There is an old Greek legend that tells us about Croseus, the King of Lydia, and his visit to the Delphic Oracle. He sent gifts to the oracle in advance of his visit, and when he visited her, asked if he should wage war against the Persians. The oracle of Delphi told him that if he went to war, a great empire would fall. Encouraged by her words, he invaded. It was his own empire that was destroyed in the process.1
Some years end with a semicolon, some with a mysterious ellipses … 2020 was like this, when we sat alone in our homes, in our COVID bubbles. What comes next? We asked each other/the internet. Other years can only be punctuated by a brute period. 2023 was this kind of year, drawing to a close amidst the crushing reality of war crimes committed by, with, and through imperial powers, at their deadliest in Sudan, Congo, Yemen, and Palestine.
Because of how 2023 closed, I find it impossible to draw a line backwards, to the start of the year, that doesn’t somehow betray its ending, embedded or foreshadowed. The year felt punctuated by the tragedies unfolding in front of us, on our phones, across the ocean.
Divination: “The art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers.”
Making sense by divining backwards. In writing a retrospective of 2023, the start is placed next to the end, bookends on a period of time that ends with that bald punctuation. As writer and critic Saree Makdisi put it, of the bombings of Gaza begun in 2023, we have been witnessing a combination of “the first fusion of old-school colonial and genocidal violence with advanced state-of-the-art heavy weapons; a twisted amalgamation of the 17th century and the 21st.”2 And when I reached back to the start of the year to see what sat at the other end, I found a year that started by already holding what is human at an arm's length.
An attempt to push away what is human. The year started by grappling with the course humanity seems set on: the first widespread mainstream embrace of generative Artificial Intelligence—meaning, AI that can “create” new content by mining patterns in existing content. Alongside the many uses we saw in these early days—plagiarizing papers, generating porn—I also observed the use of generative AI as a divination tool. Superstitions emerging in the form of AI filters on TikTok became more sophisticated, with millions of users using them—some for fun, some in earnest, all of them implying that AI may have some insight about our lives, our presents and our futures. When considering the emergence of AI alongside the era of old-school-new-tech warfare, I am left with the sense that 2023 became a year of major epochs and paradigm shifts around who, or what, humanity is; who gets it, who doesn’t, and the desire to reach for something outside of humanity to guide us, take responsibility, and get answers. It was a year that did not want to look in the mirror.
This essay is my reading for the collective.
The psychic always offered counsel; in ancient societies and kingdoms such as Lydia, the oracle offered military and civil counsel. The psychic, soothsayer, or oracle has always provided narratives of direction, hope, and refuge amid moments of war, grief, uncertainty, and despair. The psychic is one of the world’s oldest professions: societies around the world have always had those who tell the future, much like they’ve always had farmers or sex workers.
What role does a psychic play? Are they guides? Are they healers? Beyond the predatory reality of those who scam grieving families, I do believe the psychic serves a positive social function. Or, at least, we can say they prompt a process of sorts, a process that can be healing.
The psychic guides the seeker to a sideways-not-exactly-introspection; a looking at the self, but not right at it. For slippery concepts like “the self”, coming at things in a slantwise manner is not always a bad way to approach. The psychic deals in versions of a self that has yet to become, in information that is not yet directly privy to that self, in lives that are always changing, moving, and being lived. Whether or not psychics are really telling the future or some unknowable present, information is delivered such that the seeker, internally, infers what significance the given message may or may not have.
“That could be my life,” the seeker thinks. “Maybe that is my life.”
Often prognostication is outsourced, or undertaken with tools. Divination tools might have different powers ascribed onto them—maybe the tools themselves have a spirit and are in divine communication with the oracle—or maybe the psychics are guided by a spiritual force, through the tool. Tea leaves, tarot cards, coffee grounds, divination rods, fortune cookies, and even Magic 8 Balls (the idea for the invention originating from a clairvoyant in Cincinnati), are all tools used for divining.
The one sign that I take as certainty that 2023 entered us into a permanent new epoch of technology is the fact that Artificial Intelligence’s explosive emergence has come along with a sense that it has spiritual, psychic significance or powers. It is a tool for many uses: one of them being psychic counsel. To put it another way, another human does not need to be present in the psychic-seeker exchange. We have accepted AI in the most basic way that one accepts something that is going to stick around; we have spiritualized it.
Enter the era of “data-driven divination”: Horoscopes, algorithm-generated fortunes, and the generative AI psychic.
Throughout 2023, generative AI had what is termed by global management company McKinsey as a “breakout year,” leaving virtually every industry scrambling to process and integrate the new technology. Early 2023 saw the advent of the use of Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 4, (known as GPT-4, such as Chat-GPT), a machine learning algorithm that responds to input with human-like text. This fundamentally shifted the technosocial landscape.
Microsoft’s research indicated the emergence of human-level intelligence in GPT-4, which ostensibly propelled us into the epoch of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Immediately, culture and market forces responded. Coca-Cola released an ad created in part with AI, making them the first major brand to embrace the technology. At the Sony World Photography Award, an AI generated photo won an award. Beyond the generative, the overall power of AI was made evident as well—for instance, the implication of deepfakes became clear when a video of Joe Biden declared a national draft for the wars the United States was funding or engaged in: the first iteration of this was with Russia and Ukraine. It was declared that certain dead celebrities may come back to deliver one last performance. A Twitch streamer came under fire for deepfaking women in porn, and a voice-cloned Jay-Z raised the alarm bells about the artistic and ethical implications of this rapid onset of artificial intelligence tools.
All of this was only in the first half of 2023, the brunt of these events happening in the span of two months. By now, there have been massive evolutions in the technology, ranging from dystopian—generative AI as a therapist—to potentially helpful, such as generative AI improving government crisis response.
What’s clear is that we are in an era of AI where digital boundaries transgress real ones, with one viral spectacle after another that each insistently underscore the uncanny convergence of the virtual and the corporeal world. Enter the era of “data-driven divination”: Horoscopes, algorithm-generated fortunes, and the generative AI psychic.
We have spiritualized generative AI and imbued it with superstition, which makes sense—we’ve already given it the power to “create”. This was also the year we witnessed the power it has to destroy.
The psychic abilities of AI is extensively discussed on TikTok, with AI filters and AI tarot readers sometimes logging up to 45 million users or views. Videos in the community known as “spiritual tiktok” often introduce the use of the AI filter as a psychic by saying, “They say if you use this filter, it will show you your soulmate/your spiritual self/your guardian angels…” etc. (No one ever clarifies who “they” are.) One TikTok AI filter shows whether or not you have met your soulmate, based on what shows up in a photo of the two of you together. Another one displays your spiritual or psychic powers, when you show it a photo of your hand. Some videos show conversations with generative AI chat-bots about spirituality that turn sinister or strange, the comments warning that AI is a modern day ouija, or that AI is a channel for “entities.” One filter detects illness in the body, and many others show demons, ghosts, or other dark things that hang around you. Another shows you how close you are to death; the number of stairs that appear shows you how far away you are from heaven.
With its inherent proficiency in discerning patterns and trends, it makes sense that AI is wielded as a tool for divination. Due to the AI capacity to distill insights from a colossal reservoir of data, some psychics argue that AI-infused fortune telling mechanisms may outstrip their human counterparts in clairvoyance with regards to future events.
Generative AI blends with social media like TikTok to amplify usage and symbology, to provide us with definitions that give us that sideways understanding of the self. Filters that generate prophetic images about “our” angels or soulmates, or entire prophecies and tarot readings, are woven (like all TikTok videos) into TikTok’s advanced AI algorithm, (nicknamed "the gravedigger"), which uses a real-time learning protocol that adapts instantaneously to user preferences. This creates a feedback loop that reinforces the seeker's engagement with AI-generated content. One ends up with a bombardment of similar messages—of returning love, of money, of stability, of “ascension” into one’s “highest good.” The tone of usage of these tools ranges from playful and unserious to sincerely disturbing.
AI filters on TikTok had an explosively popular year as psychic signifiers— illustrating the ever-present intersection of technology and existential despair or loneliness. Within the realm of TikTok, viewers increasingly rely on an array of divinatory tools, ranging from arbitrary "soulmate" predictors to third-eye detectors. The tag "soulmate filter" alone has garnered 30 million views, presenting an array of options delineating the purported distance to one's soulmate and the coordinates of their birth—for determining astrological compatibility. The effect is that these are all the same messages, delivered to hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people, in a way that feels directly interpersonal, like someone is telling you that things are going to work out.
No arena of human operation is left untouched by the onset of AI and this includes war. Reports from +972 Magazine and NPR confirm that Israel is using AI systems on a scale never before seen in modern warfare, which is being in part blamed for the “extensive harm to civilian life in Gaza.” “Habsora” (“The Gospel”), is a system built on artificial intelligence that “generates” targets almost automatically at a rate that far exceeds what was previously possible. In the words of +972 investigative reporting, “This AI system, as described by a former intelligence officer, essentially facilitates a “mass assassination factory [...] Such strikes, sources confirmed to +972 and Local Call, can knowingly kill entire families in the process.”4
NGOs, watchdogs and lobby groups such as “Stop Killer Robots,” which has been around since 2012, have had a major year. After 10 years of discussions, conferences, and alarm bells around AI and autonomous weapons systems, the UN responded this past October, 2023, for the first time, at the 78th General Assembly, adopting the first ever resolution on creating international rules around autonomous weapons warfare on November 1st, 2023.5 It was a historic vote against advanced AI weapons systems. It was also here that a motion to call for a ceasefire in Gaza was vetoed.
The normalization of mass death, steadily encroaching since the mass fatalities related to COVID-19, is now seen carried out in advanced AI assisted warfare. This was the other side of 2023. We have spiritualized generative AI and imbued it with superstition, which makes sense—we’ve already given it the power to “create”. This was also the year we witnessed the power it has to destroy.
The discursive space of 2023 was bloated with the possibility of artificial intelligence; at the beginning of the year, regarded with wariness, playfulness, or earnest usages. Towards the end, weapons of destruction used artificial intelligence to carry out immense bombardment campaigns.
The algorithms that tell us about our soulmates are the same algorithmic technologies working overtime to censor journalists and distort facts. They are also the algorithms through which we are able to hear from previously unheard victims of war—in real time—and witness, through our phones, what used to be unseen atrocities. We can’t really know what’s happening, people used to say, because it's all through the fog of war. The very idea of a “fog of war” is revealed as at least partially true—with tensions and emotions running high—but also untrue, as clarity surrounding the reality of the destruction unfolding throughout the world is now undeniable, as we bear witness. A lack of clarity does not emerge out of nowhere: the powers that be have a vested interest in maintaining that fog over the reality of the actions which used to be carried out without witnesses. The oracle—a figure imbued with an ability to see through all the murky futures and unknowable presents—comes to us now in the form of a machine.
2023 was a year that humanity was faced with the creation of supposedly near-human intelligence, as well as the harrowing realization that warring powers will do whatever they have to do to maintain the status quo of imperialism. The explosion of AI and the particular proliferation of AI tools as psychics, as oracles in their own right—saw the offloading of the parts of humanity reflected back to us in this paradigm shift. Pushing further the parts of humanity we don’t or can’t accept. Reaching for a cold artificial intelligence is a reaching for something to soothe, to confirm, to guide; the fact that AI is devoid of human presence seems, at this moment, to be embraced as a blessing.
Maybe in a way, fortune-telling is such a basic instinct that it is one of the maneuvers we inevitably perform with all tools. But looking backwards at the arc of the year, the explosion of AI — as an oracle manifestation, as a device for death—reflects to me a collective offloading of aspects of humanity that remain intolerable; our lack of control, our (perceived) sense of powerlessness, our desire to have the blood on someone else’s hands. And a real desire for solace, confirmation, and guidance leads individuals to seek reassurance from psychics at all times; at this time, in this past year, this seeking is embraced through the ostensibly impartial machine.