Magical Thinking and Technological Culture

The, by now, well-known Dunning-Kruger Syndrome or Dunning-Kruger Effect seems not at all different from Goethe’s parable of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1797). As you probably know by now, the Dunning-Kruger Syndrome is the delusion that one is more competent for something than one actually is. One has an unrealistic assessment of what one is actually capable of. There is, then, a close connection between the Dunning-Kruger Syndrome and what we refer to today as “magical thinking”, and that connected with the delusion that technologies confer upon us near limitless magical potency of the kind once only possessed by the gods. This is, of course, connected with narcissism and the culture of narcissism.

Those of you who have read Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin will recall perhaps his dire warnings about this very matter — the deficient modes of the mental-rational consciousness structure may converge with, and become confused with, deficient modes of the magical consciousness structure whereby both are then corrupted. Examples of this abound today, and especially in politics, but also in an inordinate faith in techno-science or instrumental rationality to fix things, ie, the techno-fix.

This menacing convergence of the deficient mental-rational with the deficient modes of the magical drew special attention from Algis Mikunas, one of Gebser’s translators. In an essay entitled “Magic and Technological Culture” he explored that menacing convergence and gave it the name “technocratic shamanism”. What we today call “perception management” (really propaganda by another name) is but one example of the meaning of technocratic shamanism as a contemporary form of “spell-casting”. The word “fascinate”, you may recall, meaning to enchant is to be spell-bound in that sense, and has a relation with the word “fascism”,

We would do well then to recall Jean Gebser’s dire warning that mankind’s sense of responsibility is not commensurate with the power of the technology, which is also the ominous implication of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is evidently so when we observe the magnitude of the many crises we face today which we seem impotent to resolve without implicating ourselves in even more crises and double-binds.

But these intractable double-binds, I may also remind, are the very conditions that Gebser thinks are necessary to make his “leap” beyond them. Zen uses the same kinds of double-binds — the koans — creatively itself to effect such a “leap” whereas the mental-rational consciousness, faced with such double-binds it has brought upon itself, tends rather towards invoking deficient forms of the magical and so we get “magical thinking”. Zen, on the other hand, deliberately and consciously forces the mind into a crisis as preparatory for that leap that is called “satori” or what we would call a sudden insight.

A great many who are lapsing into what Gebser referred to as the “maelstrom of blind anxiety” resort to magical thinking in their anxiety. It is a paradox of the times that so many feel so helpless even as they feel the are made nearly omnipotent by the powers of technology. That feeling of helplessness should tell them that their feelings of competency are delusional.

The naive faith in the power of applied instrumental rationality to solve all our problems is also what Ellul refers to as “the political illusion”. As Heraclitus averred: “ethos is fate”, and it is the underlying ethos that must change, not simply techne.

And that is what Nietzsche meant by his maxim: “be true to the Earth”.

10 responses to “Magical Thinking and Technological Culture”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Here is a very humorous example of what I’m thinking of in this post. This strikes me as quite iconic and representative of the kind of thing that Gebser was making note of in regards to magical thinking

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Found this on twitter also, and it’s very good. It’s what Gebser means both by “the ever-present origin” and the “archaic” structure of consciousness.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    “Modern man does not understand how much his ‘rationalism’ has put him at the mercy of the psychic underworld. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying for this break-up in world-wide disorientation and dissociation”~ CG Jung

  4. Lyle Olson says :

    A cryptologist told Laurie Anderson “If you think technology is going to solve your problems, you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  5. steve says :

    Doubt Yourself Constantly
    Jan 1, 2015 Uncategorized
    Here’s a suggestion to begin the New Year: Doubt Yourself Constantly. (I’m going to be writing this in English because, though this post relates directly to Greek society in general and Greek martial artists in particular, there are aspects that are pertinent to global society at large in our Internet Age.)

    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a pattern of deviation in judgment whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” based on their perception of events and data (input). This bias is attributed to the inability of the unskilled to recognize their lack of relevant aptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

    The phenomenon was first tested in a series of experiments published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. As their article concluded, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was formulated fifteen years ago, Dunning and Kruger noted that similar observations were made by philosophers and scientists throughout history, including Confucius (“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”), Socrates (“I know that I know nothing”), Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”), and Charles Darwin (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”).

    It is also an error to assume that such behavior follows the (relaxed) outlines of a normal distribution (a bell curve). In probability theory, the normal (or Gaussian) distribution is a function that tells the probability that any real observation will fall between any two real limits or real numbers, as the curve approaches zero on either side. Normal distributions are extremely important in statistics and are often used in the natural and social sciences for real-valued random variables whose distributions are not known. A bell curve assumes that 95% of the population is found within two standard deviations:

    But with regard to actual skill levels, this is actually not the case. Research conducted in 2011 and 2012 by Ernest O’Boyle Jr and Herman Aguinis (633263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes in a total of 198 samples) found that performance in 94 percent of these groups did not follow a normal distribution. Rather the groups fall into what is called a “Power Law” distribution.

