1. Overview of Shamanism
Shamanism is applied broadly to refer to a “group of healers…such as medicine man, medicine woman, witch doctor, sorcerer, magician, and, in some cases, seer, prophet, witch, and priest or priestess.” Likewise the computer consultant label may be applied to anyone that does anything, other than word-processing and surfing, on a computer. If any phrase in our idiom carries a similar reverence, awe, fear to that of shaman, it is computer nerd, which has been here refashioned as computer shaman.
Methods of Recruitment
Two methods of recruitment of the shaman are “hereditary transmission and spontaneous vocation (or call).” In our analogy this translates to formal education as an engineer of some kind (following in a parent or mentor’s footsteps), or an innate devotion to the work (child prodigy). Another type of shamanic acquisition is through questing. How many shamans have come into the world through a Devry TV commercial or the ad on the back of a book of matches?
Shamanism s not a religion, “but a set of techniques and an ideology which becomes attached to a religion. Shamanism is always considered in context of the religion and society it serves” The shaman enters an ecstatic trance, his/her soul leaves the body and she/he journeys to the underworld or upperworld. Likewise, the urban shaman is equipped with the ability to determine serious problems (underworld) and propose new solutions (upper world).
Inverting Myth as Map and Guide
For most members of tribal society there is belief in other dimensions but little personal experience of the “sacred canopy” which acts as a protective umbrella or map for determining how life should be conducted. The computer consultant has direct access to the “plan” or “vision” that the business believes exists but does not clearly perceive.
Magical Tree and
A motif pointed out by Eliade is the “axis mundi, a central axis that links the upper and lower world to our world.” In the collective body of a modern business that spinal chord is the computer network linking executive management (upper world) to minute aspects of the enterprise (lower world). Jacob’s ladder is equated with the corporate ladder. (Excuse the comparison of the sacred and the profane.) Most file systems in today’s computers use an inverted tree metaphor, with the root at the top.
How the Shaman Imagines
The shaman’s concept of illness is imagined in terms of spirits or deities, existing in the upper and lower worlds, which can effect our world for good or ill. A twofold process ensues in which the shaman must imagine the cause, render a diagnosis, and imagine the cure, determine a treatment modality.
Diagnosis of a pathogenic object in the patient can be related to the computer shaman in numerous ways. An object intrusion could be interpreted as corrupt files, mismatched settings or even a computer virus. Virus also foots the bill when we consider the cause of spirit intrusion.
One technique used
for resolving spirit intrusion is sucking: a tube is placed over the affected
part of the body and the spirit is sucked out. The metaphor carries
over into the computer world where one might have to extract a “dump” or
log file to determine the problem. Sometimes the shaman will produce
a stone, bug or even a frog as evidence of the resolution of an object
intrusion. Likewise, a hardware shaman my change a card or board
in the machine, never really knowing what caused that problem, in hopes
of resolving the issue. In either case, if the problem is resolved,
we can chalk one up to the placebo effect.
Imagination as Cause
and Cure of Sickness
Images are primary to determining the cause and cure of sickness in shamanic traditions. By entering into an imagined landscape, usually accessed by chanting strange liturgies or by rhythmic percussion sounds, the shaman may determine the cause and/or cure of an illness. The cryptic commands and staccato keystrokes and mouse clicks carry the urban shaman into the virtual landscape, beyond this three dimensional reality. Once there the computer shaman will enter a zen-like trance and eventually resolve the conflict.
In many shamanic traditions there are “white” (benevolent) shamans, and “black” (malevolent) shamans. The black shamans are often referred to as sorcerers. The obvious pairing in our analogy would be consultant vs. hacker (in its derogatory usage). A not so obvious take on good sorcerer/bad sorcerer is when gurus from competing vendors must square off. Which is the white, and which the black? If you’re my customer, the other computer shaman is malevolent… Who’s magic will prove the stronger?
