Hacker Depictions

Magical Computing

Giles: Are you a witch?

Jenny: I don’t have that kind of power. “Technopagan” is the term.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s eighth episode, “I Robot, You Jane,” taps into a fascinating emergent trend in digital culture—cyberspiritualism. After a demon enters cyberspace and threatens to go on a murderous rampage, the high school computer teacher Jenny Calendar reveals that she can help; she is, after all, a… technopagan? Buffy discussed the relationship between science and magic in numerous episodes throughout its seven seasons (1997–2003). The school librarian, Rupert Giles, is skeptical of digital technologies throughout the show, preferring physical books. In this clip, he remarks that being a high school computer science teacher is a “profession that hardly lends itself to the casting of bones.” But Calendar corrects him: “You think the realm of the mystical is related to ancient texts and relics? That bad old science made the magic go away? The divine exists in cyberspace, the same as out here.”

Calendar’s lines are reminiscent of a digital invitation that technopagan, futurist, and engineer Mark Pesce released publicly in October 1994 to celebrate CyberSamhain, where he suggested, “perhaps we would do well to acknowledge the divine within ourselves within Cyberspace.” Buffy’s reference to technopagans and later invocations of cyber witch imagery was not unique for this period. As internet use became more popular, people interested in magic, neopaganism, and the occult could use the internet to share information and build community. As early as April 29, 1993, the first version of the Mage’s Guide to the Internet went live and served as a directory of URLs centered on long-term forums and text files allowing a broad spectrum of opinion on arcane, occult, and mystical subjects to be shared. That magic, mythmaking, fairytale imagery, and technology were prevalent in wildly popular shows such as Buffy emphasizes the cultural impact of cyberspiritual figures—the tech wizard, technopagan, cyber witch—and their hacker and computer cultures’ origins.

Hacker cultures and computer cultures were vital to the creation of the tech wizard figure; in some circles, hackers and wizards were one and the same. The 1982 edition of The Hacker’s Dictionary, posted to net.misc, puts it like this: “WIZARD n. 1. A person who knows how a complex piece of software or hardware works; someone who can find and fix his bugs in an emergency. Rarely used at MIT, where HACKER is the preferred term; 2. A person who is permitted to do things forbidden to ordinary people, e.g., a ‘net wizard’ on a TENEX may run programs which speak low-level host-imp protocol; an ADVENT wizard at SAIL may play Adventure during the day.” Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP) was a 1985 computer science textbook by MIT professors Harold Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman, and Julie Sussman that was known as the “Wizard Book” in hacker cultures, likely in part due to its cover illustrations of robed figures. The book teaches fundamental principles of computer programming, including recursion, abstraction, modularity, and programming language design and implementation, and its mastery could help individuals develop the kinds of skills needed to become a wizard. While the term “wizard” initially referred to humans (largely white and male, in those days) within hacker cultures, the term eventually was applied to software assistant programs that were to help with initial set-up tasks, such as the 1992 Task Wizards. The proliferation of the tech wizard figure continued in technology magazines such as the January 1987 issue of Crash. Its prevalent usage eventually spread to popular culture.

Cyber witches and technopagans could also be tech wizards, but their cultural importance differs. While self-identified cyber witches and technopagans brought together their spiritual and technological practices in a way that was meaningful for them, journalists and popular culture writers did not afford these labels much respect. The “Technopagan is the term” line from Buffy is often mocked both within and outside of Buffy fan communities. Even when journalists and producers saw value in describing inventors and designers of the latest gear as “tech wizards,” the actual people who saw a connection between magic and technology could be treated like a punch line.

The full history of the connections between tech wizards, cyber witches, and technopagans is complicated and involves everything from listservs, emoji spells, tarot decks, Tumblr, and phone apps. For more information on this phenomenon, please refer to my digital exhibit. My effort to bring together the resources that I have used for my research in order to make these materials available to other people interested in researching this topic. As many of these resources were found on now-defunct websites, in out-of-print books, and far-down search results, this digital collection/exhibit assembles these resources in a way that makes them more accessible for viewers and users.

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