The Symbolic Machine
For Richard Stivers, writing in Technology as Magic, the “milieu of technology” largely begins after the World Wars, and in the consolidation of the technological system by television and the computer. It would therefore correlate to what we are now calling “the Anthropocene”, which is a rather claustrophobic and even narcissistic conception, to be sure, that recalls the cave and cavern that symbolises Gebser’s magical structure of consciousness. For Stivers, then, the milieu of technology represents a kind of self-entombment, perhaps best symbolised by the ideal of the self-enclosed domed city — a bubble of perception, upon whose walls we see nothing but our own reflections mirrored back to us, and at us (by branding, for example). Corresponding to that view is Iain McGilchrist’s notion of the usurpation of consciousness, perception, and reality by “the Emissary” — the over-specialised left-hemispheric mode of attention of the divided brain — that he discusses in his excellent book on the divided brain called The Master and his Emissary. The Emissary, as McGilchrist puts it, is busy shutting down all the possible exits to its own self-transcendence. The Emissary is also what William Blake calls “Selfhood”, and which he identifies with his false god “Urizen”.
These issues also draw in Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “media” or technologies as “extensions of man” in his book Understanding Media. Extensions are projections, and in those terms the milieu of technology is also a symbolic form and an ensemble of symbolic forms. Superficially, the milieu of technology, which largely coincides with the boundaries of the mental-rational structure of consciousness, appears to be rationally derived — the idea of “tools” — but it is laden also with myth and magic, which are also constituent factors in the human psychic organisation but which remain largely unconscious in their influence. In that sense, the milieu of technology is also a milieu of symbolic forms and metaphorical structures that also require insight and interpretation.
Arguably, the milieu of technology begins with Blake’s insight into “the dark Satanic mills” referred to in his poem “The New Jerusalem“. Although seemingly a reference to the factory and the factory system then emerging in the Industrial Revolution in England, it is, fundamentally, a reference to the mind and the consciousness structure that projected these structures from out of itself. The real “dark Satanic mill” is the shape of the consciousness of Urizenic Man, who is identical, really, with McGilchrist’s “Emissary”. Urizen is the architect of the Ulro, or realm of shadows, and in that sense corresponds to the demon Mara in Buddhism, also described as the “Architect” of samsaric existence, and who the Buddha, upon his enlightenment, recognised and called “Lord of my own ego” — as his own Selfhood. Being the Lord of Illusion and Architect, Mara is, therefore, the spell-caster who draws the veil of Maya around the awareness. So, as far as Blake is concerned, the “watchmaker” God of the Clockwork Universe is Urizen, Urizen is the “Selfhood” and the Selfhood is Satan. Urizen is Jehovah. In a sense, then, the milieu of technology is Urizen’s shadow.
And yet, as Blake puts it, “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth”, and so is the shadow world of the Ulro. The shadow cast is still a resemblance to the real, and serves as symbol and metaphor where “only a hair separates the false from the true”. The consciousness that conceived the factory and factory system was already preconditioned to think in those terms by the clockwork metaphor and the structure of mechanical time. With the computer, though, and de-industrialisation, the clockwork is being displaced or superseded by “the body electric”. The computer becomes suggestive even of a new paradigm for thinking about the cosmos. And in some ways, this isn’t even man’s doing.
Part of the enthusiasm and fascination with the computer is owing to the fact that it is not so much “tool” but unconsciously recognised as a complex symbolic form, suggesting something deeper than a mere model of the calculating rationality. As the clock modeled some of the more mechanical aspects of life and the body — the tick-tock of the clock being the heartbeat of industrial society — the computer models some of the more electrical aspects of the human configuration. A few decades ago, Tracy Kidder wrote of The Soul of a New Machine, and he was, in a sense, close to the realisation of the computer as metaphor for what we call “the soul” itself.
