The science of psych

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a God

Magical thinking will help us navigate cyberspace.

Magical thinking--typically considered an archaic mode of cognition that populates the world with animistic forces, hidden dimensions, and evocative incantations--may actually serve us well in the future as we navigate an existence increasingly mediated by digital information.

As I argue in a sidebar to my recent story about magical thinking, the ethereal worlds of cyberspace--from simple computer interfaces to immersive virtual realities--are built of abstract code straight from the minds of sentient beings, unbound by physical laws (which is why a document can be duplicated infinite times and Mario can double in size when he eats a mushroom.) They are universes of pure imagination.

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I had a good talk about this with Erik Davis, the author of TechGnosis. He told me, "In the magical worldview, the world is kind of like a language. If you know the spells or the signs or the symbols you can effect change." Hard physics has discredited that soft outlook, "but with cyberspace and technology and the Internet it's a human space, or it's all a constructed space. And on its most basic level, it's constructed of language." Maybe not English, but computer code.

Humans are evolved pattern-spotting machines, often finding trends where none exist, which makes us terrible at producing and recognizing randomness. And research shows that those with stronger beliefs in the paranormal are even less prone to acknowledge randomness in, say, a truly unbiased series of coin tosses--independent of any other deficits in probabilistic reasoning. Apophenia, or experiencing patterns and meaning where none exist, makes us see futures in tea leaves and faces in TV static. (I touch on this in a sidebar too.) But while linking a full moon to a fortuitous day on the hunt (or at the track) may not make sense in real life, hidden code may connect disparate phenomena in VR.

Similarly, chanting Beetlejuice three times may not make Michael Keaton appear in your living room, but pressing Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A gives you 3 extra lives in Contra, and if you're not into video games, your computer is full of Easter Eggs craftily hidden by wily software engineers. And that creepy old tree on the corner may not know your dirty past, but your TiVo does and will suggest new programs based on your guilty-pleasure viewing habits. Eventually programs will become more predictive and interactive, and it will make sense to treat algorithms as sentient creatures, as Neo does with the Agents, or Deckard does with the replicants.

Hackers will be the new shamans.

In my next post, I'll list a few examples of seeing too much life in the ones and zeroes. [UPDATE: HERE IT IS.]

UPDATE 2: Cyberpunk Essentials
I alluded to The Matrix and  Blade Runner, but one commenter namechecked William Gibson's Neuromancer (in which the word "cyberspace" was actually coined) and another mentioned Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. I also recommend Rudy Rucker's Ware Tetralogy. For nonfiction looks at digital spirituality, check out CyberGrace, or The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, or even Timothy Leary's Chaos & Cyber Culture. I thank George Landow for introducing me to some of this stuff in his course at Brown titled "Cyberspace, Hypertext, and Critical Theory." And for slipping a deconstruction of Max Headroom into the syllabus. Come to think of it, his course met right after "Magic in the Middle Ages." I suspect that that academic combination catalyzed the synergetic neuralchemy that informed the line of thinking above.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.


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