Column: Divination on the Download

Tim Titus —  August 6, 2016 — 18 Comments

In an article posted May 31, Kari Paul at the Broadly channel on Vice pitted Wiccans and professional tarot card readers against popular smartphone apps that purport to offer divination to any user at the tap of an icon. To Paul’s credit, her piece was not the sort of exploitation piece you often see when mainstream journalists cross paths with Witchcraft and Paganism. Her tone comes off as that of a sincere investigator trying to discuss a real tension between two different types of people.

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The Wildwood Tarot Application by Fool’s Dog [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

At the same time, Paul presents a relatively black and white world where the battle lines are clearly drawn: Witches have a bone (or a card, or a rune) to pick with programmers who think they can mathematically create the randomness and relationships necessary for accurate divination to occur. For example, she quotes one professional reader named Tea Cake who calls divination apps “extremely gimmicky and next to useless.” Tea Cake goes on to question the tarot skills of app programmers, stating that their unknown credentials make it “difficult to sort out what is bullshit.”

Another Witch in the article, Maria Palma-Drexler, tells Paul that “technology has its place in witchcraft, but only as an aide,” while another, known as Blue June, states emphatically that “practices like divination are better carried out the way they have been traditionally: by humans, not apps.” She stresses that “there is no need to add technology.” While Paul does quote author Mary K. Greer in support of apps toward the end of her piece, the overall picture is one of Witches and readers distrusting the skills and sincerity of software developers. It is right there in the headline: “Covens vs. Coders.”

Is that picture correct? Pagans are often less black and white in their thinking than other people and, much like the rest of the industrialized world, most have embraced the digital culture we live in today. Smartphones and the apps that go with them are just another part of that culture. According to some professional and experienced readers, there may actually be a much more complicated relationship between them and the new experience of divining by tapping an icon.

Fiona Benjamin [Courtesy photo]

Fiona Benjamin [Courtesy photo]

Fiona Benjamin, who reads tarot and bones professionally at modernfortuneteller.com, believes the apps can be used for divination, especially in public situations. “Sometimes you need to pull your cards out in a location where you can’t shuffle your cards,” said Benjamin. “I don’t see it as an ‘evolution’ of the physical cards so much as a welcome alternative.” As a parent of young children, she also notes the convenience of being able to answer a question for herself “without fear of ripped cards in the hands of babies.”

Lupa, a professional reader, blogger and author, believes these apps are useful for answering a querent’s needs. “I don’t see them as less effective than paper cards or carved runestones,” she said. “After a certain amount of experience the exact tool you use is kind of like Dumbo’s feather—it’s just a way to trick your mind into getting in the right place for divination.”

While some professional readers are on board with smartphone divination, others are not so certain about it. Yet their criticism does not come from the “extremely gimmicky” place mentioned by Paul. Their concerns are little more nuanced.

Lupa [Courtesy photo]

Lupa [Courtesy photo]

“I would love to say these apps are completely useless, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” states Mat Auryn, who reads tarot at shops throughout New England as well as on his own website. “Do they work for divination?” asked Auryn. “Yes and no.”

Basing his theory of the tarot on Carl Jung’s ideas of synchronicity and the collective unconscious, he said that, “The collective unconscious is always trying to communicate psychic information to us via symbolism.” He stressed that, “the cards that are drawn are the cards meant to be seen.” Divination, by that theory, is admittedly possible.

The trouble, according to Auryn, comes both with how the software is developed and how it is used. The apps rely “on computer generated algorithms instead of randomly shuffling,” a weakness which harms the random nature of card pulls. “Both are random,” he explained, “but one is based on preset coding, which will eventually repeat.”

A further concern, according to Auryn, is that “most of the meanings are set and short,” which means that, “without a deep understanding of the cards, the answer is totally out of alignment with the question and the position in the spread.” The cards, then, may be providing the correct message, but the finite number of keywords available to the user may not be able to accurately convey the intended message. The implication here is that one must already be experienced in the tarot in order to accurately interpret the messages on the screen. Of course, an appreciable number of users do not have that expertise.

