Robomancy: Technoccultist Joshua Madara on Arduino and the Future of Magick
Four hours of trudging through circuit diagrams and forum posts that read like Chinese toaster manuals, trying desperately to figure out what “Arduino” is. I finally have a breakthrough realization: I may have reached the far end of my brain’s capacity to learn new things.
I am an idiot. What a downer.
Luckily, I find a TED Talk by Massimo Banzi, an instructor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and co-creator of Arduino, an “open-source electronics prototyping platform,” which breaks it all down for me. Through a haze of tears, I learn how a couple of nerds have managed to turn the world of interactive technology on its head while fooling around with toys and LED displays in their bedrooms.
From what Banzi says, Arduino has slowly and quietly been taking over our technological world since 2005, when he and four friends began developing a tool that would make it easier for his students to create their own interactive electronic inventions without having to be an engineer.
Basically, “Arduino is an open-source and easy-to-program controller for creating interactive objects and environments.”
Or at least that’s how someone much smarter than me explained it.
Seeing some actual devices developed by folks using Arduino made it a little easier to grasp. Like the APM Copter, an autonomous drone with six rotors, or the txtBOMBER, a handy little gadget that “prints” graffiti on any flat surface in seconds.
One of my personal favorites (which immediately highlights my dweebosity) is the Laser Harp. Trying to describe it would only take away from the experience of witnessing it, so I won’t even bother.
Oh. And there have been other, smaller projects that use the Arduino for a brain, like ArduSat (a homemade satellite), 3D Printers, or the Large Hadron Collider. Stuff like that.
The projects are usually open source, and you can easily look up how to build these things yourself. There’s an entire “Maker” community (named after the DIY-themed Make magazine) dedicated to these sorts of projects.
In fact, Arduino seems to be one of the most utilized tools in current technologies, a subject that warrants a much closer examination by anyone interested in what our future might end up looking like.
But the only reason I was looking into it in the first place was an interesting IAMA thread I found on Reddit.
“I do ritual magic and other occult themes with computers and electronics including interactive multimedia, microcontrollers, robots, and brain-computer interfaces.”
I had seen a handful of essays on “technomancy” for a few years, but they always ended up being about ways to invoke Odin for the purpose of dealing with a finicky computer, or something similar.
Joshua, however, seemed like the real deal. He was talking about using Arduino and robotics to develop new ways of practicing magic, and was in the middle of working on a book, Robomancy, which would be an entry-level manual for aspiring technomancers who wish to use robotics in their rituals, with details on easy and affordable DIY projects.
Even though I’m uncomfortable touching my computer screen, and I still refuse to have a phone that’s smarter than me, the thought of a mob of crazy occultists running around the streets in robes that shoot sparks and Android apps that make demons manifest through their robots was just too delicious.
The following is an interview with Mr. Madara, in which he tries to explain his work to a man with the intellectual maturity and technological know-how of a third-grader (circa 1991).
Isla: I hear you’re involved in ritual magic and high technology. What are your “credentials” in these areas, sir, and why have you attempted to bring them together?
Madara: I like to think my work is my credentials. I am mostly self-taught. I’ve been interested in both computers and the occult my whole life, but I’ve had little formal education in computers, and only got into really practicing magic in 2005, when I met Pete Carroll through Bob Wilson’s Maybe Logic Academy. Right away, I started thinking about ways of involving computers in magic, but for a while that’s all I really did — think about it, and write about it here and there. That same year, Make magazine and Arduino both came out, but I wasn’t yet ready for them.
In 2008, I was struck by the notion that I needed to begin making stuff that showed what I had in mind. It was about then that I picked up Reas and Fry’s Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists from a bookstore because I had a good feeling about it (I’d never before heard of Processing), and that turned me on to Arduino, which turned me on to more of the maker scene, and so on. Everything I needed just appeared when I needed it to. Immediately, I started sharing what I was doing, online; that’s how hyperritual.com started. Much of what’s there is like a sketchbook; stuff I’ve put together while tinkering. In that sense it follows in the design philosophy of Processing and Arduino. Recently I’ve been working on more sophisticated projects.
As for why I do it, I just find it terribly compelling. I can’t imagine being happier doing anything else.
The word maker in this context has recently been associated with a cultural movement that began in the mid-2000s with the rise of a bunch of hackerspaces — now many of them are called makerspaces — where people in a community could gather to make and learn things from each other, and share ideas, knowledge, tools, and other resources. By “hacker” of course I don’t mean what many people today unfortunately associate with that word, but rather tinkering and finding clever ways of making technology do what we want or need it to, which is not always what the people who invented the technology expected someone to do with it.
