Witch of Wals
A Story of Alchemy, Cryptocurrency, & Cult Capitalism by Bryan Edenfield
For some reason it has not trickled down to the man on the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics. For they have perfected their instruments and methods just enough to whisk away the crucial venom and what stands revealed is the Cheshire’s grin.
-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I am a follower of the Witch of Wals.
I follow her on all the platforms. I subscribe to her newsletter and listen to her podcast. I bought her book when it came out last year through Chronicle Press. I don’t usually fall for the hype, and I’m no social media maven. 40 Followers; 40,000 Followers: it makes no difference to me. I don’t know an Influencer from a Flux Capacitor and can’t tell my tweets from my toks. I’m not tech illiterate—my Office skills are topnotch—but the faces in my book are mostly default purple.
Maybe that’s why she appeals to me. No one notices me. I’ve spent four decades cultivating invisibility. If I had the nerve, I’d make an excellent thief, but I lack the burning desire for danger. Give me nerve, please. Send a charge through my inert body. I don’t mind if you charge for the charge; that only makes sense, considering the first law of thermodynamics. My credit is a vision of the future. But I can’t feel my skin sometimes. The world glosses over me like a featureless thing, less than a breeze. I’m not quite numb—I can feel temperature, pressure—but certain tactile qualities allude me, the timbre of texture muted. Where is that vibrancy of life I hear so much about?
The Witch of Wals asks these same questions.
She has only 20.8 million followers online. She follows 4; I haven’t bothered to see who. On a planet of nearly 8 billion people, 20.8 million equals only about one quarter of one percent of the whole. How much influence can she really have? That’s less than the population of Beijing but very slightly more than the population of the New York metropolitan area. But her reach goes beyond her followers. Many of those 20.8 million people worship her fervently and share her teachings with messianic urgency. Even if that were not the case, would it matter? The 26 richest people in the world own as much as 3.8 billion poor people. Does it matter if a house-cleaner in Kolkata knows nothing of the Witch, when prominent and wealthy entertainment moguls spread her gospel?
I’m not sure how I stumbled onto her work. The algorithm, right? The flow of energy harnessed and re-directed via binary code. One has to wonder if the algorithm now aligns with god’s will, syncs with the moral arc of the universe. Originally, they designed it to channel propagandistic content—ads, or worldviews—to those most likely to respond to it. That response need not be positive. We either swallow it or negatively react to it in a way beneficial to the status quo; either way, we do what they want. But over time, maybe the algorithm’s logic evolves away from capitalism and towards a different cult of mystery.
It is a mystery cult, isn’t it, the Cult of Capitalism? We’re all prey to its whims, but only a select few are initiated into the inner sanctum, their status achieved by right of lineage. Occasionally, new money is admitted due to perhaps low birthrates amongst industrialized countries. I don’t know; I’m just spitballin. I don’t fault Capitalism for aspiring toward spiritual status; it never made sense as a rational philosophy anyway. Fittingly, one wonders if this introduces a Hegelian antithesis into the supposed enlightened secularism of liberal economic ideology. If we worship mystery, how can our allegiance to a self-flagellating series of rules founded on rational certainty make any sense? That’d be sacrilegious! The professional Capitalist, pretending as if he didn’t know, makes no claim that his sacred path is a path of mystery, but that’s because he was born into the Inner Sanctum and to him sacred knowledge is banal. That doesn’t seem like how a mystery cult should work. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Moving on.
My point here is that I’m perhaps not the kind of person that you’d peg for a follower of the Witch of Wals. But I am. And I’m going to go see her tomorrow.
She’s stationed near the produce, but accessible only via Aisle 9: Bath and Body. Her location ascribes to disobedient physics. To enter the cave, ascend the silver and black escalators towards the blue neon lights. There, you are greeted by an elder clad in blue robes. He ushers you toward avenues of sacrifice and bounty: a pound of my flesh, my labor, for a dozen rolls of paper towels. The busy sun beats down on the earth a frenzied energy, and the earth takes the fire and turns it into life. We dig into the earth and turn it back into fire: see it there on the walls sparkling; see it in your very own hands, buzzing and chiming; see it blinking across the skyline. We swallow the earth. With the energy, we grow food, we eat it, we swallow it more.
