Friday, December 21, 2018


In his wonderful Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman says that the trickster god Loki makes the world more interesting, but less safe. He explains that it was Loki’s fault that the gods got their greatest treasures, and sums him up this way: “You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”

That sounds a lot like technology to me.

Loki is loyal only to himself, and disdains the gods of Asgard – just like technologists scorn politicians. Nobody’s sure when or why he came to Asgard, and nor do we know when technology started; it’s just always been around. Loki and Odin are bound by a blood oath, but Loki has no loyalty to gods of Asgard, and will fight against them during Ragnarok, the end time.

The gods tolerate him because his smarts are useful, but it’s an uneasy alliance. In the same way, politicians distrust technologists, but depend on them. Just like Asgard, this dependence may be our undoing; fifty years ago we worried about fallible fingers on the nuclear button, but soon nuclear escalation could be driven by inscrutable AIs.

Loki is impulsive and an improviser. He works best under duress. For example, after he promises to share food with a giant eagle, Loki gets upset when the eagle eats too much, and stabs it with his spear. The eagle carries him off, and coerces Loki into obtain the apples of immortality for him. (Eating those apples reverses aging, keeping the gods forever young). To do this, Loki tricks the goddess who guards the apples. As the gods age, they figure out it must’ve been Loki’s doing (that’s always a safe bet). After they threaten him with torture and death, he agrees to retrieve the apples, and more mayhem ensues.

Likewise, technologists will grudgingly change their behavior (and the behavior of their technology) when threatened. There is a long history of consent decrees on US technology companies (IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.). Web sites provided privacy notifications to their American users because of the European Union’s data protection legislation, the GDPR. Facebook acquiesced to privacy legislation only after Cambridge Analytica came to light. It’s not just information technology; think about child labor in the mills of the industrial revolution, pollution limits on industrial plants, and fuel efficiency requirement for automobiles.

Loki’s impulses get him into trouble, and cunning gets him out of it. Each stratagem leads to another, in chains of events that generate banes and blessings in equal measure. Take the story of the treasures of the gods, which starts when Loki steals the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif, as a drunken lark. To avert Thor’s wrath, Loki tricks two groups of dwarves into a treasure-making contest that yields not only new hair for Sif, but five other treasures: Odin’s spear Gungnir, the one that always finds its mark; a huge ship that folds up like a small piece of cloth and always has fair winds; a golden arm-ring that produces eight more like it every ninth night; a flying golden boar to pull the god Frey’s chariot; and – last, but not least – Thor’s magical hammer. (Luxury, transport, and weapons: the age-old gifts of technology.)

Like Loki, technology spawns good and evil indiscriminately. Nuclear weapons and radiation therapy; online shopping and the dark web; social networks and 24 x 7 behavioral tracking.
Solutions create new problems. Computing led to data overload; that was solved by search engines, but they had to be paid for by advertising, which led to internet giants tracking our every move.

Loki is a shapeshifter. He changes appearance with ease to achieve his ends – from a gadfly (which harried one of the dwarves making Thor’s hammer, ensuring that Loki wouldn’t lose a bet), to a crone (that ensured that the beautiful god Baldr, whose death Loki had engineered, could not be freed from the Land of the Dead). Technology also obscures its means and motives. Facebook claims “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” while it makes money as an advertising platform that surveilles and manipulates its users to help marketers sell stuff (and beliefs).

One might object that my analogy is misplaced: it is the dwarves who are the technologists, not Loki. That’s even more plausible when one considers Greek mythology, where there is a craftsman-god, Hephaestus. In a world where metalworking is the top technology, craftsmen are certainly important. However, in an age of knowledge work, where intellectual skill is more valued than handiwork, Loki (and his Greek analog, the trickster Hermes) is a better archetype than metalworkers.

Loki runs on a volatile mixture of creativity, irresponsibility, cunning, greed, and fear of sanction. What Neil Gaiman said about him applies just as much to our relationship with technology: “He is tolerated by the gods, perhaps because his stratagems and plans save them as often as they get them into trouble.”

(For more, see my subsequent post about Greek technology gods: Hephaestus, Hermes and Prometheus. I've also now posted radio spectrum examples of Loki's qualities.)

Update 16 January 2019: I've started reading Daniel McCoy's The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. It's an excellent complement to Gaiman. McCoy describes Loki in much the same way, no doubt because both are working from the same sources: “Loki was a scheming coward who cared only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation. He was by turns playful, malicious, and helpful, but always irreverent and nihilistic. Snorri describes him as handsome, but temperamental and dangerously guileful.” McCoy also notes that "Loki was said to have eaten the heart of a woman renowned for many deed of great malice. He became pregnant again [the first time was when allowed himself to be impregnated by the giant stallion Swadilfari, giving birth to Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged horse], and this time he gave birth to all the female monsters in the world."


After reading a draft, Susan Tonkin commented that I seemed to be conflating technologists and technology. On reflection, I think technologists are to technology as Loki is to his stratagems – the one is the intention behind the other. One is the agent, the other is the outcome. It gets messy because outcomes take on a life of their own, and become agents.

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