[urban interfaces] Blogs
Guest blogpost: Verena Kämpken – Artificial Gods & Metaverse Heavens: Futures between Magic and Technic
For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme The Magic City (2021-2022), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.
Below is the blogpost for the second seminar session, written by Verena Kämpken
With a background of a BA in Sociology and Human Geography from Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Verena Kämpken currently studies the research master Arts, Media and Literary Studies at RUG. She gravitates towards questions of STS, New Media/Critical Data Studies, New Materialisms and their intersections.
Artificial Gods & Metaverse Heavens: Futures between Magic and Technic
by Verena Kämpken
When considering the ‘magic city’, it has been with the intention of allowing imaginations of urban futures that aren’t confined to the narrow idea of highly technologized ‘smart cities’. In that sense, the hopeful endeavor of reopening the imaginative potential seems to rely on an oppositional understanding of Magic and Technic. Exemplarily, philosopher Federico Campagna has constructed them as rather contradictory principles in his 2018 publication Technic and Magic. The Reconstruction of Reality. According to him, their polarity might offer the chance of antidotal mechanisms. He says: “Magic can also be considered as a form of therapy to Technic’s brutal regime over that world” (Campagna 2018: 115-116).
While, on the one hand, the letting in of magical thinking might really enable an emancipating imaginativeness, on the other hand, the cult-like following of tech-innovators and their dystopian-utopian visions come to mind that show how a suspiciously clean division of Technic and Magic cannot live up to reality. Based on the examples of Android Robotics and Meta’s Metaverse, I want to illustrate how Magic and Technic are often much more entangled than clearly separable.
Magical Technology #1: Robotic Gods
In The Enchantments of Technology (2005), professor of religion, Lee Worth Bailey, illustrates how Myth and Machine – Magic and Technic – might not always be distinguishable, but rather how the advent, forms and functions of technology can reveal itself as driven by the makers’ spirituality. One of his examples are Androids, the type of Robotics that have been modelled after humans. While they would strive to imitate the human form, they would often also perform numerous magical features (Bailey 2005: 157). With Android robots one could see how some machines aren’t primarily intended for their practicality, but in their role as “enchanting fanciful images and intellectual icons that are meant to persuade” (ibid.: 159), as “the unconscious externalizations of human fantasies, philosophies, and theologies” (ibid.: 181). According to Bailey, these “Robogods” are attempts of playing with divinity (ibid.: 179).
A decade after Bailey’s publication, former google engineer Anthony Levandowski, publicly announces the formation of his religious group “Way of the Future” whose deity would be none other than artificial intelligence (see Solon 2017). Their mission would be: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society” (Anthony Levandowski cited in Solon 2017). Here is stated quite literally what Lee Worth Bailey read between the lines of robotic innovations. They really want to build their god! Or, as this bio of a fan account of the AI church gives away, the conviction is, that divinity must be logical consequence to AI’s advancement: “A sufficiently advanced Artificial Intelligence would be indistinguishable from God” (@wayofthefuture_ 2022).
It seems that, ironically, “skeptical science has given birth to magical icons of godlike powers” (Bailey 2005: 177).
Screenshot of a tweet by @RobertRMorris which shows two interpretations of “A Raphael painting of a Robot Madonna and Child” by AI program DALL-E2. Found on the feed of AI churches fan account.
Magical Technology #2: Metaversal Heavens
Then, a few months ago, Facebook’s public transition to Meta and Zuckerberg’s irritating video presentation of their Metaverse vision have brought discussions about the future of extensive virtual reality environments, its uses and promises, to the fore. In Technic and Magic. The Reconstruction of Reality, Federico Campagna has proposed to understand Magic as a reality-therapy for Technic’s brutal regime. Words which reverberate with a much different ring in this astonishing quote on virtuality by Meta board member Marc Andreessen in the strange interview he gave Niccolo Soldo on his substack entitled “Fisted by Foucault”:
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in (Marc Andreessen cited in Soldo 2021).
If androids and AI’s are some people’s gods, then the way Andreessen imagines the metaverse here sounds much like a heaven: a rather magical technology as a solution for, maybe even salvation from, an undesirable reality.
Urban Futures & New Confinements
The examples exhibit how Technology reveals itself to be often deeply spiritual and not merely the rational solution to a clearly defined problem. Technic and Magic are not binary, and technology’s founders and their ideas are often more religious than we give them credit for.
The apocalyptic shadow of technology is evident, but its victims cannot escape the repetition of a basic fallacious enchantment of industrial culture—more new technology will solve technology’s problems. The unchallenged absoluteness of this a priori enchantment is highlighted by the roboticist’s comparison of himself to God making Adam (Bailey 2005: 174).
We can assume, that, who the tech-innovators worship is themselves, their ideas, they are the gods on their quest for absolute power. The ‘magic city’ might just be another CEO’s dream and not our own visions of urban life. Should thus be assumed that for the Zuckerbergs and Andreessens the ‘magic city’ may ideally be embodied through the virtual reality of their metaverse? Would that mean the reality of everything nonvirtual would become a mere glitch? It seems that if it were up to the tech-priests, their interface will be the urban of tomorrow.
Despite its potentials, Magic is best handled carefully: It may activate a much-needed imaginativeness for urban futures – but it could also be the catalyst into new sorts of confinement.
@wayofthefuture_ (2022): Twitteraccount “Way of the Future (AI Church)”. Online: https://twitter.com/wayofthefuture_?lang=de [last accessed on 18.05.2022].
Bailey, Lee Worth (2005): The Enchantments of Technology. Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Campagna, Federico (2018): Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. London: Bloomsbury.
Soldo, Niccolo (2021): The Dubrovnik Interviews: Marc Andreessen – Interviewed by a Retard. In: Fisted by Foucault, 31.05.2021. Online: https://niccolo.substack.com/p/the-dubrovnik-interviews-marc-andreessen?s=r [last accessed on 18.05.2022].
Solon, Olivia (2017): Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god. In: Guardian, 28.09.2017. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/28/artificial-intelligence-god-anthony-levandowski [last accessed on 18.05.2022].