There have always been do-it-yourself and do-it-with-others communities that make things with various technologies — guilds, clubs, user and special-interest groups, sewing circles, arts and crafts workshops, swap meets, and so on. The maker movement is like a global network of such communities, amplified by the speed of Internet communications. There are several annual Maker Faire events organized around the world, and just here in Seattle, where I live, we have more than half a dozen makerspaces, including Jigsaw Renaissance, which I helped create.
The maker movement has contributed to open-source software and hardware, the popularity of projects such as Arduino, and the development of 3D printers and other means of fabrication that are now accessible to way more people than ever before. Maker culture emphasizes discovery learning or learning by doing; it embraces tinkering. Massimo Banzi, one of the co-founders of Arduino, said, “Tinkering is what happens when you try something you don’t quite know how to do, guided by whim, imagination, and curiosity.” That’s how I started, not with a computer science or electronics engineering degree, but just by observing what others were doing with some of these new, very accessible technologies, and wondering about how to map that onto a different kind of activity: ritual magic and other occult-related things.
What’s the story behind Robomancy?
I thought robots would be a fun way to get people thinking about doing magic with computers beyond point-and-click spellcasting. I suppose the notion of a computer as a desktop machine or, today, a mobile phone, limits what many people imagine is possible with computing. There are embedded computers inside of appliances, buildings, vehicles, toys, and all kinds of objects to make them interact and behave in various ways. That’s what many robots are: computers housed inside of bodies with sensors and actuators so they can interact with a physical world. What if that physical world is a ritual space; what interactions might be possible then? What could building and programming robots to perform ritual acts teach us about ourselves as ritualists and magicians, and about the process of magic? Why should robots be developed only for industrial or commercial applications; why not for magical or spiritual ones? These are some of the questions I wonder about as I go along, but mostly Robomancy is another way of showing people how to do magic with computers. I’m using hobby-level robotics technology, so it’s very accessible; the stuff used to teach robotics to children and adolescents.
Great question! I think it has multiple answers, and tends to lead to more questions (as good questions often do). Without getting too philosophical, most of my Robomantic designs treat robots as magical tools and/or ritual actors, so the magician is doing something with or through the robot, similarly to how they would use a wand or cup — to perform an act that is meaningful or efficacious in an occult context. In that sense, they are an expression or extension of the Robomancer’s intention. But there are other models of agency, interaction, and causality, with which we could structure how we investigate the question.
I think it will be interesting to see how robots develop their own intentionality, and beyond that their own models of the world and how they receive and participate in and change that world — their own cosmologies and their own magics. We’re a ways off from that, yet, but even with simple robots, often they do things you didn’t intend them to, and sometimes instead of looking broken when that happens, they appear to be acting out on their own, and in a sense, they are. They are acting out what their own design would have them do, rather than what you, their designer, expected them to do based on what you thought you had designed. There’s a Canadian artist named Jessica Field, who talks about that; she says she feels her robots are done when they work differently than she had intended. There’s magic in that too, I think. It strikes me as quite mercurial.
Can you briefly describe some of your occult-related projects?
Several of my projects are things I’ve done in secret with others, so I won’t go into detail about those, but many of the things you’ll find on hyperritual.com are from my experimenting with various technologies to use in those projects. My only public installation to date was the Electronomicon/PsiBorg at the 2011 Esoteric Book Conference, which demonstrated some occult applications for electrically conductive sigils, robots, and computer-graphics displays. Oh, I also had some pieces on exhibit at an art show in Seattle, including my first TalisMachine, which uses electrically conductive paint and electronic components to make interactive talismans that blend an old aesthetic with a new technology.
I hope to do more installations soon, and also some performances, perhaps after Robomancy goes online. That project will have some cool stuff to show.
After checking out your website, I started looking for the community supporting it. I was expecting to find a bunch of crazy sci-fi occult geeks getting weird with it, but you were the only one. It really surprised me. Why do you think this isn’t a more popular idea?
I wish I knew. A short while ago, someone asked about Arduino on Reddit/occult, and no one replied who had actually done anything with it. I know a few people who have done magic with Arduino or Microsoft Kinect or Emotiv EPOC or Oculus Rift — some of the new technologies people are hacking on today — but it’s not much compared to the numbers of people using those devices for other applications. Some of that difference is due to how few people are into the occult at all, and some of the data might be occluded (pun intended) by the “Keep Silent” ethic, but clearly not every magician is hush about what they get up to. New books are always being published; there are blogs, forums, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, annual conventions, and so on — plenty of opportunities for people’s voices to be heard. Often when I do encounter “technomancy” or “cybermagic” in an Internet forum, it’s a lot of armchair conjecture about what might be possible, with little-to-no demonstration of actual projects.
I also haven’t seen anyone using Arduino for radionic or psionic devices, which seems a shame because Arduino makes it dead easy to use knobs and switches to interact with a computer, which should open a world of new design possibilities for that kind of thing.