Other shamans may specialize in rituals. They may officiate over births, deaths, rites of passage and marriages. Likewise, our computer shaman may foster in new technologies or bless them. He may be the bearer of bad news that tells you your current technology or methodology is obsolete. She may impose a standard upon some adolescent technology, or marry two together.
Another form of black
sorcerer is the computer hacker or computer thief. These individuals
will either poison your system or make off with vital information or funds.
Here we see definite analogy to two illnesses the shaman can resolve.
The virus introduced by a misanthropic hacker is akin to spirit or object
intrusion, and the carrying away of moneys, information or destruction
of files is likened to soul loss.
The shamanistic initiation pattern involves an ordeal where there is death and dismemberment, and then a reconstitution or rebirth of the shaman. It may also include a journey to the upperworld or underworld and the acquisition of helping spirits, or animal powers, that the shaman calls upon for future divination, healing or other activities.
The computer shaman
has often been through many transitions of technology and in some cases
the transitions have been painful, if not disastrous. Many failed
projects, applications, and whole companies may be in the curriculum vitae
of the computer shaman. If he is worth his mettle, these failures
will be just as important a component of his makeup as his successes.
Likewise, journeys to esoteric training facilities and “on the job” training
that cannot be duplicated because of the nature of learning to think on
one’s feet is impossible to fabricate, initiate the computer shaman for
the work he is to perform in our world.
Relations with Spirits
and Shamanic Control
Individuals in traditional societies claim to have helping or guardian spirits, but the shaman commands these spirits. It must be noted that the number of spirits under the shaman’s control is limited, and his control is for specific purposes. The operative word here is control, and is used somewhat in the sense of a little judo master throwing a giant adversary. Hallucinogenic substances and stimulants are cited in the practice of controlling spirits, but what is emphasized is small controlled amounts to induce trance states. Large amounts of drugs would cause loss of control and the shaman’s goal is intentional and purposive. High doses would cause instability.
A good computer shaman
will have access to large amounts of information, have technical support
at hand, and be familiar with the specific areas he has come to work with.
As no one knows everything, the computer shaman has a limited, though sometimes
large, number of products, technologies and methodologies at his disposal.
An insurmountable task is broken down into manageable pieces, tools and
techniques are applied, and the journey of a thousand steps eventually
comes to an end. Caffeine and nicotine, the drugs of choice for the
latter day shaman, are used in the traditional shamanic sense - to initiate
focus into a chaotic environment. Let us not forget those two other
drugs: sugar and more sugar...
Functions and Techniques
Shamans enter into ecstatic trance for four reasons: 1) mediator for the community; 2) to seek, find, and restore the lost power or soul of a sick person; 3) to guide the souls of the dead; 4) to increase knowledge of the other worlds and their spirit beings. The shaman may divine the future, control weather, or other remarkable things, but his main function concerns transformations and disorders of the human soul. The common association is to healing. The shaman might be viewed as a psychoanalyst, only working in a sacred idiom.
The computer shaman
will: 1) help plan and maintain the computer community of a large organization;
2) diagnose and resolve problems at the individual and organizational level;
3) help put to rest aging or failing technologies or business units; 4)
to introduce new knowledge, technologies and methodologies. Through
his acquired knowledge, the computer shaman can divine trends in the technological
future, apply this knowledge to weather the chaos of change buffeting the
enterprise, and, most importantly, make possible technology transformations
to improve the enterprise or cure what ails it. The computer shaman,
a.k.a. systems analyst, is the psychotherapist to the enterprise.
Minor Shamanic Function
Shamans may perform ceremonial and other tasks related to the community. They may engage in fakir-like demonstrations, handle hot coals, exercise psychokinesis, etc. These demonstrations serve two purposes: practicing of shamanic methods and abilities and attaining or maintaining community support and legitimation of the shaman’s potency.
The computer shaman
will sometimes work long hours, sometimes days on end, eating and sleeping
little. The obvious external goal of a “breakthrough” in the application
or development of technology is co-equal to the shaman’s internal need
for continual “breakthroughs” in his understanding of technology.
