Kyle McDonald’s Blind Self Portrait will make you draw a self portrait with your eyes closed. Even though I know the computer vision is tracing the face and causing the gears to move the board around, it still feels like magic. Here’s this non-living thing that can see me and analyze me and guide me to do something I could never do on my own. How is that not supernatural? Could a computer program be considered a higher power?
Long before the trademarked Ouija board there was planchette writing, also known as automatic writing. This was a process of allowing spirits to take control of your hand in order to write out answers or messages, which were usually then interpreted by a medium. What if we thought about programmers as sort of modern-day mediums? Sure, programmers write the programs that get executed by a computer, but that seems not terribly unlike spiritual leaders (of any variety) who are praying for a particular outcome to be executed by something more powerful than themselves. In a way, aren’t programs just like prayers with logic?
Of course, this isn’t exactly a new idea. In Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs the process is likened to sorcery:
People create programs to direct processes. In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.
A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer’s spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.
The question now is, what kind of spells do we want to cast? What kind of magic should we make?