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Tag Archives: Magic

Tech Voodoo Redux

 

I’m struck lately by the contradiction between the technological profusion of our society and our preoccupation with magic, paranormal, fantasy and the occult. As we rely on fruits of the scientific method such as self-driving cars and genetic engineering to solve our problems (of not knowing how to drive and not knowing how to stay healthy), we seem equally obsessed with an opposite mode of thinking and behaving.

The disconnect is especially evident in television, movies and the web. For every example like Apollo 13 and The Martian that celebrates the virtues of empirical thinking and technological ingenuity, five or six seem to promote a view of the world decidedly inconsistent with the scientific method and standard (that is, arguably Western) logic. A partial list includes:

Books:

  • The Da Vinci Code
  • Harry Potter
  • The Secret

Films and Television:

See above, and –

  • Lucifer
  • The Magicians
  • Underworld
  • The Vampire Diaries
  • The Walking Dead

Gaming

  • Dungeons & Dragons (which originated as a board game in the 1970s and has since gone online)
  • Final Fantasy
  • Magic, the Gathering
  • Myst

Examples like The Secret and (to some extent The Da Vinci Code ) cross the line into magical thinking ‘belief systems’ which I have touched on  here and here.

There’s more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat:  A linear, empirical mode of thinking and understanding of the world does not necessarily give us a monopoly on reality.1  And books inspired by the occult (see H.P. Lovecraft) and shows such as theTwilight Zone have been around for a long time. But the more mainstream ambivalence about technology and the scientific method may be due to our disappointment and frustration with the world these have given us (or more accurately that we have created with them). It seems suspiciously coincidental that all the commercial hype over vampires and zombies seems to date from the information technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and the growth of the Internet hydra.2

The line between the scientific method and magic in this world has not always been so clear. Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy in between creating calculus and classic physics. Joseph Priestly, clergyman and discoverer of oxygen, pursued his Millennialist religious studies after absconding to Northumberland Pennsylvania3 at the forks of the Susquehanna, near where I grew up.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings exhibit a consistent internal logic and and science (or techne4 ) all their own — sort of literary alternate universes. Tolkien wrote of creating secondary worlds that adhere to their own laws.5

I just recently uncovered the following essay I published in 1985 titled The New Magic.

At the time I wrote it the IBM PC had debuted (followed by Apple’s IIc and Macintosh computers). Cell phones did not exist. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a toddler. Online services that preceded the World Wide Web were dominated by Compuserve, followed by Prodigy and something called the Well.6

There’s a lot we didn’t know then (including, in my case judging from the photo, how to grow a proper beard). But it goes to show that the conflation of technology and magic have a long history, something useful to keep in mind. — CDL

1 Associated with literacy and a text-based culture.

2Popularized in books like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends.

3Where he was encouraged to flee from England in 1794 due to his religious dissent and support for the French Revolution

4Related to craft or art.

5See On Fairy Stories

6Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which still exists, bless its anachronistic heart

Science, Religion & Magic

We have a tendency to see science, religion and magic as mutually exclusive, rather than as related, even co-dependent, phenomena.

Science grew out of alchemy and the search for the divine secret of matter for the purpose of transforming lead into gold (much like  derivatives were used to package and turn worthless loans into profit on Wall Street) .

The discipline of empirical thought added to alchemy invented science. Driven by the search for profit, science gave rise to industrial and technological revolutions: iron,  steam, electricity and the age of the machine.

A recent article in the Atlantic describes the depiction of technology in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Men, elves, dwarves and wizards allied themselves to defeat Sauron, Sarumon and the orcs. who sought to subjugate the old magic of Middle Earth with a newer, darker force:

“The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist…”

In this world, outside the realm of fiction, it’s not always clear which forces are enlightened and which are more Mephistophelian. Sometimes they are a little of both.

Scientists and technologists are susceptible to whim, fancy and ego as the rest of us. We assume their training in the modern magic of engineering, computer science or medicine gives them more insight or a monopoly on truth. But their discoveries are often Faustian in nature. Could we have had antibiotics without genetic engineering? Central heat without global warming? What bargains are we willing to make and have made for us? And by whom?

David Noble describes religious belief as an element of scientific and technological pursuit. Galileo and Copernicus felt they were doing God’s work. Isaac Newton, who almost single-handedly invented physics, dabbled in alchemy and was a Mason. Robert K. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita as he watched the atomic bomb explode. Today visionaries such as Steve Jobs want to re-make the world ‘insanely great’ in their own images. Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil want to transcend it. Technological determinism, no less than religious zeal, tells us what must be so. Do we have a choice?

We persist in the misapprehension that science is a thing, a collection of objective, immutable facts, rather than a process. Michael Polanyi argues in Science, Faith & Society that this process owes as much to inspiration and intuition as logic.

Perhaps it is no accident that at the same time we are overrun by devices that hold our thoughts, guide our steps, and organize our love lives, so many take refuge in the old magic of sword and sorcery and vampire fantasies.

Are our iPhones and tablets that much different than idolatrous fetishes and talismans carried as repositories of power to attract luck or repel evil? What is Facebook but a virtual altar to the graven image of ourselves?

— CDL

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