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The Godly Tape Recorder March 6, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


A very brief blog today as exams are on and marking will be intense. Beach recently had the luck to stumble on this beautiful piece in a routine outline of anthropological research. He was reminded of that great A.C.Clarke quotation: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

To someone in New Guinea ignorant of them, airplanes, radios and polaroid cameras seemed to work by magic. I had a tape recorder from which voices could speak in the villagers’ own language. It did not matter to them that they were listening to what they had just said. At first hearing it was amazing. I learned their language slowly. Later I found out what a few of them first hoped for from the machine. Here is an example: a mother came, rather diffidently, with friends to tell me about her daughter’s death, to record the story as her son had the day before. But on the tape recording she is asking her dead daughter to speak to her, to tell her whether it was really sorcery she died from, or because the branch fell on her neck. Was it the branch or sorcery? Let it say. Tell me, tell me now, you speak, she says. Dameku-she is the mother-does not know what is possible or impossible for the tape recorder. The recording catches her hesitant questioning-she switches from talking to me (telling the story), to addressing the machine, then to asking her daughter to speak. She wishes it could answer but she is uncertain. Her voice is quite matter-of-fact. She is not awestruck by it. The problem for her is the event and the object, to know which are magical events, or magical objects, and which are ordinary. For us, the interest is not the event or object so much as her thinking. What was it about the machine that led her to wonder whether her daughter could speak to her through it? What was it that made her change her mind and put it back among ordinary things? She had had hardly any contact with radios before she heard it. The machine produced Gnau speech. She was familiar with a divination in which the spirits of the dead would answer by beating out their answers on the garamut (slit-gong). Perhaps they could also speak out of the machine. A wish, a doubt-she hoped it might be possible. It was not, I think, something she strongly believed. She abandoned her questioning soon when I said the machine could not answer.

Other examples of technology interpreted as magic? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


