It’s a daunting experience wandering into Room Two of Manchester’s Town Hall.
Morning sunlight streams in from the tall windows, illuminating the ornate chandeliers looming overhead. Above and around me, dour faces of long-dead officials glare down as if they are sitting in judgement over the proceedings. Directly ahead, the speaker’s podium is adorned by several flickering candles. All in all, it’s a perfect venue for the mini-conference Haunted Machines, the brainchild of artist and designer Tobias Revell and curator and researcher Natalie Kane.
“The name actually came from a talk I gave in Australia,” Revell tells Northern Soul. “I’m a designer so it arose from discussions we were having in our peer group about hauntings and mysticism. We were concerned that we were increasingly being told about devices which were ‘magical’ or ‘enchanted’. There was this mystical narrative being applied to things which were actually just quite technically complex, so we deemed it worthy of opening it up and getting more people involved. We gathered six speakers who were dealing with this in different ways, in their own practices – everyone from writers to hackers to artists – and got them to share their views.”
Haunted Machines does a wonderful job of highlighting one of the most common fears in human history: the fear of the unknown. Technology is a pervasive aspect in every facet of our lives, and yet relatively few of us know exactly how it all works.
I’m not particularly technically-literate and so could readily identify with several points about the confidence of the general population. We rely heavily on our phones and our computers to do their jobs efficiently, completely and unfailingly. If something were to go wrong, or someone were to attack those systems, we are often lost. We buy anti-virus systems and firewalls, but they can be overcome by human intuition and tenacity. Casual hackers and Trojan viruses are equated to a cyber-breed of gremlins and devils, plaguing and pillaging our online lives as they were imagined to plague and pillage the lives of simple villagers in ages past. The fear of the unknown ruled their lives just as it still rules ours.
By extension, those with the power to control the unknown are feared and revered in equal measure. A great example of their dichotomous nature lies in modern pop culture, which can’t seem to decide on an image for hackers. It swings wildly between suave and capable criminals breaking into CSI mainframes, or young lonely men tapping away in their mothers’ cellars. It’s a neat reflection of their dual roles as heroes and outcasts, wielding powers that are at once mundane and terrifying.
“There’s a mastery there at work that I think alters the way they see the world,” says Revell. “They see past interfaces, they see past the design front. Personally I hold them in reverence for their ability to demystify things so easily and see what’s at work, the functions of it, the mechanics of any system or object or device. So [hackers] are almost seen as some kind of demonic or godlike figures.”
Not all of the information disseminated at Haunted Machines is quite as cohesive. In a deliberate move, Revell and Kane haven’t limited their speakers to a single type of magic or period of history. Many instances of the word ‘magic’ or ‘in days past’ signal a short mental scramble to work out exactly what sort of magic is being referred to, or whether there is a specific period in mind. With that single word being used as shorthand to describe thousands of practices over just as many years, many of the comparisons being made are slightly diluted. After all, within a certain context, the word magic could mean just about anything.
And some of the speakers elaborate further than others. Ingrid Burrington points to specific examples of how technology is wielded as a tool of power by established institutions like the NSA, similar to how the Catholic Church holds a monopoly on the definition of a miracle. In both cases, it is the institution that defines the acceptable uses of the power. Conversely, Warren Ellis seems content with giving the audience broad hints about the parallels between magic and technology. He speaks about computers that fight off ‘demonic’ possession, and digitally haunted cars that drive themselves. They are very pretty metaphors but they come at the cost of obscuring the clarity of his points, leaving his audience to locate and knit together the fabric of his argument.
It’s possibly a symptom of my relatively sparse technical knowledge, but I feel just a little out of the loop. As a particularly detailed analogy about werewolves and hacking sails clean over my head, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s an issue with the comparisons themselves, or whether they’d simply be clearer to those with greater technological discipline. Luckily, that has already occurred to the organisers, and they’ve turned the conference’s greatest weakness to become one of its greatest strengths.
“The occasional vagueness comes from the fact that the speakers come from such different backgrounds.” Revell explains. “We’ve finished with Georgina [Voss] who’s been talking about innovation and development, and Ingrid who was an artist, or Warren who’s a writer, so their vocabularies are all very different. That is a good way to get all those viewpoints in and everyone had something to grip onto. I do think you have to have a certain level of tech-literacy. But most conferences try to find tactics to reach wider audiences, and include people who don’t necessarily converse in these kind of debates but are still interested in what’s going on.”
Ultimately some of it may have fallen flat, but Haunted Machines is undoubtedly a worthwhile event. It has certainly changed the way I think about technology. As well as the larger debates about security and surveillance, intriguing ideas begin to emerge. One audience member asked about the role of modern familiars, as in the companions of ancient witches. What would be their equivalent? Answers varied between algorithms, firewalls or even Twitterbots. Even scarier is the thought of bringing imagined threats to life. An automated house with remote locks on the doors could be hacked to become a real haunted house, the objects within behaving apparently of their own volition.
As I sit here writing this, with Revell’s disembodied voice still drifting from the black device sitting inertly on my desk, those ideas seem all the more relevant. Whether you’re technologically minded or not, there’s no denying the omnipresence of the Haunted Machines.
By Jack Stocker