A Computer is a Plato's Cave


Computers often appear as an element of contemporary religious and esoteric imagination. Since the 1980s, “cyberdelic” enthusiasts started to promote personal computers and related technologies as a continuation of a psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, a way of expanding one’s mind and realisation of the hidden human potential. The most prominent figure in these regards was probably Timothy Leary who perceived computers as the next mind-blowing thing after psychedelics. He wrote:

The cyberpunks, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, develop new metaphors, rituals, and lifestyles for dealing with the universe of information. More and more of us are becoming fuzzy-logic shamans and digital alchemists [Leary and Gullichsen, 1994, p. 232].

Ever since then, there was a cornucopia of examples of the interplay of cyberpunk with religion and esotericism, from fictional universes like Shadowrun to actual online communities like Cicada 3301 that heavily relied on esoteric aesthetics [for analysis of Cicada 3301, see Andjelkovic, 2021].

But why there is such a strong connection between these seemingly unrelated fields? The answer, I believe, is related to the very nature of computers and their ability to act as a metaphor of the esoteric vision of reality. That, in turn, is partly related to the fact that computers themselves were inspired by the esoteric imaginary. Their esoteric interpretation is not a coincidence but rather an explication of their inherent esoteric allowances in the same way it is the case with psychoanalysis, quantum physics, and space exploration.

From programming…

To provide a more specific example, let us turn to a practice of programming. For a programmer, reality is split into three distinct but connected realms: a series of electrical impulses inside a computer, a text of a program written in a particular programming language, and a user interface, i.e. the reality that a user sees on a screen and interacts with. A simple program that outputs a “Hello World!” phrase – the most basic program that is often used to introduce a new programming language – written in assembly language on Linux might look like this:

section .data
  phrase db ’Hello World!’, 0xa

section .text
  global _start

  mov rax, 1
  mov rdi, 1
  mov rsi, phrase
  mov rdx, 13

  mov rax, 60
  mov rdi, 0

The code might look strange at the first glance but ultimately it is a straightforward language based on English. Each block represents a detailed instruction. The first section tells the computer to create a variable labeled “phrase” and pointing to a group of characters. The _start block tells to output these thirteen characters to the standard output. The final block tells the program to finish and return 0 which indicates that it completed without errors.

However, this text is not what the computer sees. The computer ultimately understands only ones and zeroes represented by electric signals. Hence, everything, including letters, colors, sounds, and so on, must eventually be represented in the binary form. For strings specifically, letters of the Latin alphabet are converted to binary based on the ASCII table. When we compile the program above and read the resulting binary file, we will see lines similar to this:

48 65 6c 6c 6f 20 57 6f 72 6c 64 21 0a 00 00 00

This is a hexadecimal representation of a fragment of the binary code of the program, specifically, the string “Hello World!” You can immediately spot the newline character 0xa in the source code and in the hexadecimal line (in red). It is also easy to spot the hexadecimal representation of the letter “l” that repeats three times (in green). Other letters are easy to guess and check using the ASCII table.

…to Plato’s cave

While it is customary to use hexadecimal notation for convenience, in actuality, the executable code is the binary that the machine represents using electric signals. Such is the reality underlying execution of a program. For users, however, all they see when they launch the program is the phrase “Hello World!” How it appears, what magical forces brought it into being is beyond the user’s knowledge.

User interfaces differ. A program as simple as above is typically run from a terminal. However, most users today do not use terminal applications and instead inhabit the illusionary realm of graphical user interfaces. User interfaces create a psychological reality that cognitive psychologists sometimes call the “cyberspace,” a word originally coined by a cyberpunk writer William Gibson. Here is how it is described:

Predominantly Whittle sees the notion of cyberspace as being virtual in nature, but also something that can be both real and artificial at the same time. At the same time Whittle also likens our experience of cyberspace to being in a trance-like state that we may enter into when we become fully engrossed in the things that we are doing… [Hadlington, 2017, p. 5]

One can argue that the users are enchanted by their interfaces as if the users were prisoners in a cave staring at a wall and seeing only shadows of the actual processes happening inside their computers. We have already heard this story – Plato told it in Republic. Or, to be more specific, it is not the original Platonic story, but rather its later version rooted in Galen, Aristotle, and Stoics and further developed during the Renaissance where in between the world of abstract ideas and the material world there is an intermediary realm of pneuma – breath, language, symbols, phantasms, and magic.

