Context: most weeks, I go to Gitcoin’s Public Library, a nourishing Wednesday chat where a different host proposes an obsession or idea and the group talks it through. This is a write-up of mine — not a formal talk or proposal as such, but a funny fragment of an idea that’s been circulating around my head.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with TV magicians.
I grew up in a very small village in the English countryside in the 1980s and I spent a lot of that decade watching cheesy older men in suits perform close-up sleight of hand or the ol’ three ball trick. It didn’t matter that the only people who looked like me on screen were getting sawn in half, wearing feathers and a frozen smile; in a life that’s so far been full of brilliant rabbit holes it’s clear that magic is one of my longest-standing fascinations.
What does this have to do with technology? I used to ask myself (you’re probably thinking something similar).
Well, let’s start by defining our terms. I’ve always thought of magic in two ways; there’s performative magic and belief magic.
Performative magic is one of the most honest exchanges between people; whether it’s you and a card shark on the street today, or Houdini escaping from handcuffs in the East River a hundred years ago, in both cases you’re watching artists perform what you both call tricks. The magic happens in the ether between the magician or performer and the audience. The audience, whether one person or a hundred, knows they’re being fooled and is delighted by it.
The history of performative magic, and how social changes have impacted it, is fascinating. Such as how the growth of railroads led to the rise of travelling magicians, who often dealt in unorthodox medical cures on the side (cocaine toothache drops, anyone?) or how in the late Victorian era, many historians link the rise of seances to women seeking more economic freedom in the field of spiritualism.
But this piece is about belief magic, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces” and especially how belief magic is represented in culture. After all, culture, from films to books to art, has always shaped society, just as we shape it. We lack deep decent research on the actual take-up and practice of belief magic and how widespread certain belief systems were, but in a post-graduate degree I did on representations of magic in culture, it was clear magic flourishes in destabilising times.
Think back to that cheesy older man above in his tux. In the 80s, the UK had a cartoon villain of a leader in Margaret Thatcher; London’s financial centre, the City, grew as our unions weakened; and by the end of the decade, raves were dawning as an expression of anti-establishment fury as the social mobility many families like mine had benefited from was already fading away.
Think Salem in the 1690s, with clashing groups trying to build a world they thought was new. Or, more recently, covens casting spells to prevent Trump’s re-election.
Especially, magic flourished during the British Renaissance. It’s an era I love, with huge leaps forward in invention and knowledge-sharing like the printing press, double-entry accounting and the humble pencil. In a fit of pique, Henry VIII broke with Rome and forged a new religion. New countries and continents were explored and exploited. And England felt under threat at home and abroad, with multiple conflicts with Scotland, France, Spain, and beyond.
Critically, for part of this time, the UK had a female monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who was both highly educated and visibly unmarried. In the conventions of the era, poets and writers (nearly all men) would write stories celebrating their King for his vigour and intellect. I’m generalising, of course (get in touch with me if you want to nerd out), but women were celebrated for being wives and mothers. As the ruler was seen to subvert nature, as some would have it, we also see an incredible outpouring of the supernatural in the cultural artefacts of the era, from Prospero in the Tempest, to Dr Faustus, the Witch of Edmonton, and many more.
The witches, wizards and magicians in plays and books both thrilled and scared their audiences, and most got their comeuppance by the end of the story.
The monarch who followed Elizabeth I was King James I , who was so obsessed with witches as a source of all evil in the world that he wrote the notorious book Daemonologie (a study of witchcraft) and kickstarted the witch trials that would see thousands of people, nearly all women, tried and executed in the following decades.
Why have institutions such as the church and the state always been so threatened by magic?
Part of the answer derives from who practices it; again, there are few robust studies of the trials, but less than 15% of those executed were men. Often the women prosecuted were unmarried and intelligent, while lacking the formal education given to their male peers. Often, these women knew herbal remedies to heal ailments or talked back to men in authority.
And magical knowledge tends to be passed from person to person, rather than disseminated top down.
