Conditional Values (Panel 2020) – What if Our World is Their Heaven? (Workshop 2020) – Designing an Ecological Alexa (Workshop 2019) – Histories and Myths of the 21st Century Home (Panel 2019) – Deep Fakes or Rendering the Truth, IMPAKT (Panel 2018) – Deep Fakes or Rendering The Truth, Ars Electronica (Panel 2018) – IMPAKT 2017: Haunted Machines and Wicked Problems (Festival 2017) –
The Mage’s Intent — Eleanor Saitta — 2015
One of the slipperiest things to talk about when discussing the systems we work with and live inside is the idea of 'intent'. What is a smartphone intended to do? The tradition of chaos magick, born out of pop-culture re-invention from the thick soup of the late 1970's and itself imbued into the soul of the Internet in odd and subtle ways, provides a fascinating and appropriate lens. Chaos magick is intentionally obscure, a practice of occult sympathy and symbology, an attempt to impose will on the world with narrative and recontextualization. Whether or not it's 'real' or 'works' is generally irrelevant; it is. One of the great struggles in chaos magick, relevant to our discussion here, is between the ego that comes from power, the will required to perform power, and the compassion needed to shape power humanely.
To the working chaos mage, intent held strongly and projected out through actions in the world is the soul of the Art - and the Art is in all things and all actions. To create, and especially to create complex, emergent, and finely balanced things in great numbers is to invoke vast power. Intent is what binds that power and constrains it to human will, and thus to meaning in the world. For instance, a magician may do this by the process of creating and investing a sigil, shaping the power of words invoking some desired outcome with the force of their intent as they combine them in some graphic or spatial form. Tracing this form as they work later and holding it in their mind, the sigil shapes the outcome of that work and thus, possibly, reality.
The way intent shapes the outcome of the work of an engineer or designer is no less subtle or more legible. The history of even a single product is shaped by millions of tiny choices, few of which are explicit enough to be mapped to any concrete goal. When Jony Ive attempted to decide which screen sizes to offer with the iPhone 6, part of the process included designers carrying around prototypes of the phones in their pockets as they went about their normal lives. Thus, they willed the phones into a place of pastness where they could see them as objects that existed in the world, invoking them from a world where they did not yet exist. The capitalist structure of the design team and Apple's dedication to a specific power relationship with its consumers meant this wall of isolation had to be absolute, preserving the intent of the team.
The degree of care required when using intent to channel real power is extreme, and the legendary obsessiveness of Ive quite often exemplifies it. The projection of infrastructural power that was the iPhone could only be shaped by the kind of mind that could spend ten years thinking about the shape of a curve at the corners of a rectangle. Similarly, the sheer volume of specifications required to manage the arcane transformations of the global GSM network typifies the specificity required when working magic across a large circle. The further the reach of a spell in this world or the next, the more carefully the actions of all parties in relation to it must be specified. In product design, documentation is the excrement of intent.
Where intent is not specified, the summoned power leaks into the world and takes on whatever color it finds. In market economies with short planning horizons, this means necessarily growth-centric systems that ignore their externalities. The mage must reflect carefully on herself, what she is trying to do, and the context of those actions if they are to take the meaning she wants. In order to be able to achieve some outcomes, the mage may find she must first work to become the person who can accurately and cleanly express the required intent. For the same reasons, she may need to change her environment so it falls into sympathy with the magick to be worked. It is very difficult to sincerely summon a communist daemon into an investment bank unless acting perversely.
The product team that does not reflect either the users of the product or the world it will be used in will have a difficult time projecting the required intent. In the case of the iPhone, this became brutally obvious when Apple's mostly male design team decided on a pair of phone sizes which fit their hands comfortably after a few days, but which are too large for almost all women to use. Similarly, the API for their health app can record the values of hundreds of physiometric variables but cannot do even basic period tracking. Here, the wizard is unabashedly male and is thus unable without reflection to act with even minimal competence.
When a group of mages stand in a circle and attempt to summon a power greater than any of them can bind alone, they must move together with a certain degree of quiet sympathy and unity. Women, forced from birth to perform a much larger share of affective labor (and thus better trained in it), are often called on to balance the emotional needs of the circle at the expense of being able to project their own intent. Their wills thus safely occupied and the unchecked egos of the male mages intermeshed, a flawed working can proceed to possibly tragic ends.
Because corporations exist in a short time horizon their processes are ruled by their own ego and they distrust the excess labor required for introspection. Corporations, particularly those producing complex soft systems used by people unlike themselves, do not understand how their magic works. In a vain, cargo-cult attempt to keep the magic alive, they demand that their engineers do more and more work on the structure of their personal intent. Anyone who does not have a 'culture fit' is shed, all employees are required to believe deeply in the corporate mission - neoliberal work on the self is a core part of the attempts of the illiterate to make magic. Without self-reflection, diversity, and the killing of the corporate ego, this is the only way these companies can create or maintain large systems with coherent emergent properties. This is most true in consumer-centric companies with less tangible value propositions, but it is a pitfall everywhere.
Lacking the skills or self-awareness of the trained mage, these companies and their suborned engineers are unable to see, fine tune, or maintain the intent coherence channeling the power that their Faustian bargain with venture capital enables them to summon. The infrastructure they build takes on the malign influence of the market in which it is born - the iPhone's undeletable stock app conceived from the blasphemous leather back seat of Ive's chauffeured Bentley - and thus it becomes the sociocidal monster we all profess to love, lest it eat our souls.
It is up to all of us to draw a circle in salt and silver, and, projecting our cleanest and clearest intent for a better world, attempt to banish these demons in our own great work. If this proves too big a task, we may as well attempt to educate the magicians.