Monday, March 14, 2016

A Mystery Tradition for the Modern World?

Mystery traditions are as old as human civilization. Nobody has any idea who first came up with the concept of exploiting the human brain's reaction to uncertainty in order to create stronger memory impressions, but it has proved to be an effective method for creating changes in consciousness. I belong to two organizations that make use of this technology, Ordo Templi Orientis and Freemasonry, which are not so much secret societies as societies with secrets.

People sometimes question why members of both organizations keep the details of our initiation rituals secret, and some conspiracy theorists have proposed that it is because said initiations involve everything from criminal actions to communion with the alien lizards who secretly rule the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the reason that we keep the initiations secret is simply because that's how they work. When you walk into a situation that is entirely unknown, your brain and mind react differently than they do if you know what's about to happen.

The rituals of Masonry in particular have been published in many places over the years, and if you look hard enough you can probably find them, or at least enough information about them to figure out what's going to happen. But if you ever plan on becoming a Mason, I highly recommend that you don't do this. Without the element of uncertainty, the degrees are far less effective, and if you read ahead you're not putting anything over on the fraternity - all you are doing is cheating yourself out of the experience.

In that context I found this article from Vice especially interesting. It details the operations of a group called The Latitude Society that was essentially a tech startup designed to take advantage of the mystery tradition playbook. Its products were unique experiences based on the structure of the secret societies of old, and in this respect it was a secret society specifically tailored to the Internet age. It eventually failed, but while it was operational it represented a fascinating experiment in group dynamics.

Backing up a bit, the heyday of secret societies in America was during the height of the Victorian age. Freemasonry was very active at that time along with dozens of other organizations, many of whose names are now little more than historical footnotes. Most Victorian men of means belonged to many of these organizations, and instead of watching television the thing to do was go to the lodge. The Latitude Society attempted to revive this tradition, with mixed results.

Standing in that quiet waiting room, I remembered back to the day Justin gave me the invitation. I’d asked Justin: “How long will this take? Will I be able to meet my clients the next day?” He just smiled and shrugged.

Now, confronted by the cabinet, I wondered if I was about to be hooded and bundled into a van, or removed from San Francisco by helicopter. How well did I know Justin? Not very well. And I had no idea who’d built this place.

I felt scared and exhilarated, like I was falling down a rabbit hole. I drew a deep breath, then another one—and I surrendered both my phone and my wallet. The figure behind the ticket window seemed to watch me, unmoving.

As I closed the cabinet, one of the doors thrummed. I tried the other two doors—locked—and then I opened the third, which led into a dark tunnel. I got down on my hands and knees, and the twisting tunnel led me into a library so tiny that I didn’t have space to stand. So I sat and looked around the stately shelves.

Each one was lined with identical tall grey books, whose spines said The Latitude and bore that same golden hexagonal symbol from the card.

The tiny library was as elegant as a Renaissance painting, as meticulous as Disneyland. Before me, on a short lectern, one of the grey books lay closed. I ruffled through the pages; they were blank. Then the blank white pages lit up, and a woman’s voice began to speak.

“There was an island,” she said softly. “And at its centre was a village. And on its shore there was a port…”

Her words drew themselves in calligraphy on the page. Alongside the words, an illustration of the sea coalesced. Quickly, the illustration’s perspective swept forward and arrived at the base of a towering rock that rose directly from the water.

Some people found the concept fascinating, while others could not be bothered to participate. This suggests that different individuals respond differently to mystery tradition experiences. I've seen this in the organizations I belong to as well. Some people take the degrees and are highly motivated to continue the work, while others are less active in degrees and are more interested in the social aspects of the group. Others lose interest entirely once they see what all the fuss is about. I've always been one of the first group, fascinated by the degree work and the intricacies of ritual. In OTO I went on to become a chartered initiator myself, and have tackled some of Masonry's more difficult pieces of memory work. Compared to this the social aspects of these organizations are nice, but ultimately not the driving factors behind my involvement.