Similar to the legitimation of potency enacted by the traditional shaman,
the computer shaman will, from time to time, perform a public demonstration
of new technologies or methodologies to maintain support.
Important items of paraphernalia are costume, drum, rattle and medicine bundle. These items will represent shamanic cosmology, animal powers or tutelary spirits. Images of flight will feature prominently as to associate with the shamanic flight to the other worlds. Bird images can be expected in the imagery of the shaman’s garb.
Pens, badges, letterhead,
business cards, E-mail, voice mail, laptop, palm top, pager, cell phone,
text pager, all fit with the cosmology of the computer shaman. The
appropriate attire will always be worn, from the stuffy office blue suit,
to sandals and Hawaiian shirt of Silicon Valley. The “corporate eagle,”
swooping in to save the day, is a common image used to describe the intrepid
and Spirit Intrusion
Often caused by a malevolent sorcerer or taboo violation, object and spirit intrusion may cause physical or psychosomatic symptoms upon entering the body. The shaman must either remove the object or drive out the spirit. Often, through sleight of hand, the shaman will produce a small object. The placebo effect will increase expectancy, which in turn enhances therapeutic responsiveness. Extraction of the intruding spirit is usually accompanied by sucking techniques.
Symptoms, real or imagined,
must be addressed by the computer shaman. Removal of faulty components,
deletion of corrupt file, and vaccination against viruses are standard
object intrusion treatment modalities used by the computer shaman.
Sucking metaphors also apply against spirit intrusion, as in extracting
logfiles and taking dumps. Another take on spirit intrusion combated
by the computer shaman is when a customer has been “possessed” by a competitor.
The savvy computer shaman will have to drive out the evil spirit before
the customer is lost.
Soul Loss: Diagnosis
As the other major disease theory, soul loss is largely psychological or psycho-spiritual in nature. Seen as a loss of one or more souls (depending upon the culture), soul loss causes a separation of the soul, or vital principle, from the body. Weakness, unconsciousness or coma ensues. It is thought that the soul has been snatched away, or has gone to the realm of the dead. The shaman must enter into a trance and determine if the soul is nearby or far off, if the soul has left or been driven away, and how far gone the soul is or how powerful the force keeping it away. In the trance state the shaman must either journey to where the soul is and coax it back, or confront and do battle with the evil that has driven it away.
An enterprise can lose
its vitality from the loss of one or more individuals, a failed project
or product, or the inability to cope with changing technology trends.
We have already discussed the computer shaman’s role when confronting a
competitor. The metaphor applies here as the confrontation with the
evil powers that have sapped the vitality of the organization. It
may be the responsibility of the computer shaman to restaff or retrain
to revive the loss of soul following the loss of personnel. Unsuccessful
attempts at technology development or implementation can also case loss
of soul, so the computer shaman may make the diagnosis to re-attempt the
project, which will in turn restore vitality. The trauma of changing
trends in technology can stagger large organizations, the computer shaman
must be able to diagnose this situation and apply the proper solution.
2. Technician of the Sacred
Shamanism and the
The shaman is a technician of the sacred. To understand the shaman we must understand his relationship with the sacred. The shaman’s calling to a sacred vocation as ritual master of the sacred enables him to locate, guard and utilize the creative but dangerous energies of the sacred for beneficial purposes. “To understand the components of shamanic practice requires an understanding of the nature of the sacred and its importance to the shaman’s way of life, therapeutic practice and social function.” (37)
Smith reviews Rudolf
Otto, Gerhardus Van der Leeuw, and Mircea Eliade (OLE - computer nerds
will catch the reference). These three scholars have laid the groundwork
for an understanding of the sacred, and have made efforts to describe it,
and associate its nature to shamanism. The historical/phenomenological
methods of OLE set stage for further comparisons.
Animism is the view that the world is ensouled or enspirited. Everything is active with spirits, both benevolent and dangerous. Proper concourse with the spirits is necessary for harmonious and healthy living. Violation of the spirits results in discord, chaos, famine and sickness. Animism implies mysterious energy and power, which in turn require rituals of worship, atonement and interdiction against taboo violation to maintain health and order.