Mat Auryn [Courtesy photo]

Mat Auryn [Courtesy photo]

Auryn concluded that, while the apps are not useless, they need to be used wisely. “A legit psychic is tapped into the collective unconscious,” says Auryn. “The professional reader is an expert in their field.”

“The difference,” he said, “is the same as going to the doctor and having a WebMD app.”

In Paul’s original Vice article, the lack of person-to-person energy was a major concern. “Each client comes in with their own energy,” Blue June was quoted as saying. “The problem with an algorithm is that it’s just random—it has nothing to do with intuition.”

Auryn only partially agreed with that statement. “It is important to feel the energy of a client,” he admitted, “but that doesn’t have to be in person.” Since we are all connected by the collective unconscious, in his view, “distance has no bearing on a reading.”

Mary Paliechesky, who has been reading tarot for over 30 years, agreed. She said that, “I used to agree that you needed to feel the energy of the person that you are reading. However, I think that was an artifact of my skill level and training. The energy is all around us. You can connect to a person across space as long as you know their energy.”

Mary Paliechesky [Courtesy photo]

Lupa said that she does prefer to check in with clients during a reading. “Any reader, no matter how good,” said Lupa, “is by necessity projecting some of their own biases into the reading, and it’s important to make sure that they match up with the client’s experiences.” The ability to check in with a client, a capability that is difficult to obtain through an app, helps to eliminate a reader’s bias.

In her professional life as a reader, Benjamin is more concerned with communication than with energy. “I can feel the energy all day long,” she explained, “but if I am failing to meet the needs of the client or if I don’t communicate the message in a way that is clear, the reading will not be useful.”

To be fair, the Golden Thread Tarot app, which is featured in Paul’s article, does contain some emotional interfacing to address this concern, but it allows only a limited number of emotional responses from the user, leading back to the criticism of being finite. It’s not useless, and some professionals even say they use this app regularly, but as experts it is much easier for them than it would be for a typical client. In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship of professional readers and experienced Witches to electronic divination is a much more complicated picture than Paul seems to paint. While there are some reservations in the community, there is not an attitude of wholesale rejection, and there is a definite strain of recognizing their value.

Auryn cautioned that, “It is important to remember that you always get what you pay for. There is no app that can ever replace a talented psychic or an advanced student of the tarot.” Others, however, are much more positive. “Divination apps are genius,” concluded Benjamin. “A tarot reader’s skills will never be diminished because of technological aid.” In the same camp, Paliechesky put it simply: “Times change and energy is all around us. If it works for you, it works.”

Tim Titus

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Tim Titus is a social science teacher from Orange County, California. He is a High Priest in the Temple of Witchcraft, where he serves as a Deputy Virgo Minister. His PaganSquare blog, Intersections, focuses on the crossroads that join pop culture, science, the arts, and the Craft. His work has appeared in the anthologies Ancestors of the Craft and Finding the Masculine in the Goddess’ Spiral.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    If it works for you, it works.I daresay that could be said of any divination tool.

  • Hey, Tim Titus; not sure how much research you did before writing this essay, but Fiona Benjamin has officially left the divination game. Earlier this year she announced that she wasn’t offering any paid readings anymore and was now only a business coach for Tarot readers, but about four weeks ago she announced that she’s left Tarot completely. Might be good to know these things before you go citing somebody’s blog and saying that they offer Tarot and bone readings.

    • He actually contacted me directly before writing this essay.

      • Oh, well, egg on me. I thought going by the last email update you sent that you were well and truly done with giving readings, but if you’re back in the game, that’s cool.

        • This interview happened quite some weeks ago.

          Also, there are many options besides being “in” or “out.” 🙂

          • Well, now I’m curious to know: If I may ask, what are you doing?

            I was just starting to get excited about getting a reading with you and comparing styles when you sent that last email update and said that, “I am still exhausted and I wake up dreading the sight of my cards laying next to my laptop.” I mean, if that’s changed, cool. Rock on, and what not.

            It’s especially cool if you’ve decided that you’re not going to sell Modern Fortune Teller and are still offering your marketing classes, because I wanted to enroll in that the next cycle that it came around. But unless I read that update wrong I really got the impression that you had walked away from all things Tarot (at least with regards to your public services) and were just doing the virtual assistant stuff for other spiritual / occult business people.

