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The Underground World of Magical Resistance (on the Internet)

When your lived reality is repeatedly denied, why not believe in a harmless crystal or two?

This is going to sound strange, but bear with me: I think a lot about witchcraft and computers, specifically the concept of magic in digital space. Common assumptions hold that the world of technology is rational, scientific, a business, while magic is insubstantial fiction — but virtual spaces have long been sites of mystery and resistance. Sites of magic.

This column I’m writing here at Medium is about those rare times when the internet still feels capable of magic, in every sense of the word — undiscovered regions, unusual entertainments, underground cells. Do you ever imagine virtual space as a country, or as a second land? You have a form that exists only in this space; you may have relationships that exist only here; you may have beliefs and behaviors you perform with your fingertips that do not extend into your life when you shut your laptop or put down your phone. The person you are via the pictures on your Instagram account or the carefully composed humor of your Twitter account is not entirely “true,” but it is real — it’s an avatar, an idealized self you’ve made explicitly for your online life.

If we do conceive of “online” as a place, it’s fair to say that it’s one struggling for its soul. The internet is not a neutral land, and our choices about how to use it are few — and mostly led by corporations, which erode our privacy while they profit off the personal “content” we serve to their platforms for free. Not all people can use certain platforms with equal freedom or safety, and those who’ve been targeted are stuck building their own solutions.

We’re losing our right to be anonymous on the internet, or to be forgotten. Even our memories are insecure, and the footprints of our digital lives can be easily manipulated and misrepresented — by trolls, but also by potential employers. Even emoji can be seen to constitute actionable legal threats. The “Internet of Things” will connect everyone and everything — which just means that more of our lives can be accessed, taken over, or taken down. And with Silicon Valley already turning its leering eye toward yet more soft-voiced female AI assistants and virtual fantasies for the rich, the technology landscape is quickly spoiling for all but the dominant class.

It feels like throughout human history, magic has thrived in times when a land was most at risk of upheaval, at risk of losing its soul. As far back as the 15th century’s Age of Colonialism, if not before, Western missions of “discovery” led to encounters with unfamiliar beliefs and practices, which the colonizers often defined through a Christian lens and aimed to eradicate, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials and beyond. The powerful (and power-adjacent) have always gotten to decide what constitutes “witchcraft” — as such, practicing rituals of nature or matriarchy, often in secret, in groups or among families, has become a centuries-old means of retaining identity and resisting oppression from the ruling class.

The practice itself is the important thing, even if you’re not inclined to believe in spells or “energies.” For example, “creating a circle of safety” — the act of designating a space, even a small one, to create a single intention for oneself or for the world — can be powerful. Even if you have no belief in magic, draw a circle on the ground and then enter it. You will feel different, or you will fight to not feel different, but either way you’ll have thought about yourself, the ground, the circle. You will have changed the frame of your day.

That’s all it takes for magic to “work,” I feel: to be willing to believe that your actions signal intentions, and that affirming those intentions through personal rituals can positively affect you. Lots of people use prayer for the same purpose. But while you can draw a circle with, for example, some chalk or charcoal, your “circle” is also your supportive connections, your self-reinforcing network, and it keeps you feeling safe in the same way. Magic is about intention, but the practice is also about safety, identity and community. It always has been.

If there is still a “digital underground,” then I imagine it is occupied by covens of witches, communicating in secret, practicing the quiet and ancient art of collective resistance. This belief and this hope has become a touchstone of so many of my new online relationships. I feel a sort of susurration rising, the tapping and clicking of secret chants. After all, this is a world where some believe the very phrase “her emails” can summon a spectre of doom to a nation.

A lot of people don’t believe in magic. A lot of people do not believe in street harassment, or workplace harassment, or online harassment, either, which is probably why practitioners of magic seem disproportionately to be women, queer folks, and otherwise marginalized individuals — when your lived reality is repeatedly denied, why not believe in one that you can change through love, collective practice, and maybe a harmless fucking crystal or two? Yes, people will occasionally deride you and tell you it isn’t real, but when they do that about the rest of your life, too, who cares?

