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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

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Get the Picture?

I used to regard illustrated or graphic novels as literature for the illiterate; comic books as condescending to the callow.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a post-literature culture1, but I’ve grown to appreciate graphic novels as a medium unto themselves for telling a story and connecting to an audience. A recent article in the City Journal quotes William Eisner, creator of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and the Spirit in the 1940s:

“The comic strip… is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists.”

Illustrators have contributed their craft to storytelling since paleolithic cave paintings. Perhaps these projected early human fears and desires in an uncertain world; perhaps they were just early interior decoration. ; – )

Cave painting from Lascaux, France, ca 35,000-30,000 BCE

During the Middle Ages images in gothic cathedrals emphasized to uneducated peasants who was in charge.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

 In the 19th century Dickens’ collaboration with various artists made the characters in his serialized novels come alive.

Dickens’ Dream, Robert William Buss

Ironically, illustration as a means of storytelling came into its own for a mass audience just as print culture was evolving to electronic culture with radio and film. Newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried intricate, full-color surreal extravaganzas like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to a mass audience.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat , appearing in 1913, anticipated the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

In the 1950s, the age of television and the gray flannel suit. Walt Kelly and his compatriots subversively explored parody and satire in the midst of (supposed) conformity.

As the cellphone and cable explosion began in the 1980s, Sam Watterson’s brilliant Calvin & Hobbes captured the truth of boyhood in the way perhaps no one else has since Mark Twain.

Bill Watterson’s Incomparable Calvin & Hobbes will always remind me of of my son. I miss it greatly. (Image copyright Bill Watterson.)

Alas, the exigencies of the newspaper industry spelled at end to the strip. Watterson and Calvin packed up their marbles (and Hobbes) and went home.

Lately, as the publishing industry has struggled and tried to capture our attention with e-books, the graphic novel has ascended to respectability.

Graphic novels lend themselves to our fragmented attention span and reading habits in the age of tweets and text messages. As life is increasingly conducted online, they create a bounded world of coherence and context in the midst of disparate words and images that bombard us daily. In an age preoccupied by our attempts to control the world through science and technology, many graphic novels and comic books dance on the edge of or immerse themselves metaphysics and fantasy. Several of these, such as the X-Men and Superman have been turned into film with varying degrees of success. A skilled illustrator and story teller creates a secondary world2 that transcends the rules of the world we know to provide a more satisfying (or at least distracting) alternate universe. Many of these, such as the Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman, explore adult themes and existential experience, turning the mythology into exotic reinterpretations that are, like our lives, dark and threatening, absurd, exuberant, whimsical or just plain funny.  — Chuck Lanigan

Related:

1By this I mean not illiterate, but one in which the ability to read (and write) sustained, thoughtful discourse is made irrelevant in a society overrun by soundbites and Twitter feeds.

2See Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories for a discussion on secondary worlds.

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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