            So yeah, if you’re offering readings again, that’s cool – it just seemed like a lot of traffic and attention heading your way from this interview for nothing if you’re not offering readings or coaching anymore.

          • I am only reading for private clients i have worked something out with previously and radio shows (solely because I love radio work, not because I want any traffic).

            As for the marketing, I’m repackaging the material to a close friend who is in the process of starting her own psychic hotline, and allowing her to use the material to train her psychics.

            I’m never opposed to taking interviews or doing readings on radio, even if it doesn’t translate to money in my pocket.

          • Good luck on your transition, then.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    There seem to be a app for everything, or soon will be. Lets see where is my app for casting spells? Just tap in my needs on my smart phone and let it work the necessary magic. No effort, no work, nothing to have to learn. [Grin] Gee soon we can even have an app to do ceremony, with artificial 3-D laser light reality. No matter how poor your reality is, you can have a lavish and magical ceremony at the push of a few buttons. Later when we all can have a super computer, then we can program it to take care of all that automatically and we won’t even have to bother remembering anything, or work up a sweat. [Grin] Long after man kind goes extinct, the computers will keep the magic going. [Grin]

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      No grin on that last one. If humans ever go extinct, if it’s far enough into the future we will leave active, self-repairing electronics behind.

    • Caroline Kenner

      Christopher, I absolutely love you and we’ve been FB friends for years, but you sound like a real Luddite here.

      I celebrate your desire to cleave to the good old ways, but one of the things about Tarot and other divination tools: someone has to speak to young people in ways they prefer. And obviously that is not going to be you, but rather people like me and my husband Jason, who been programming for Apple computers since before Mac.

      You’ve seen how the young people depend on their phones. Having “wisdom tools designed as games” on mobile devices gives people with busy modern lives a new way to do a daily reading, and journal that reading easily, too.

      Why do you imagine there’s no effort involved, and nothing to learn? Every one of our apps contains one or more books. The biggest difference in the format: the cards and the card meanings are interleaved. People still put in the same amount of effort if they want to learn how to read Tarot. They just don’t have to shuffle. The app does that for the users.

      We have a lot of users who are Tarot collectors with any number of decks. Our app company offers more than fifty choices of decks, most of which cost $3.99 as opposed to between $25 and $40 for an average Tarot. People can spend a small amount to see whether–or not–they want to spend the larger sum on the physical deck.

      I would be the first to write that our app will never replace physical cards. But that was never our intention in the first place when we founded our company.

      It’s perfectly possible to teach old dogs new tricks! Why don’t you talk to one of your younger friends and get them to show you how our app works on one of their devices? The card art looks especially wonderful on tablet computers.
      Blessings from Caroline Kenner

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        Caroline damn I lost a rather long post of mine, when I punched post there was an error. Perhaps the rambling post was not mean to be posted and I certainly don’t have the energy to repeat it.

        Of course I am something of a Luddite, I prefer the turn of the last century to the turn of this century, I have rarely had a debt, never had a bank loan a mortgage, a credit card, or a debit card and will never get one. Being a poor person I have learned one of the best ways to stay on a budget, is to make spending inconvenient as possible.Yes the turn of the last century is far better in the movies than in real life, I would have died quite young back then

        On the flip side, I have used 96 solar panels for most of my electricity for well over a decade, used a Mac all the time and never used a Microsoft product on my personal computer. I am buying my first cell, mostly as a back up phone and a travel phone, but I had to find one that only had a camera and a flashlight on it. I likely will never use a smart phone. I use DVD player on my computer for my movies, presently going through the series Downton Abby.

        So I am something of a contradiction as usual.Now lets see if this post will post.

        • Caroline Kenner

          No worries. My point is this: our apps are primarily aimed at people whose lives differ sharply from your own. Our primary demographic is decades younger than either you or me.

          I know you live far from your medical appointments, and I’m delighted to read you are getting a cell so you won’t ever be stranded again, that was Most Worrisome when it happened.

          Blessings and chuckles, from Caroline

    • Having been a Witch and Tarot reader for most of my 63 years, including
      working as a full time professional reader as my day job for over 15, I
      beg to differ, and echo what Caroline has said.