I participated in the mass ritual held earlier this year to bind Donald Trump from doing harm, and thanks to online networks, I knew I was one of thousands practicing the same simple rite at the same time. But some forms of magic never have to take you offline, even to bury a carrot, like Trump’s binding ritual suggests. There are significant divination and fortune-telling engines created by digital artists, and even by game designers. Communities on Tumblr have designed ways of casting spells using emoji. You can generate future prognostications using your predictive text keyboard.

The beautiful thing about some of these cult-favorite technomancy methods is their accessibility — anyone can learn and try them, even those normally intimidated by mysticism, who might not necessarily sage their homes or worship at homemade altars. In that sense, it seems somehow truest to the spirit of the digital age that magic should be just another thing simplified, made accessible and instantaneous by tech.

I’ve recently been fortunate to make the acquaintance of technomancer Geth, creator of fascinating occult Twitter bots along with her collaborator “@digitalsqand.” One bot, called Gehenna, offers poignant lines on apocalypses, gathered from various ancient apocryphal and magical texts. These sentences, alien yet somehow familiar, gain a new resonance on a social media platform, where scrolling through disaster is a daily part of the experience.

“What makes her beautiful to me is what we read into her; there’s not only the happy accident of a bot generating proper sentences, but the intersection of who we are when we see it,” Geth tells me. “She’s essentially live-tweeting the end of the world along with us.”

The duo’s experimental Goetia bot generates the kind of unsettling demonic seals popularized by Pseudomonarchia Daemonum–style occult texts. Some are quite lighthearted; as of this writing, the bot has recently imagined emblems for Apostle APYES, Demon of Irritating Cosmology, and Inquisitor ALLEMON, Demon of Glues and Colluded Umlauts, to name a couple favorites.

Months ago, I reached out to Geth for an email interview, which became a long conversation, and then a source of nourishment that began to seem almost more important than the articles about these works I am always trying to write. “If two gals talk about the apocalypse and no one hears them…,” she jokes with me. But really, her emails, in times of rapid-fire and brutal information overload, start to feel more sacred than making my obeisances to the churn of the content ecosystem. I haven’t written out long conversations with girls I might never meet since I was a teen writing obscure internet journals. It’s magic.

I have “covens” on Facebook, ritualistically named groups for sharing personal images and information, outside of the common info stream, known only to one another and impossible for outsiders to access. I hold hands, in a virtual sense, with practitioners around the world. I enjoy, along with them, the sweet junction of randomness and design that technology brings to magical practice. I’m a contributor to an upcoming anthology titled Becoming Dangerous: Rituals of Resistance for publishing imprint Fiction and Feeling, and every day, through this concept of digital magic, I am part of rituals of resistance in virtual lands, too.

Geth has made a third bot, a pictorial tarot generator that combines familiar Rider-Waite tarot card images with discomfiting glitches, and it led to what I think is her most fitting observation on magic and the internet: “When the tarot was launched there were a number of comments saying we should make a physical deck, and it struck me that people were engaging with it like we engage with almost everything: assuming there’s a real thing underneath, and that what was presented was pretend,” she says. “Something that could be consumed and owned. It’s comforting to think there’s an actual, canon, orthodox deck, because then what’s drawn by the bot is fiction.”

Similarly, if we assume what we see and do on the internet is less real than what we do offline, it helps us cope with our fears about the barrages of information, falsehoods, and abuse we often receive there — but it also perpetuates denial. Our lives online are real, as are the rituals we do in virtual space. In light of that, it doesn’t matter whether magic itself is real — it’s the networked infrastructure of collective belief that’s most important to survival.

I write about the intersection of technology, popular culture and the lives we’ve lived inside machines. I’m also a narrative designer! leighalexander1 at gmail

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