The divine witches of cyberspace



Fortune-telling is really interesting. It kind of exploits the way our neurology works. We’re evolved to find patterns in things—in current events, in the shapes of clouds, in the way the leaves and grasses rustle in the wind around us. We know our patterns, because if one of them is off, it might be a sign that a sabertooth is crouching behind the bush waiting to pounce on us and eat us. (This also explains where conspiracy theories originate.)

So we look at patterns in divination, and they’re often nonspecific enough that we do the job of applying them to our everyday lives ourselves. And when something happens that could fit with what the cards say, we convince ourselves the cards were right.

Of course, even if they can’t really tell the future, this does make divination methods like tarot cards really useful as ink-blot substitutes to help us free-associate what we’re thinking about…or, for that matter, as writing workshopping tools.

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One theory of dreams says the brain just fires off random bursts of noise, and then the storytelling parts of the brain get busy trying to make sense out of nothing. We assign meaning where there wasn’t any before, and the results can sometimes be really profound.

If that’s true, couldn’t a well-shuffled pack of cards, or three flipped coins, or the entrails of an eagle be the random stimulus as well?


Sure. In fact, that’s basically what lots of writing workshop tools are: random stimuli that the brain weaves together into a story. It’s that whole pattern-matching thing again. What is a story, after all, but a pattern of events that share certain common elements?

It really is kind of neat to deal out a tarot hand, interpret the cards, and watch them all come together into a story that didn’t exist before you assigned meanings to the pasteboards.

But the story only has the meanings you assign it. It’s not some kind of mystic guidance from above. If it’s guidance from anywhere, it’s guidance from within your own subconscious.

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Another fun idea: go to and click the “random” button 5-6 times. There’s your outline!

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I’ve occasionally kicked around the idea of a story about someone who tells fortunes based on randomized playlists from streaming music services. “Hmm. According to your significator song, you shouldn’t go out tonight, or it’s bound to take your life–there’s a bad moon on the rise.”

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