Saturday, January 26, 2019

Mythology, old and new: Some patterns and implications

I’ve been exploring the intersection of technology and mythology recently (Techno-Loki, Greek Technology Gods, Spectro-Loki, and Afterthoughts). This post starts to pull together some of the threads: why gods are useful, candidate gods (not Gods) in modern life, and technology as god(s).


“Myth” has two common meanings. I use the term to refer to “a traditional story … explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events” (Oxford) or “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon” (Merriam-Webster); examples include “ancient Celtic myths” and “creation myths.” When I claim that we need new myths to help us deal with technology, I mean that we need new stories that explain technological practices, beliefs and phenomena.

I am not talking about the other common meaning: “a widely held but false belief or idea,” (Oxford) or “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society” (Merriam-Webster ). Examples of this usage include “evening primrose oil helps to cure eczema” and “the American myth of individualism.”

Why are gods useful?

Helen Morales’s "Classical mythology contorted" first got me thinking about modern analogies to ancient mythology. She quoted an interview in which David Simon, showrunner for all five seasons of HBO’s The Wire, said:

"The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason."

Mythology is a way to think about patterns of power and belief in human society. Myths are ways to describe and explain what’s happening beneath the surface, and ways for us to listen to the collective subconscious. It’s not predictive (and thus not scientific), but it’s way to understand what we’re up against.

Gods are a way to explain why things happen the way they do, and their existence gives us some hope that we can control the world around us. They offer two kinds of agency: The actions of the gods provide an agent-based explanation for otherwise arbitrary or inexplicable events; and they promise the comforting possibility that we can influence the forces behind these things.

This is necessary, since reality is fickle. We crave causality, but the world doesn’t come labeled with explanatory chains. Our minds aren’t good at dealing with randomness: we don’t have good intuition for probabilities (e.g. the reaction to Marilyn vos Savant’s solution to the Monty Hall problem, and other probability paradoxes), and professors tell me that statistics is a very hard subject to teach.

Just like scientific causality in messy reality, it’s often hard to recognize the gods. They move in mysterious ways, often in disguise; for example, Athena often appears as other characters in the Odyssey, and many gods are shapeshifters (e.g. Ovid’s retellings aren’t called The Metamorphoses for nothing). That’s true for modern equivalents, too: it’s no surprise that the hand of the market is described as invisible since it’s hard to discern its actions, even after the fact.

The way people relate to gods provides clues about what we want from them:

We try to propitiate and expiate the gods (“the act of appeasing or making well-disposed a deity, thus incurring divine favor or avoiding divine retribution”), for example through prayers and sacrifice. In today’s world we sacrifice money to Innovation (in the form of R&D tax credits), and people to the Market (through lost jobs and livelihoods when disruptions occur). We try to influence Technology when politicians flatter, cajole or browbeat Silicon Valley CEOs, when policy makers practice “regulation by raised eyebrow,” or through rules like network neutrality.

We constantly invoke and honor our gods, e.g. when pundits extoll the Market, Competition, Innovation, The Arts, etc., and when politicians invoke the National Interest (and/or Markets, Competition, etc.) to justify their actions.

Humans have traditionally suffered dire consequences by ignoring or angering the gods. Odysseus’s long journey was triggered by his failure to sacrifice to Athena after the fall of Troy; and he incurred the wrath of Poseidon by blinding Polyphemus. Today, socio-economic problems are often blamed on ignoring the Markets or Competition.

We have also always sought predictions and prognostications from the gods, usually via priests, prophets and oracles. Their modern counterparts (at least for the intelligentsia) are the economists, academics and TV pundits channeling the Market.

People have always affiliated and identified with one god or another, depending on their social standing (elites with Odin, yeomen with Thor), profession (artisans with Hephaestus, merchants with Hermes), gender (men with Zeus, women with Dionysus ) or place (Athena in Athens, Apollo in Delphi, Poseidon in Corinth). Today people also pledge allegiance to forces greater than themselves: the Market, the Party, Humanity, Family Values, etc. – and for many, of course, the Gods of organized religion.

