Examining the proliferation of magical narratives in technology

There has been a lot of talk about magic lately in critical, cultural and technological spaces; what it does, who it is for, and who are the ones to control or enact it. As a way of unpacking a few elements of this thinking, this essay by Natalie Kane follows on from the conversations that she and Tobias Revell, and a whole host of great participants had at Haunted Machines, a conference as part of FutureEverything 2015 (a Manchester, UK festival) which examined the proliferation of magical narratives in technology.

I’m going to use a load of slightly ham-fisted contemporary narratives to signpost the anxieties that come out of two personal and increasingly algorithmically mediated spaces: the social network and in the home. Where does the role of narrative in magic, the supernatural, and the unknown allow us to get a better grasp of technology’s power over us? Where are the uncertain terrains of our technologies creating the capacity for hauntings, and where can techniques used to imagine future scenarios better equip us for the ghosts to come? […]

Is there a case for how the narratives of haunting, and the ghosts that can potentially emerge, can be helpful? I’m pondering a form of code-based foresight – a means of exploring possible near future worlds and scenarios – that allows for cross-disciplinary conversations in engineering to happen, creating narrative near futures to know where our technology could end up, and invoke the ghosts that appear as we lose control. Speculative scenarios and foresight are not new, but I are there specific methods that give engineers space to explore the impact of their work in non-technical, sociological ways? Computational systems are not neutral, as they are often presumed to be; they have political, cultural and social biases written in to their selection and application. It’s not just about making the products that will use these algorithms, but exploring the algorithms themselves as they are appropriated, applied, reused, misused. It is about exploring where our ghosts will exist, and how, and who, they will haunt.