Throughout history, humans have have believed in, and sometimes hunted for, creatures that are not of this world. From medieval occultists who attempted to invoke angels and demons via magick circles, invocations and amulets, to modern-day ghosthunters with their electronic devices, invisible, incorporeal entities have sometimes been as much a part of the landscape as the everyday physical objects surrounding us that we can touch and see.
The modern, scientific view has these entities as products of the imagination; our pattern-seeking minds combining with our evolutionary survival instincts and desire to feel in control, to create phantoms out of nothing. The 'other world' does not exist; its imaginary denizens therefore cannot invade our own world and affect us, as they don't exist in the first place.
How ironic, then, that the modern scientific world has now created its own 'other world' - the world of computer-generated, virtual realities - and the creatures that populate any of those worlds can now manifest within our own plane through augmented/mixed reality. For those with phones to see...
This month, the infernal gates to this other world were thrown open. Within a week of its release, the game Pokémon Go amassed a similar number of active users to that of Twitter - with all those players running about their neighbourhoods, seeking the incorporeal monsters now inhabiting our environment, that can only be seen through a special, magical scrying device.
Unlike the rare and much-sought-after occult tools of yesteryear, however, this scrying device is a near-ubiquitous piece of equipment that lives in most people’s pockets or handbags. And while the augmented reality of Pokémon Go may be a reasonably crude first step (though that is of course, relative to what the future holds), as new devices are created and eventually offered to the mass market - such as Microsoft’s ‘HoloLens’, and the much-discussed upcoming product from Magic Leap - the other planes of ‘reality’ available to us will become more and more ‘real’ in their fidelity and detail.
In effect, we are all going to become ‘walkers between worlds’...
Move the dial one way, and you get reality. Move the dial the other way, and you get virtual reality. Now imagine dialling your entire environment between virtual, and real worlds.
I would imagine those people who have undertaken serious practice of ritual magick, or shamanic journeys via psychedelics, would find the way technology can now overlay other realities on our own rather intriguing, in multiple ways.
Firstly, on a philosophical level: if these coherent realities can emerge simply from within the 1s and 0s of a computer chip, could it be argued that the worlds occultists and shamans visit - sometimes elsewhere, sometimes overlaid on our own reality - are also coherent planes of information, only able to be accessed via certain technologies? Could DMT visions be considered, rather than a nonsense hallucination, actually an overlay of the same type, allowing us to see things that do exist, but are not visible without the necessary equipment?
What is the ontological status of even computer-generated holograms? They are not physically there, but you could eventually set them up to ‘augment’ your senses and show what is there but you can’t see (outside of your umwelt) - e.g. an overlay of the magnetic fields you are walking through. And if a scary VR experience can affect your body - from making you sweat, to raising your heart rate (or perhaps even causing a heart attack?) - can we really describe it as ‘imaginary’, and with no real-world effects?
Philosopher David Chalmers addressed this question in a recent video interview posted at Aeon:
I’m inclined to think that if we’re in a virtual reality and that’s been our environment for a long time, and we’re interacting with it, it’s not clear to me whether that’s any less real…more and more of the interactions we actually have are becoming virtual. I can at least imagine the day when, once we have so many virtual interactions, that life in this virtual world begins to seem at least as appealing as, say, a trip to Mars. It’s going to be a new destination, it’s going to be different from our old reality, but it’s nevertheless, a reality.
Secondly, on a practical level: can the development of technologically augmented reality enhance the experience of occultists, shamans and would-be mystics; be used as a tool to take things to the next level? Already, I have seen mention from a few practitioners of magick about the possibility of using computer-generated environments - for example, in conducting a simple Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram:
In a recent interview, Alan Moore mentioned his interest in virtual reality (begins around 39:10) being piqued by the realisation that people can share an experience, "in a space that doesn’t actually exist in this continuum, but yet is a real experience”. His suggestion, rather than thinking about using it to play an adrenaline-pumping 3D shooter, was...
What about spiritual experiences? What about these difficult to reach, transcendent spaces that we hear about from the world’s various religions and mystical systems? Why don’t you do that with virtual reality? Why don’t you see what happens? Because, what is the difference between a ‘real’ mystical experience, and a virtual mystical experience?
A preliminary exploration of this idea can be found in this ‘immersive’ 360° music video made by film-maker Logi Hilmarsson, which is "designed to put the viewer in a mystical state, taking him through visions one can get in a deep meditative or psychedelic state" (made for watching in VR headset, though if you don’t own one, you can still click and drag the video to understand the concept behind it).
On the other hand, is our imagination the crucial ingredient in exploring the ‘other worlds’ of magick and mysticism? Is using augmented reality only going to weaken that fundamental tool, weakening our mystical muscle?
I don’t really have any answers to the questions posed in this article. But I would certainly enjoy hearing all of your thoughts (and own questions) about it, as the topic fascinates me, and as technology progresses things will only get more interesting!