Natural magic, the way it was understood during the Renaissance, was in some respects similar to programming. It was based on the knowledge of the hidden laws of nature and presumably allowed to produce changes through the use of symbols – words, numbers, sigils, and so on. The metaphor becomes even more complete if we take into consideration that the ultimate reality that was called the world of ideas in Platonism was envisioned by Pythagoreans and some Neoplatonists as the world of numbers, which is literally what the binary is.

Two metaphors

Naturally, I am not the first person to write about the similarity between computers and the structure of Hermetic universe. Eric Davis, for instance, emphasizes in “Techgnosis, Magic, Memory, and Angels of Information” the similarity between representations of information in computer systems, especially associated with the virtual reality, and the Renaissance art of memory employed by philosophers-magicians like Giordano Bruno. For Davis, the virtual reality become a manifestation of the world of imagination [Davis, 34-35].

This is a powerful analogy and it is clear that, at least in the classical cyberpunk novels, the cyberspace of the future was understood as an equivalent of the world of imagination. Leary also shared a similar idea. This metaphor is similar but different from the programming metaphor presented above.

In the programming metaphor, binary or electrical impulses represent the world of ideas, the user interface represents the realm of shadows, while magic happens in the symbolic world of programming languages. To be a magician in this case means to be able to see beyond the illusionary images on the screen. To be a magician means to see the source code of the universe, pretty much like it was shown, for instance, in the original Matrix trilogy.

In the virtual reality metaphor, we see, in general, various representations of information in a computer as a manifestation of the world of imagination. In this case, any user becomes a magician of sorts navigating through the world of imagination.

What does it mean for us?

The difference is subtle but its consequences are substantial. In the early days of personal computers when the whole field was driven primarily by technically savvy enthusiasts, this difference was non-existent. If we think about characters of cyberpunk novels like Gibson’s Neuromancer or Vinge’s True Names – novels that Davis analyses in his chapter – for them, there is no difference between the two metaphors, because they are both users and programmers, hackers, and, in general, active subjects of the cyberspace.

The same is not the case for an average user today. Proliferation of higher levels of abstraction and graphical user interfaces made it possible to use computers without understanding their inner workings. Step by step tech companies convinced users that the knowledge of these internals is superfluos for the general population and should be left to professionals. As a result, for instance, today’s social networks serve user updates based on occult algorithms that are not transparent to users. This tendency affects not just regular users but the IT industry as well where developers now often retreat to overcomplicated high-level libraries and frameworks in order to avoid low level coding.

To return to my original metaphor, it means that today computers loose the emancipatory power that they once had. Users are trapped in the shadows of graphical interfaces and AI-based algorithms that feed them their updates pretty much the same way the machines in the first Matrix movie feed people to harvest their energy. The virtual reality has transformed from magical cyberspace to the illusionary matrix where users are trapped with little hope to ever see the real world. Computers are still as magical as they always were but users are no longer magicians – rather, they are victims of black magic charms of big tech.


  1. Andjelkovic, Filip (2021). “The Mystery of Cicada 3301: Constructing Gnosis in Cyberspace.” Gnosis 6 (1), pp. 79-103.
  2. Davis, Eric (2020). “Techgnosis, Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information.” In Flame Wars, ed. by Marc Dery. New York: Duke University Press, pp. 29-60.
  3. Hadlington, Lee (2017). Cybercognition: Brain, Behavior, and the Digital World. London: SAGE Publications.
  4. Leary, Timothy and Eric Gullichsen (1994). “High-Tech Paganism.” In Leary, T. Chaos and Cyber Culture. Berkeley: Ronin Publishing, pp. 232-36.

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