The “soul” of the computer is not its hardware but its operating system, the core of which is called “the kernel”, and as such in symbolic terms it corresponds to what we call “the vital centre” or “the You of you”. Not only is the human thought to have such an “operating system” as vital centre, but also the Earth has a complex “operating system” that, in some respects, represents a return of the idea of the Anima Mundi. The operating system, as core, is responsible for allocating time and space for multiple programmes or “threads” running simultaneously in the computer’s memory, most of which you do not see at all. The programmes you see and use on your desktop are a small fraction of the entirety of the programmes running at any one time (which you can see by opening Task Manager and having a peek while they are running). Each of those programmes runs in an isolated space and time framework (sometimes referred to as a “virtual machine”) allocated to it by “the master” — the operating system. If those programmes were, in fact, aware, they wouldn’t even know that there were other programmes running in separate virtual machines within the same operating system, and probably wouldn’t even be aware of the operating system at all. Once a virtual machine was allocated for them to run in, as far as they are concerned, its the entire universe, and they’ll go about happily fulfilling their purpose even though they won’t know what that purpose actually is. And while all this is going on, the operating system is constantly monitoring and checking into each thread running in its own virtual machine to make sure there are no fault conditions, etc. But all those separate threads running in their separate virtual machines arise from the operating system and are beholden to their continued functioning to the sustenance of the operating system. And in this form, it resembles the symbol of the Buddha’s Lotus flower — consciousness is multidimensional, like the petals of a flower, which symbolism is also captured in Jesus’ saying “in my Father’s house are many mansions”, which is the same symbolism as the Buddha’s Lotus flower. This, also, is represented in the “kernel” and its “threads” running in separately allocated virtual machines.
There is a very uncanny and strange parallel here between what goes on inside the computer and the whole issue of probable worlds and probable selves in physics. Probable worlds are like the computer’s “virtual machines”, while probable selves are like the programmes running as threads within their own allocated virtual machines or life-worlds. Virtual machines, like probable or parallel worlds, aren’t separated by physical space. They intersect and overlap. They are logical spaces rather than physical ones and are only really flows of information as energy patterns. The operating system isn’t physical at all, and yet without it, your laptop is just a doorstop.
If you try to think of probable selves in probable worlds “objectively”, you’ll run into trouble. It’s because the “infinite worlds” hypothesis is really connected with, and logically related to, the issue of the holographic universe. With the computer as symbol and metaphor of this, it also means that the “operating system” of the cosmos is running infinite versions of itself in infinite vitual kosmoi that resemble hologrammes. Fundamentally, the computer is not just a big calculator. It is about energy flows and energy as information and the transformations of energy. At it’s at this level that we begin to get into the issues of alchemy and Hermeticism, and therefore with magic, since magic is all about energy and its transformations, and of human attempts to “persuade” energy to act in certain ways, which is the issue of power and will and therefore affairs of magic.
Fundamentally, what we call “magic” is performed without our conscious intent. It’s arranged by our “operating system”. The real trouble begins when the “emissary”, which is a thread, begins to think it is the operating system. In a sense, the thread goes “rogue” and begins gobbling up your computer’s resources until it is shut down by the operating system or results in computer “lock up” (we used to call it “the blue screen of death”). It’s in this sense that McGilchrist’s “The Master” and “the Emissary” has an earlier precedent in Goethe’s tale of the Sorcerer and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
So, in this sense the computer is a symbolic machine. The operating system serves as a metaphor for the soul, and the various virtual machines it constructs and threads it launches are metaphors for its various “avatars” that relate to the multidimensionality of consciousness itself — probable selves as “threads” fulfilling their separate tasks in any number of probable worlds that resemble “virtual machines”. Even in this one thread we call “physical existence” we have numerous avatars — we are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, nephews, students, workers, professionals, shoppers, etc, etc. Some people even become over-identified with one avatar over another leading to identity confusion. But the analogy is quite the same. Consciousness is always multidimensional. Consciousness creates form (intentionality). Consciousness is an energy. That means, consciousness is inherently “magical” in that sense. It forms and transforms through the workings of intentionality and according to a pre-existing pattern, and that is the very meaning of “magic”. The idea is to use that power creatively and responsibly.
The computer is also an example of intentionality, and as a symbolic form also bears that stamp of that “pre-existing pattern” that is its “meaning” as symbolic form and which everybody who writes books about computers and society is trying to interpret and comprehend.
The point here, though, is that like Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”, consciousness had already changed or “mutated” before the artifacts of those changes became projected or manifested in physical reality. Consciousness intends form. It’s not the other way around. This isn’t necessarily a self-conscious process. The computer erupted into culture before anyone knew its meaning. Something has already changed in the consciousness structure, and now we’re trying to figure out whether those changes are, on balance, for good or ill.
Stivers does sometimes hint at mutations in consciousness structure. But because he’s a sociologist, and not a cultural historian or student of consciousness like Gebser, he interprets the changes in society through a sociological lens — a kind of social impact approach that needs to be complemented by Gebser’s consciousness mutations approach. Still, there are interesting points of convergence.