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The 'Good Witch'

Dorothy (Judy Garland, right) with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) in The Wizard of Oz, 1939.

So about that talk at Yale.

Yeah, I won't lie, I was terrified. Some pretty serious imposter syndrome set in, and that's not in my nature.

(Yale, y'all.)

But they were a great group, and they asked really wonderful, and often difficult questions. I definitely came away with much, much more than two interviews and some b-roll. Their questions helped me re-frame the project in ways that I'd only lightly considered previously, and also reasserted for me the importance of discussing the nature of bots in a balanced way. Yes, people use bots for socially destructive ends (even if their intensions are good within their own frame of reference). But bots are also designed (and desired carefully) to perform helpful tasks, to do good. This is the core of much of Nicholas' recent research (this is also the focus of Samira Shaikh's current research) and it will be important to not throw out the good-baby-bot with the bad-bot-water as we wrestle with the challenges of bots and misinfo on social media.

(To that end, I'd love to interview people who program 'malicious' bots, or sell bots for profit. I feel like they deserve and need a voice in this. But just finding them, much less asking them to speak with me has been a challenge. If anyone has any leads, I'd love an email!)

During the Q&A, Nicholas' asked a question which he also asked during our pre-interview, and it sits with me because it gets at a core challenge:

Weren't there good witches? Good familiars?

In a way, the question is mu: The early modern definition of a witch was inherently sinister, inherently evil. For an early modern European, it would be like asking if there's such a thing as a 'good plague': it's just not in the nature of the thing.

But my mind jumps to Glinda, the Good Witch of North, and because she seems such an enigma among witches in cinema history -- and yet she's an iconic character. And this isn't even getting into her role in the books, which is pretty fascinating. In the film, she's more fairy that witch, and this was something I suggested as a response to Nicholas' question. There were early modern cunningfolk for sure, people who used folk magic to cure illness, find lost goods, performed helpful magic. For a fee, of course, usually, or at least food and assistance.

And then this makes me think of gebo or gyfu, meaning 'gift' and represented simply by 'X'. But this isn't the birthday present type of gift, or the talent to render music from an instrument. This is exchange, a barter of goodness to assure future goodness. If I am cold and hungry, and knock at your door, you let me in, warm me, share your meager food with me, and I am grateful. But I owe you more than my gratitude. For a day may come when you are ill, and your daughter needs to get to school. But the school is far and the path is dangerous, and she's only seven. I will go with her, guide and protect her, see that she arrives safely.

And I'll give you a call when she gets there, see if you need any meds from the drug store. You do. I pick them up and bring it to you. And maybe now gebo is out of balance, we're out of balance. My computer died, and I need to print a file for work. It's on my flash drive. You say, come on over, and I print the file, but we also share a coffee, talk about the kids, and I think, You're such a good friend. I just hope I can be such a good friend in return.

Is this just the nature of friendship? Or is it cold barter? Is this 'goodness'? There's what we know of the early modern witch trials from the court records and pamphlets, but then there's what we can glean about the emotions and relationships of the people at that time. And those interviews will be coming up in May, so I'll just leave it at that, for now.

And if you're wondering about the Twitter images above, I'll make a blog post about #cyberwitchcraft and why Familiar Shapes isn't about that. (Alas.)

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