 10 March 2012: Leif writes: ‘In 1920… Thomas Edison told American Magazine that he was working on a device known as a “spirit phone” — in other words, a phone that would let the living communicate with the dead.’ http://www.gereports.com/edisons-forgotten-invention-a-phone-that-calls-the-dead/ Sounds similar to Godly tape recorder. Then, coincidentally, on the same person Aldous Huxley writes: There is a story that my great grand father, who settled in southern Washington State had purchased an Edison phonograph with a recording head. This was before 1918.  There was a local Indian, known as “Indian Louie Quityamals”, a very old man who was something of a town character. One Christmas he came around during a party and was invited in and invited to speak into the phonograph.  He said, “I am Louie, chief on Scattercreek” and paused.  He was encouraged to say more, so he said again, “I am Louie chief on the Scattercreeck,” and gave details of his life. they reset the playing needle for him and the phonograph said, “I am Indian Louie” and he shouted back at it, “No! I am!” and the phonograph played on saying, “I am Indian Louie chief on Scattercreek…” and he became very angry.  Great-grandfather tried to explain the technology, but Louie stormed out.  He never came back to the house saying that there was a devil in it. Dad says he heard the phonograph around 1942, but the machine and the cylinder recordings were stolen in a house burglary after that.’ Finally, the Count is irritated and makes some telling points: Personally I find the author’s tone a little patronizing – of course people who have never seen technology before will think a tape recorder works by magic! What else could they think? And once you’ve got a magic box that summons voices from nowhere, experimenting with it to see if it can contact other realms of existence is quite logical, and shows intelligence rather than the lack of it. Also, I don’t see how this woman can be said to have a “problem” telling the difference between the mundane and the magical. To her, “magic” is part of the natural order, and constantly present in normal everyday life. She has no choice but to assume that the white man’s talking box is magic, but she’s not in awe of it. In fact, she immediately tries, in a very pragmatic way, to use it to get messages from the dead – which her culture believes to be not only possible but fairly easy – in a less cumbersome fashion than the usual process of beating sticks together, which must produce some pretty ambiguous answers. And when she tries the experiment and gets no answer, she immediately accepts that tape recorders can’t do that. She’s responding in a perfectly rational way to a situation she doesn’t know anywhere near enough about to fully comprehend. She happens to be wrong, but she does explore the possibilities of the tape recorder by coming up with a testable hypothesis, which she then tests, thus correctly deducing an important fact about the machine. I think she comes across as rather bright! I’m reminded of something I once read – I forget the source, but I think it might have been a book by Carl Sagan – in which the author is hanging out in the Kalahari (as you do) with the bushmen, who happen to be some of the most primitive people on Earth, and have almost no technology whatsoever. Anyway, one of these fellows announces that animals have been in the area fairly recently, and goes into such detail about when they were there and what they did and so on that it sounds like the old joke about the Red Indian tracker, the punchline of which is: “Because it’s standing on my foot!” When the author asks how he can possibly know all that, his response would not be out of place in a Sherlock Holmes story (why on earth does my spellchecker think “Holmes” isn’t a proper word, but “Sherlock” is?). For example, although his people have no clocks, they’re aware that shadows change direction in a very predictable way, and since animals like to rest in the shade, if there’s a large concentration of hoofprints and dung in one place relative to a large rock, you can determine exactly when they were there. I think the author recounted this story as part of a discussion of “ancient astronauts”, his point being that all humans, no matter how primitive, have the same capacity to be really smart (even if most of them are really stupid more often than is desirable), so you don’t need alien visitors to explain how ancient man sometimes did clever stuff. Indeed, some ethnic groups, such as the Maya (a surprising number of whom are still around, and probably feeling a bit smug after all those years of trying to tell New Age idiots that they were totally misinterpreting that whole “apocalypse” thing), find these ideas deeply insulting and racist, since they imply that their ancestors were too lazy and stupid to pile up stones in an impressive way without the assistance of a flying saucer. I don’t really see that, in the story you quote, the “primitive” people with their “magical thinking” behave in a way which reflects badly on them at all. I’ll tell you what’s really primitive, though – “civilized” Westerners who are fully aware that tape recorders do not work by magic, but use them to communicate with the dead anyway because they want it to be true. Unlike the eminently practical Dameku, they don’t consider results which are at best very poor indeed, and usually non-existent, to be evidence that they were wrong to come up with this strange notion in the first place. You see, the point that the author of this story misses is that Dameku isn’t thinking magically at all. Her initial misconceptions regarding the capabilities of a humble cassette recorder change when objective evidence is provided as to what it can and cannot do. “Magical thinking” is when you persist in believing that something must be true for entirely subjective reasons, despite all objective evidence to the contrary. If a primitive person such as Dameku were to be given a telescope with no explanation, they might initially blow down it in the belief that it’s a musical instrument because it looks rather like one. Failure to produce any sound at all would soon convince them of their error, and before long they’d find out what it’s really for. But a truly magical thinker would flatly refuse to reconsider her initial position, insisting that she’s producing magic telescope music that only spirits can hear. Or her audience couldn’t hear her wonderful tunes because they lack the necessary degree of faith that she’s actually producing them because she says so. Or whatever. Now, EVP on the other hand… I take it you’re familiar with Electronic Voice Phenomena? Back in the seventies when it first got to be a big thing, the usual method, based on the fact that many cassette recorders were also radios, was to tune your radio to static and record this on tape while asking the machine questions in the hope that dead people would answer, however faintly and indistinctly. If you know approximately how a radio works, refusing to accept that there may be stray signals drifting all over the place is downright perverse! This method largely fell into desuetude after a particularly impressive and thus widely-disseminated posthumous communication was identified as a Radio Luxembourg jingle. The currently favoured technique is absolutely identical to what Dameku did. Position the recording device in an empty, silent room where you feel that there might be discarnate entities present, set it to record, and ask them questions, leaving pauses for the dead to reply. Of course, you have to listen to the playback of those pauses at maximum volume, and the results are seldom such that they can be interpreted as anything intelligible at all without a great deal of faith. I don’t know if obsolete technology such as tape recording is still used, but since cassette tape is much more likely than a digital medium to have funny noises on it, due to incomplete erasure of the previous recording or portions of the other side being faintly audible playing backwards, I expect some of these idiots swear by it. One of the best-known proponents of these peculiar techno-voodoo shenanigans used to have an extraordinary website which has unfortunately been taken down. He had “invented” an amazing gadget which was basically an ordinary radio-cassette player with the tuning mechanism deliberately broken so that it couldn’t settle on any one frequency. This is of course an excellent way to ensure that your tape is likely to contain numerous tiny snippets from random broadcasts. This enabled him to talk to not only the dead, but also extraterrestrials who assured him that in a previous incarnation he had been a Purple Space Princess. As far as I could make out, he was suffering from an unfortunate combination of guilt about his barely-latent homosexuality and paranoid schizophrenia. I was never very clear as to why the Space Princess had to be Purple. You will also observe, if you research this topic, that a large proportion of the people who use EVP to prove that ghosts are present in the haunted houses they’re investigating are equally fond of taking photos of “orbs”. In case you’ve somehow never heard about this, an “orb” is the light from a camera flash reflecting off a particle of dust near to the lens, creating the appearance of a mysterious glowing ball. This happens far more often than it used to because digital cameras are so small that the flash has to be very close to the lens. That’s it! That’s the entire explanation! For similar reasons, despite the proliferation of “orbs”, nowadays you hardly ever see those photos often taken in pre-digital days of “braided strands of ectoplasm” which are quite clearly the flash reflecting off an out-of-focus camera strap.’ Rant over! Thanks Count, AH and Leif!