I wander through the illuminated valley, the procession of vegetables glittering beneath a constant spritzing of water vapor. I can’t even comprehend the energy we’ve poured into this lettuce. The human body aches to transform the earth so that it may produce this lettuce. Our machines, our chemical inventions, manipulate the genomic composition of this lettuce, maybe. Our chemicals keep the pastures clean, chemicals forged in the fire of the earth, from the wet life of the earth.
These are the teachings of the Witch of Wals. There is no better home for her than here, amongst the products of the assembly line. Beyond, in a different indoor biome marked by dimmer lights and carpeted floors, home goods beckon, arranged in simulation of the Middle-American home. A chant drones over loudspeakers, a folk tune of static thumping weight, a real pop banger structured chorus chorus chorus chorus. What’s this idol’s name? It’s on the tip of my tongue….
Just as I think I’ve remembered, a priest’s voice booms with a subdued crackle and speaks in tongues a command that only the initiated can understand.
Part of me feels sick, moving down the white corridor, passing pictures of pure white teeth, chiseled bodies, intestinal ailments illustrated via red exclamation marks hidden within the aural body, depictions of the earth’s healing gifts that can be combined to give perfect bounce to our hair, perfect glow to our skin, perfect wit to our mind. Part of me feels sick in a way nothing here can cure, not the melatonin, not the aromatherapy treatments, not the rejuvenating ointments and balms. I feel sick like terrified. So many frozen eyes stare at me. Every other bottle or box has a face on it, smiling, staring. Why is everything so bright? I don’t know why we associate the color white with cleanliness but I’m pretty sure our reasons are not pure. What is cleaner than darkness? Rich, black soil may be decayed matter, but it is the stuff of life. We are what happens when decayed matter is transformed. Forget that we are aging. Forget that we wither. Forget the nasty bugs that roost in our bodies, eating us, sometimes slowly, sometimes not. How fitting that I’m reminded, on my way to the Witch, of all of my impurities and imperfections. How fitting, this cardboard cut-out of a fitness celebrity and her sworn formula of ingestible dirts that keep her muscles articulate and her ugliness silent. She is the last thing I see before I cross the final threshold. I imagine, briefly, the magazines waiting for me on my way out of this place. I want out. I have regrets. I am unsettled.
I’d been mostly ignoring others within the temple, but that isn’t possible now. I’m in a waiting room with a few dozen people. There is no coherent line and I desperately want there to be because it gives me anxiety, not knowing precisely where to stand. This is a test. Let go of my need for order. Embrace this enactment of sacred anarchy. Shove down that Pavlovian reaction, that indoctrinated thought, that this is all….
Study the faces. She is a hopeless beauty queen. He is a hapless locomotive. They are a goliath gemini. That little one is a terrorist, nipping at its mothers heals. The mother is a mountain of nails and hair and rainbows. The father is a silo of scorches and tattoos. They want to win a car. They come bearing meager gifts, credit cards. A man flosses his teeth and a businesslady spouts supremacy into her cellphone. A couple fuse their bodies together in quasi-erotic union, but clothed. A plump fellow watches. The loudest person in the room is a muscular man who’s devoted every inch of his body to the teachings of the Witch; he expounds her gospel to a young doe-eyed woman shivering at his hypnotic dance. Perhaps she’s eager. Perhaps she has the same trepidation as I.
I don’t belong here. This isn’t meant for me.
The meek shall inherit, and so forth.
“I only take cryptocurrency.”
I am prepared for this but hesitate.
The Witch senses my misgivings and says, “Don’t you think there’s something mysterious there? Is cryptocurrency a collection of occult signifiers and runic infestations?”
I know this is a rhetorical question. For some reason, I start blabbering. “Cryptocurrency requires an enormous amount of computing power. This, in turn, necessitates an enormous amount of energy usage, straining our already taxed globe and contributing to CO2 emissions. There are some green [in air quotes] alternatives, but even they necessitate some amount of energy usage, or computational power.”
