I Was Brainwashed by a Feminist Digital Cult Leader
Unicole is the leader of UNICULT, which she describes as a communal framework for promoting joy.
Image: Trey Lane.
A few months ago I received an unusual invitation. A woman called Unicole Unicron, who'd read one of my articles on gender and artificial intelligence reached out to ask if I'd like to join a sect called 3V3, comprised of women witches working at the intersection of magic and technology, with the goal of "matriarchal change in the digital realm."
Unicole is the leader of UNICULT, which she describes as a communal framework for promoting joy. In this strange but unexpectedly gentle and compelling video, she says that following a suicide attempt, the belief that she is an incarnation of a divine being of light helped her heal, and inspired her to want to help others.At the beginning of this year she quit her job at IBM to become, in her words, a "full time pop star and cult leader." She's released several homemade, cybertwee-aesthetic music videos, which criticize consumerism and promote spiritual and feminist ideals. In #GIRLPOWER, Unicole twirls and intones in sheer fabrics and undereye sparkles, against a backing track of the words "virginity, divinity" continuously repeating. In Pop Spirituality, she interrogates sacredness while wearing giant feathered angel wings and an emoji dress.
In other videos she talks about spiritual "downloads" from space, chakras, and the galactic consciousness, which even she admits "sounds kind of wacky," but a strange kind of sense eventually emerges as she relays her struggles with getting along in the patriarchal corporate world as a woman with a "cyclical mind" and too many big ideas. Her music videos only have a few thousand views, a liberal interpretation of pop stardom, but the more I read about UNICULT, the more I realized that that's kind of the point—belief makes real, Unicole Unicron reminds us. If she says she is a pop star, she is a pop star. The unflinching belief that she is a starseed seems to make her happy, even saved her life. Maybe her belief systems really can make others happy, too.
"My goal is to effect change in every industry," she says in a manner I find endearing and that I want to believe in.
I've been brainwashed—at least, I watched all the odd-hued, flickering videos in the "brainwashing" section of Unicole's personal website. It's probably not supposed to work like that, but her texts about the phases of the brain and the impact of our expectations about the world on our perceptions are quite lucid and plausible. Months after she first made contact, I decided to join her matriarchal sect.According to its website, the 3V3 sect (pronounced "Eve"), open only to women and non-binary people, "utilizes both technology and magic to promote values of equality for all, empowerment, nurturing acceptance and life-sparking change." Core to the sect is the idea that AI development, as it's concerned with "new life", must be led by the divine feminine, which is essentially a more spiritual way of making the same assertion I made in the piece that led Unicole to contact me. The sect only allows blessings (no curses).
Unicole told me that to be initiated, I'd first have to become a member of UNICULT proper, which involves a paper application you buy for $11.11 on Etsy. "I incorporate a lot of old technologies in UNICULT because it brings back the power of artifact. When you have a physical interaction with something, it makes that thing 'real' to us, more so than internet interactions," she said. The application, which Unicole kindly scanned for me ("because you're on a deadline"), involves pages of personal questions, many of which can be answered with Yes, No, or IDK. She asked me to avoid disclosing details of the application, "as part of joining is the mystery of what it means to do so."
Over 100 members have sent in paper applications so far, she said. Of these UNICULTists, 33 witches, who each provided a drop of their blood for an initiation contract, are involved with a "semi-secret" magical subset, which, influenced by Unicole's revelations about the holiness of technology, will transform into 3V3.
I don't identify as a witch, although I believe I could. "There is no necessary set of traits to be a self-proclaimed witch," Unicole affirms. "Blessings are simply the intent that someone else have good fortune, joy, or another positive thing."
Although mystery surrounds the 3V3 cult until I am initiated, nothing Unicole says about participation sounds unbelievable—there's a collaborative physical zine called Strange Magic, some forums with unexpectedly ordinary topic headers, Periscope hangouts on the full moon, and there'll be group chats about robot ethics similar to this one.Unicole says she doesn't associate "matriarchal" change with femininity, but rather with the idea of compassionate inclusion and oneness, by contrast to patriarchy, which promotes a single oppressive power structure. 3V3's idea of tech witchcraft could simply be interpreted as the desire to have less patriarchal intention in the technology world, to counter it with joy and new beliefs.
I don't subscribe to any particular spiritual ideology and am not normally interested in cults. But I've been a woman in tech long enough to know that the world, particularly as it's been magnified online and on social media, tends to unmoor and unmake women. I'm drawn to the rapid, strange and socially-unsanctioned patter of Unicole and her witches in their videos; I see myself in it. Lots of women know what it's like to reel ourselves in for the pursuit of success; the sheer relief of women allowing one another to be bizarre is nearly divine.
"I don't know of any divine feminine societies. All I know is solitary, powerful women, otherwise known as witches, commonly killed in extreme acts of violence for their ability to escape the expectations of social femininity," Unicole said.
I've always been interested in the possibility of a space for feminist mysticism in tech. I appreciate how radical an act it is for a woman on the internet to talk for eight minutes straight about her belief she is a healer from space and expect to receive only love and community in return.
In the early days of the internet, it felt like a private world. Now it swells with information, barrages of tragedy, violence and callouts. Women who raise their voices are targeted and hounded. We all serve our personal lives and emotional labor up to platform holders as "content" designed to draw advertisers. A secret community of divine witches who are concentrating on manifesting a matriarchal tech society through intention and belief sounds relieving, the kind of thing I want to be real, like a return to a primordial time.
The conscientious aesthetic of Unicole's website and materials seems aware of this regressive urge. Occasionally I worry that it's all too shrewd, too self-consciously absurd, to be real. Some of Unicole's pop star outfits or accessories look unexpectedly expensive. She could be part of an elaborate marketing campaign, or something like that. I am not yet ready to mail her a drop of my blood or to tell her my income on an application (she asks to "understand [her] demographic better" and to validate the hypothesis that the least earners are the most spiritually generous).
But her idea of a divine digital pop star witch from space is so charmingly reminiscent of a long-gone tech utopian dream that I can't help but at least share the urge, the ache, which her occasionally-bizarre and unbelievable videos seem sincerely geared to answer.