From the perspective of a mystery tradition initiate, The Latitude Society made what I consider to be several key mistakes. First of all, while the initiation into the organization as described here sounds awesome, there was really nowhere else to go from there. I was once told that you take an initiation four times - once as a candidate, once as a spectator, once as an officer, and once as an initiator. The solitary nature of the Latitude initiation meant that you could take initiation as a candidate and then watch others go through the same experience via closed-circuit camera, but that was it.

Most successful mystery traditions allow members to take part in degree ceremonies once they become initiates. It sounds like The Latitude Society was trying to automate much of that process by substituting technology - card keys to enter the building, recorded voices to repeat "the fable," and so forth. One person could watch the whole ceremony remotely, and provide hints to candidates if necessary. But direct human interaction seems to be part of the formula. On the one hand, the absence of any human interaction probably seemed more mysterious, but at what cost to the organization?

By the end of the day, our mission had led us to a roomful of arcade games. As we played one of the games, a staticky vision appeared and delivered a mysterious speech containing a code word. This word allowed us to return to the Latitude website and log in, whereupon we discovered Forums where all the participants used assumed names. I recognized some names from weird Bay Area art projects: Justin’s moniker was Dr. Professor. I chose Noisemaker, an old Burning Man nickname.

Immediately, I set about figuring out how to meet the Society’s mysterious creators. The few people I knew in the Society didn’t know much (or acted cagey when I asked them for details). Through Google, I gathered only that it was a project created by Nonchalance, a company that previously created an art “cult” called the Jejune Institute.

I learned many things from the Forums, and I grilled Justin—Dr. Professor—with a flurry of questions. Dr. Professor explained that, in Latitude parlance, he was my ascendant. (As the person who received the invitation from him, I was his descendant.) He was several steps ahead of me in the Society, and he had already gathered a lot of information. But in response to my thorniest questions, he always asked: “Are you sure you want the answer? Or do you want to figure it out on your own?”

In the "degree" parlance used by other organizations, Latitude had only one real initiation. The golden age of fraternity in America saw the proliferation of different degrees and degree systems, so that once you were a member you could still look forward to new initiatory experiences in which you could participate. It sounds like additional "books" - that is, initiations - were planned, but never rolled out. That suggests to me that the organization was started prematurely, since looking forward to the next degree can be a big motivator for continued membership.

Multiple accounts in addition to the linked article have described reactions to that one initiation as quite profound. It does sound pretty cool to me, and I would totally like to go through it - that is, if I didn't know now what it entails. But if the high point of your membership in an organization is the day you joined, isn't it also true that you have nowhere to go but down? It is true that eventually you do reach the end of the regular degree cycle in most organizations, but that is usually after investing a significant amount of time in the organization. But even after that, there are roles that you can go on performing.

One day, I met a local artist for lunch. He laughed when he saw the shirt and spoke a Society code word. I carefully asked him for details. He shrugged. “Oh, the Latitude Society,” he said, and, for the first time, I heard some of the names of people who might be behind it. “It’s Jeff Hull,” he said, “Kat Meler. You know. Those people.” I nodded like I knew what he was talking about, and I held the names close to my heart, like a prize.

For a few months after I joined, members met in person by arranging gatherings on the Forums. Often, we simply met for drinks or meals, but impromptu traditions emerged. For instance, some members conducted regular explorations of San Francisco’s privately owned public spaces. Then, after several months, the Society itself introduced official “Events.” The first Event was what the Society called Praxis: a ritualistic gathering in the lounge I’d seen on my first day, the lounge with the brass skull.

Praxis always began with a senior Society member retelling the Fable that we’d heard from the glowing book:

There was an island... And at its centre was a village. And on its shore there was a port....

The fable-teller was always from the Affairs Guild, a group of volunteers that ran Society events. Each Guild member had their own way of telling the Fable, which changed depending on their mood. After the Fable, each Praxis went in different directions, but it was always creative and ritualistic. The first Praxis I attended was led by an ethereal, soft-spoken redhead in her twenties. I thought she might be Kat Meler.

