Magic Numbers

Treating “the algorithm” as a kind of divine power misunderstands where algorithmic power comes from

When TikTok first began to amass media attention, a narrative about its “eerily accurate algorithm” became so popular it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Users talked about its algorithm as if it were sentient. (“The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better Than I Did” one headline memorably claimed.) In winter 2020, the idea of its omniscience had become so pervasive, it became folded into a particular TikTok genre in which spirit workers — mediums, astrologers, tarot readers, Reiki healers and other “SpiritualTok” creators — make predictions about everything from money and love to politics, government, and the economy. This content, which had risen to prominence amid anxieties about the pandemic, posed the physical realm as one of metaphor and synchronicity, where signs from the universe were waiting to be divined — even on your For You page. “This message was meant to find you,” a TikTok spiritualist would say, or, “Your ancestors guided you to this message.” “If you’re seeing this, it was meant for you.”

Such videos appeared between dances, pranks, and other viral content as if by fate, often purporting to diagnose a personal issue or failing, or offering predictions about love, careers, fortune, and spiritual growth. The easy rhythm of scrolling through the app, combined with content about feeling lonely, scared, anxious, and depressed, made this appeal to the heavens especially tempting. It reflected an anxiety about a precarity many were feeling, whether about the pandemic, politics, or just a general sense of being overwhelmed by an information-saturated world. At the time, it wasn’t rare to to see a tarot reader deliver a message about your romantic partner (“They have been hiding their emotions or juggling two things”) or drag you for exhibiting avoidant tendencies in relationships. A few scrolls over, a Reiki healer might try to relieve you of your anxiety with distance healing, and shortly after, another crafty healer might try to discern your soulmate from a set of runes. (“It’s actually your best friend! I think you already knew that.”) 

Spiritualists draw on a collective awareness that the algorithm acts as social engineer

Prediction videos have cemented themselves as popular practice on the app, in which TikTok spiritualists draw on a collective awareness that the algorithm acts as social engineer, while exploring the mystical potential of the opacity of this fundamentally rationalized process. Anything that crosses your path can be taken as a “sign from the universe” rather than a consequence of data collection and processing. “If you’re watching more tarot readings you’re of the vibration of accepting those messages,” one tarot reader told a Wired reporter. TikTok is positioned as a conduit for the cosmic. Whether it’s the data hoarding of a popular AI company or the good grace of the universe makes little difference when everything is a puzzle meant to be decoded. Viewers are invited to ascribe a video’s serendipitous arrival to a higher power, aligning the algorithm with spirit guides, the ancestors, the universe. 

This is not to cast doubt on spiritual practices that may have deep cultural significance, but to consider their proliferation through seemingly antithetical means. TikTok’s algorithm, in this sense, is a contemporary example of how the scientific rationalism often associated with technology tends to generate a counterreaction by means of its very success. Classics scholar E.R. Dodds once characterized the Roman Empire as an Age of Anxiety where “the regimented and mechanical efficiency of the empire could no longer bottle up the chaos growing inside the souls of its subjects and outside its civic walls.” This led to a massive explosion of cults, mystics, and alternative belief systems. Similarly the supremely rational method of using empirical data analysis to power predictive technologies has generated a popular sense that such predictions are oracular or magical. References to moods and “vibes” and other similar concepts help create an illusion of algorithmic kismet — tech so advanced that it works like divine intervention. 

Tech companies have long tried to promote the convenience of their products as a form of magic to hide the kinds of labor exploitation and material consumption they necessitate from their consumers. Their devices and interfaces were “magic” in part because they gave a sense of unprecedented power or control, not just because users didn’t understand how they worked. Content algorithms are magic in a different sense, evoking an impression of fate beyond our control, that we must surrender to a fundamental inability to understand our world or even ourselves and our own desires. 

Given algorithms’ power and obscurity, it seems almost inevitable that they would be regarded as capricious gods. They are something we can’t touch or see directly but affect our everyday lives, bringing rewarding attention to some and swarming punishments to others. The fantasy of “revealing the algorithm” — as Elon Musk spuriously promised in the wake of his proposed Twitter purchase — reinforces the idea of hidden, higher knowledge, as if code might reveal the secrets of humanity. The Algorithm can thereby seem almost benevolent rather than opportunistic and exploitative. 

This blurring between the machinic and the mystic suggests how new streams of tech profit can become reliant on drawing from or even establishing systems of spiritual belief. From the popularity of QAnon to the spiritual-adjacent content my TikTok feed shows me — not just astrology readings and Reiki cleansings, but videos about the Law of Attraction, astral projection, and timeline shifting — there is a near limitless number of belief systems to funnel energy into. The algorithm itself captures users with a general interest in spiritualist or astrology memes and feeds them more esoteric content. At the same time, practitioners have become acclimated to the idea that TikTok’s algorithm is itself a spiritual tool, and entire practices of engagement have emerged from it. 

Viewers are invited to ascribe a video’s serendipitous arrival to a higher power

TikTok promotes the idea that its algorithm shows you content out of some greater benevolence to fuel your own pleasure and growth. In the U.S., it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and paid a number of social media influencers to adopt the app. This strategy was successful enough that in the first year of the pandemic, the company was valued at 50 times its expected revenue. This hype is partly the reason that its machine learning algorithms — which have similar counterparts already in use at streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify — can appear omniscient. 

