- 708 words
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Three years after I was first introduced to the Tarot, I designed a Tarot deck myself (and was able to finish it within a month thanks to the motivation to submit it as part of my 2016 UCLA Media Arts application). While I initially learned the Tarot using physical cards and used them to structure conversations with my friends about challenging decisions we had to make, I spent a majority of my time consulting the cards in a digital format. My first deck was the Enchanted Tarot by Amy Zerner and Monte Farber, which not only had beautiful custom art riffing on the Rider-Waithe deck, a book of explications, but also an iOS app, which I used very frequently. It is said that if one carries their Tarot deck with them, the cards will hold the energy of their owner's experiences and provide more relevant insights. I became intrigued by how this principle could be manifesting technologically, so I decided to pare down the digital Tarot to it's most simple, bare, form.
ASCII as an aesthetic, symbolic, and functional choice
The ASCII Tarot deck was originally designed to be the foundation for a CLI tool. By simplifying the programming of a Tarot app, I hoped to have more control over the obfuscated inner workings of digitally powered divination. Among the CLI tools that I was inspired by, were projects like wttr.in, a
curl wrapper for wego, a weather app for the terminal, as well as "hidden" emacs adaptations of popular games like pong and tetris. I was perplexed by the absence of a tarot app in system defaults, since I had been helped in so many rough moments by my trusty Enchanted iOS app.
While incredibly beautiful and thoughtfully designed, I had my supsicions about the skeuomorphism of the Enchanted app's experience. When "cutting" the image of my deck into three, was the program actually dividing the dataset of 64 cards into three groups of 26? Would a human being shuffling be dividing the deck into three groups of exactly 26 cards? Or was the dual purpose of physical shuffling being somehow split in the digital form, really only acting as a brief moment of pause for the reader to meditate on their question? Wouldn't the shuffling then be somehow corrupted, if divorced from this meditation?
These questions also began to arise when thinking about the images on the cards. When using a computing device, I noticed I wasn't so concerned with the colors or details of each card, but rather with the meaning that my experience reading Tarot had attached to each one. I felt like I would be more effective shuffling my Tarot meaning flashcards than the actual cards, given how often I consulted various online cheat sheets. The skeuomorphism of the card design bothered me as well, so it only made sense to fully embrace technological folklore by choosing ASCII art for my card design.
The Tarot has always been practiced IRL - only through the tactile motions of shuffling, through the candlelight flickers that ignite our anticipation, through our belief that the material will translate something from the corporeal - are we able to find out fate, and believe the narrative that is drawn.
With the excitement of the world wide web, the late 1990's and early 2000's filled the internet with starry backgrounds and animations of divinatory motifs. 8-ball websites were generated, and early web surfers asked the god in the machine what their fate would become. Of course, the programmatic algorithm never could connect to the corporeal quite the same way, acting in a way more reminiscent of a predictably written fortune cookie (stupid american invention, by the way).
I created a full deck of tarot cards using ASCII art in an attempt to connect the innocence we had way back when on the web, with the physical ability to tell our fortunes. Perhaps it's a relic, perhaps it's a glimpse into the future...