The mechanical model
of machine has given way to the paradigmatic concept of a soul within the
machine we call the computer. This animated machine requires
proper handling to maintain its benevolent demeanor, and must also be protected
should improper discourse unleash its demonic potential. Misuse or
neglect of these spirits can start wars, disrupt traffic, cause loss of
livelihood and render a business inoperative. The soul that inhabits
computers is a fickle and mysterious power, which requires ritualistic
observance of its needs, reconciliation when the needs are not met, and
prompt intervention in case of security breaches. The computer shaman
officiates proper procedure, points out non-compliance and resolves violations.
Rudolf Otto: The Sacred in its Non-Rational Aspects
Western conceptions of god as good, rational, a law giver, ignores the experience of ultimate reality as mysterious, fascinating, potentially dangerous and powerful. This neglect of the non-rational is a weakness in western conceptualization. Otto’s description includes the feeling reaction (mysterious, ineffable) universal to religious experience, which he termed numen. This non-rational feeling reaction to a universally appealing object or experience cannot be reduced by anthropological, sociological, psychological, or other disciplines. It is experienced as a mood, similar to a stupor. Otto attempts to break the non-rational aspect of reality down to three contrasting aspects: mystery, fascination, and horror. Otto points out that this mystery is often beyond the power of words to describe, and very often words are created with no meaning in ordinary life so as to denote the otherness of the separate reality of the holy.
Most people, if placed
beside a computer the size of a school bus, or if asked to stand in a field
of servers (a server farm), would admit to the mystery, awe and fascination
of computers. The fear of exposure, of privacy and to economic ruin,
is also prevalent in our culture - the horror of big brother. To
a large extent little thought has been given to the non-rational dangers
computers pose to our way of life. The complexity of the internet,
its tentacles reaching into business, government, education, defense, entertainment,
travel, etc., has fostered a new vocabulary, the meaning of which is far
removed from ordinary existence. The computer shaman moves within
this world where the modern holiest of holies is kept - information.
Before the sacred, the holy, the numinous, we stand in dumb astonishment, amazement, awe, and wonder at the mystery of it. Certain experiences which are strange, sublime or overpowering, like a thousand year old redwood or giant waterfall, put us in proximity with something incommensurable with our own existence. We are humbled. The mysterious is characterized as other, and is discontinuous with everyday experience.
Like the shaman, who
is at home in the mysterious, the computer shaman is constantly besieged
by mystery. Whether it be the sheer size or complexity of the environment
he finds himself within, or the otherworldly reality of the nervous system
that controls our world and in which he lives, he can be naught but humbled.
When asked what he does, our shaman is dumbstruck by the inability to relate
the ineffable reality of “the ten thousand things,” and says, “I
work with computers.”
Otto describes the holy as having an intoxicating and attractive component. Shamans, and others in pursuit of the holy, possess longing for sacred, an ontological thirst. The initiate or wounded youth is attracted (called) to the strange, mysterious, powerful, enticing and alluring effect the holy has on the imagination. As an object of desire or obsession, or a mystical or ascetical pursuit, the holy embodies fascination. The purpose of the pursuit was to access helping power, learn about the sacred, and chart its mysterious geography. The call to this quest could be refused or denied only at risk or peril to the shaman’s soul.
The computer shaman
is drunk on technology, and constantly carried forward on the siren song
of the new, better, faster. They long for all the computing
power and bandwidth they will ever need. Making the decision to be
a consultant is hard, but not taking the opportunity when it presents itself,
not answering the call, will leave the would-be consultant hating his present
job. It will become a rut, a bother and a burden.
Tremendum: The Repelling/Horrific
The holy also has a threatening or horrific component which shows itself as over-powering, might, majesty, and urgency. In its presence, an uncanny feeling penetrates the core of one’s being. We experience nothingness before its eminence. The big brother aspect of computers looms here. They have the data. Who has access to the data? We are all reduced to a number or set of numbers, easily erased.
