Online Oracular Wisdom

The Particularly Peculiar Pattern of Parrot Droppings

Exploring Computer-Mediated Oracles

By Tiffany Lee Brown

CAN WINDOWS '98 channel your grandmother's ghost or foretell your future? Not without crashing, that's for sure. But your computer can put you in touch with otherworldly oracles and mystical explorations that take the New Age out of its white robes and bring it right to your desktop.

The Net provides web and ftp sites, discussion groups, and forums devoted to every genus and subspecies of spiritual quester and religious freak imaginable; you can finally search out an occult group yet avoid exchanging elaborate handshakes with some guy sporting a dyed-black goatee and a pentagram tattoo. The aspiring digital spiritualist might pass up those gigabytes of esoteric information, though, and start with direct experience: computer-mediated oracles.

If you've ever played with the Magic 8 Ball or flipped a coin to make a decision, you've consulted an oracle of sorts. Those who use oracles on a more serious basis often gravitate toward popular, traditional systems such as Tarot cards, Runes, and the I Ching, all of which are available in digital form these days. Does this stuff actually work?

It depends what you want it to do for you. A complete stranger wearing a yellow turban once laid out a spread of cards on a streetside table, and proceeded to advise me on matters I hadn't told to a single soul. "You're thinking of moving back to your hometown, somewhere north," he said casually. "The cards indicate that this move would be a springboard to greater things."

Though I was dumbfounded by his accuracy, I've gained more from using oracles to help me straighten out my head and tap into my intuition than by using them as a fortunetelling device. An oracle is "a set of archetypes arranged in a very particular way. It's like a timeline of images, or a large organic structure," according to Cyber Tarot creator Douglas Rushkoff. "When a person interacts with that structure by physically altering it in real time and real space, he can gain a certain insight into his relationship to the larger structure."

In the world of popular astrologer, musician, and writer Rob Brezsny, oracles are worth the weight you're willing to give them. "I think divination techniques like Tarot, the Runes, the I Ching, and astrology are [more] likely to provide useful, transformative information than 90 percent of all the other data you encounter," he says. "Get your cards read even by a mediocre reader and you'll probably be more motivated to get off your ass and change something about your life than if you scoured the newspaper from back to front.

"The poet Muriel Rukyser once said that the world is made not of atoms, but of stories. I take that to mean that the supposedly factual articles appearing in the New York Times are no less and no more stories than the myths you glean from a divination. Whether a story in the Times 'works' for you or whether an I Ching divination 'works' for you should be judged entirely by how it affects your ability to shape your own life with creativity and love."

Some think that powerful spirit entities "speak" through a deck of Tarot cards, or that the really juicy information comes from the reader (i.e., the fortuneteller) who interprets the oracle for the querent (i.e., you, the guy who's asking the Magic 8 ball whether he'll score with his date tomorrow night). With computer-mediated oracles, there usually isn't a human reader interpreting the information: it's just you and the grey box on your desk. Kelleigh, a longtime Tarot reader in New Orleans' Jackson Square, recommends sticking with a "real" deck of cards.

"Computers originated to perform monotonous, mindless tasks so that humans would no longer have to. Computers are binary: they do not have a spirit," she says. "Tarot cards are very dependent on the spirit."

Brezsny, who no longer does astrological charts, outlines the personal touch. "I think it's essential to establish from the beginning that the reading is a collaboration between me and the client. Unless s/he is passionately engaged in the quest, the reading will be flat and generic. To the degree that the client tries to project the image onto me of an all-knowing expert, s/he obstructs access to her own inner teacher. That's why I insist that the client formulate three or four questions that s/he wants addressed. Proceeding from this focus, I turn the reading into a conversation, a conspiracy to uncover not the future per se, but the hidden and unconscious patterns at work in the present."

Adam Schlager, an astrologer and engineer based in Chicago, counters the assertion that face-to-face oracular searches are the best. "The 'spirit' is pretty creative and can divinate though any medium. The purists will be having a shit-fit at this point, claiming that computers corrupt the art of Tarot and I Ching, and they're right! That's why I recommend doing a little homework before diving into divination. If you feel drawn to a particular method, learn about the history of it, learn the traditional method first, then allow the spirit to take over and guide you. Once you feel comfortable with reading the messages, it doesn't matter if the input comes from a deck of cards or a CRT, or a particularly peculiar pattern of parrot droppings!"

Since physically handling and shuffling the cards is an important part of the Tarot ritual for me, I didn't expect much from my first online reading at But the Internet Tarot program chose almost the exact spread of cards I had chosen earlier in the night, doing a "real" reading with "real cards." Quelle coincidence! I was disappointed, however, with the interpretations that appeared on my screen, canned responses that bored me silly after a few weeks of using the site.

"Computer-generated interpretations violate the basic premise of divination," explains Schlager. "These astrology and Tarot programs are great for generating charts or for picking the cards. And you can access a lot of history and information more easily with the computer. But they can only give what I call 'Cookbook Readings,' stuff like 'Venus in Aries means you're a slut,' or 'Ten of Swords in the last position means you gonna die, sucka.' Cookbook interpretations are only good for giving beginners a very basic point of reference."

