Tuesday, September 27, 2011

technology and magic

While I was working on this post, JMG posted another take on the same topic:archdruid

We are both discussing technology and magic, in reference to current cultural trends and Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

While I agree with JMG that the goals of some magic (and incidentally some forms of religion) are different than the goals of some forms of technology, I think there are common goals between some forms of magic (and religion) and some forms of technology.

I define magic (and religion) as the manipulation of symbols and consciousness. I define (material) technology as manipulating the material world. By this definition of magic, computer hackers and theoretical physicists and mathematicians are doing magic. Some people (like JMG) extend the definition to include a purpose: magic for the purpose of changing consiousness, technology for the purpose of manipulating the material world. But there are some other folks who think (erroneously perhaps) that manipulating symbols can also directly change the material world. This is what the God of ancient judaism and many other religions are supposed to do. This is what some new agers believe about their visualizations or affirmations. This is what most people who are alienated from production of material goods in a service economy, believe that their technology is doing. This is what economists do when they think that they can create oil with investment. This is what non-muggles do in Harry Potter's world. This is perhaps what some primitive peoples did with their rituals (e.g. raindance)

JMG forms a useful classification of magic and technology based on one purpose (I will propose another below), that of changing consciousness or directly changing the material world. He discusses 3 possibilities:
1. Using magic to change consciousness (what he and smart mages, advertizers, computer hackers, some religious people and mystics do)
2. Using magic to attempt to change the material word directly. The list of people who do this is above.
3. Using (material) technology to change the material world. This is what is done by an industrial infrastructure composed of complicated machines and mostly third world workers (some of them in the US). But it was also done by pre-industrial craftsmen and farmers. And it is also done by most people in mundane ways such as opening doors, driving cars and cooking.

There is a fourth possibility that JMG omits, which I mention here:
4. Using technology to change consiousness, which is what most people in the world (developed or not, modern or ancient) do with consciousness-altering drugs. In the modern world, people also use electronic media to alter consciousness. There is a disconnect between the makers of the electronics and the users, but that is another matter, to be discussed later.

There is another purpose which can be used for classification of both technology and magic/religion. I am thinking of magic, religion and technology which are intended to serve the human spirit and life in general (let's call that love/creativity), vs magic, religion and technology which are intended to serve the human ego (and its desire for power over nature and other people) and become idols that people give their life force to (let's call that power over). Technology and magic which serve life, vs technology and magic which rule life.

This brings up four more possibilities in addition to the ones mentioned above (think of a 2x2 matrix with the rows being material and spiritual and the columns being love/creativity and power. Each entry in the matrix is filled with both magic and technology. In this more sophisticated classification scheme, we have the following 8 possibilities (with a non-exhaustive list of examples):

1A.Magic to change consciousness with the purpose of love/creativity (great spiritual teachers, "white" magic, mystics and saints, most artists, Gandalf in LOTR, some computer hackers)
1B. Magic to change consciousness with the purpose of having power over nature or people (hate mongers, "black" magic, most advertizers, most economists, Sauron and Saruman in LOTR)
2A. Magic to change the material world directly, for love/creativity (new age thinking, the God of ancient Judaism, Gandalf in LOTR, some computer hackers)
2B. Magic to change the material world directly, for the purposes of power over (Harry Potter's world, some primitive magic, Sauron and Saruman in LOTR)
3A. Technology to change the material world for love ((pre-industrial, craft-based technology, luddites, distributists, the Shire in LOTR)
3B. Technology to change the material world for power over (military/industrial technology, Saruman in LOTR)
4A. Technology to change consciousness for love (inventors, some drug users, some electronic media users, ritualists)
4B. Technology to change consciousness for power over (???)

These distinctions are not mutually exclusive, but they are useful because most of the time there is a predominance of one or the other.

I would like if there were more cultures today where people had a balance between the world of symbols and the material world. Also where they were motivated more by love than by power. What are the obstacles to this?
First, there has to be a valuing of physical work, not just as an escape, but as a way to relate to the physical world with love rather than violence.
Second, there has to be an understanding of how technology works, at all levels, not just the functional.
Third, in order for this to happen, technology needs to stay fairly simple and local, and people need to participate in making what they use, not just using it. Abstraction may be useful in computer science, but not so much in the sociology of technology. Modern technology has become big, global and beyond the understanding of most people. Such a technology creates a feeling of powerlessness to changing not only the material world, but socio-economic conditions. The fear that primitive tribes had of breaking social taboos came from thinking that those were, like laws of nature, unchangeable. Similarly, the fear they had of the forces of nature, came from a lack of understanding of those forces. And that which is not understood, but which must be obeyed, can become a source of irrational fear.
Fourth, technology must be subjugated to the needs of man, including his need to feel useful and creative. A machine should not be created that would reduce creativity and usefulness, even if it appears to save labor. A machine that is involved in food, shelter, water, healthcare, clothes or local transport should not be created if it can't be created and maintained on a local level. Such a machine will destroy community, which is a basic need of people, unless people are strong enough to resist its use. The same might be said of machines that would replace the ability of communities to provide for their spiritual needs.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised this post has no comments.