There is nothing particularly mystical about these feats of engineering, matching users with content based on data collection and correlation detection, and using various signals of “engagement” as the basis for optimization. But when TikTok creators insist that a piece of content “was meant for you” — that is when a video centers its own availability to the algorithm and reinforces a sense of algorithmic kismet — it deflects curiosity about the forces defining and designating what is “meant for you.” Deification of the algorithm shields tech companies from questions about the privacy invasion and coercive design required to make their systems work, and the advertisers whose interests are ultimately being served. 

The willingness to believe in the “algorithm” as though it were a kind of god is not entirely surprising. New technologies have long been incorporated into spiritual practices, especially during times of mass crisis. In the mid-to-late 19th century, emergent technologies from the lightbulb to the telephone called the limitations of the physical world into question. New spiritual leaders, beliefs, and full-blown religions cropped up, inspired by the invisible electric currents powering scientific developments. If we could summon light and sound by unseen forces, what other invisible specters lurked beneath the surface of everyday life?

The casualties of the U.S. Civil War gave birth to new spiritual practices, including contacting the dead through spirit photography and the telegraph dial. Practices like table rapping used fairly low-tech objects — walls, tables — as conduits to the spirit realm, where ghosts would tap out responses. The rapping noise was reminiscent of Morse code, leading to comparisons with the telegraph. In fact, in 1854, a U.S. senator campaigned for a scientific commission that would establish a “spiritual telegraph” between our world and the spiritual world. (He was unsuccessful.)

William Mumler’s practice of spirit photography is perhaps better known. Mumler claimed that he could photograph a dead relative or loved one when photographing a living subject. His most famous photograph depicts the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln with the shadowy image of her decreased husband holding her shoulder. Though widely debunked as a fraud, the practice itself continued on, even earning a book written in its defense by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Similar investigations into otherworldly communication and esoteric knowledge would be mainstreamed after World War I, bolstered by the creation of the radio and wireless telegraphy. Amid a boom in table rapping, spirit photography, and the host of usual suspects, Thomas Edison spoke openly about his hopes to create a machine, based on early gramophones, to communicate with the dead, specifically referencing the work of mediums and spiritualists. Radio, in particular, provided a new way to think about the physical and spiritual worlds, with its language of tuning in, channels, frequencies, and wavelengths still employed today.

The algorithms offer to concentrate our expression of belief based on engagement

As new technologies are adopted into society, their logics permeate fundamental aspects of our lives, including the spiritual — offering new deities and values that redefine what it means to worship. Online, many young people are now keenly aware that their lives are fodder for attention algorithms — that all digital expressions of thoughts, hobbies, and experiences operate within a larger ecosystem of data analysis. Friends spend hours curating their Spotify feeds, or post “algoselfies” on Instagram to maximize reach. On TikTok, spiritualists encourage you to “like, comment, and interact” to claim your message from the universe and help others find it, a tacit acknowledgement and befitting offering to the workings of the algorithm. 

We have been trained to measure personal success, impact, and meaning by how many views and comments we get, which, in times of precarity, can be understood as both an economic necessity and a mode of self-actualization. The algorithms offer to center our lives and concentrate our expression of self, and thus our expression of belief, into new practices based on performance and engagement. In place of being subject to forms of algorithmic control, one can see oneself instead as engaging in algorithmically inflected rituals, tapping into the power of faith. 

As a symptom of this, many creators focus their practice on abundance, proselytizing about how TikTok spirituality can connect users with wealth, health, new audiences, and more. In this prosperity gospel, the algorithm is our idol. Dedicated posting, liking, following, and commenting becomes a form of worship to be rewarded with more followers, visibility, and money. This approach, which conflates and confuses technology and magical thinking, is currently salient in the promotion of crypto, which defies coherent explanation for even its most outspoken salespeople. “To the average person, it does sound like voodoo,” Web3 promoter Bobby Allyn declared in an All Things Considered segment on NPR. “But when you press a button to switch on lights, do you understand how the electricity is made? You don’t have to know how electricity works to understand the benefits. Same is true of the blockchain.” 

This, of course, is not an explanation but a demand of faith that mirrors the attitude of 19th-century spiritualists toward the telephone. The promoters hope to spiritualize “blockchain” in the same way as “the algorithm” has already been spiritualized, as an all-powerful force capable of performing miracles and benevolently reorganizing our everyday experience. At the recent Bitcoin 2022 conference, one acolyte told a Daily Beast reporter that Bitcoin “gets into your life from every point of view — not only the economic point of view.” 

Today, marketing hype creates worshippers out of their target audiences, almost by necessity. The inspiration-sales-pitch language of tech bros — talk of freedom and decentralization — offers a complement to TikTok’s spiritually inclined users, who speak of liberation and abundance. In each instance, a new technology is defined not by its material impact, but lofty ideals that resonate with an increasingly desperate population. As tech companies navigate a competitive field for funding, their outsize promises of innovation are adopted as scripture. In this world, TikTok’s algorithm isn’t just another attention trap but a powerful new tool for self discovery and spiritual awakening. Similarly, crypto promises freedom and success — particularly for people of color — and Web3 a new social order altogether. It’s no longer enough for a technology to solve a singular problem. In the cult of techno-optimist hype, we’re all one innovation away from being saved. We just have to believe. 

Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY.