magic

The celestial jukebox was thus magical, in the anthropological sense. Like the Trobriand gardening spells cataloged in Bronislaw Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), the celestial jukebox conjured an ideal situation in which mediation was “costless”—free of the “drudgery, hazards and investments which actual technical activity inevitably requires” (Gell 1988, 9). “Yam roots will strike down into the soil with the swiftness of a green parrot in flight, and the foliage above will dance and weave like dolphins playing in the surf,” and anyone will be able to listen to their favorite song at any time in any place (Gell 1988, 9). Alfred Gell, making a case for the similarity between magic and technology, described magical statements like these as positing “an ideal standard, not to be approached in reality, towards which practical technical activity can nonetheless be organized” (Gell 1988, 8). Magic’s efficacy, then, was not a matter of occult operations, but the orienting power of idealized visions, which downplayed their practical challenges (see Elish and boyd 2017 on magical discourses in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and Singleton 2013 on this theme in relation to outer space and escape).