I like to talk about “cognitive security” in these virtual pages. Cogsec.

It’s a word I found lying around on the internet, only mildly stained with connotation. The (ugh) cybernihilists were on it last year, but seem to have wandered off and left it relatively unmolested. IBM is trying to make it an industry buzzword associated with their brand so they can appear to be on the cutting edge of something for once. But for the most part it was sitting there like a free kitten, or a couch on the curb.

So I took it. It’s a simple idea if you don’t dance circles around it like the academics (or the cybernihilist CHUDs):

Cognitive security is the study of influence for the sake of influence.

It’s related to these nifty new tech things, so it got this nifty techno-techno name, but it’s not new. It’s as old as the human mind. To claim a “continual arms race to influence — and protect from influence — large groups of users online” (AAAI) is only to describe a new battlefront in an ancient war.

Influencing large groups of people – online or off – is the business of empires, religions, corporations. It’s the business of business. It’s the entire basis of politics. Since the beginning of language, we’ve been able to project our thoughts into nearby minds, and we’ve already developed a wide range of techniques for influencing large groups of users. There’s a lot of apps on that platform.

It’s true that we have more data now than ever in history. We have more science, more knowledge of the limits of human cognition. We have titanic databases of “personal data” – that is, the surveillance files collected on you by the spyware merchants at Fazbok and Gugel. (On second thought, “we” don’t have that, do we? They do. Funny, that. Somebody should really start some kind of data co-op or something. But I digress.)

The fact is, the revolution in communication is one of scale, not one of quality. The same techniques that have been developed for ten thousand years are being carried over into the automated world. Meet the new gods, same as the old gods.

Because it’s magic, right? Social engineering, cognitive security, applied memetics: all of these buzzwords point to the same discipline, but dare not speak its true name. Magic .

Magic is not new, but now we can do it through computers. That’s worth thinking about, which is why I started this cogsec newsletter. We have to protect ourselves from novel threats, and the cybernihilists, shockingly enough, don’t give a shit. Somebody had to pick up the thread. What kinds of magic are we facing in the 21C, and what tools do we have to defend ourselves?

Now, don’t get me wrong: magic isn’t real.

It’s not. I know some of you might take this kind of hard, so I hope you’re sitting down. Take a drink of water or something. Harry Potter was a lie. Sorry. You’re not going to get a letter by owl, you’re not going to find the secret teachings on the internet, you’re not going to find a book of power at the library on a shelf no one ever saw before. Magic isn’t real. It’s okay – once you say it to yourself, it doesn’t hurt anymore. You were already living in a world where magic isn’t real, knowing about it doesn’t make it worse.

This is not to say that magic isn’t useful. Like I said, it’s a 10,000-year-old technology and it’s ubiquitous in society. It’s not just not real, it’s just not real yet. It’s the art of seeing possible things, counterfactual worlds, and influencing the reality around you to make them come true. Magic is making things happen. It’s the “Art and Science of causing Change in conformity with Will,” as Aleister Crowley put it, and the man was considered a famous wizard during his own lifetime. He made that happen. He was gross, but he was a magician.

The huckster who sells you a busted car off Craglits is also a magician. He exploits your cognitive biases to influence your behavior. So does the priest in the pulpit, the drill sergeant, the slicked-back skinny-tie ad man. Oh, sorry, they’re called “creative strategists” now, not “ad men”. And they wear hoodies. Anyway, they’re all dark wizards and they hate you and want you to do things you would never do, so they use magic to make you want things you don’t want. They know what they’re doing, although they probably have a nice rationalization that lets them sleep at night. That’s magic too.

Magic is everywhere, and it’s explicit. There’s a well-circulated document that shows how Pepsi’s “Smile” logo was created: “BREATHTAKING, by the Arnell Group” . This Arnell character made a 27-page proposal showing how the Golden Ratio was the secret to creating a logo that would transform into a hypersphere and engulf the Consumer in a Pepsi Universe. No kidding.

One million dollars they paid him for this.

Now, when the document was leaked a lot of “creative strategists” called it a total fraud. Even the creator said it was bullshit. Well, actually, what he said was “It’s all bullshit… A logo on a can of soda? Please. My life is bullshit.” Which is probably also true.

But it worked. Pepsi’s had that logo for ten years now.

What do you think? Did the folder full of steaming hype delude the minds of the C-suite at PepsiCo for a solid decade? Did the logo design actually meet some deep human need for golden proportions and dynamic forces? Or does the smiling globe actually exude “The Gravitational Pull of Pepsi”?

It doesn’t matter. The magic worked. Lines on paper and magic chanting made something happen in the real world. Just because the shaman was wearing a necktie and standing in a boardroom, doesn’t mean it wasn’t magic.

So magic isn’t real, but that doesn’t matter, because it still works. To study cogsec is to study magic in the 21st century. Defense against the dark arts. Consider this letter Sent By Owl.