Who Needs a Tarot Reading When We Have Predictive Keyboards?

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Here’s a fun way to make predictions for your new year: Try a predictive text prognostication—a QuickType Query, if you’d rather. Take out your smartphone, open a blank note page, and start a sentence like “This year, I will”, “my 2017 will be”, or “this year, I need to work on.”

You’ll notice the keyboard’s predictive text feature will offer a few different guesses for the next word. Clear your mind as best you can of any noise and any particular expectations for the outcome of your query, and choose one. The phone keyboard will again offer options for the next word—without overthinking, trust your intuition and choose again. Eventually you’ll create a sentence of some kind. You’ll find you just “know” when it feels finished, when it’s speaking to you.

Many of my own results, surprisingly enough, felt too personal to share. But even those whose meaning might be unclear—“This year, I need to work on my way out of the world but I’m not sure if I have any idea what if I’m not going to try” or “The defining moment of 2017 will be when he is on my phone and I am not sure if he will be able to help me out of my own way”—feel evocative and resonant, a pleasure to ponder and interpret.

No two users will necessarily have the same experience of autocorrect or predictive text, which means the system is simultaneously personal and universal.

Lots of people have come up with inventive ways to use autocorrect and predictive text—one person told me she and her friends have been using autocorrect and keyboard prediction to send funny texts among themselves for years. But what if this could be a real way to give oneself readings of a kind, a method of teasing touchstones from our future out of a square of luminous glass?

Your phone’s knowledge base about language is generally shaped in part by collective use and ongoing updates to a shared database, and partially by what it learns from you in particular. No two users will necessarily have the same experience of autocorrect or predictive text, which means the system is simultaneously personal and universal. That’s also one of the traits that makes tarot such a valuable tool to contemplate one’s goals and choices: the system is universal, where each card generally has a particular meaning, but that meaning depends entirely on the context in which the card appears, the interpretation of the person who reads it, and the personal prompt from the querent.

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Books, texts, and large databases of words have been used in divination for centuries. Bibliomancy, or the use of books in divination, was first recorded as early as the 1700s, while stitchomancy, or divination using apparently random lines from books, seems to date back even earlier. If you’ve ever tried any “open the nearest book and turn to page 45” meme and found any meaning or humor in the results, you’ve done stitchomancy, too. In this article on bibliomancy, a person realized he needed to move to Barcelona after spotting a book on a stoop in a time of crisis, while another became a yoga teacher after finding a book of poses.

Similarly, cleromancy is the belief that supposedly random numerical data points, like dice or lots, can point to the divine. The ancient Chinese I Ching uses numerical hexagrams that point to individual readings from a book that must then be interpreted—like our predictive text, a system of data determines what words will be read, and then the reader considers what that information could mean or how it might guide them.

“I personally think any system that combines symbols, chance, and pattern can be deployed as a tool to guide intuition- that’s what creates all these little everyday magics,” Oracles of the Web friend Haley Houseman, a tarot reader, explained. “Things like tarot are incredibly symbolically rich, and form a vast array of patterns; that’s what makes them useful to us. Words are even more powerfully associative, and I think even more powerful in setting our mind on a course. This sort of predictive text can also draws of a tradition of intentional spell casting in that way, combining intention and composition with divination.”

I decided to compare my autocorrect auguries to the ancient I Ching. There are several websites that approximate the experience of using the I Ching—this one lets you click six times to throw the “virtual coins” that reveal your hexagram, and then it tells you what the book would say in response. I asked if this would be the year I get rich, and in response I cast hexagram 62 and was advised, poetically, about humility, sincerity and frugality. Next, I consulted the predictive text keyboard and received “In 2017, my finances are actually going to work with my family”, which I interpret to be along the same lines as my I Ching result.

Houseman says there’s nothing harmful or illegitimate about trying predictive text prophecies for yourself. You might even see if any professional readers you know might be interested in using your keyboard for you, or with you, to include the experience of interpreter that’s common to tarot and other divination forms.

“I think in terms of an experience, this is a fun, light, and great way to reflect on the coming year,” says Houseman. “But the coolest thing is that underneath that lightness, it’s a new form of traditional folk divination.”

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