Our ancestors saw spirits everywhere. They imbued the trees and the sky with personality and agency to help explain things they didn’t understand. Nostradamus stared into the surface of a pool of water to try to find a deeper meaning to the world.
In 2019 we have seen an explosion in tech-mysticism, via the massive uptake of astrology apps such as Co-Star and Sanctuary. And venture capital has piled into an industry valued at more than $2 billion. In 2020, the worlds of technology and spirituality will give rise to an emerging set of practices that coalesce around the term “algo-seance” – a searching for a greater meaning in the output of neural networks.
“The algo-seance is the evocation of spirit contact through technological production, which is really our materialist, technologised civilisational impulse to find consciousness everywhere,” says Kenric McDowell, who leads the Artists + Machine Intelligence programme at Google Research. Technologists, artists and psychics are working together within this grey space to build new techniques for divining the future. In ancient Greece, someone seeking guidance may have turned to an oracle like the one at Delphi. Today, astrology apps and other technologies are fulfilling that function, as truth is increasingly conflated with mathematical proofs within our machines.
AI networks make predictions about the future based on big data, and digital “oracles” determine the truth through blockchain-powered prediction markets. These may be closer to ancient oracles than we like to admit. At a 2018 conference Keiran Browne and Ben Swift, researchers at the Australian National University’s Research School of Computer Science, argued that the way we once bought into superstitions can be compared to “our cultural and scientific understandings of neural networks”.
Science and technology have often overlapped with the mystical. Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, was, famously, an alchemist. For artist Jenna Sutela, the influence of algo-seance as a spiritual practice has revealed a connection to the hidden forces that govern our lives, whether they’re intractable machines or invisible life forms. Technologists Tobias Revell and Wesley Goatley have created Augury, a tool that draws predictions of the future from the live positions of planes, using a neural network trained on flight data and tweets.
Next year, a third psychedelic age will continue to take shape. We are already seeing an overlap between groups invested in emerging technologies such as AI, and groups exploring their spirituality in ayahuasca circles and other, clandestine ceremonial practices.
An increasing number of people are returning to these ancient systems of knowledge through the reflective surface of their smartphones. In 2020, algo-seance and mystical technologies will continue to thrive, and they will break into the mainstream. We’re witnessing the disintegration of everything that used to count as consensus reality, so we’re looking to the past, while plunging headlong into the future.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Ben Vickers is CTO of the Serpentine Galleries, and the co-founder of Ignota Books
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