Get In On the New Age Goodness!
Exploring Computer-Mediated Oracles

by Tiffany Lee Brown

Can Windows '95 channel your grandmother's ghost or foretell your future? Not without crashing, that's for sure. But your computer can put you in touch with otherworldly oracles and mystical explorations that take the New Age out of its white robes and bring it right to your desktop.

The Net provides web and ftp sites, discussion groups and forums, devoted to every genus and subspecies of spiritual quester and religious freak imaginable: you can finally search out an occult group yet avoid exchanging elaborate handshakes with some guy sporting a dyed-black goatee and a pentagram tattoo. The aspiring digital spiritualist might pass up those gigabytes of esoteric information, though, and start with direct experience: computer-mediated oracles.

'Lectronic Fortunes

If you've ever played with a Magic 8 Ball or flipped a coin to make a decision, you've consulted an oracle of sorts. Those who use oracles on a more serious basis often gravitate toward popular, traditional systems such as Tarot cards, Runes, and the I Ching, all of which are available in digital form these days. Does this stuff actually work? It depends on what you want it to do for you. A complete stranger wearing a yellow turban once laid out a spread of cards on a streetside table, and proceeded to advise me on matters I hadn't told to a single soul. "You're thinking of moving back to your hometown, somewhere north," he said casually. "The cards indicate that this move would be a springboard to greater things."

Though I was dumbfounded by his accuracy, I've gained more from using oracles to help me straighten out my head and tap into my intuition than by using them as a fortunetelling device. An oracle is "a set of archetypes arranged in a very particular way. It's like a time line of images, or a large organic structure," according to Cyber Tarot creator Douglas Rushkoff. "When a person interacts with that structure by physically altering it in real time and real space, he can gain a certain insight into his relationship to the larger structure."

Others think that powerful spirit entities "speak" through a deck of Tarot cards, or that the really juicy information comes from the reader (i.e., the gypsy fortuneteller) who interprets the oracle for the querent (i.e., you, the guy who's asking the Magic 8 ball whether he'll score with his date tomorrow night). With computer-mediated oracles, there usually isn't a human reader interpreting the information: it's just you and the gray box on your desk. Kelleigh, a longtime Tarot reader in New Orleans' Jackson Square, recommends sticking with a "real" deck of cards. "Computers originated to perform monotonous, mindless tasks so that humans would no longer have to. Computers are binary: they do not have a spirit," she says. "Tarot cards are very dependent on the spirit."

"The 'spirit' is pretty creative and can divinate though any medium," counters Adam Schlager, an astrologer and engineer based in Chicago. "The purists will be having a shit-fit at this point, claiming that computers corrupt the art of Tarot and I Ching, and they're right! That's why I recommend doing a little homework before diving into divination. If you feel drawn to a particular method, learn about the history of it, learn the traditional method first, then allow the spirit to take over and guide you. Once you feel comfortable with reading the messages, it doesn't matter if the input comes from a deck of cards or a CRT, or a particularly peculiar pattern of parrot droppings!"

Since physically handling and shuffling the cards is an important part of the Tarot ritual for me, I didn't expect much from my first online reading at But the Internet Tarot program chose almost the exact spread of cards I had chosen earlier in the night, doing a "real" reading with "real cards." Quelle coincidence! I was disappointed, however, with the interpretations that appeared on my screen, canned responses that bored me silly after a few weeks of using the site. "Computer-generated interpretations violate the basic premise of divination," explains Schlager. "These astrology and Tarot programs are great for generating charts or for picking the cards. And you can access a lot of history and information more easily with the computer. But they can only give what I call Cookbook Readings, stuff like 'Venus in Aries means you're a slut,' or 'Ten of Swords in the last position means you gonna die, sucka.' Cookbook interpretations are only good for giving beginners a very basic point of reference."

Rob Brezsny also remains ambivalent about computer-mediated oracles, though he gathers mystical information from the net and uses it to disseminate his Real Astrology column, which enjoys a rabid cult following online and off. "I've personally never gotten many useful shocks from computers doing oracles, but then again, who knows? I'm a big fan of the alchemical dictum that you should look for treasure where everyone tells you that you can't find it. A crumpled piece of paper you pick up out of the gutter could accidentally/synchronistically give you the info you need exactly when you need it."

If oracular wisdom can arrive in the form of parrot droppings and crumpled papers, why use traditional methods at all? "I believe that this is the dilemma of psychics in the New Age," says Schlager. "On the one hand, if we bury ourselves too deeply in ancient rituals, we tie ourselves to the ancient seers who developed them, which are, invariably, tainted with their mood. In many cultures, divination was practiced mainly for personal gain. On the other hand, if we are too flippant with these Oracles, we cannot take advantage of the generations of work which went into their development and their subsequent power."

A half-traditional solution is to ask a real, live human for a reading—but have it delivered to your email queue. "I think it's possible for a skilled reader to give a useful divination via email," Brezsny allows, "But you'll probably get better results from a phone or in-person reading." Once again, the experts can't agree. Storm, who's been reading cards and astrology in New Orleans for over a decade, claims that if anyone could establish a genuine connection with a querent over the phone or a computer network, "they would be far too powerful and adept to waste their time with $40 email readings. Even the best phone astrologers spend 50% of their time analyzing the querent's chart, and 50% making a psychological evaluation based on the querent's telephone mannerisms."

If you want to do away with the reader altogether, consult an ancient oracle based on simple mathematics and a set of texts more complex than the average Cookbook-style interpretation. "The I Ching is the most accessible oracle for left-brainers because there aren't any flaky middlemen," proclaims Paul O'Brien, creator of the popular Synchronicity software. "It's also a binary system, so experiencing the I Ching on the computer is superior to other ways of doing it." Most modern, Western I Ching users focus on their question, toss three coins, and record the results using a system of line notation. These lines create hexagrams, which the querent looks up in the I Ching or "Book of Changes," and meditates on the text for the appropriate hexagrams.

Traditionally, I Ching was practiced in China by throwing multitudes of yarrow stalks to obtain hexagrams, but chances are you wouldn't know a yarrow stalk if it bit you on the ankle. O'Brien maintains that the Synchronicity program's "keyboard focusing ritual" maps exactly to the ancient yarrow stalk ritual, and is a "far more accurate representation of the original mathematical structure than tossing the coins." Synchronicity may retain the original math, but it presents modern interpretations of the I Ching texts.

Whether you consult the Cyber Tarot or head to the Psychic Faire for your reading, the only way to explore your oracular options is simply to dive in. Keep an open mind and be respectful; you'll soon find out whether computer-mediated oracles work for you.   </end>

Tiffany Lee Brown (a.k.a. magdalen) is the Assistant Editor of the Fringe Ware Review and editrix of TAZmusique, a new online 'zine. Her Venus sits in Aries, in the Tenth House.

illustration by Kymberly Sheridan
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