The Ambivalent Nature
of the Holy
The experience of the holy attracts and repels simultaneously. It may be sudden or subtle, attracting and intoxicating or repelling and horrific. Encountering it can culminate in splendor, rapture, worship, surrender, or it can evoke unworthiness, result in moral or ontological guilt, evoke a need for atonement or expiation, or can result in the need to set things right. Its dual aspect is evident in all religious forms. The shaman sees the cause of illness as an imbalance of this duality.
Anyone involved in
computers on a large scale would agree to the ambivalent nature of the
beast. The computer shaman often identifies with this ambivalence
and then projects onto the human element a somewhat uncaring and unforgiving
persona. As a ritual elder in the inner sanctum of corporate America,
the computer shaman easily sees the technological ailments caused when
an imbalance is introduced.
Expression of the
As wholly other, expressing the holy is problematic. Ordinary language fails to do it justice. It can be evoked or aroused through symbolic use of language, but requires a natural sense of the numinous to be conscience of it. There is a need to stretch words to their limit or have words with no literal meaning in order to express its ineffableness.
Schools of esoteric
knowledge develop their own language. None more so than computers.
Indeed, computers are continually generating whole sets of languages.
The industry is littered with TLAs (three letter acronyms) and because
of the shortage of TLAs there is talk of going to FLAs (four letter acronyms).
The computer shaman, like some scholar of ancient Hebrew, walks among these
myriad forms and is in the know. Through an osmotic process, the
computer shaman stays abreast of the latest metamorphosis of computerese.
Van der Leeuw’s
Concept of the Sacred
Going beyond Otto, Van der Leeuw’s emphasis is upon the ambivalent experience of the sacred as power and dread. While Otto has pointed out the double edged sword of ambivalence, Vander Leeuw focuses on it as the lever, which the shaman uses to move humanity, for good or ill. Van der Leeuw identifies the positive or attracting aspects as, among others, reverence, awe, trust and love, and the negative or repelling aspects as terror, fear, horror and hate. Van der Leeuw’s interpretation of Otto’s numen is expressed as an exceptional and impressive other.
How this can be view from the computer industry is the double edged sword of proprietaryness vs. integration. A vendor can, through engineering and or marketing produce and portray products that either work with or against each other. Likewise, computer shamans can be advocates of either of these mentalities. Through technological strategies geared toward integration, vendors and consultants can help customers make the most of existing investments and work towards universal standards which level the playing field and engender an atmosphere of a common goal. Other, usually the largest vendors or consulting firms, embrace strategies that ensure market share and dependence. This type of player will use the darker forces at its disposal to intimidate competetors and customers so as to control them.
In this arena, the
other is experienced by both types of vendors/consulting groups and the
customer as the unknown direction that the industry will take. All
three parties know that staying too close to the middle of the road leads
to meandering and lacks leadership and going too far afield or having too
firm a hold may bring one out on a limb. The computer shaman will
either develop or bring new, exceptional, impressive technologies from
the frontiers into mainstream, or be an advocate of such technologies on
the part of the customer or the industry as a whole.
The Sacred as Power
Van der Leeuw stresses the power aspect of the sacred as its most important aspect. The shaman marshals natural phenomena because of their association to primitive man with powers of life and death. The extreme elements, thunderstorm, sun, moon, as well as the commonplace, tree, rock, stream are taken up and presented as aspects of that ambivalent power that permeates all things. All is revered so as to make all things powerful - in the right hands. The shaman’s relation to the obvious creative/destructive powers focus on the control of such powers for the good of all. The shaman’s relationship with the ordinary affirms his control over the manifest everyday world. As master of both chaos and order, the shaman embodies the continuance of life in the face of death.
