We live in an age of wonders. Every day, companies and individuals are working toward new vistas of technology, new combinations of knowledge and imagination. Human creators in music, movies, books and TV are increasingly concerned with roboticists, computer programmers, artificial intelligence, or AI, experts—and their creations. Consciously or not, these groups are all trying to figure out how to deal with the oncoming storm that is the ever-increasing pace of technology. But in this struggle toward understanding the new world we’re building, I believe we need look at some fairly unorthodox sources.
The concept of “the magical” can give us an important perspective on the changes we’re going through, in terms of understanding both humanity’s urges and desires toward technological progress, and the implications of that project for us, now and in the future.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in both magic and the more extreme aspects of science. Whether it was John Hughes’ 1985 classic Weird Science, Disney’s “Gargoyles” cartoon, X-Men comics, my family’s stories of the Star Wars defense program, or just a kid’s thoughts about parallel universes, I’ve always believed that the awesome potentials of science and magic weren’t mutually exclusive. Now, when I say "magic," I mean ideas like: the psychological effects of symbolic systems, the manipulation of perception to manipulate the world, spells and incantations, gestures and trance states, sometimes-spelled-with-a-K Magic.
I think that, in response to our own progress, we’ve instinctively employed some of these magical understandings in order to make sense of the strange and wonderful events around us. But the unthinking way we usually engage the tech in our daily lives means we tend to claim ourselves as rational and "beyond" those views, even as we use them.
We’re living in a world where the objects in our homes, from our cars to our refrigerators, can be aware of their surroundings, and are capable of telling the internet-connected world about themselves. It’s a world where the old promise of a connecting the worlds of matter and spirit is fulfilled by the games we’re designing for our children. It’s a world in which right now on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube, you can find "weak AI’s" with the beginnings of minds (but nothing much like consciousness), while, together, Google and NASA—among other independent groups—are using quantum mechanics to build robotic AIs. We’ll look at all of these, in turn.
If we really think that whatever kind of mind we generate from these efforts is going to be anything like us, then we’re probably in for a big surprise. We have to be prepared for—as opposed to scared about—the possibility that any machine intelligence will have vastly different concerns from us. “Occult Wisdom” means knowledge hidden from those who don’t know how to look for it and, without an understanding of how these new minds will experience our world, humanity will never know everything we might.
As I’ve explored these ideas, over the years, I’ve found that the most valuable approaches have often come from the intersections that others might overlook. The intersection that’s been most useful to me is at the center of weird science, philosophy, religious studies, pop-culture, and magic. I’ve written articles, taught classes, and organized conferences arguing that "The Magical” is one of the most useful-but-underused tools we have for rethinking and understanding these ideas.
Now I want to apply this understanding to the task of painting a more complete picture of what humanity will need to become, in order to build a common reality for both human and machines minds, together.
I’ll show what happens when magical ideas intersect with modern technology, looking at things like AI, and why "artificial" might have been a poor choice of adjective. I’ll consider questions like, "What is it that drives humanity to create technology in our image?" “How can stories like the Golem, the Homunculus, or the Tulpa,” (and we’ll get to those) “help us in our search to create AI?" and "Might perspectives such as Jungian psychology’s take on alchemy provide us with tools to better engage our world?"
I’ll also examine the use of cutting edge tech in modern magical practices and vice versa. Musicians, roboticists, and authors who weave magical intentions through electronic music, who use magical theory in the programming of their creations and who see in our world, something like the fulfilment of Arthur C. Clarke’s line that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”