Both then and now, belief magic is ultimately decentralised and community-led (just ask a modern practitioner how they feel about the Magic Circle’s elitism). Just like the homemade pamphlets that circulated and enabled citizens to criticise the monarchy or church, their information channels do not rely on conventional means.
As institutions have tried to exert control over the masses, magic is an attempt — often by marginalised people in society — to subvert that control.
At its heart, belief magic is a combination of community knowledge + solidarity networks + folklore.
By community knowledge, I mean beliefs, truths and cures passed down over time.
By solidarity networks, I mean acting with trust, in small self-selecting groups.
By folklore, I mean the ritualistic repetition of the first to build the second.
You can see the line I’m drawing between the act or art of belief magic and what it means to be working in any emergent technology space; especially this emergent space we call web3, trying to build all three elements at once from the ashes of past scenes that didn’t feel so magical.
Or maybe that’s unfair. Because of when I was born (1980), I grew up both analogue and digital. Even as I began working as a community builder for startups and in big tech, the technology industry developed experiences and conveniences beyond my wildest dreams.
You push a button and a taxi arrives (that may not sound like a wild dream, but you try growing up in a rural area).
You can ask a supercomputer for any obscure topic, and some kind of answer will appear. You open a product and it delights you.
You meet your partner through a funny Twitter account in a way that feels so standard in 2022 but felt intensely magical at the time.
But, over time, these tricks began to feel performative — an act of smoke and mirrors — where the magic disappeared right between the huge corporation telling me it was working in my interest and for the public good, and my actual experience of it.
What does magic have to do with web3? you’re probably asking yourself. After all, one has thousands of years of history, and the other’s so incredibly new.
Let’s consider that formula:
community knowledge + solidarity networks + folklore.
The web3 communities I’m in have powerful ideologies; these are spaces with shared perspectives and rituals that have emerged over a compressed period of time. This manner of collective world-building in and around projects (in the best possible way, I wouldn’t use the word company) was called lorecraft in this memorable piece by Venkatesh Rao.
For a great example of lorecraft, let’s look at Crypto Coven. This high femme female-led NFT collection chose witches as their core avatar due to how much they defy traditional expectations and hold agency and power, and coven to emphasise collective creation. But even this short description minimises the craft and care at the heart of this project, both what the original five founders conceived, and how the community around it has taken this world in unexpected and beautiful directions.
Another is Dom Hoffman’s spooky, brilliant Corruption(s*). After a collection of portal-like NFTs launched without ceremony, a community formed to decipher what they meant both individually and together. Soon, they learnt that if left alone (as in untraded) the insight bar on the bottom right of the image increased over time; if sold or transferred, the insight slows down and changes the look of the NFT itself. Over time, the artist and those interacting with the artwork began sending messages back and forth on-chain.
In both cases, there’s a sense of mystery or necessary key to unlock understanding, powered by secret knowledge that travels back and forth. And, while there was an initial steward or creator, this folklore tends to be decentralised, community-led and learnt from peers.
Beyond that, the community knowledge is also emerging, as the broader web3 community increasingly begins to document what works, even if, like magic, so much of this world can seem impenetrable to those not yet in it (and we need to work harder on magical user experiences).
The very structure of DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) themselves provide solidarity networks, with increasing collaboration between DAOs to build a broader scene. It’s early but this blend of community knowledge + solidarity networks + folklore exists, right now.
And, for all the criticisms (some fair, some not) I’ve seen levied at this space by non-believers, I’ve seen, with my own eyes, magic being made nearly every day — through refreshed optimism, through hard work done fast, through groups coming together to do what individuals alone cannot.
At heart, magic embraces the power that small solidarity networks have to change the world through changing their own perceptions of reality.
This belief is central to Web3 ideology, and we should be heartened by the sheer longevity of magic, despite the best efforts of large institutions, to bring together like-minded people in service of the best possible futures.
Thanks to Scott Moore and the Gitcoin public library community for giving me the space to explore this, and the Foster community for help editing. Especially, thanks to Stuart Waterman, Heenal Rajani, Ben Percefeld and Maxwell Kantar for comments and suggestions on this in-progress.