Making Things Talk

I dabble in all kinds of technomancy: VR rituals, AI servitors, electric talismans, robotic fetishes — I love it all. But my favorite aspect of technomancy is cyber-animism, a term coined by Lionel Snell a.k.a. Ramsey Dukes a.k.a. Lemuel Johnstone in S.S.O.T.B.M.E. (Sex Secrets of the Black Magicians Exposed), and which always reminds me of something Philip K. Dick once observed:

[O]ur environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components — all of this is in fact beginning more and more to possess what the earnest psychologists fear the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.

Today’s Internet of Things (the other IOT) clearly continues to realize PKD’s vision, but Snell’s idea of cyber-animism ascribes spirit to systems more generally:

Let us begin with someone who cannot accept Johnstone’s cyber-animism because he is, for example, a New Ager who resists the idea of artificial intelligence. I then apply the above argument “if a quartz crystal, a tree or a spring might contain a deva, might not there be one resident in a very complex computer?” Nothing has been proved, it has just become slightly ‘easier to accept’. I then suggest “if that dance of data within silicon could invoke an intelligence, might not similar dances of data throughout nature invoke a whole angelic hierarchy of devas analogous to the hierarchy of routines within an operating system?” I then suggest that “if our entire physical universe is thus permeated by such a field of consciousness, surely you cannot deny some element of that awareness to a computer created within it?” and so on. At no stage is artificial intelligence ‘proved’ but rather it is made to ‘feel nicer’.

At this point I could go on about Ashby, Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, DeLanda, et al., but I actually want to step back from theories of self-organization and autopoiesis and nonlinear dynamics and material agency, to talk about one of the formative books in my practice of cyber-animism, especially the engineering side of it: Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk.

I bought Making Things Talk in April of 2008, around the time I discovered Arduino and Processing and began translating my technomantic speculations into physical apparatus and interactions. Igoe is all about physical computing, and that was the bit that had been missing for me between lots of theory about digital media and virtual bodies and ritual spaces and magical inter/actions. The ability to manifest the spiritual (or mental) in the physical is the Great Work of the shaman, sorcerer, witch, and alchemist alike, and for me it needed to be a fundamental component of technomancy. If you have ever encountered the numinous (not just the uncanny but the numinous) in a doll or wind-up toy (remember the cymbal-banging monkey from Stephen King’s “The Monkey”?), then imagine being able to use computers and electronics to make those kinds of objects talk and move and respond to events in the physical space. But computer networks add another, unique layer (or multiple layers) of activity: your haunted doll could email you, or respond to a tweet or text message, or act on news from the Internet, or communicate “telepathically” with other haunted objects. Suddenly, the idea of having a family of spiritual allies and advisers blends with new media technologies to enable a weird, cyber-animistic ecosystem. That was the potential I saw in Igoe’s book.

How about a haunted cyber-monkey? (image of “Monski Pong” from Making Things Talk by Tom Igoe)

Making Things Talk covers a lot of ground, especially for novices: what tools you are likely to need; different kinds of computers involved, including microntrollers, tiny computers that specialize in interacting with electrical and mechanical devices such as sensors and motors; various sensors; interfacing hardware; network topologies; and communication protocols, rules governing how devices talk to each other. Most of the projects feature Arduino, a microntroller chip on a board that includes a regulated power supply, USB interface, and several input and output pins so you can begin connecting to things and programming the microcontroller right away. The Arduino platform is geared toward education and hobby electronics — although it is robust enough to be used in professional applications — so it is well suited to a wide audience including novices and amateurs. MTT takes you through several, hands-on examples that involve building circuits, writing code, and hacking materials. Igoe writes very lucid and throughout the book he shares many tips, tricks, and good practices. I still often encounter and make use of examples of his code when working with Arduino (I have mostly converted to CircuitPython these days).

Making Things Talk has been published in three editions (yes, I own all three), the latest in 2017.