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On Being a Witch in the Digital Age

My favorite work of fiction, hands down and bar none, is Neil Gaiman’s book, “American Gods.” Like a perfect pop song, Gaiman weaves a perfectly crafted tale that is both full of meaning and incredibly accessible and entertaining. Fans spent years waiting for it to be made into a movie, and when the television show hit cable it was an instant hit, even though it didn’t follow the book with entire faithfulness.

The basic premise of the work remains intact — that the gods of yore, Odin, Anubis, Anansi, Bilquis and others, are being challenged by the “new gods.” These new gods — Media, Technical Boy, Mister Town, among others, represent a potential “new order” in the universe, and the action leads up to a final standoff, in which the main character, Shadow, is being set up by Odin to play a part.

Gaiman’s work mines an interesting idea — gods are who we sacrifice things to, and make the worship bargain with, and it stands to reason then, that that which we give precious things to, like time and attention, can eventually become our deities. So in an age where we offer so much time and attention to things like computers and cellphones and Netflix, and where so much of our human interaction is filtered through social media, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about technology and its role in our world. Is it tool or taskmaster? Does technology have spiritual value and can it teach us anything? It’s an area that William Gibson first started exploring with his sci-fi classic, “Neuromancer,” and any fan of cyberpunk probably has an opinion about. For those working on technology ethics, it’s that old question — at what point does artificial intelligence become artificial consciousness, and what does that mean for our definition of “life?”

Pagans sometimes talk about our deities as the “old gods” and our practices as “the old ways,” even though modern pagan practice probably bears little resemblance to what was done during pre-Christian times. Many call it “neopaganism” for precisely this reason. But one thing remains consistently “old” in our practice, and that is the dedication to being in sync with the rhythms of the seasons, of nature itself. We strive to understand and harness the elements, primal forces of the Universe. Technology is decidedly not at the center of our ways.

And yet, we are 21st century witches, living in a digital age where our practice thrives because of things like the Internet, social media and global networking. Because of technology, it is possible for anyone with an Internet connection to gain access to the basics of paganism and witchcraft. Because of social media, those who are new to their path can find ready opportunities to interact with many of the leading practitioners of our ways. Global networks mean that if a witch in the United States wants a particular object that is being offered by an occult shop in London, they can order it online and have it shipped directly to their door.

And even though technology feels cold, hard, and unnatural, it actually isn’t. Technology is a man made thing, assembled and created from not only physical elements but also thought and pure will. From a certain perspective, one might even begin to see that technology itself is a kind of magic. Much in the same way that a witch can place their hand on the trunk of a tree and feel its energy, and commune with its essence, or plant their feet on the ground and root their being into the earth, a witch can put their hand on a machine and discover its energy, and maybe even harness it. Next time you are on an airplane, try it. Put your feet on the floor in your seat or a hand on the wall of the passenger cabin and tap in to the energy. You might be surprised to learn there is more going on there than you imagined. Machines do respond to magic. I once increased the fuel efficiency of a friend’s car with some simple rune work.

I’ve said it before: it is absolutely possible to learn a substantial amount of what it takes to be a witch from the Internet. Many traditions and occult groups have posted basics of their teachings online. It is even possible in many instances to be taught by a teacher remotely via the “magic” of video calling. Email, of course is also used extensively in remote teacher-student relationships. And yet, as much as I don’t see technology as some sort of antithesis to the Craft, I also have some serious reservations about being a fully digital witch:

There is more to communication than the Internet is capable of delivering. Communications experts agree that in person, offline communication is vastly superior to nearly any online mode of interaction. Though we live in an age where people are increasingly having meetings via video conference to save on travel, the research is clear — you understand each other better when you are in the same place communicating face to face. And written communication, despite its utility as a means to keep exact records of an exchange, is often a vehicle for deep misunderstanding. Something like less than 20 percent of communication is the actual words you say. The other 80 percent are gestures, facial expression, vocal tone, body positioning, etc. In other words, the things that you can’t read in an email and only partially grasp on a video call. How many times have people read a “tone” into your email text or a post on Facebook that you didn’t actually intend?

Learning from another’s work, whether you know them or not, whether it’s via a text in a book or on a website, is at bottom only as good as the level of connected communication between you and the teacher. I can learn a lot from reading a book by a noted pagan author. I will learn a lot more if I go to a workshop where she’s teaching. But I will learn the most if I have a personal relationship with her and am taught by her personally. And if that personal teaching is happening online, that places a limitation on the process. This is not to say that one should ONLY be taught by people you know personally or who you can share real space with. There is much to learn, many ways to learn it, and half a loaf is better than none in that regard. Our community as a whole benefits when our best teachers have the opportunity to reach a wide range of people with their wisdom, however imperfectly. But if the only way you’re learning things is through impersonal forms of communication — websites, books and emails — you’re missing a LOT of information and learning opportunities. Most of the best teachers don’t put their most advanced materials out there over the Internet. You’ll only get that from personal, one on one sessions.