      Besides, I run across people all the time that buy a pack of (physical) cards for $15-20, and never learn anything either. Maybe they rely on the LWB (little white booklet), or look stuff up
      somewhere – hopefully not one of the very sketchy websites I have seen. (And Gods help us if they decide, based on only that, to go into business).

      Maybe thru osmosis and repetition, they might eventually learn something. How is that different? People learn, practice, polish skills, and seek knowledge. Or else they don’t.

      Can’t say for certain about other Tarot apps, but I *can* vouch for the integrity and pleasure of working with “The Fools Dog” choices.

      I usually use physical cards, but I prefer books over Kindle, too, so that’s just me. If I’m on the go, or want to check in with a deck I’m not carrying, I trust the care and thought that have gone into their offerings — I have never had a problem with the randomness or algorithm of how it’s set up.

      Plus, it’s just lots of fun to geek out with all those different decks. My $.02.

  • Caroline Kenner

    Hi, Tim. My name is Caroline Kenner, and I’m Mistress of the Tarot app company The Fool’s Dog. You are using a screen shot from my company’s app of The Wildwood Tarot to illustrate this article.

    Kari Paul, who wrote the original article you reference on Vice, interviewed me, but failed to include the fact that our company is owned and staffed exclusively by Pagans, Witches, Wiccans, or shamanic folks. I provided her with links to my bio on Witchvox, my list of articles on Witchvox, my websites for shamanism, and the conference on magic, mysticism, and metaphysics, Sacred Space, that I have helped organize in the Washington-Baltimore Pagan community for the last decade. But since an app company being owned by Witches didn’t fit in with her headline, nothing about that made it into her article.

    It is super-easy in journalism to spin a black and white story. The Mistress of the premiere Tarot app company in the world being a Witch and a shamanic healer didn’t fit into Kari Paul’s little polarization scheme. The developer, my husband, being a Pagan elder who retired after serving as a trustee for the oldest Pagan community organization in our region for more than a dozen years, Free Spirit Alliance, was also not part of her black and white story.

    If you would like to interview me for The Wild Hunt about my app company, and hear more about how Pagans, Witches, and Wiccans and professional Tarot readers shaped our app development process, or how we provide financial support for Pagan elders by employing them, how there is a spell written in junk code in every app, or how my husband’s randomizer actually works within the app, I would be happy to speak with you.

    Here is a link to Jason P-W’s story from 2013 about our app of Raymond Buckland’s Romani Tarot here on The Wild Hunt.
    http://wildhunt.org/2013/04/raymond-buckland-enters-the-app-store-with-the-fools-dog.html

    Even without following the links in the Vice story, you’ve written something much more informed and nuanced here than Kari Paul was able to do. I thought her article was embarrassingly unprofessional, frankly, and strongly suspected the quotes from those readers were from her personal friends. You sought out much better sources for the quotes in your story, and their quotes are far more informed.

    Nine blessings and best wishes from Caroline Kenner
    Mistress of The Fool’s Dog

  • Polytheist

    Divination can be done by a reader of the person themselves. Lots of mediums to do that. I see no reason this can’t be one. Energy is energy. I personally wouldn’t use it. But I also hate pendulums.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Add my name as a fan of Fool’s Dog tarot apps. I can do an inconspicuous reading in a business meeting, on an airplane, at the grocery store. My long-term study of Tarot adds to my reading of the cards even more than the succinct electronic descriptions of the cards, but that’s true of the cards I pull from my paper decks, as well.

  • While I’ve been known to pull out my electronic Tarot in a pinch, the fact that I cannot really “season” a deck of virtual cards makes them feel limited to me as divinatory tools. However, one use I don’t see discussed here is really important to me: as a study tool for a new deck!

    I have both physical and e versions of several different decks, and as I have been getting familiar with the Wildwood and Druidcraft decks especially, I’ve made a lot of use of their study tools. Yeah, I have the traditional meanings of the cards more or less down, and I can always draw on my own intuition. But having a convenient study tool to a new interpretation of the Tarot is wonderful.

    And as I say, in a pinch, there they are…