Ghosts in the Machines

Matt Bernico examined the relationship between technology and belief, using ghost hunting equipment as a case study.

nightshot2PROVO, Utah (Nov. 30, 2016)—We all have strange rituals we perform when interacting with technology, whether we realize it or not. Perhaps you press the crosswalk button repeatedly, hoping that the lights will change faster; you could very well do the same thing while riding the elevator. Maybe you click harder on the mouse when your computer is responding slowly. We perform these rituals, not because they work, but because we believe that they work, regardless of experience.

Matt Bernico, instructor of communications and media studies at Greenville College, calls such rituals “gestures of belief.” In a guest lecture, Bernico presented his paper “The Gesture of Belief: Mediating Presence through Apocryphal Technology.” Apocryphal technology, according to media artist Jamie Allen, is any technology which does not work as intended but is nevertheless “widely believed and circulated as being functional.

“While all technology has elements and usages that tend toward the apocryphal,” Bernico said, “I think the best place to start this research is with the most spectacular: ghost hunting equipment.”

Since the invention of the telegraph, technology has been used by practitioners of spiritualism – the belief in contacting spirits through a physical medium. Television programs like Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted make regular use of technology as a means of detecting the presence of ghosts. Besides cameras and other recording equipment, though, paranormal researchers have their own resource of items specialized to their work.

Bernico clarified, “I don’t believe in ghosts and my basic assumption is that these devices really don’t work on the level which they are purported to.” Instead, his purpose in studying is to examine the beliefs that people associate with the items. “Apocryphal technology doesn’t work in the strictly functional sense, but does work in the sense that it produces a belief that it works.”

As examples, Bernico described three pieces of equipment common in ghost hunting. The first is probably the most iconic: electromagnetic field (E.M.F.) readers. Normally used by plumbers and electricians to find sources of electricity hidden in walls, the E.M.F. reader is regularly used by paranormal researchers, who believe that these electromagnetic fields are the work of spirits. No matter who uses the device, the E.M.F. reader detects the fields. It is up to the user to find the source of the waves.

Bernico explained, “The combination of a device that has real, practical and scientific utility . . . with the mythology of paranormal detection . . . is apocryphal in the sense that in paranormal research the affect it produces surpasses the importance of what the device actually does.”

A more dramatic example is the spirit box. Superficially, the device is a hand radio with a microphone attached to it. Supernaturally, the device is meant to facilitate communication with spirits. In concept, the radio scans through A.M./F.M. radio stations so that spirits can take sound bites to cobble together messages.

The spirit box is meant to go beyond the E.M.F. reader, which is supposed to alert the user to an extra-sensory presence; the spirit box is meant to establish verbal manifestation of that presence, in answer to a question. “However, whether or not the words produced by the machine itself have any correlation to the question asked is largely irrelevant phenomenologically,” Bernico said. “Humans have a huge capacity to apply meaning over the top of unstructured and chaotic events.”

Finally, there is the Paranormal Puck. “The [puck] is an important turning point for apocryphal paranormal technology because it finally introduces the digital turn into paranormal investigation – it’s no longer analog, but digital,” Bernico said. In theory, the puck allows researchers to type queries into their attached mobile devices and carry on a text-based conversation with spirits.

“The Paranormal Puck fits in surprisingly well with instantaneous digital communication,” Bernico said. “Do any of us really understand how all of those messages get to our phones anyways? They all float through the air and – somehow – end up on our screens. Would it really be so hard to believe that there’s more out there than just our packets of data?”

Referring back to his idea of “gestures of belief,” Bernico explained that causality becomes a complicated issue when dealing with belief. Both the human and the technology perform actions. The human sets out with a question and seeks an answer, and the technology provides data.

“These devices all carry the ethos of scientific discourse, but lack the logos,” Bernico said. “Apocryphal technology fundamentally crosses from science to pseudo-science when it attempts to tackle a fundamentally unfalsifiable subject.”

Bernico hopes to extend his research to identify more forms of apocryphal technology. “There is a mythology attached to our technology,” he said. “Interactions between humans and technology are collaborative and together they produce an effect.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Nightshot2 by LuckyLouie