Mythology is a time-tested way of thinking about the supernatural, by which I mean things beyond what occurs in nature; nature here denotes the subject matter of the physical sciences, and doesn’t include culture. (Oxford defines the supernatural as something “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.” Merriam-Webster offers “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”) This admittedly narrow definition of nature allows me to treat mythology as a way of thinking about culture, politics and society. It also allows me to argue that we need new myths because the supernatural has changed (and not just been rendered unnecessary by the sciences) both because cultures have changed (we don’t live in agrarian societies engaged in chronic tribal warfare and raiding) and because our rationalist, scientific attitudes have changed our relationship to the transcendent.

It seems to me that myths have two important functions:
  1. To name the forces that people in a particular culture feel they are subject to; since humans are hyperactive agency detection devices, we often think of them as characters.
  1. To provide stories that illustrate the nature of these forces; as someone once said, it's better to learn about people like Iago while watching a play than first-hand in the workplace.

Jobs for Gods

Fully employed

Many of the traditional gods seem as relevant today as ever: war/Ares, wisdom/Athena, cunning/Hermes, technology/Hephaestus, ecstasy/Dionysus, love/Aphrodite, the arts/Muses, and so on. Judging by our sexualized entertainment culture, Aphrodite and the Muses are still on the A-list. We don’t publicly praise war, cunning, and ritual madness very much today, but Ares, Hermes and Dionysus are still working hard behind the scenes.

Underemployed and being reskilled

Some gods seem much less important nowadays, as crop fertility (Demeter, Flora), and successful fishing (Nereus, Glaucus) aren’t existential problems anymore; few First World people work in farming and fishing nowadays.

However, we still talk about the intangible resources that our society depends on (like know-how, intellectual property, radio spectrum, trust) as if they’re fields that have to be rendered fertile. And while we no longer sacrifice to Poseidon to avert earthquakes, nature is still a force we fear: Climate Change is a mythic force, with passionate believers and disbelievers taking sides mostly on faith rather than first-hand familiarity with the science.

Open positions

We do need some new gods that aren’t included in traditional mythologies. Two obvious ones are the Market, and the State. While there have always been gods associated with commerce (Hermes, for example), global capitalism is qualitatively different from the trade of pre-industrial societies, and the adoration of the Market by its many adherents (see e.g. Harvey Cox’s 1999 article and 2016 book) eclipses any homage the traditional (rather minor) gods of trade received.

The modern State is not comparable to its old analog, the all-father gods like Zeus and Odin. The old Top Gods remind me of the warlords who ruled humans in the days when authority was up-close and personal. (R.I. Price notes in the invaluable Chronicles of the Vikings that Old Norse had dozens of synonyms for “king” while English has a handful at best.) In pre-modern times, the state was seldom much more than the monarch’s court plus some tax collectors, and now it’s an administrative leviathan (schmoop, FEE). The nature of government has changed with the rise of the bureaucracy, though we haven’t lost our penchant for authoritarians.

We also need a new god of Uncertainty. While the old mythologies certainly had gods of chance and disorder, they didn’t represent uncertainty as we understand it today, e.g. (1) probability and statistics, including uncertainty and quantitative risk assessment; (2) the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in non-linear systems, aka the butterfly effect; and (3) probability and uncertainty in quantum mechanics. All these areas of quantifiable uncertainty are underpinned by rich bodies of knowledge, and have entered the public consciousness as an essential part of modernity. Since we don’t ascribe agency to everything anymore (at least not when we’re trying to be rational), we need a god that does throw dice.

The old gods of disorder and chance don’t quite fit the bill. While they have some of the needed attributes like capriciousness, they’re secondary deities or have disorder as a secondary attribute. On the other hand, modern Uncertainty etc. feels foundational, pervasive, and dominant – in Greek times, it would’ve been one of the Twelve Olympians. Tyche governed the fortune and prosperity of a city and was a “capricious dispenser of good and ill fortune” who signified uncertainty and risk. However, she was not a major figure in Greek mythology. Dionysus, certainly a major figure, stood for the chaotic, dangerous and unexpected – but only as one among a variety of attributes, that included winemaking and wine, fertility, ritual madness, and theater.

