Managing the Infrastructural Unknown: Magic as Craft

Users of information technologies are aware that infrastructural systems exist and subtend their activities, and can conjecture explanations of how these systems work based on their examinations. However, information infrastructures are often as difficult to conceive as they are to perceive; they are both enormously complex and relatively invisible. This is both necessary and by design, but it does make examining and explaining the working of information infrastructure technologies rather difficult. As information infrastructures become less visible and more complex, two things can be assured; that there will be more in need of explanation, and less available to examine.

The purpose of this project is to examine what role the invisibility and complexity of information technology infrastructures plays in a user’s relation towards said systems. I argue that, within the context of human relations towards systems that resist aspection or comprehension, human methods of dealing with such systems constitute techne, or a craft. I further argue that the craft of dealing with occulted systems of non-anthropic scale and complexity is endemic to forms of information infrastructure other than the technical. I illustrate this point through examination of contemporary and traditional crafts that have historically dealt with complex and occulted systems, particularly those that are categorized as witchcraft or magic. Through this example I argue that magical practices are analogous to technical practices in regards to human relations towards the complex and hidden in information infrastructures.

Using distant reading methods I argue that this concordance is a generalizable phenomena not limited to the populations directly observed, and demonstrate that a discourse on hidden and complex infrastructural systems is present within both the magical and technical literature. I theorize that, as the relative hiddeness and complexity of information infrastructures increases, the presence of and need for craftwork to it manage also increases. Our current information infrastructure environment is not fully agential. It is, however, responsive, predictive, and surveillant. Magic’s depiction of complex and hidden infrastructures and their relation towards the anthropic always already inflects and may yet inform our incipient relations towards the burgeoning and increasingly agential forces of technical information infrastructures.

The narrative of the project is as follows. I have surveyed one hundred and twenty students in the field of information studies. These students do not know how many of their technologies work, particularly information infrastructure technologies. They are aware of this lack of knowledge, but that does not stop them from forming relations to these systems. They use a variety of metaphors and creative conceptions to describe how they imagine that these systems work. While these depictions may not be factually accurate, and the students are aware of their factual inaccuracy, these creative depictions still inform the students’ relations towards these information infrastructures. Not all technologies are treated equally; there is a continuum. A hammer, for instance, requires no imaginative facility to explain; its functioning is both simple and visible. As technologies become less visible, their functioning is less evident, and requires more explanation. Similarly, as a technology becomes more complex it likewise becomes less explicable (and often seemingly agential). In instances wherein students described their relation towards particularly complex and hidden infrastructures, they often characterized these relations with reference to the concept of ‘magic’. It is important to point out that these students do not think that technology is magic, but rather assert that it is practical to treat it as if it were magic. This invocation of the term magic is not an abrogation of rationality, but a description of their own relative, perspectival relation towards the phenomena in question. What does it mean to treat an information technology and its adjacent infrastructure as if it were magic? What does a magical relation towards complex and hidden systems entail, and how can our understanding of such relations inform the ways in which we use and relate to information infrastructures generally? In order to answer these questions we turn to examine magical practitioners and their crafts, with the intention of better understanding what it means to have a magical relation towards information infrastructures.

I have interviewed sixteen magical practitioners for this project. Students often described their relation towards technology in terms of magic; similarly, magic users often described their relation towards magic in terms of technology. What, however, is magic a technology for? Using the interviews as evidence, I argue that magic is primarily a technology that for dealing with, managing, and maintaining occult and possibly agential infrastructures that provide some service, or undergird some essential activity. Whether or not these infrastructures actually exist is of no consequence; what matters is that tools for their management do.One possible avenue through which to illustrate this connection between the magical relations of the students and the magical relations of the magic practitioners is to take a look at all of the similarities in practice, all of the good, practical advice relating to occult and possibly agential systems, and point out that these are all very similar to the sort of ‘non-rational’ responses from many of the students. The intent here is to point out that our non-rational approaches towards information infrastructures and their adjacent technologies do not arise de novo; instead, it is a mainstreaming of many of the warnings and precepts always already in traditional and contemporary magic practice. Our seemingly novel approaches towards and relationships to these complex and hidden systems technical information infrastructures are outgrowths of of centuries of work on dealing with just such phenomena by magical practitioners. This is also intended to demonstrate how, in relation towards complex and invisible systems, humans tend to do the same sorts of things, and enact the same sorts of relations, regardless of whether we are talking about Siri or Faerie. While magic and science are often painted as being at odds, they may be framed as complementary. Science is the art of explaining the measurable, while magic is the art of dealing with the unknown. We need arts of dealing with the unknown now, and we will need them more and more as infrastructural systems expand in relative scale and as such diminish in relative visibility.

It is natural and necessary for information infrastructures to be complex and hidden, but we need to be aware of how such occultation can inform and inflect human/infrastructural relations. The problem now is not that infrastructures are occulted by being hidden, in the sense that wires run in the wall or Wi-Fi works on an invisible spectrum. Rather, it is that infrastructures are becoming occult in scale; that is to say, they operate at non-anthropic scales, and are not amenable to anthropic aspection, comprehension, or analysis; at least not in a holistic fashion. Magic is an attempt to understand the management of systems, without necessarily understanding the system itself. In this sense we are all magicians, increasingly so.

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Fascinating approach, and I recognize the use of “magic incantations” in regard to technology. It baffled me quite a bit when I was doing helpdesk work. People called me for help and mostly expected exactly this: A magic incantation that would make things work. They often didn’t care to understand why it would work, and working incantations would usually make their way into other problems: “It worked for my email, so it should work with the printer too, right?”