Ancient Divination Parallels New Media: Cartomancy in an Interactive Context

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For centuries, the tarot has been an interactive narrative system employing such new media principles as nonlinearity, randomness, modularity, and algorithm. As a visual system employing symbolic “open imagery,” cartomancy facilitates cognitive processes such as
analogical thinking, pattern recognition, and communication with the unconscious; processes which serve to foster creativity, intuition, and psychic integration in the participant. The exploration of creating personal meaning through interactivity was explored through the development of a contemporary tarot featuring original photography.

Sophisticated divination systems employ many dynamic media principles that today we’re discovering anew through the capacities and potentials of computer technology.

The impact of the computer on our media, and our minds, is clearly revolutionary. The computer heralds an age where principles of non-linearity, randomness, variability, and interconnectedness, to name a few, are metamorphosizing our media, and in so doing foregrounding important aspects of our consciousness that have been devalued by the trajectory of the rationalist arrow. It’s useful to remember, or discover, that these principles have in fact been exemplified in ancient media systems like the I-Ching and the tarot.

Coming to terms with processes of computerized media that mirror certain aspects of our consciousness is an exciting task for designers. It’s a domain that begins with structure and ends in poetics. It begins with information and culminates in meaning.

Creating personalized meaning — not only customizing information — is the next important challenge in new media design. The current state of new media interactive narrative attests to the reality that in our new media forms we are, naturally, struggling to find ways to balance randomness with structure, and fluidity with integrity. It’s my hope that this study of one ancient system, which has flourished underground since 1350, can serve as an example of successful actualization of these very contemporary and challenging concerns.

Winston Churchill said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” If we mine the subtler treasures of the past, even those that may have flour•ished in the shadows, perhaps we as new media designers can discover ways to create fresh future works that capitalize on that rich currency in a new context.

What does it mean to be masterful as a new media designer? We must be fluent in the language that is unique to the computer (no small challenge) and at the same time have some kind of fluency in all the various traditional mediums we are repurposing. One meaning-making framework that infuses almost all creative mediums is that of narrative. Narratives like novels and myths are like contextualized maps, serving an orienting func•tion at the same time that they resonate in the individual to create empathic meaning. Today, because we are ready for it technologically, there is an upswelling of interest and an increasing hunger for successful computer-based narrative.Tarot surpasses contemporary digital interactive narrative in its ability to create coherent, structurally sound, and meaningful user experiences. Here the protagonist is most assuredly You. The setting, the events, the conflicts and characters of the story relate very directly to your personal ex•perience, assuring a personalized depth of significance, and yet a seemingly random plot order does not suffer from fracturing and chaos in contrast to computer-based interactive narrative today.

Tarot works as interactive narrative at the same time that it’s employed, most often, as a divination tool. Divination is commonly defined as the practice of ascertaining information from “supernatural” sources with a formal or ritual and often social character, sometimes in a religious context. Webster’s Online defines divination this way: 1. the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers 2. unusual insight : intuitive perception. I’m using definition two. In this thesis, any “supernatural” aspect of divination translates simply to the (even still) mysterious aspects of the mind; those aspects that are currently in hot investigation by cognitive scientists. I define divination as the process by which messages from the unconscious mind are decoded.

The brain is constantly processing 400 billion bits of information per minute, but our conscious awareness involves only about 2000. This is happening in our minds all the time — we’re receiving and processing all that information, information that doesn’t go away, but just isn’t integrated into our conscious awareness. Cognitive scientists believe that, much more than likely, all that information remains in our unconscious.What do we don’t know that we know?

The tarot accesses, structures, and integrates that unconscious information; it’s a medium that retrieves relevant information from perhaps the most enormous “database” of all, the brain, and then organizes and creates meaning from that information through interactive narrative.

In our age of digital communication, with its charge of the promulgation and proliferation of multitudinous perspectives, such an integrative pursuit may be of particular interest in and of itself. The mind is a seemingly chaotic system that every individual creatively contends with. The information we are subjected to is undoubtedly multiplied exponentially in our time. An important, immanent challenge of new media has moved beyond access to multiple points of view (we are, happily, achieving that) to successfully integrating multiple points of view within the individual.

In the context of this thesis, it’s important to distinguish between sophisticated divination systems like the I-Ching and tarot from simpler methods of divination like flipping a coin or reading tea leaves. Flipping a coin employs principles of randomness to help with a decision process, which can be useful at times. But flipping a coin doesn’t help to produce understanding of a situation. It only serves to break some of the minor stalemates in life. Also, it’s by no means a narrative medium or even, really, a system. Tasseomancy (tea-leaf reading) and interpreting Rorschach blots require more imagination, but here correspondences with new media are scant because, while it employs a factor of randomness, no complex algorithms or modularity is involved.

Many people who are unfamiliar with divination systems like the I-Ching and tarot hold an assumptive perspective that such sys•tems amount to mere fortune-telling quackery. As there are technophobes, there are tarotphobes. This prejudice, though, can be grounded in a grain of truth, as any technol•ogy risks potential for abuse. Particularly when a reading is performed for one person by another, the potential risk of abdicating personal responsibility for choice-making can shadow and distort the function of divina•tion. Additionally, agendas might be involved that don’t serve the best interest of the client. For this reason, throughout most of this document, I approach the divination process as an individual pursuit. Yet even then, although tarot ideally fosters self-reflection and personal authenticity toward decision making, there still remains the potential for the kind of “addictive” dependency that is inherent in any technology: the technology becomes a crutch, instead of a tool. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell when we control our technologies, and when they wind up controlling us.

Nevertheless, one of the most interesting benefits of the cartomancic reading process, and a main focus of this thesis, is that it enhances creative thinking. Creativity entails the discovery of hidden orders/patterns inherent in seemingly chaotic systems, as well as their authentic integration in application. The deliberate employment of processes inherent to cartomancy like analogical thinking, “filling in the gaps,” pattern recognition, and the immersion into what Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) calls “the flow state,” all strengthen the creative faculties. Perhaps the creative faculty strengthened most of all is intuition — that “mystery ingredient” so valued by all creatives.

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