Technology as god(s)

Technology as a force in modern life resembles the gods of mythology in many ways. Traditional gods were rarely seen by humans, and often took non-human forms like a swan or a bull.  Modern technology is everywhere and nowhere, especially when one thinks of wireless digital technology with data stored in the cloud(s ;-), inscrutable algorithms that recommend things to buy and people to befriend, and objects that watch over our home and talk to us (today’s Penates). Just like the old gods, the force of technology is hard to see directly, though we feel its effects. The mythical (in the other meaning of the word) spectrum crunch is easy to invoke, but it’s hard to prove that it exists. It’s the same for interference; there are constant, dire claims and warnings about radio interference, but while anecdotes abound, it’s hard to find solid data.

Technology is full of the unexpected and uncanny (until you get used to it, by which time there’s some new magic): talking to people a world away, intelligent assistants, and always knowing one’s location to within few meters, and the time to within 40 billionths of a second. Its capabilities are overwhelming and superhuman.

Like the old gods, technology is capricious: it gives immense wealth to some and inflicts poverty on others. It’s inscrutable: it's hard to figure out what the makers of technology want, let alone what the technology itself wants (we know it’s just an artefact, but it seems to have a mind of its own). It’s precocious, seeming to spring forth fully armed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Change is almost unbearably rapid (and was even for the Victorians), and it’s bearers are young and brash: the Google guys, Mark Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, etc.

Technology is not only beyond our personal control (we just keep clicking that “OK, I accept” button to get the information we want), but the polity usually doesn’t grok what it’s up to until it’s too late. A recent example was allowing Facebook to acquire WhatsApp and Instagram, not grasping that it was all about scooping up data, not a harmless horizontal merger. Antitrust enforcement can help, but it takes a long time, cf. the suits against AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft. It reminds me of Loki: it took a while for the gods to realize that he’d traded away the apples of immortality to save his skin; and that his offspring by Angrboda, whose name means "The one who brings grief," would kill the gods at Ragnarok.

After reading a draft of this post, Susan Tonkin commented that I’ve focused on just a subset of technology, particularly computing and information. I’ve ignored a complex of bio-oriented tech, including pharma and agribusiness, that is related to nature (Gaia?) and has its own set of bogeys: GMOs, toxins, antivaxxers, and so on. That’s a great point – and I was reminded of the two motifs in noted in Afterthoughts: the tricksters, and the artificers associated with Mother Earth. I argued that we’re now in the era of the tricksters, but biotech blurs the issue – the Great Mother and her assistants are still at work.

Many traditional mythologies are stories of decline, like Hesiod’s Ages of Man, Hinduism’s four Yugas, the Fall in Judaism, and the Norse prophecy of Ragnarok. On the other hand, progress is a characteristic conceit of technological Modernism, though movies provide some balance through dystopias like Westworld, the Terminator, the Matrix, and Ex Machina. Traditional mythologies also had a strong sense of the inescapable power of the Fates, which has been muted by the Enlightenment triumph of science and individualism. I’m beginning to suspect that our worship of Technology needs a dose of pessimism and fatalism to prepare us for bad news; mythologies can help with that.

Having laid some foundations, I’m left with these questions:

  • What are our myths, i.e. stories that everyone knows, and often hear, and can invoke with just a single word or phrase?
  • Do they help understand the forces of/behind technology?


There are many lesser gods associated with the Market and the State, like Productivity, Efficiency, Innovation, Competition, National Security and the like. This is a common pattern, where a central deity is mirrored in one or more minor gods: Eros and the Muses with Aphrodite, Pan with Hermes, the Daktyloi and Kabeiroi with Hephaestus, and so on.

It’s worth noting that there were many more gods than just the celebrities we learned about at school.  In addition to the ones that act in history and intervene in human affairs (Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the like), there were the “background” gods that made the world tick, like Helios who rode his chariot across the sky every day, and his daughter Eos, the dawn. There were also the Fates (the Moirai for the Greeks, the Norns for the Norse) that predated and ruled over even Zeus and Odin. 

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