Thursday, December 12, 2019

Fertilility myths in high tech

I was very taken by Derek Thompson's "Google X and the Science of Radical Creativity" in the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic. I was inspired to scan it for metaphors, which are documented in a doc shared here. I was especially struck by the prevalence of fertility metaphors; keywords include seeds, harvest, drought, fruit, reap, and gestation.

I think an appropriate mythic reference is Adonis, read a la J.G. Frazer and the myth & ritual school. The death of Adonis and his revival by Aphrodite a flower corresponds to the annual death and return of vegetation; his death is needed so that he (and thus the crops) can be reborn in a new cycle.

There are many variants of the Adonis myth; the interpretation I’ve used builds on Ovid’s version, and plays up the rituals in which a statue of Adonis is dressed as a corpse, cast in the sea or a spring, and then retrieved (cf. Robert A Segal, Myth: A very short introduction, 2nd ed. 2015, 6–9, 52–58; Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd ed. 2009).

Fertility myths often involve a dying and reviving god, or a new king killing the old, in order to ensure fertility; another well-known example is the story of Osiris. Contemporary economics has a very close analog: Schumpeter’s creative destruction. According to Wikipedia, Schumpeter defined it as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” That’s a pretty close fit to the plot of a fertility myth.

Now, this death/rebirth metaphor doesn’t exactly fit the keywords of the Google X story, since they’re all about life and growth (with the exception of "drought"). However, Schumpeterian creative destruction is ground behind the Silicon Valley’s figuration of growth, and I think we can take it as read. Even though it started as a critique, modern capitalism has internalized and celebrates the necessary death of the fertility god/king which leads to rebirth.

Susan Tonkin, on reading a draft, noted that the "dying/reviving god" plot sounded a lot like planned obsolescence: every year a new iPhone, new fashions, etc. An important qualifier is Andrew McAfee’s insight that advanced economies are using less and less resources, even as GDP continues to grow. It’s still true that we our appetite for new stuff is insatiable, but competition and innovation – argues McAfee, e.g. in More from Less (2019) – mean that companies want to spend as little as possible on inputs, and increasing have the means to reduce those costs.

Susan also asked when this fertility language started being applied to technology; she felt it didn’t sound like something that would’ve resonated in the Cold War, or earlier. That sounds right to me; the industrial revolution was so obsessed with machines that an organic metaphor wouldn’t have resonated. Perhaps it goes back to post-WWII environmentalism; key milestones there include Silent Spring in 1962, the creating of the EPA and the first Earth Day in 1970, and Lovelock & Margulis’s Gaia hypothesis in 1974. The term “seed capital” took off in the 1960’s according to the Google ngram viewer…

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