IS IT MAGIC?
Predicting the future has not always been determined by artificial intelligence. Ancient civilizations have channeled and mediated through their ancestors in much the same way as we turn to technology today to provide answers in uncertain times.
During the Shang dynasty in Ancient China (1600 BC–1046 BC) kings and divinators or oracles would ask their ancestors questions in order to answer important political questions. Queries included “Will we win the upcoming battle?”, “How many soldiers should we commit to the battle?”7 “Why does the king have headaches?”. In their search for certainty we are reminded of Google searches to find answers about diseases or relationship problems, ancestors were being tapped into for their databank of life experience and wisdom. Questions were carved onto oracle bones made from ox scapula or turtle shells and during a ritual which evoked the ancestors, a sharp tool in combination with intense heat was plunged into the bone. According to the patterns of cracks, which appeared on the surface of the bone, future predictions were interpreted by the king or the divinators. Answers to questions were consequently carved into the bones too, and today provide the earliest and most extensive record of the Shang dynasty. In Ancient Egypt dream interpreters, who could function as priests, surgeons, herbalists and teachers were considered a valuable tool for future guidance. Dream temples were the single most popular spiritual healing institution in the Mediterranean world and were restful sanctuaries designed to induce, incubate and interpret dreams using early forms of hypnosis. Visitors would be put to sleep, after which dream healers would interpret their trip to the “underworld”8 and successful cures were honored with inscriptions on the walls of the sanctuaries, acting as proof and advertisement.
The most well-known example of dream translation to influence politics may be the story of Joseph’s dream interpretation from the book of Genesis in the Bible. Joseph interprets the Egyptian pharaoh’s dream, predicting a serious future drought in the country and as a consequence, the pharaoh was able to prepare by storing food. Dreams and their meanings were archived and categorized as good or bad omens in the Egyptian Dream Book, a hieratic papyrus that probably dates to the early reign of Rameses II (1279–1213 BC).
In Ancient China and Egypt alike, a select few had access to knowledge and methods of extracting meaning from mystical rituals, a lot like the computer scientists of today, it depended on who controls information and what their intentions were, as to how predictions would influence politics. In South Africa today, practices of traditional healing and forecasting are used broadly by more than half of the population with healers outnumbering traditional doctors of Western medicine. The rituals, spells, forecasts and muti (traditional medicine) which Sangomas or inyanga prescribe are highly revered and feared in many communities.
A typical session would include the throwing and reading of bones, dominoes, dice, coins, shells and stones and depending on how they fall, objects would channel messages from the visitors ancestors. Today there remain strong links between Sangoma powers and politics, especially considering that most politicians such as president Jacob Zuma grew up in communities where traditional healers played a central role. President Zuma has faced various corruption, rape and fraud charges, which he continually manages to evade and which have consequently earned him the nickname and twitter hashtag #Phunyu-kabamphethe (escape when caught). This Zulu term refers to Sangoma muti “which is used by criminals to make either their victims or charges placed upon them, miraculously disappear.”9
Channeling ancestral knowledge and predictive algorithms show an innate human desire to draw sense from a world, which is incoherent and unpredictable by means of mysterious and complex technology. Then and now, our strategies face many of the same problems. The guru, dream interpreter or the analyst channeling information might take on a neutral or objective position in scraping, seeing or collecting data, but it is the translation or compilation of the information by the king or the political party and their desires, which determines the power that information potentially holds.
Having said that, there is an alarming amount of blind trust that is placed in algorithmic results. Trump is known to have arranged and continuously altered his rally location appearances 10 during the 2016–17 campaign depending on up-to-the-minute data determined by Facebook engagement measurements ahead of the event. The non-human power of analytics might have been an accomplice to him being in the right place at the right time and gaining power, but would the non-human also have been to blame if things had not gone according to plan? South African parliament is no stranger to the mention of mystical practices during political debates; in 2015, president Zuma was questioned in parliament about his ongoing dubious links to the licensing of mines, and when it happened that he could not answer a difficult question, he simply replied with “I can’t be a Sangoma”11 and suddenly, the ancestors were far too mysterious to comprehend.