There are certainly people other than me doing or talking about occult-related things with technology — I could name several. But it seems there’s been a new Renaissance happening via maker culture, that the occult community hasn’t much embraced. It seems there’s crazy tech available right now, more affordable and easier to use than ever before, that could make some very cool things happen in the occult world — the kinds of things that 90s technopagans fantasized about between IRC rituals. It’s here now, but it seems not many occultists are aware of it. I’d love to be proven wrong about that.
You’ve mentioned Radionic devices, before. It seems like they’re usually categorized under “quacky nonsense,” but I’ve always wanted to get my hands on one and test it out for myself. How do they work? Do they work?
That could be a long conversation in itself. Speaking very briefly and generally, there tends to be two camps about how these machines work. One believes they actually receive or manipulate subtle electromagnetic or vital energy; the other believes they work like magic, by focusing or directing the operator’s intent such that it comes into being by the same mysterious mechanism as spells or psychic powers. Of course, there are people who believe ritual magic works by receiving or manipulating energy. I’m personally not fond of the energy model or metaphor. I feel most people use the word energy too loosely in these contexts for it to mean much to me. I prefer to think of both radionic/psionic machines and ritual magic as something more like interaction and user-experience design. I’m not very concerned about the causal mechanism, nor am I very confident that we can determine it analytically. It just seems to follow or correlate with certain extraordinary experiences, so I focus on creating and participating in those experiences. And in my experience, radionic/psionic devices “work” as well as magic or psi, which is to say sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, I’m not certain why either way, but success seems to have something to do with openness to the possibility, and can be improved with practice.
Now that you mention it, the actual knob-turning and button-pushing involved in Radionics does seem like an easy way to ritualize humancomputer interactions. What does an Arduino-assisted magic ritual look like?
Knob-turning and button-pushing are common ways of interacting with machines, and they makes sense when interacting with radionic/psionic devices because the culture about those devices conserves that mode of interaction. Like analog-synthesizer enthusiasts, many radionics enthusiasts love their knobs and switches. But ritual magicians typically do not turn knobs, push buttons, or toggle switches, and with Arduino, they don’t have to. At least not in any obvious way.
Think of Arduino as a coordinator of actions. You program it so that when you do this thing (the input), it does that thing (the output). What this and that are can be anything that can be represented by an electrical signal. If you connect a sound sensor to an Arduino input pin, and a motor to an output pin, then you can make things move or vibrate when you speak “words of power” or intone mantras. If you connect a capacitive touch sensor as input, and a video display as output, then you can show sigils that react to the proximity of your hand to the sensor. I could go on forever re/combining various inputs and outputs, so then we have to ask: how would you apply any of these combinations to an actual practice of ritual magic? I’ll give you one, simple example, using the capacitive touch sensor and video display.
Let’s say I want to magically manifest something I will represent with a sigil — a common act of magic with a variety of ways to perform it. On a piece of paper I draw the symbol for Caput Draconis (“dragon’s head”) — a symbol of beginning or amplifying. I place the capacitive touch sensor under the symbol, out of sight (using electrically conductive paint, I could even make the Caput Draconis symbol itself be the sensor). Now, the capacitive touch sensor can detect my hand’s proximity to it; the nearer my hand gets to the symbol, the greater the numerical value inside the Arduino that corresponds to the electrical interaction between my hand and the sensor. I can use that numerical value for anything I like. On my PC, I draw a sigil representing the thing I want to manifest, and I program an interaction between the Arduino and the PC (via Processing, which “talks” quite easily with Arduino) such that the closer I place my hand to the Caput Draconis symbol, the more clearly the PC displays the sigil on the screen (technically speaking, I would do this by mapping the numerical value corresponding to my hand’s proximity to the sensor, to the alpha or transparency value of the sigil image displayed on the screen).
Now, forgetting all the coding and wiring and preparation involved, once the interaction is set up, the experience I have while in the ritual is of being able to visually manifest a sigil representing something I wish to really manifest in the world, when I place my hand close to an arcane symbol representing the act and power of manifestation — the Caput Draconis. There all kinds of ways I could embellish the ritual: with incense, music, or other mind-altering media. I could do energy work with my arm and hand before or while placing it near the sensor. Instead of displaying the sigil on a video monitor, I could connect a video projector to the PC and show the sigil on a wall or other surface. Instead of mapping the Arduino output to the transparency of the sigil image, I could instead display the sigil as a field of randomly placed dots that come together to clearly show the sigil as I place my hand nearer the sensor. If I wish for something go out of existence instead of come into it, then I could use the Cauda Draconis symbol (“dragon’s tail”; ending or attenuating), and program the interaction so that the sigil disappears/dissolves/whatever as I place my hand nearer the sensor. I might use my left hand for this and my right hand for the other. There are nearly infinite ways to mix this up, but hopefully I’ve illustrated what I’m getting at: Arduino-assisted magic can look like whatever you design it to look like. It doesn’t have to involve knobs or buttons at all.
