaging the machinery we use to operate in the physical world. 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 in “Myron Krueger Live,” CTheory.net. Also: “Motor activity—not representationalist verisimilitude—holds the key to fluid and functional crossings between virtual and physical realms.” Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (Routledge, 2006).
  8. See Myron Krueger, “Virtual (Reality + Intelligence),” in Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface (Elsevier, 1996).
  9. See David Benyon, “Presence in Blended Spaces,” Interacting with Computers, Volume 24, Issue 4, 1 July 2012, pp. 219–226.
  10. Hansen, op. cit., 3. The privilege of sight in both the Western mystery and sorcery traditions is obvious, and even pervades most of the Technomancy 101 projects despite my own sensitivity to it (my tactile sense is much stronger than my visual—I prefer a “third hand” to a third eye). Even those schools that exploit ocular distortion or subversion require sight in the first place.
  11. The last refers to “computational assemblages” as conceived by John Johnston, The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI (MIT Press, 2008).
  12. “Myron Krueger Live,” op. cit.
  13. Incidentally, also the title of a fine book about activity theory and interaction design, by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi (MIT Press, 2006).