Living with our Daemons
BY Ingrid Burrington
THEME LEADER James Bridle
SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.
Ingrid Burrington presents six sigils which are magical reflections on The Realm of Rough Telepathy: story fragments, spells, sigils, incantations, and recipes that taken together provide the real and incomplete account of the pursuit, discovery, and global ascendancy of Rough Telepathy, commonly referred to at the Internet. The Realm of Rough Telepathy was originally created by Burrington and Whittaker at Rhizome’s annual Seven on Seven conference in 2016. The essay was originally commissioned by Haunted Machines. The six sigils refer to aspects of magical command and control over the internet, including the alchemy of its physical materials, the peering agreements which enable its connections, time-keeping, and naming things. View the six sigils
When Elon Musk described artificial intelligence as ‘summoning the demon’ in the autumn of 2014, the tech press responded with derision, scolding and anxiety. Musk, according to them, didn’t fully understand the technology and foolishly chose to invoke a metaphor – a metaphor that was not merely inaccurate but also dangerous, and which could encourage continued misunderstanding, fear and hatred of technology among the common folk.
But our lives with computers are, and have always been, rife with so-called dangerous supernatural influences – software wizards walking us through installations, devices that are expected to ‘automagically’ know our needs before we articulate them, and, yes, demons. Or more specifically, with daemons. A term used to describe what amount to background processes performed by operating systems (later ‘backronymed’ to Disk And Execution MONitor) emerged from MIT’s Project MAC in 1963, as an explicit reference to Maxwell’s demon of the 1870s. Daemons are fairly mundane pieces of operating systems, rarely seen by most users but crucial to making sure lots of things work and keep working.
Fixating on this word choice will, no doubt, draw the ire of Unix sysadmins for whom daemons are not metaphors but entirely real, but let’s just run with it. While the choice of daemon over demon is to some extent a poetic accident of history, it’s one that offers a reminder of the constant struggle for the meaning of our metaphors, which are perhaps neither dangerous nor foolish but simply powerful, and never without context.
Daemons in ancient Greek culture began, essentially, as mostly benign spirits – creatures beyond this world who could be called upon for various supernatural purposes but that weren’t in and of themselves particularly good or evil. The Western conception of demons that Musk cited emerged in part from early Christianity’s efforts to distinguish itself from its pagan critics. Even if a daemon was essentially benign, or even helpful, it existed outside of the domain of a one true God, and therefore in the domain of sin and damnation.
Demonology requires a theology that can fear, condemn and ultimately defeat it.
The past year has seen some remarkable invoking and inventing of demons, and while this is supposed to be a short text about magic and machines it is hard to speak today about contemporary demonologies without considering Missouri police officer Darren Wilson’s demon summoning. His grand jury testimony was a narrative not of a six-foot-four armed police officer facing an unarmed teenager but of a child facing an unspeakable monster: ‘He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked’.1 Wilson’s invocation and the support he received from cops throughout the country perhaps illustrates a prevalent reaction by the estalishment to critique adopting the role of victim in a society it dominates.
A funny thing humans do when they have some form of power (be it the power of a police badge and a gun, a multi-billion-dollar fortune, or, say, a massive military-industrial defence apparatus) is they will convince themselves that they have none, especially in the face of that which is beyond their containment or comprehension. We are really good at this – at summoning demons where there are mostly humans, at insisting we have no control over our circumstances, over our killing machines, over contemporary hells often of our own making.
So many of the tools we love and use every day, and hope to gear towards emancipatory ends, began as instruments for making killing more efficient and control more effective. These devices will continue to exist, and we will have to continue to live with them, and we will have to decide how to work with them. Living honestly among daemons means never being sure if they are on the side of angels or demons – because they are on neither, really. To live with the uncertainties and ambiguities of machines and systems demands a different kind of magical theology, one that lets us live with our daemons.
Ingrid Burrington is an artist who writes, makes maps, and tells jokes about places, politics, and the weird feelings people have about both. She’s the author of Networks of New York, an illustrated field guide to urban internet infrastructure, and has previously written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Verge, and other outlets. Her work has previously been supported by Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Rhizome. Her work can be found at http://lifewinning.com/.
Meredith Whittaker is the co-founder of the AI Now Institute, the founder of Google’s Open Research Group, and one of the founders and architects of M-Lab, the largest open Internet Measurement platform on the planet. She is also a poet and an occasional artist.
The full collection of works and texts can be found at http://grimoire.computer/.