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Can the algorithm ever be spiritual?

Can the algorithm ever be spiritual?

From Tarot TikTok to 'If you're seeing this, it's for you' Instagram posts, we explore whether social media can be a medium for divine messaging.

In 2020, 17-year-old Marty Gonzalez posted a video on TikTok featuring photos of extremely flashy wealth — large sums of cash, a yacht, a mansion with a pool, watches, and loads of Chanel bags. Marty made an unusual claim, that, “If you see this it will be your lifestyle when you’re older”. In other words, if the mysterious algorithm that governs TikTok has chosen to serve you, of all the millions of videos on the platform, this video, it means something. Marty then encouraged anyone who came across the video to like it to ‘claim’ their future. Over three million people did.

The premise of the video (and others like it), is that the TikTok algorithm itself is a spiritual force, delivering a message of wealth to those who are meant to see it. Marty says he believes his videos get to the right people “with meditation and the right timing.” What we know about the TikTok algorithm, however, means it’s more likely Marty’s video shows up in the feed of people who had previously shown an interest in spiritual or manifestation videos (it used hashtags like #manifestation and #lifestyle). Still, it can feel coincidental since random videos appear on your For You page from time to time.

Marty’s video is one of many that claim to use the algorithm as a tool for divine messaging. “If you’re seeing this on your for you page, this message is for you” is a common phrase you’ll come across on tarot TikTok (a subsection of the video-sharing platform where tarot readers and spiritual workers share mass readings). One video assures viewers that they have three different people interested in them currently, another promises that something you thought had ended is coming back this weekend. Others claim that God inspired them to post their TikTok with a message for others, saying that those that come across the videos are “different” and are about to be blessed to “levels you never thought possible.”

We don’t often romanticize the other algorithms around us. Couples who meet on a dating app might consider their love “meant to be”, even if their compatibility was actually predicted by data analysts at Hinge, but it’s rare to consider scrolling past an Instagram post as divine timing or a recommendation from Uber Eats as having a higher purpose. Yet these systems live alongside us and shape modern life, bringing in a number of moral concerns when considering that they are built, controlled and manipulated by tech companies for profit.

“Everything is connected to spirituality because, at the end of the day, we are spiritual beings and these devices are spirited in themselves,” says Neema Githere, who describes herself as a “guerrilla theorist and curator” whose work explores “love and indigeneity in a time of algorithmic debris”. Neema claims that we’ve come to associate algorithms with surveillance capitalism, but many of them have been derived from indigenous mathematical practices. “There are crystals in our computers that are charging energy and used in the creation of the devices we’re using,” they say.

Since algorithms are created by and for people, they’re only as spiritual as the people using them. “Social media doesn't exist in a vacuum, in the sense that the things we are constantly thinking of and interacting with, do shape our reality, virtual or otherwise,” Lina, a Bruja who goes by Astro Lina and shares astrology videos on TikTok, says. “If I’m absolutely heartbroken and only interacting with videos about a lost love, then I am going to have a very sad, weepy For You Page.” Lina finds viral-specific tarot readings “mind-boggling and hilarious” as they show us how many of us are going through the exact same thing. “How many of us are actually dealing with a toxic Libra who wears black hats and drives a blue car?” she says.

Considering the current shift away from traditional religion towards more flexible new-gen spirituality, it’s little surprise we’re more open to viewing some social media platforms as a spiritual force in our lives. LA-based diviner Porsche Little, who offers one-to-one tarot readings and shares tarot readings for zodiac signs on Instagram each month, views the algorithm, like everything, as having divine timing. However, this doesn’t mean each video you come across holds a message that’s meant for you to internalize.

“I personally do not believe in coincidences, but do believe in discernment,” she says. “Every message is not for you and I believe that messages that require you to like, comment and claim, are just influencers who want to boost their engagement.” When Porsche herself does mass readings to share on Instagram, she names which demographic she’s referring to and asks for the messages to be delivered from spirit, via the algorithm, to those who are seeking it. “If I’m pulling on Capricorn’s energy, I’ll ask for spirit to align this message with every Capricorn whose eyes will hit it,” she says.

Gaymon Bennett, an Associate Professor of religion, science and technology at Arizona State University, says an algorithm is not very different from a pack of tarot cards on a table — they’re both just objects. With that in mind, if you’re a spiritual person, believing that a spiritually-charged video holds a divine message for you is similar to believing you were meant to come across a specific passage when flicking through a book. Yet social media algorithms have proven themselves to have a power of persuasion rarely seen from in-person interactions, leading people to niche and sometimes dangerous corners of the internet.

When considering the fact that the YouTube algorithm has been funneling people to the far-right, viewing algorithms as holding divine power becomes concerning if we’re no longer using our own judgment. After all, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Commerce Committee last year saying the site’s algorithm, itself, is dangerous. “I hope we will discuss whether there is such a thing as a safe algorithm,” she said. Despite this, social media is obviously still a useful tool for sharing knowledge, resources and facilitating connections.

While it’s okay if a TikTok tarot reading about a toxic ex-boyfriend resonates with you, the rising message that the algorithm itself can be a useful tool for divine messaging can be concerning. Especially considering that young people’s screen time has soared throughout the pandemic. And if the algorithm itself is spiritual, anyone in charge of it can continue to play God — a role not suitable for any one person, never mind the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. Next time your TikTok feed presents an idea that resonates with you spiritually, be sure to look beyond the screen — where random encounters and “aha” moments take place away from tech overlords.

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