How does the oft-repeated Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) relate to this subject?
I suppose that depends on what kind of magic we’re talking about. There is something people who do magic do that is its own thing, its own activity. It has its own jargon, its own laws (although not everyone who does it shares the same ones), its own culture. And in many ways it hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years. Look at how much transportation and communication have evolved in the last century, but today the same person who flies across the world or talks to people on the other side of it through a computer network, still goes out into the wilderness, gets naked or puts on a robe, lights a fire and incense, and sings and dances their intentions to old gods. Which isn’t to say magic hasn’t advanced at all or there aren’t people doing things other than what I’ve just described, but that magic in this sense is its own thing. And while some people might see it as primitive, it is not merely a primitivism. It interacts with technology, and in a sense it is itself technology — an application of knowledge — but it is not defined by being technology we don’t yet understand. It might be that or it might not, but either way it is more than that.
Magic has always been associated with extraordinary abilities and hidden powers. There was a time when we had no technology for flying across the world, but we fancied magic carpets and witches’ brooms, and we dreamed of flying. And today it’s still magical to dream of flying. The fantasy of lifting myself into the air by conscious intention alone, no machine, continues to be very different from the reality of air travel. Wizards don’t have layovers in Chicago. But also, the experience of flying on an airplane can be extraordinary, and it’s something our ancestors could only have dreamed of. We get to actually do it. And as Louis CK pointed out, we’ve trivialized it.
Modern technology is largely about trivialization. Complex problems are analyzed and broken down into smaller problems to be solved algorithmically. We seek efficiencies; we look to automate processes. We want to reduce the amount of time and effort between intention and manifestation. I don’t want to walk across the room to change the channel on my television set, so I build a “magic wand” that lets me do it while continuing to sit in my chair. That is sorcerous in a sense, right? The model sorcerer is someone who can just think something and it happens like snapping your fingers. So it’s interesting to me that the tools and techniques of actual magic are so often non-trivial — to the point of appearing absurd to someone who doesn’t practice. Look at how much work is involved in Solomonic evocation: the deliberate preparation and attention to detail; the cultivation of sacredness. But now some ideas about technology are influencing magic. Most modern books on evocation strip out much of the older stuff not because it’s become irrelevant due to religious changes, but because it’s inefficient! It takes too long. I use a Tarot app on my phone because it’s more convenient than a physical deck of cards. But success with evocation or divination still requires special states of consciousness and modes of interaction that I think continue to differentiate magical activity from any other technology. So my interest is in designing human-computer interactions that involve those states and modes.
There’s a variation of Clarke’s Third, that I think relates better to what I do: “Any sufficiently advanced work is indistinguishable from play.” For me, that includes Work-with-a-capital-W.
One attitude I’ve come across again and again with occultists is the idea that “older is better,” and new practices in magic are immediately dismissed as invalid. Have you met any resistance like this? What’s your opinion about this kind of thinking?
I can’t say I get much resistance per se, but I imagine there are people who see my stuff and dismiss it without saying anything to me about it. I do rarely come up against something like, “there’s nothing magical about computers or robots!” or “magic is about communing with Nature, not machines!” but although I disagree, I’m not very concerned with changing anyone’s mind about it.
I think a lot of people — not just occultists — romanticize the past. When I was a kid, I loved medieval fantasy. I still think swords are sexy, but I don’t wield one in ritual (unless I get access to a Tesla coil; then there will be a sword involved for sure). But I do use bones and things that feel witchy to me, because I dig the aesthetic. That stuff reminds me of the wonder and power I used to find in old grimoires and occult horror films and stories by Clark Ashton Smith. But The Matrix and TRON evoke those same kinds of feelings in me, and really “what’s next” inspires me more than “what’s already been.” I sometimes employ atavisms in magic to evoke a state linked to an atavistic quality, but we’re not in the same world our ancestors inhabited, because we’ve changed it, and we’re still changing it. And frankly, I doubt we experience things quite the same way our ancestors did. We like to think that when we perform some old ritual we are participating in the same act as someone from the past, but that experience, that connection, exists in the present, in the mind of someone now.
Also, everything that is traditional or normal now was radical at some point. I don’t think the fact that something is traditional is sufficient to keep it — or change it. If you enjoy it, if you find comfort in it, or whatever, then admit that; let that be the reason you continue doing it. If you find something you like better, then change it up.
Any current projects my readers should know about? What’s the best way for people to follow your work?
Right now I’m pretty much all focused on getting Robomancy published. After that I expect to begin working on a sort-of “technomancy 101″ book that will demonstrate a variety of easy-to-program interactions for use in ritual magic. I have some psionic and magical machines I’ve been working on that I’d like to produce later this year, and I’m due to present an introductory course in psionics and radionics at Arcanorium.
Follow Joshua Madara on Twitter.