Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling / Spring 2021 Schedule

Syllabus here.

With a few exceptions, all readings should be accessible via the hyperlinks provided, as long as you are using a computer connected to the NYU network or the NYU Library Proxy (which you can use from anywhere). Alternate methods of obtaining the readings will be discussed in class.

Turn in meditations and projects here.

Week 01: Introduction

Date: 2021-09-08.

  • Introduction and syllabus
  • Divination: Concepts and directions

Reading assigned

To be discussed in week 02.

Questions to guide your reading: What is a “third place” and what does it have to do with ritual? Do you agree with the idea that “if people take something as real, it is real in its consequences”? Is the idea of “plabor” applicable outside the realm of digital games? Does the formal structure of social media sites (like TikTok) amplify colonialist ritual practices? What “rituals” do you perform with your electronic devices? (Or would you categorize the behaviors that Alexander describes as “ritual” in the first place?) The Barbara Paul story is a kind of aperatif for the class, to set the mood: What does it mean to ask a computer to predict the future? What kinds of answers do we expect?


  • Wallendorf, Melanie, and Eric J. Arnould. “‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 1991, pp. 13–31. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489481. (For an evaluation of ritual from the advertising world.)
  • Altglas, Véronique. “Introduction.” From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. : Oxford University Press, 2014-06-02. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2014-06-19. Date Accessed 8 Mar. 2017 http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199997626.001.0001/acprof-9780199997626-chapter-1. (A more academic approach to the idea of spiritual “bricolage,” which is the fancy academic term for what Jess and Sung term a “hodgepodge of spiritual mysticism”.)

Week 02: Ritual and society

Date: 2021-09-13.

  • Reading discussion

Date: 2021-09-15.

Meditation #1 assigned

Due at the beginning of week 03.

Imagine an “electronic” ritual and prototype the necessary systems to perform the ritual. Then perform the ritual and document the process. (This can be a ritual that you perform on your own, or you can involve other people.) Your imagined scenario can be speculative (e.g., a science fiction), critical, mystical, oriented toward self-care, etc. What effect does your ritual have in the world? On its participants?

If you need more structure for your process or some ideas about how to proceed, try How do you design a ritual? and About ritual design from the Ritual Design Lab.

Week 03: Cleromancy

Date: 2021-09-20.

  • Meditation workshop

Date: 2021-09-22.

Reading assigned

To be discussed in week 04. Calvino constructs a narrative from a Tarot spread and details the history of Tarot and his obsession with it as a system, outside of any spiritual affordances. Does Tarot make you feel the same way it makes Calvino feel? What can you take from his approach? Love enters into a discussion of how divination techniques intersect with culture, ritual, and identity. Sian’s article recounts experiences of Tarot among a particular audience as mediated by particular technology (i.e., TikTok). How does this mediation make use of and/or diminish the formal aspects of cartomancy discussed in class? What is the function of comments reading “I claim”?


Temper et al. build an oracle deck drawing from the symbolism of the Tarot to support a research method. Is this approach productive, appropriate, generative?

Week 04: Fortune telling as collaborative storytelling

Date: 2021-09-27.

  • Reading discussion

Date: 2021-09-29.

Meditation #2 assigned

Due at the beginning of week 05.

Invent your own “oracle deck.” Your deck doesn’t have to be a physical object (though it can be). Keeping in mind the formal characteristics of cleromancy discussed in class, consider how digital media can complicate/diminish/augment the parts and processes of a reading. (Some questions to get you started: Who gets to participate? Can a computer program be a “reader”? A “querent”? What can a “card” be? What can a “deck” be?)

A few examples:


Week 05: Prophecy and prediction

Date: 2021-10-04.

  • Meditation workshop

Date: 2021-10-06.

  • Omens, augury, phrenology, predictions, interpretations
  • In-class exercise: Random birth chart

Reading assigned

To be discussed in session 06.

Hamilton’s empirical study shows that people exposed to Sun sign astrology come to identify with their own sign. Hamilton states that “strong belief in the validity of astrology is apparently not necessary for these effects to occur,” and suggests several mechanisms through which this effect obtains. Do you think that “the incorporation of astrology-based information into… long-term self concepts” should be “cause for concern”? Agüera y Arcas et al.’s article digs into the inner workings of a machine learning model intended to distinguish criminals from non-criminals. Do you agree with the comparison they draw between machine learning technology and physiognomy? (Are statistical models just a form of divination?) Consider the experiment design in Carlson’s paper. Is it fair? How does a personality quiz like the “CPI” differ from a natal chart? Identify and consider a handful of measures the experimenters took to remove “bias” from the experiment. Following Judkis, identify and comment on how astrology apps affect the experience of an astrology “reading,” and the relationship between reader and astrologer.

Optional, on astrology, ontology and identity:

Aphek and Tobin offer a somewhat contentious and skeptical overview of the “semiotic structure” of astrology, based on close analysis of horoscope texts and transcripts of consultations with astrologers. Does their characterization of the structure of the horoscope (“positive… precedes negative, and then is immediately mitigated… followed by additional positive information”) ring true to you? Does it seem representative of “fortune-telling in general”?

