Spooky Action

Who’s haunting your phone?

“I’m not really a Christian anymore,” says the woman holding the camera, “and I honestly believe demons are just a Christian problem, they can’t bother you if you don’t believe in them. But this guy is a different story.” She’s filming a blue Furby — a robotic child’s toy that looks like an owl after a nuclear accident. “He said my name,” the woman says, “and then he said, ‘I’m gonna get you,’ and then he said, ‘You’ll never escape us.’” The demonic Furby waggles its long plastic ears at the camera, rolls its glowing eyes, and chatters nonsensically.

“I’m a witch,” the woman tells it, “and witches don’t put up with no demonic shit.” It’s time, she explains, for a Wiccan exorcism. She places the grumbling figure on a desk, on top of a sheet of paper with a pencil drawing of a pentagram. “Earth, air, fire, water,” the woman chants, “I banish all evil from this creature of play.” She chants from the north, south, east, and west; trained on the desk from different angles, the camera also shows a bell, a lighter, and a can of Miller beer. The Furby grows quiet, its ears laid back against its head. At the end of the incantation, it bows, then executes a kind of shimmy-sham, rattling in place like a tap-dancer at the end of a big number. Text appears on the video’s screen: “That’s right, bitch — show your reverence.”

Our devices commune with the unseen world, relaying its messages, reacting to its coded signals. What kind of beings are these?

Judging by the number of YouTube videos, Furbys are particularly prone to occult interference, but other electronic devices also show a propensity to turn evil. “My phone is possessed” is a popular search phrase, along with the more specific, “my iPhone 6 is possessed,” “my android phone is possessed,” and “fix possessed phone.” In one video, a sad sounding woman points to blue smears on her phone’s screen as proof that she is being “spiritually attacked,” and confides that the only thing that seems to work is rebuking the device in the name of Christ. There are also numerous videos and forums about phones or computers haunted by ghosts, communicating with spirits, or acting as Satanic portals. In another video, an LG Touch, acting seemingly of its own volition, opens and lingers fondly on a text from Cindy with a photo of a blond figure in a backyard and the words, “looking for strawberries to pull,” then calls Aaron. A third video shows a pastor wondering aloud about Siri’s capacity to reach into the souls of people near her silicon dwelling.

Demonic possession is an established trope in the way we talk about our devices, and for some, the demons are literal. But as the devices that are central to our work, leisure, and personal relationships recede further and further from a layperson’s understanding, occult metaphors become a useful way of naming the inscrutable new powers at work in our lives. The terms of magic, possession, and haunting express both awe and fear of the cloaked nature of technology that seems on the point of being able to operate without us.

In 1973, science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic: He marvelled at advances that, over his lifetime, had compressed work once done out in the open and by hand to hidden work done by pressing a button. Our devices commune with the unseen world, relaying its messages, reacting to its coded signals. They respond to secret passwords. When they run out of battery power, we say they are “dead” — does that mean that otherwise they are alive? We live on terms of intimate familiarity with our phones, iPads, and laptops, often sleeping with them at our sides. But they are largely unknown and unknowable to us. What kind of beings are these?

Technology’s magical properties are evident in the language we use to name it. “Daemons” are computer programs that run in the background of a user’s activity; they perform invisibly, quietly enabling operations of which the user is not necessarily even aware. (The computing term originated at MIT, where it was lifted from Maxwell’s demon, a figure from a thought experiment on thermodynamics from the 1860s.) In the Christian context, demons took on connotations of evil-doing, but the older Greek use of the word didn’t attach moral qualities to these beings; daemons were unpredictable but not malicious, and they could confer favor or act as messengers from the spirit world or from the gods. “Wizard” is another occult term that computer programmers appropriated for their domain; a wizard is a friendly go-between that smoothes out any misunderstanding between a user and an operation they are trying to complete — when a user initiates the process of installing new software, a set-up wizard may appear as a sequence of dialogue boxes guiding the uninitiated through the necessary steps.

The fractures along our society’s knowledge lines create room for paranoia to slip in

Programmers, like science fiction writers, are in the business of world-building, and for programs to be user-friendly they necessarily hide most of their operations. Perhaps for this reason, the language of myth and fantasy seems always to have been a part of how programmers conceive of their work. Insiders can name their creations demons with pride, as a kind of joke — it’s like giving yourself an overblown nickname. There is great power in unseen manipulation, but those who wield this power are also doomed to a sort of exclusion — most people can’t see or appreciate the work of the digital realm’s skilled makers. The fractures along our society’s knowledge lines create room for paranoia to slip in.

Some contemporary web theorists propose that technology may be more akin to magick than magic. The enhanced spelling was first used by legendary occultist Aleister Crowley in the early 1900s. Crowley wanted to distance his own practice from drawing-room entertainment. Real magick was not what happened on a stage, but the intentional use of psychic energy. Crowley believed that understanding the true nature of objects would allow a practitioner to cause change in those objects, and the same went for change in oneself. Magick, for Crowley, could mean self-knowledge, and, as a result, literal transformation — “After all, what moral or magical difference is there between the power of digesting one’s food, and that of transforming oneself into a hawk?”

