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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.”