The Internet has no discernment. One of the most beautiful things about the Internet as a social phenomenon is the democratization of information. Putting up a website is relatively cheap and easy and with the tools available today, almost anyone can do it. And with Google, you can discover ALL the pages that are out there on a topic, not just the ones being offered by the biggest companies that can spend the most on marketing. In the pre-Internet age, only those who had enough pull to get access to media companies could get their information out there on a wide scale. The Internet changed all that.

One of the most terrifying things about the Internet as a social phenomenon is the democratization of information. ANYONE can put ANYTHING on a website and it doesn’t have to be true. Like the Russian troll farms that stalk social media and drop misleading memes to try and influence our elections, there are lots of people out there peddling conspiracy theories, looking to spread rumors or who just simply have no fucking clue what they are talking about. And it’s not nearly as easy to tell who those people are as you might think. Sure, you can do some digging to vett your online source material, but most people are lazy and will hit the top 10 or so pages on a Google search and call it a day. It’s especially tricky in a more esoteric subject like paganism or witchcraft because even our most popular sources of information are not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination. Which sources you choose to trust is important, but it’s not easy to place a lot of confidence in those choices when most of them are outside the relative safety of social acceptability. Who’s the real deal and who’s a poser? It can be nearly impossible to tell.

This is where having a meatspace community comes in handy. We build trust with people because we share experiences with them. We interact and share moments of learning, of vulnerability, of encouragement. Over time, you can trust people. Or not. And so when someone you trust says a thing is so, you can have a certain amount of confidence in that. And you can question, and listen to the answers, and use the noble art of discernment to figure out whether what they are saying is true or not. Having a community to help give you advice on who to read, which websites have good information, which teachers really know their stuff, is important. Because being led astray in the craft is no small thing — people can get seriously injured without good information, physically, psychologically and psychically.

Meatspace Will Always Beat Cyberspace in Relationships. I say this even though some of my best friends in the entire world are people who I met online. But here’s the thing — while I met these people online, ultimately what cemented our friendship and made us truly close was the time we spent together and the things we have shared offline.

The phenomenon of “catfishing” is well known among digital natives, but for those who are unfamiliar, catfishing is when someone interacts with you online — usually in a romantic way — pretending to be someone they aren’t. Filmmaker Nev Schulman has built an entire career out of his experience being catfished. Nav did a documentary about it and later turned it into a popular TV show where he helps others ferret out the people who are “catfishing” them.

The point of meeting in person is that real emotional intimacy between people, be they friends or lovers, needs the sharing of physical space together to fully develop. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who I love deeply who I have only interacted with online or on the phone. (There are. They are few. But they exist.) But even with those people, I know that were I to have the pleasure of meeting them in person, our relationship would be even more close and fulfilling. The failure to meet is a function of circumstance, not desire.

It is possible to teach magic remotely. It is possible to work magic in a group remotely. It is possible to develop deep relationships with other witches online. I’ve discussed before the nature of a coven and what it can add to a witch’s experience and ability, and certainly one can belong to an online coven. It’s possible. But what’s possible and what’s optimal are often two very different things. There’s no question in my mind that one can do higher quality work with witches when they are in each other’s physical presence.

For people in small rural communities, young people, people who are housebound or differently abled, access to real space pagan communities and events can be limited, and online resources and communities can be an extremely important way to fill the gap. In an era where time and finances are limited, the tools and data available on the Internet are great to allow people to do quick general research and narrow their focus quickly to what they are really interested in. Digital witchery has its uses, and I in no way want to suggest that digital witches aren’t “real” witches. They are.

What I’m on about here is that just because we practice “earth based spirituality,” or feel we’re about interacting with nature in ways that are more in sync with ancient cultures than modernity does not mean we should hate technology or eschew it completely from our pagan practice. Nor should we forget that the connectivity we’re seeking is with deity and nature and humanity, and that sometimes happens best without using the filter of technology.

Ultimately technology and the implements of the digital world are tools. And as witches especially, we know a thing or seven about tools. When does a knife become an athame? When does a stick become a wand? When does a cup become a chalice? The answer to each of these is the same: when a witch uses the object with magical intent. And the tool is only as good as the witch who uses it. Technology, including the Internet, is no different.

Like any tool, technology, particularly the digital kind, should be used thoughtfully and with purpose. We need to be very clear on what they do well, what they do poorly, and the side effects of consistent use. We need to know why we’ve chosen to use a technological tool for the aspect of our craft we’re using it for. These tools are particularly powerful, and if we’re not paying close attention, have the capacity to overwhelm us. When that happens, the tools begin to control and dictate our desires and behaviors, and that’s completely not the point of what we do.

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