‘I Am Become Bit’: This Technoshaman Will Help You Become One With Your Computer

Like ancient shamanism, but swap the psychedelic drugs for an Oculus Rift.

Jun 13 2014, 3:53pm
Image: Screenshot from Ecstatic Computation on Vimeo

"First you're going to fly in any direction you're looking. Then you're going to pass through the quantum tunnel. Then you're going to merge with quantum energy in a state registration inside the computer's memory. And then you're going to fall into infinity." 

"Are you ready?"

That’s Michael Allison, a 28-year-old artist and self-proclaimed technoshaman, guiding you through your journey to 'ecstatic computation'—a sort of cybernetic nirvana.

“Resonate and repeat after me: I am become bit. I am become bit.”

Allison’s cybernetic take on the ancient mystical practice of shamanism is part of his Master’s thesis at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. In his own, made up technoshaman ritual, he takes the role of spiritual leader, guiding the participant to step outside of themselves and become one with their devices—metaphysically speaking.

“There’s this moment of ecstasy, where you and the computer memory are outside of each other, and then you merge,” Allison told me in an interview.

But instead of ancient shaman tools like chanting, drums, and psychedelic drugs, he’s using an Oculus Rift headset, electric keyboard, and a standing fan to guide people to a greater understanding of the world.

Image: Michael Allison

Clearly, it’s a creative experiment, not a serious attempt at spiritual leadership; Allison can’t even keep a straight face when explaining his approach. But it’s inspired by a cultural reality in the digital age. “For me, this project is about figuring out and trying to heal my relationship with this technology that I use all the time, and to understand this relationship by applying these ancient arts,” Allison said.

To start cyberpilgrims down the path to enlightenment, he fits them with the Oculus and a pair of headphones. Once their senses are totally isolated, he blows a fan on their face and thus the metaphysical journey into the virtual realm begins, with 3D visuals—basically glitch art—music, and chanting.

Allison’s technoshamanic VR ritual is meant to evoke the experience of entering a computer’s flash memory through a process called quantum tunneling. It’s a phenomenon in which electrons can pass through certain materials when a strong enough voltage is applied, and it’s used in some flash memory systems. 

“In shamanism, when they access the spirit world they go through a tunnel usually, so I thought, ‘Hey, there’s this weird parallel here,’” Allison explained. “You’re passing into this digital quantum world, where you’re storing your own thoughts and ideas and intentions into this microchip, by means of going through a tunnel, also.”

Then something like this happens:

Image: Michael Allison

For all of the project’s New Age woo woo and pseudoscience, it does actually have a pretty poignant message. “It’s almost like the technology’s in control. Like, the computer’s calling me to use it. Like, in order to live my life I have to log in and check my email, and do all this stuff,” Allison said.

We’re so intimately familiar with the hardware in our lives these days, our brain starts mapping it into our psychological body model. Our gadgets become extensions of the self, Allison theorizes. Like it or not, we’re entering into more complex and intertwined relationships with our technology. When your phone reminds you to take your medicine and you dutifully comply, who’s really in control? 

We are become bit.