On a 2015 episode of the podcast Mindful Cyborgs, Kennesaw State University philosophy instructor Damien Williams explained, “Magick as I’m using the term right now is to describe a system of cause and effect relationships that depend on emotional or intuitive resonance.” Our networked lives seem to amplify the energy of our intentions, allowing us to exert our influence at a distance. Our personhood seems diffuse, winging its way into other people’s pockets at what, in Crowley’s day, would have been several days’ journey. When all the world is made up of pixels, rearranging it seems easy; global changes as a result of this transformative proximity already rival the shape-shifting that Crowley envisioned. Digital technologies allow us to see ourselves as powerful agents. They suggest a sympathy, a contagion between like things, that draws seemingly disparate entities into interconnected operations; and interweaves causes and effects at great distances, in a way that could be said to be magickal.

The demon’s shadow that we seem to glimpse inside this system can be hard to name. When our devices malfunction, we are ready with our talk of possession, but when they work well, we are still shaded with unease. The seemingly transparent communication we enjoy is highly mediated, and is mined for information that we aren’t aware we’re giving over. Our metaphors of mysterious powers at work aren’t entirely metaphorical.

Our usual view of the history of ideas tends to have us climbing out of superstition towards reason and science. If we once thought thunderstorms were expressions of supernatural wrath, we now understand them as the result of natural processes — they are no longer relevant events in the moral universe. We are still trying to determine the moral parameters of our relationship with digital technology.

In recognizing the language of technology as the language of the mysterious, it seems as though we are also recognizing a limit on our ability to understand our evolving world in purely rational terms. The fact that technology continues to feel like magic, even when we acknowledge its earthly origins, seems to suggest that the rational veneer over this aspect of our lives conceals a deep well of uncertainty — a fear that the hierarchy between ourselves and our devices may be less immutable than it appears. Magical language and magical thinking end up being a cute way to mask our discomfort with the real mediating forces that are ever-present, but not always detectable in our lives.

When a whole world is made up of pixels, rearranging it seems easy; it allows us to see ourselves as powerful agents

It’s telling that very few people seem to believe that their iPhone 6s are in thrall to angels. This in spite of the fact that our phones often act as our guardians and our confessors, keepers of our memories who are always aware of our location. Benevolence on the part of our devices seems to be taken as simply the proper execution of their function, not as any added value. Phones that save users from getting lost, laptops that record and keep our personal histories safe, programs that remember our friends’ names and can find them for us almost anywhere in the world — these do not, for us, exhibit any sign of personality. Perhaps we see them as vehicles for our own magickal self-knowledge and self-expression.

What we fear in our devices is any expression of another will. It seems unfair to assume that the phone that wanted to re-read the text about strawberries and then talk to Aaron was out to cause trouble. But programmed machines are supposed to be like medieval golems, inert unless infused with the intentions of their masters. When it’s running smoothly, my phone or computer does what I ask and no more. It presents a consistent, unified, and bland face as it does my bidding. It’s when my device seems bent on its own errands that I start to get nervous. When it seems arbitrary, this disobedience is only a nuisance. It’s when glimmers of what resembles consciousness start to bubble up that we start trying to find meaning in these departures from our intentions. It’s then that we start wondering what is trying to speak to us or through us.

Demons are arguably less frightening than the all-too-real human forces that do infiltrate our digital lives. The friends who sleep by our sides are not, in fact, our own golems — they’re animated by people we don’t know, and whose actions we can’t understand or control. By comparison, exorcising a demon from a Furby is easy.

At a 2015 conference on technology and magick called “Under Its Spell,” panelists talked about the hidden power elites who understand and control the technological world; a “priestly class” who undergo rites of initiation at MIT or other prestigious institutions to gain access to the knowledge from which their power derives. Karen Gregory, a lecturer in the sociology of labor at the City College of New York, commented on the highly gendered nature of current access to these circles: “We are living in a time that is wildly reconstructing itself around us and we have no access — or we have to try very hard to get to that access.” Burnishing the impression that technology is esoteric, abstruse, and cannot or should not be understood by society at large maintains a power dynamic that makes the majority of us into less than consenting participants in the changes that are sure to affect us. Whereas the language of magic is simple in its mystery, the language of technology is complex in its specificity.

On the other end of the spectrum, the idea that technology is magic also obscures the manufacturing labor done by blue-collar workers in often exploitative circumstances. As Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, “Eyelashes must be glued onto dolls’ eyelids. Mickey Mouse heads must be shellacked. Rubber ducky eyes must be painted white…the metaphor of the factory-as-automated machine obscures the fact that manufacturing isn’t as machinic nor as automated as we think it is.” This is also how your phone, laptop, and tablet are constructed. It’s a bit like how a privileged middle-class kid relates to household chores: folded laundry magically appears on the bed, the fridge is magically restocked with snacks, the bathroom magically cleans itself. Positioned between elite makers and neglected laborers, the user is usually the person who knows the least about their device.

In the course of her exorcism of the blue Furby, the Wiccan tells the camera, “We don’t fear demons because we don’t believe in the Devil.” Text appears on the screen explaining that in the Wiccan tradition, demons are simply manifestations of one’s own negative energy. “If I can beat my own negativity, I can beat this little” — the woman picks up the nattering Furby and slams it back down on the desk — “piece of shit.” Radical self-knowledge is one of the absorbing projects of our time, and knowing ourselves feels difficult without knowing our constant technological companions. Imputing malevolence to objects that many of us think of as extensions of ourselves suggests that we don’t trust ourselves either.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.