Optional, on algorithmic physiognomy:

Week 06: Astrology and dream interpretation

Date: 2021-10-12 (Tuesday!)..

  • Reading discussion

Date: 2021-10-13.

Meditation #3 assigned

Due at the beginning of week 07….

Invent an “-omancy,” or a form of divination/prophecy based on observing and interpreting natural events. Your reading of “natural” should make some reference to digital/electronic/computational media. (What counts as a “natural event” on the Internet? What’s the electronic equivalent of phrenology, from both a physical computing perspective and a data analysis perspective? Does it count as “interpretation” if it’s being performed by a computer program?) I’m especially interested in responses that take the form of purposefully inaccurate data analysis.

A few examples:


Week 07: Mediums and messages

Date: 2021-10-18.

  • Meditation workshop

Date: 2021-10-20.

Related work:

Reading assigned

To be discussed in Session 08. Wooffitt’s chapters give a very thorough and detailed analysis of the linguistic structure of psychic-sitter interactions, using close transcriptions and conversational analysis as a methodology. He claims that a “three turn sequence” (implied claim, acceptance, attribution) is at the heart of these interactions. Do you agree with his conclusions and his methodology? The “Hertzian Space” chapter from Dunne’s Hertzian Tales describes many artworks that make use of invisible electromagnetic phenomena (like electricity and radio waves), in some cases explicitly drawing comparisons between these artworks’ methodologies and the occult. In what sense are these artworks a kind of telesthesia? Fagone’s piece draws an explicit connection between chatbots powered by machine learning language models and speaking with the dead. How are the two practices similar and dissimilar?


American Artist’s essay describes a memorial chatbot with political aims. Hartman’s chapter talks about how randomly generated text necessitates the same kind of hermeneutics as an encounter with the Oracle. Newton’s piece in The Verge relates the narrative and implementation details of a memorial chatbot. Compare this chatbot to the one described in the Chronicle above; characterize the formal differences in the kinds of interactions described in Wooffitt and interactions with a memorial chatbot. Romano’s article succinctly describes the “ideomotor effect” and how it is responsible for certain kinds of talking board experiences. Finally, the Wooffitt chapters build on the arguments he made in the assigned chapters.

Week 08: Automatic writing

Date: 2021-10-25.

  • Reading discussion

Date: 2021-10-27.

  • Language models as necromancy
  • Quick techniques for text generation and chatbots

Meditation #4 assigned

Due in session 09. Choose one of the following options:

  • Experiment with language model-based text generation. (Train your own model or just play around with some of the example implementations below.)
  • Make a prototype of an electronic spirit board or other method for facilitating automatic writing (communication from unconscious/subconscious/collective gesture.) (You can use procedural methods like those discussed in class, or invent your own method.) Questions to consider: How does your spirit board produce “coherence” (if, in fact, it does produce coherence)? Who is participating?
  • Create a psychic “experiment” with your interpretation of an electronic equivalent of Zener Cards. Document your methodology and your results. (What is it possible to be “psychic” about in a digital context?)


Week 09: The aesthetics of randomness

Date: 2021-11-01.

  • Meditation workshop

Date: 2021-11-03.

Other code examples and resources:

Readings assigned


Also for next week!

Come up with an idea for your final project. (We’ll discuss on Wednesday next week.)

Week 10: Computer-generated randomness

Date: 2021-11-08.

  • Reading discussion

Date: 2021-11-10.

  • Final project proposals
  • More on digital randomness

Meditation #5 assigned

Due at the beginning of session 11. This assignment has two parts.

First, design two (different) systems for generating random numbers. These systems can be computer programs, or physical artifacts, or simply a list of steps to follow. The system, when used, should result in a random number between zero and one. Don’t use any pre-existing implementation of pseudo-randomness (like the random() or noise() functions in p5.js), or typical off-the-shelf systems for producing randomness like dice, decks of cards, etc. Try making systems that are intentionally poor at producing randomness, or systems that make use of unusual mathematical functions, or systems that make use of the physical world; systems that are very slow, systems that take a lot of effort, or systems that take no effort at all.

Second, use your two systems for generating random numbers to produce an art or design artifact. For example, you might use the random numbers to determine the color of brush strokes in a painting, or the next note in a musical composition. Perform the same act of artifact creation using both systems you devised above. Is there a qualitative difference in the results? (Is there a qualitative difference in the process of creating the artifacts?)


Week 11: Hexes, spells, amulets and talismans

Date: 2021-11-22.

  • Meditation workshop

Date: 2021-11-24.

Week 12: Meetings

Note: Instead of class this week, I will be scheduling 30-min sessions with each student for individualized feedback on final project ideas.

Weeks 13 & 14: Final projects

Dates: 2021-11-29, 2021-12-01, 2021-12-06, 2021-12-08

  • Final project presentations