Monday, December 30, 2019

Is high tech still pre-mythological?

I was struck by a paradox in an Esquire article about why les GAFA should be broken up : the argument and examples are compelling, but there’s no sense of who les GAFA are as characters, let alone as mythological archetypes.

One explanation is that we live in a post-mythological age. Jewett & Lawrence call this the myth of mythlessness (The American Monomyth, 1977): “the unexamined belief that scientific culture has transcended mythical forms of thought.” A passage in John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994) has made me wonder, though, whether we might not still be pre- rather than post-mythological, at least as far as information technology goes.

(I’m going to give a fair bit of detail about the argument in Crossan that led me to me this conclusion, because it’s interesting in its own right.) Crossan proposes that “Jesus' first followers knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial. What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized.” Prophecy, here, means units of the scripture “sought out after the events of Jesus' life were already known, and his followers declared that texts from the Hebrew Scriptures had been written with him in mind.”

Crossan distinguishes three stages in the development of the passion stories: First is what actually happened – we have independent verification from Josephus and Tacitus that Jesus was crucified. Second comes the search by learned followers for a “basis or justification in the Hebrew Scriptures for such a shocking eventuality.” Only then, third, comes a narrative based on this exegesis. He calls these the historical, prophetic, and narrative stages.

In his Jesus, Crossan gives an example from the Epistle of Barnabas of such learned exegesis, noting that “it can hardly be called a good story or even a narrative sequence, let alone a historical memoir.” He then adduces a historical anecdote in Philo of Alexandria’s Against Flaccus, which predated the writing of the gospels, that provides striking images that can be used to convert analysis into a story: In 38 C.E., a lunatic called Carabas was used by an Alexandrian mob to mock the local ruler during an uprising. The crowd dressed him up as royalty, saluted him as Lord, and then mocked him (cf. Mark 15:17–20; John 19:2–3).

Our understanding of les GAFA is still at the factual and analytical level (cf. Crossan’s historical and prophetic stages). We are discovering what they do, and building models of what that means, e.g. by doing antitrust analysis. We haven’t yet merged this understanding with compelling stories (perhaps even extraneous ones, as in the Carabas case) in order to create significant narratives.

Building up mythic meaning takes time. Crossan’s final chapter is entitled, How Many Years Was Easter Sunday? He describes the exegetical process as “the first Holy Saturday, a day that is going to last about, say, five or ten years,” during which Jesus’ ignominious death and burial (if he was buried at all) is transformed from a defeat into a postponed victory. In his Myth: A Handbook (2004), William Doty underlines the slow maturation of myth. He quotes Bruce Lincoln (in Folklore Forum, 1998) saying that “[w]ith rare exceptions, myths are not the creation of individual authors, but collective products elaborated over relatively long periods of time,” and asserts that “[m]yths convey knowledge accrued over generations.” Les GAFA have only been ascendant for a few years, and we haven’t had much time to process our analytical understanding into myth. And even if a decade would be enough, the companies and their technologies keep changing, so that our understanding of who they are and what they do is constantly in flux.

A possible counter-example to my hope of “just give it time, and myths will appear” is automation and its impact on jobs. This process has been going on for centuries now, and the first indications of research Rachel Anderson is doing shows few obvious signs of mythic narrative. I hope we just haven't found them yet. Other ways to test this theory would be to see how(or whether) powerful historical corporations have been mythologized; the East India Companies (Dutch and British) come to mind, as does AT&T.  There is some striking imagery from the Gilded Age: the so-called robber barons of the 19th century. Wikipedia describes this as a metaphor rather than a myth, but the border between them is porous: one could think of myth as metaphor wrapped around plot.

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