The culture’s reverence of the computer shaman’s knowledge of the current technological order and his ability to manage amidst chaotic change instill him with power. The life and death of an organization or industry hang in the balance. The computer shaman’s ability to embrace commonplace equipment, like phones and personal computers, and at the same time construe, orchestrate or facilitate fundamental technological change position him at the center of the ambivalent and emence power that is at work in our culture.
All of the symbols
of power gathered by ancient shamans are still very much at work in the
psyche of the computer culture. The symbols, metaphors and brandnames
of contemporary computer manufactures and marketers play on this underlying
need for humans to feel that chaos is being kept at bay and life will continue.
The use of such "power words" as Sun and Oracle connoting order and intelligence,
or the power and majesty associated with the market leaders IBM and Microsoft,
play upon the same qualities primitive man associated with the sacred.
Shamans use power to heal by restoring balance to a person, community or culture. By seeing power as two sided, benevolent and malevolent, the shaman must combat destructive forces with creative or sustaining forces. Evil and sickness are viewed as powers that strike at the potency of life. Evil, by sapping or destroying and rendering impotent, must be fought by an equal or greater power. The shaman’s use of strong powers to drive out chaos and restore order is central to his authority in the culture.
The computer shaman
must also view the forces combating the entity, enterprise, culture as
adversarial. He must continually insure that the perimeter is policed,
that the forces that keep chaos at bay are prepared, enhanced and readied.
As new evils manifest themselves, the computer shaman must concoct new
remedies. As evil forces, industry leaders attempting to control
market direction, make ready for war, he must make alliances to prepare
Things, Power, and
Shamans believe that certain objects are saturated with power. Having and using these objects gives the shaman access to that power. Talismans and amulets are two types of objects considered by the shaman, and the surrounding culture, to be saturated with power. Talismans are tools, weapons or other objects that have been used by shamans, elders, heroes, or ancestors, and are believed to carry the energies of those individuals that carried them or a resonance of the actions performed by those individuals. Carrying, wearing or otherwise presenting the insignia or image of anything considered powerful in the culture is thought to provide some measure of power to the bearer. Amulets are “reservoirs” of power. Usually pocket sized, these items are carried about and are used to provide or restore power, or to ward off evil.
The computer shaman
knows that the business card, cell phone, pager, laptop, tie tack, pen
and watch he carries all add to his power. Used effectively, these
power objects can summon assistance, ward off evil, cure the sick and impart
Taboo and Power
The relation between the sacred and taboo is defined by Van der Leeuw as being twofold. What is taboo is sometimes believed to be what is not allowed or not to be done, but it can also be applied to the sacred itself. What is outside, or taboo, is considered evil and everything inside is good, but there is a center, or inner circle, that is considered the highest good, or holy, and is also taboo. Van der Leeuw makes the comparison of power to electricity, and draws the analogy of the taboo as being a danger sign. The danger sign is posted at both ends of the spectrum. Raw, chaotic, uncontrollable energies are warned against as evil, and pure, concentrated, controlled energies are to be treated with awe, respect and reverence. The shaman's role is to delineate the boundaries of these two spheres of influence. Taboo violation can be seen as a cause of illness.
A large computing environment
has similar twofold taboo boundaries, and computer shamans police and maintain
these thresholds. The external world, with its hackers and viruses
are kept at bay through the use of technologies and methodologies for this
specific purpose (these are referred to as “fire walls”). Those same
technologies are used to keep the inhabitants inside the environment from
crossing that threshold in dangerous ways. Carefully defined procedures
are in place that prevent, discourage or record violations. Likewise,
within an organization, information vital to the operation of the enterprise,
or of a secretive or private nature, is protected from individuals within
Eliade: The Sacred
as Archaic Ontology
Eliade contrasts the sacred with what is profane, and believes that humans become aware of the sacred because it is experienced as wholly different from the profane. He also acknowledges that the sacred can manifest itself in anything, from a simple object, to a place, or to the works, acts, or deeds of peoples, persons, gods or God. It is not the object or act that is sacred but its ability to give access to that separate reality which is of importance.
Note: This is a work in progress...