I recently attended an informal talk by Erik Davis, culture writer, speaker, and founder of the Techgnosis web journal. Erik gave an extemporaneous, tangential (but always interesting) talk on microdosing, subtle allies, domestic familiars, and the pharmacopeia of moods. Having been a fan of his work for many years since first encountering his book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information in 1998, I was looking forward to meeting a kindred spirit. And he did not disappoint.
One particular metaphor in his discussion set my brain on fire—the idea that technological objects, particularly those that are highly interactive (our smart phones being the best example) can be seen as “allies” in the shamanic sense popularized by Carlos Castaneda. In other words, as beings with some sort of agency of their own. As these objects become more and more “alive”—as we converse with them, fetishize them, and imbue them with personality (Hello, Siri!)—might it be appropriate to consider them as a form of sentient ally?
Castaneda, although his veracity has been shredded, nonetheless captures the shamanic concept of the ally when he writes of Don Juan saying:
An “ally” is a power a man can bring into his life to help him, advise him, and give him the strength necessary to perform acts, whether big or small, right or wrong. This ally is necessary to enhance a man’s life, guide his acts, and further his knowledge. In fact, an ally is the indispensable aid to knowing. An ally will make you see and understand things about which no human being could possible enlighten you. It is neither a guardian nor a spirit. It is an aid. An ally is tamed and used.
“An indispensable aid to knowing.” Might you have one of those in your pocket at this very moment?
And notice Don Juan’s advice: an ally must be tamed and used.
Davis’s mention of smart phones as technological talismans got a rise out of the audience. Several people pointed out how slavish we have become in the service of our screens, captured in the glow of Facebook and texting while our consciousness is drawn farther and farther from the real world around us. We all see it every day—humans walking along the street or standing in line or riding a bus utterly lost in the little rectangles of plastic and glass. It’s easy to demonize the gadgets, and in the cases where they diminish human-to-human interaction, a clear case can be made for the reality of those virtual demons residing behind the screens.
Davis suggested that the best way to manage our devices is to make a pact with them. The idea had immediate resonance with everyone in the room, and my mental gears started to turn. A pact. It made perfect sense. And the word itself triggered a cascade of metaphors and images—pacts with the devil. Faustian bargains written in blood. Ritual magic and its rules for dealing with non-corporeal entities. Shamanic bargains—always risky and tricky—with powerful allies.
And then I began thinking of John Dee, history’s most famous ritual magician before the notorious Aleister Crowley stole his fire. Dee, born in 1527, was a mathematician and a Hermeticist as well as a ceremonial magician. His aim was to contact angelic beings with the aim of acquiring hidden knowledge. Aided by the spirit medium Edward Kelley, Dee used a variety of objects for scrying, including an Aztec obsidian mirror, a crystal ball (or “shew-stone”), and other reflective objects in his alleged communications with angelic beings.
The images seen in the reflective surfaces enabled Dee (via Kelly’s visionary abilities) to see faraway places and people, to communicate with entities across great distances, and to gain knowledge encoded in a language known as Enochian, or the “language of the angels” or “Celestial Speech.” Let’s break that down again: Encoded, symbolic information. Far-seeing. Universal knowledge. Direct communication across vast distances. All within a reflective, often glass, object.
Take a step back in time with me. Not that far—let’s go back twenty years or so. Imagine if, in 1993, I had handed you a small, lightweight, reflective rectangle and told you you could see through its glass to any part of the world. Or that you could talk to someone on the other side of the planet by holding it up near your face. And if that wasn’t enough, that you could ask (aloud) this rectangle how many miles it was from the Earth to Mars and it would tell you within seconds. We sometimes forget how blasé we have become at the technical marvels we carry with us everywhere we go, but then imagine if I handed you this device in 1983. Or 1973, or 1963. You’d be mistaken for a demon, charlatan, or a visitor from another planet.
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous aphorism (Clarke’s Law Number 3, to be precise) has never rung more true: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To which I might add as a corollary: Any advanced technology that resembles magic will, once it has been widely adopted, inevitably be considered mundane and ordinary.
Today we are the possessors of battery-powered, invisibly interconnected shew-stones, reflective talismans of godly power that would have made John Dee fall to his knees in awe. And we carry them in our fucking pockets. And we plainly see their power, not only for making us smarter (they are “smart” phones, after all) but in sucking our consciousnesses into a vast, empty, soulless Candy Crush-colored virtual phantasm. I work at a university, and when I see hordes of students stumbling along, faces glowing in iPhone glare, utterly distanced from the world around them, it’s obvious our bargain has some disturbing Faustian overtones.
So how do we handle this wild magic?
Back to Davis. If we look at our magical, illuminated rectangles and acknowledge their power over us, we also acknowledge their agency as allies or beings in their own right. And just as all shamans are taught to be wary of powerful allies, and all ritual magicians are taught to tread cautiously when communing with angelic or demonic beings, so we should engage cautiously with our 4G 32GB Aztec obsidian pocket mirrors and “magical” (as Steve Jobs called the original iPad) tablets.
Make a pact with your technology. Realize that it can drain your mana even as it opens up vistas to unexplored worlds and an omnipresent but invisible noosphere. The dancing candy-colored visions of discarnate (but so very corporate™) demons battle for your eyeballs and your mind while your loved ones in the physical realm grow ever more distant. An object that calls for you in nonverbal chirps or bits of song, nonstop, taking you away from your work, your play, and your children in order to caress it and press its ephemeral sigils is an object that takes, and only takes, while drawing you deeper into its vast, disconnected, impersonal nothingness. Some might call that Hell.
Be cautious when you make your pact. Use its magic for your purposes, not for the sorcerers with PhDs in consumer behavior and marketing who turn its shiny magic to their vampiric gains. Remember to turn it off, and put it away in a dark place where it cannot call to you. You can’t destroy it, like Frodo’s ring melting in the fires of Mount Doom, because thousands more await you, each model more alluring and potent. But you can make a pact with it. Any good magician or shaman will tell you: Allies, while they can grant great power, need to be respected and feared. Perhaps it’s time we stopped just using them and thought about taming them.