Brezsny also remains ambivalent about computer-mediated oracles, though he gathers mystical information from the Net and uses it to disseminate his Real Astrology column, which enjoys a rabid cult following of over seven million readers online and off. "I've personally never gotten many useful shocks from computers doing oracles, but then again, who knows? I'm a big fan of the alchemical dictum that you should look for treasure where everyone tells you that you can't find it. A crumpled piece of paper you pick up out of the gutter could accidentally/synchronistically give you the info you need exactly when you need it. Likewise an ad on the side of a bus, or a conversation overheard in a checkout line. The Rosicrucian vow is: 'I will regard every event I encounter as a particular dealing of God with my soul.'"

If oracular wisdom can arrive in the form of parrot droppings and crumpled papers, why use traditional methods at all? "I believe that this is the dilemma of psychics in the New Age," says Schlager. "On the one hand, if we bury ourselves too deeply in ancient rituals, we tie ourselves to the ancient seers who developed them, which are, invariably, tainted with their mood. In many cultures, divination was practiced mainly for personal gain. On the other hand, if we are too flippant with these oracles, we cannot take advantage of the generations of work which went into their development and their subsequent power."

A half-traditional solution is to ask a real, live human for a reading--but have it delivered to your email queue. "I think it's possible for a skilled reader to give a useful divination via email," Brezsny allows. "But you'll probably get better results from a phone or in-person reading. In my experience, much of the juiciness of an extended reading depends on the psychically moist human interaction between reader and client."

Once again, the experts can't agree. Storm, who's been reading cards and astrology in New Orleans for over a decade, claims that if anyone could establish a genuine connection with a querent over the phone or a computer network, "they would be far too powerful and adept to waste their time with $40 email readings. Even the best phone astrologers spend 50 percent of their time analyzing the querent's chart, and 50 percent making a psychological evaluation based on the querent's telephone mannerisms."

But Brezsny is more optimistic. "If the soothsayer knows a lot about human nature, is skilled at getting clues about character from vocal clues, and is acting more out of a desire to heal than a desire to impress you with his or her mystical powers," he assures that it is then possible to get an accurate telephone reading.

Whether they use email, telephone, or face-to-face communication, readers are only human. If you're diving into your first reading or other spiritual advisory, keep a grain of salt on hand. According to Brezsny, the biggest mistake is to assume that "the fortuneteller is an all-knowing source of divine infomania. Try to keep a sweet balance between eager receptivity to magic and shrewd discrimination towards the slipperiness of all things magical. Believe with not all of your heart, but with maybe 70 percent of it. And always keep checking in with your inner teacher, that quiet voice within, to see if what the soothsayer is saying resonates with your depths."

If you want to do away with the reader altogether, consult an ancient oracle based on simple mathematics and a set of texts more complex than the average Cookbook-style interpretation. "The I Ching is the most accessible oracle for left-brainers because there aren't any flaky middlemen," proclaims Paul O'Brien, creator of the popular Synchronicity software in the late 1980s, and now the proud father of The Emperor's Oracle (a truly gorgeous, I-Ching based CD-ROM experience) and Tarot Magic (another fabulous CD-ROM tool, which includes a myriad of different decks and spreads). "It's also a binary system, so experiencing the I Ching on the computer is superior to other ways of doing it."

Most modern, Western I Ching users focus on their question, toss three coins, and record the results using a system of line notation. These lines create hexagrams, which the querent looks up in the I Ching or "Book of Changes," and meditates on the text for the appropriate hexagrams.

Traditionally, I Ching was practiced in China by throwing multitudes of yarrow stalks to obtain hexagrams, but chances are you wouldn't know a yarrow stalk if it bit you on the ankle. O'Brien maintains that the "keyboard focusing ritual" of the Emperor's Oracle maps exactly to the ancient yarrow stalk ritual, and is a "far more accurate representation of the original mathematical structure than tossing the coins."

The program may retain the original math, but it presents modern interpretations of the I Ching texts. Since the most popular I Ching book in America is the rather scary and seemingly sexist Wilhelm/Baynes translation (which takes lots of stern Confucian-type texts, translates 'em into German, and then finally comes up with an English version), it's a relief to read the mellow, Taoist interpretations of the Emperor's Oracle.

So! You've certainly got a lot of options out there. Whether you consult the Cyber Tarot or head to the Psychic Faire for your reading, the only way to explore your oracular options is simply to dive in. Keep an open mind and be respectful; you'll soon find out whether computer-mediated oracles work for you.

Tiffany Lee Brown is the editor of the SIGNUM 'zine and the weblog Magdalen Sez. She sings, plays, and writes music as Passiflora, and with the band Brainwarmer -- listen at Her Venus sits in Aries, in the tenth house.

The original version of this article originally appeared in ST!M magazine, and has been cleverly recycled with their permission. No further reproduction or distribution of this article is permitted without the explicit written consent of the author and of ST!M.