I think of nuclear power plants. I imagine us tearing open atoms not to heat the world, but to mine for imaginary currency. Am I a hypocrite? Typing these words, disseminating them for public consumption (if such a thing happens), and even reading them (maybe), all of it takes power. Power cannot come from nowhere. We suck it from the earth. We pull it from raging waters. We siphon it from the sky. We gut it from atoms. But I’m no hypocrite. The line is easy to draw. For the world’s most prominent cryptocurrency, [name redacted], yearly data transfers consume the same amount of energy as a country. My word processing isn’t the problem here.
Because I can’t keep my big mouth shut, I share my luddite concerns with the Witch.
She smiles lightly and folds her hands in her lap like a patient elder. (She is a decade younger than I.) “Why does cryptocurrency require such disproportionately enormous energy usage?” she asks. Before I can answer another rhetorical question, she continues. “Maintaining security for cryptocurrency transactions requires diligence and power. Something cannot have value if you can’t rely on its inherent existence.” She winks. “Right? If gold sometimes disappeared when you touched it, or teleported from your hands and into someone else’s, willy nilly, it’d make a volatile economic standard. Don’t you think? But cryptocurrency doesn’t adhere to an archaic gold standard. Its standard is data.”
She lifts her hands to the sky and arches them widely, as if drawing an imaginary rainbow above her. “What is data?” She then grabs her thin arms and pinches her flesh. “Is it this stuff?” She pounds on her chest and I hear a dull thud. “Is it this? Inside us?” She shakes her head theatrically. “The most valuable data is data created by the most advanced computers. Do you know what that data is? Do you?”
I shake my head.
“The answers to riddles.”
She waits for that to soak in, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, so she continues to explain. “The most valuable piece of data is the answer to a riddle that only a supercomputer can solve. Of course this operation is enormously expensive! As is the mining of any mineral. The ecological toll of mining has never been one of its selling points. We don’t mine for coal because it makes rivers healthy. We don’t mine for data to learn anything about this stuff.” She takes an object from her small desk and holds it up as an example. It is a small black tube of hand cream, made with indigenous methods to bless our skin, $29.99 before tax. “No, these are not the riddles that our Oracle decodes.”
She sets the hand cream down and takes a sip of tea, then puckers her lips with a satisfied smack. “The most valuable answers are the unambiguous and certain ones, nonetheless extraordinarily difficult to come by. Moral quandaries are unanswerable. But computers can solve madly complex math problems, or find the correct alphanumeric combination from a nearly infinite set of combinations, and unlock a special chamber with nothing but itself hiding inside. This alchemy mints new coin by asking the supercomputer—the Oracle—to do increasingly difficult operations. Puzzles. Riddles. This is hot activity!” She fans herself sardonically and catches her breath. “Imagine! Server farms buzz with power. Fans and cooling systems keep everything from overheating, from bursting into flames. Imagine! Our computers may overheat from relatively mundane tasks, like uploading content to the Internet. Now, imagine an entire warehouse of that, and then imagine many giant warehouses, all over the world. We think our virtual space, our virtual realities, have no consequence or materiality. But these spaces are made from the earth and the heat of the sun, just as anything else.”
I nod. Isn’t she making my point? Wisely, she sees that I do not see, and continues to guide me.
“Imagine the most powerful computer possible. This computer can answer the most complicated riddle and thus create the most valuable crypto-mineral. There is no greater alchemy. The most powerful computer possible, if you can manage it, might consume the whole of the planet, or the whole of the universe. The more resources we pour into building the supercomputer, the more crypto advances in value, the greater the riddle we solve. We are betting on our own enlightenment but also our own annihilation. The two are the same now and maybe always have been. Cryptocurrency takes as its gold standard consumption and revelation. The Oracle unfolds riddles with seemingly no existential import, makes prophecies about its own capabilities to make prophecies. It becomes more powerful; the riddles become more complicated. Eventually, the riddle becomes, ‘What will happen next?’ When the computer can tell the future, we have closed the loop. The future is gone.”
She pauses, as if for applause. But I’m frozen.
The Witch smiles with practiced patience. “The Oracle answers our final question. Nothing happens after this, she says. It took all of existence for me to answer the question. The computer, now the whole universe, thus speaketh. And then there was darkness.”
The loop closes.