#106: The Cusp of Magic

Max Read wrote a delightful piece this week arguing that the internet hasn’t precipitated a gleaming, hyperrational cyberpunk future as expected, but instead is making us act like medieval peasants who are “entranced by an ever-present realm of spirits and captive to distant autocratic landlords.” Social media enables us to to gaze into crystals and observe our enemies’ movements while punishing us for uttering maledictions like “Gamergate," and it’s all organized by an algorithmic logic that might as well be magic, for how inscrutable and fickle it feels to us end users. As the technology we use has become more enchanted, our behavior has followed suit, as Marshall McLuhan recognized half a century ago: Culture is assuming preliterate qualities, favoring repetition and ephemerality over consistency and logical soundness. Read’s framing of the technological zeitgeist somehow manages to feel optimistic. If we have to live as peasants, we might as well enjoy the enchantment.

Beneath the amusing fantasy imagery, of course, lies the grim reality that Read is actually describing: a broad loss of agency across many domains that is frequently marketed as the opposite. If there’s always been a gap between the world’s complexity and the layman’s ability to understand that complexity, we could argue that the gap was narrowest in the modern era, as our knowledge caught up with the world around us—but that phase now seems to be ending, at both the macro- and micro-scales. In the 20th century, one manifestation of agency was knowing how to fix and maintain the important objects in your life, like your car. Now the iPhone embodies our default relationship to tools—that of the user: For the unprecedented amount of power Apple compresses into a single device, its smooth metallic surfaces offer no portal for apprehending or tweaking its inner workings, and we’re largely happy to abdicate that responsibility, rushing to the Genius Bar with the urgency of an ER trip whenever it cuts us off from the world by going dark. With such significant and growing voids in our grasp of the very pillars of our existence, it’s no wonder that magical thinking flows in to fill them.

At larger scales, we are equally adrift. In 1984, Fredric Jameson articulated a crisis of disorientation, embodied by the postmodern architecture of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which he saw as a response to “the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.” If the world felt unmappable in the ‘80s, it’s certainly even less mappable now, and again, we respond by situating ourselves using less rational guideposts. Another Dark Ages trope is fragmentation and balkanization—a loss of shared narratives and collectively acknowledged realities—and that’s now happening even within the context of the internet itself. Jameson believed that our perceptual habits, formed in an older kind of space, are unequipped to navigate this new kind of hyperspace, and must evolve. But evolution isn’t a voluntary process, the end of history isn’t here, and no one promised the Enlightenment would last forever. Our world is already more enchanted than we think.