Slowly, between jaunts and parties and Praxis events, I collected a group of Society friends; the artists, gamers, and general weirdos who formed its core. We traded tidbits about how the Society was structured and we investigated its mysteries. For example, the website contained a hidden form that enabled members to look up codes from the grey books’ Indexes. Several members mined that form to make spreadsheets of terms like “abraxoids” and “abydos,” and then we searched those spreadsheets for patterns.

There is also a reason that mystery traditions often touch on spiritual themes, and as far as I can tell this was entirely lacking at The Latitude Society. "The fable" was an attempt at creating a shared group mythology, but what was the message? From the first bits of it that I can find, it sounds like it was something to the effect of "we are separate from the world and awesome, but we still must interact with it." That's a guess, you understand, but a mythology like that doesn't really teach anything. Yes, initiates have shared through an experience outsiders haven't. So what?

In that sense, it seems like the founders of The Latitude Society didn't fully understand what they were doing. The point of a society with secrets is not the secrets themselves, despite what just about every conspiracy theorist will tell you. It is how, in experiencing those secrets firsthand, what is communicated to you takes on the potential to transform your entire being. Not just what you do, but who you are. That is the real power of the formula, and here Latitude seems to have missed the boat.

As far as I can tell from the article, the "praxis" that the group engaged in consisted of little more than playing games and solving puzzles. That is, it provided entertainment and fellowship with like-minded people, but no real life lessons and no real suggestions for self-improvement. Masonry might look like that to a rank outsider, since many lodges hold public events like game nights, whereas degrees are entirely private. But there's far more to it than that. I doubt that the founders of Latitude were initiates of any tradition. Rather, they tried to copy what they saw from the outside looking in.

Some of their results, like that first initiation, proved quite impressive. I can only imagine having a similar facility in which to put on OTO degrees, and all the things we could do with those sorts of resources. But unlike that initiation, every single initiation of ours contains some important life lesson that is amplified by the degree experience itself through the power of the mystery tradition method. Latitude offered a whole lot of spark, but as far as I can tell no real fire.

I also think that unlike many other startup ideas, a group like this is not a very good fit for any sort of moneymaking venture. That sort of thing did happen once, with the Shrine, but that was an unusual combination of circumstances. In decades before prohibition, the regular Masonic lodges in the United States banned alcohol in order to improve their public image. But a lot of lodge members liked to drink, so they formed their own new group that did allow it.

The Shrine was swamped with members and wound up with a ton of money that it did not know what to do with. Thanks to that influx of funds, now there's a Shrine circus and Shrine hospitals founded by the group all over the country. Much of that money was put towards other charitable pursuits as well. But membership in the group was so heavily influenced by the alcohol ban, it seems unlikely to happen again any time soon.

Part of the reason social networking can scale so quickly is that it is entirely digital - and part of what was so cool about Latitude was the way it applied similar ideas to real life. As the founders discovered, all of that cool real-world stuff costs a lot of money to set up and maintain, and I fail to see how you could ever generate enough cash flow with the model that Latitude used. They finally added monthly dues, which brought in more money but also alienated a lot of previously enthusiastic members.

There's a reason that most successful cults require their members to turn over all their belongings or pay exorbitant fees for everything. It's because without extorting a lot of money from each member, there's just no way to fund everything such groups want to do. So as a moneymaking model targeting more casual members, it seems to me that the secret society is essentially a bust. That means any modern secret society will have to be formed for other reasons, since a profit center it is not.

What's particularly interesting to me, though, is that I imagine somebody eventually will pull it off, and I look forward to seeing the results. Some of Latitude's information technology applications are quite impressive, and I can imagine a "modern secret society" leveraging them even more fully. But I also think that if such a society is going to last, it has to be built by people with a better understanding of what mystery traditions are, and why members continue to find their association meaningful in the context of their lives.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who read this commented that he didn't get a good sense of what The Latitude Society was all about just from reading this post. That's true; you really can't. The article I'm citing is very long, and as such the only snippets of it that I included relate directly to the points that I wanted to make.

So if you are interested in finding out more details about the group and what it was trying to do, I recommend that you read through the original article and then come back to this one. In that context, my criticisms of the Latitude model should make more sense.

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