Science, Technology 2015-04-01

Tech is the new sorcery

If you look back on centuries of myths and legends, you’ll see countless stories about homonculi (artificial humans), vampires, alchemical processes and other superstitions. Although the worlds of spirituality and science are often at odds, sometimes they seem closer than anyone realizes.

Years ago, in my regular scouring of the Internet, I saw a post about a man trying “computer magic” by making a ceremonial gown out of floppy disks. In another instance, there was a case study about a group of people that tried to create some kind of spell by sending emails to each other in a loop. I suspect they crashed their own servers or the email providers thought their computers were hacked, but either way the pagans believed that they had awoken spirits in the Internet which had lashed out at them. I suppose an angry IT admin could be considered a supernatural terror of sorts…

We live in such a time that I sometimes wonder if people realize how close we are to the legends and superstitions of old. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to find his house occupied and his wife threatened. The goddess Athena comes to his aid and drives off the attackers with a war cry that curdles their blood. Today, we have actual sonic cannons that are used to disperse large and unruly crowds. Sure, the cannons are not in the shape of a beautiful goddess, but aside from that is there really a fundamental difference? Let’s take a look at the other ways tech and myth are converging.

Homonculi and Golems

A homonculus means “little man” and is one of the many interests of alchemy. Golems, for their part are from Jewish myth. The idea here that a magic word can animate an otherwise non-living entity. The idea of an artificial life form is no longer novel. We create them in computer simulations and clone animals using modern biotechnology. As for golems, consider we can make 3D print body parts on command. Currently this is just for replacing parts, but it’s a short step from there to a full body. In 2013, Oxford Performance Materials replaced the skull of a man who had lost 75% of his own. In 2011 and the company Xilloc used 3D printing to create a titanium jaw for a woman whose jaw had been eroded away by disease. We can clone living tissue and generate artificial body parts. Mary Shelley would be proud.

Vampires and Eternal Youth

Dracula may be the most famous of the vampires, but he was fiction. Elizabeth Bathory was uncomfortably real and killed dozens of women. She was convinced that regular infusions of their blood would keep her young forever. Turns out she wasn’t too far off. Scientists at Harvard are working to commercialize GDF11, a protein found in blood that allowed blood from a young mouse to jumpstart the biology of an older mouse. Assuming this stuff could be brought to market, maybe the Draculas and Bathorys of the world can knock off that whole murdering-people-for-their-blood thing.

Clairvoyance and Telepathy

Everyone has a story about that uncle or friend who just seemed to know when a particular person was about to call or walk through the door. Or perhaps they seemed to be capable of conversing with certain people without being in the same room with them. Perhaps they were clairvoyant or telepathic. Perhaps they just had a cell phone that vibrated. Human human tactile sensory system is nuanced enough that it can detect almost the full range of human emotions by touch alone. It can also be used to communicate something more complex. It’s called Haptic Technology and it’s being used to develop apps like Mumble, which vibrates a smartphone in a specific pattern. This in turn allows the person carrying the phone to know what the alert is for without even pulling the phone out of the pocket. It’s not limited to phones, either. There’s a wristband called BuzzWear that vibrates in 24 different patterns. So now in addition to mysteriously knowing that your cousin just arrived at the airport, you can mysteriously know he’s sending you cat pics again.

Summary

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The systematic way Facebook and other social networks keep you on their site amounts to demonic possession while the chemicals that go into heat packs or glow sticks would amount to alchemy. Centuries ago, people would have written this off as demonology, paganism, or mad scientist-style alchemy. It turns out they were born a bit too early to see modern technology coming around the corner.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.