    A “Power Law” distribution is also known as a “long tail.” It indicates that people are not “normally distributed” within society. In this statistical model, there are a small number of people who are “hyper high performers,” a broad swath of people who are “good performers” and a smaller number of people who are “low performers.” It essentially accounts for a much wider variation in performance among the sample, and it is typical in any activity where talent is required – painters, authors, scientists, and martial artists for example.

    Power Law distribution has very different characteristics from the Bell Curve. In the Power Curve most people fall below the mean (slightly). Roughly 10-15% of the population are above the average (often far above the average), a large population are slightly below average, and a small group are far below average. So the concept of “average” becomes meaningless.

    In fact the implication is that comparing to “average” isn’t very useful at all, because the small number of people who actually influence outcomes accommodate for a very high percentage of the total value.

    In short, people in a society are for the most part followers, not leaders, and are happy being followers. But what is frightening as depicted by the above two graphs, is that the tendency towards Belief, contrary to the Dunning–Kruger effect, does indeed follow a bell curve distribution. People will first follow, purchase, value, cherish, etc, that which does not threaten their own sense of ego, but rather enhances it, regardless of truth, efficacy, or consequences. There is a biological imperative for this that we have retained from our time as monkeys. So while thought leaders are by definition a minority, the majority of the population will reject deviations from the principle trend outright, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. In catastrophic scenarios, this has been termed the lemming effect (unfair to lemmings). No socio-economic class, no human activity, is immune to this effect. A grant-seeking university scientist can be a lemming just as much as a fashion obsessed teen-age girl. The power to fit in with one’s social peers can be irresistible. To a human lemming, the logic behind an opinion doesn’t count as much as the popularity behind an opinion.

    It is important for people to note that exceptional performers are not superhuman. The majority of us are subject to the effects of our limbic system, which reacts emotionally to the lack of understanding among the “pack”, including exceptional performers. A healthy reaction to social rejection among Power Law leaders is seclusionist tendencies, but things can rapidly turn worse (Van Gogh is a clear example). Emotional turmoil is often the result of not being comfortably placed within one standard deviation of the main body of the pack. Financial success, which can be produced by psychopathy if/when it arises, is often out of reach for hyper-high performers because they simply are not capable of understanding what the overwhelming majority of people want in the first place. While tragic in the case of art, in life and death scenarios, close combat for example, only right and wrong matter, not social drivers and mores. Popularity contests and social combat should have little to do with actual battle – and when they do, the effects are tragic.

    In an interview about ten years back for a martial arts website, I was told I was considered “a snob, strange, eccentric”, primarily because I did not engage in social niceties. While I valued the opinions of my peers and superiors, I did not (and do not) consider many people who thought (think) they were (are) my peers to be my peers. Understandably, this brought about a great degree of rejection and anger, which to be honest, I didn’t mind; I knew Van Gogh had never sold a single painting in his life. I was more concerned with whether or not what I was painting was actually any good – whether I was tactically right or wrong. But I was surprised that martial artists, even famous teachers, were more willing to support people guilty of the murder of children or accessories to the murder of children, than simply admit they were wrong in the first place. At fifty-five, I have now matured enough to understand why this is the case – but I still condemn such decisions and will continue to express my contempt for the people who think otherwise.

    As it turns out, over the decades, I have been proven right about many things in many cases where I took a contrary position to popular trends (I have also been wrong, and paid the price, but less frequently – the statistics are in my favor). In the case of survival, which is what martial arts and close combat should be all about, right and wrong should be the deciding factor, not monkey-pack status. When a leopard has pounced on a chimpanzee’s back, the ape is probably little concerned with his status in the pack. We are at that point in our development when our very survival is at stake. As intelligent animals, we should be concerned with the leopards circling around us, ready to dart into our midst and kill, not with Kimmie’s butt. So my advice for the New Year to you is this: forget about your ego; challenge yourself constantly. You are neither that important, nor that bright, nor that talented. What you should involve yourself with are the internal (primarily) and external enemies that threaten the survival of everything you care about. I will continue to be an @$$h0Λ€, but I want you to understand one thing: you can always rely on me to tell you the simple truth. I may not always be right – no man is perfect – but you should know that my own ego is irrelevant to me before what is right and what is wrong, and I always publicly admit it when I screw up.

    Kosta Dervenis

  6. Scott Preston says :

    Rather bleak and dire assessment of our situation from the ever feisty Chris Hedges.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Then, on the other hand, you have D.C. Wahl. (closer to Gebser’s view)

      “The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were relatively minor variations on an already existing theme in comparison to the transformation that is now under way”

      View at

  7. Scott Preston says :

    You might find this description of an NDE interesting. People who have these types of experiences come to understand that physical existence is the real state of death, and as dead as you are ever going to get (Socrates appeared to have believed that too). Oftentimes, then, kin don’t really understand the transformation this has brought about in those who have experienced it because their values change completely.

    These are “states”, one might say, and not appropriate to try to describe or think of in dualistic terms of subjective or objective — they are both and neither. So although they share many features in common, they also differ in personal and unique ways relative to the one who experiences them.

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