In the world's ancient wisdom, preserved in the various cultures around our planet like a precious inheritance in the form of myths, scriptures and sacred stories handed down from a past so distant that its details have been forgotten, the various cultural "technologies" such as agriculture, music, medicine, building, weaving and the rest are explicitly taught to come from the gods, and to be given as gifts by specific deities.
Additionally, the ancient myths teach quite clearly that when mortals fail to acknowledge the gods who gave these gifts to humanity in the first place, disaster always ensues. That disaster usually involves the objectification and dehumanization of the one who attempts to invert the proper order of the universe by using the technology given by the gods in a way which attempts to depose or embarrass the god or goddess who presides over that technology, thus attempting to subvert the very god or goddess who gave that gift in order to elevate humanity.
For example, readers of the blog may recall previous posts which investigated the notoriously bad judgment of King Midas in ancient Greek myth, who deigned to judge the music produced by a satyr to be superior to that of the god Apollo himself, who is the very god of music. For his folly, Midas was given ass's ears by the god. The same Midas is also famous for being given one request by the god Dionysus, and for asking to have everything he touched become gold -- a request he soon came to regret, when he realized he would be unable to eat or drink anything, and when he turned his own daughter into a golden statue.
An even more famous example, perhaps, is the well-known story of Arachne, whose skill at the art of weaving was famous throughout the land of Lydia, and whose wondrous grace and artistic genius (Ovid tells us) caused even the nymphs to leave their accustomed haunts in order to come watch Arachne working. However, the ancient myths record that her skill, beauty and artistic talent were not accompanied by appropriate gratitude to and acknowledgement of the gods as the source of her gifts, and that in particular she was willing to accept praise which placed her above the very goddess Athena who presides over skill at weaving and who gives that gift to mortals.
Indeed, Ovid emphasizes Arachne's failure to acknowledge the source of her gift by saying that anyone would have known by observing Arachne's skill that only Pallas Athena could have been her teacher, and yet:
Nevertheless, as though offended by
the very thought, the girl denied it, saying,
"Let her compete with me, and if she wins
I'll pay whatever penalty she sets!" Ovid Metamorphoses Book 6, lines 34-47, Charles Martin trans.
This arrogant boast brings the goddess herself to visit the girl (in disguise) to see if she can change Arachne's inappropriate failure to acknowledge the goddess, saying to her:
"Heed my advice: seek all the fame you wish
as the best of mortal weavers, but admit
the goddess as your superior in skill;
and beg her to pardon you for your presumption
in an appropriately humble manner --
forgiveness will be given, if you ask it." 6. 43 - 48.
Predictably, however, Arachne scorns this wise advice and insults the one who offers it, and concludes by asking why the goddess won't come challenge her in person -- at which Athena reveals herself in her glory. At this, all the nymphs and mortals present bow down before the goddess, but Arachne persists in her foolish desire to challenge Athena to a contest of artistic skill.
Ovid's description of the artwork created by the two contestants in this match of weaving underscores the theme: Athena depicts the episode in which she bestowed the gift of the olive tree upon the city of Athens, a gift of such inestimable value to humanity that with it Athena won the city as her own and became its benefactor. In addition to this central scene, Ovid tells us, the goddess adds in each of the four corners of her tapestry, the goddess weaves a scene illustrating the tragic results of others who audaciously attempted to invert the natural order by flaunting the will of the immortal gods: in one corner, two Thracians who lost their humanity and were turned into a pair of mountains because (Ovid tells us) "they assumed the names of Jove and Juno for their own" (6. 125 - 126); in another, a queen who was transformed into a crane and then made war upon her own people (6. 130 - 131); in another, Antigone daughter of Laomedon and sister of Priam of Troy, who boasted that her hair was more beautiful than that of the goddess Hera herself, and who was changed by Hera into a stork, "and now applauds herself with clacking beak" (6. 137); and finally a scene in which Cinyras of Cyprus is shown weeping over the steps of a temple, into which his daughters have been transformed, in an otherwise-unknown mythical episode (but one which fills the same pattern of "objectification" and loss of humanity when the primacy of the gods is questioned or denied)(6. 138 - 141).
In contrast, Ovid describes Arachne's choice of subject for her tapestry as being episodes embarrassing or humiliating to the glory of the gods and goddesses, often involving illicit sexual liaisons in which they took on various forms or disguises. For this arrogance and refusal to turn from her mad desire to "drag down" that which should be elevated, Arachne herself loses her humanity and is transformed into a spider, endlessly spinning and weaving as she used to do, but reduced to the form of a tiny arachnid for all time.
The warnings in the ancient myths about the loss of humanity through the failure to acknowledge the divine realm and the gifts bestowed by the gods upon mankind apply equally well to the technologies of today, even the most "cutting-edge" of technology. If the ancient myths teach the existence of an Invisible Realm, and advise us to acknowledge its importance and even the fact that it is the actual source and fount of everything we see in the visible and material realm, as well as the source of all gifts and technologies given to humanity for our elevation (which I am convinced is exactly what they are teaching us), then we would seem to be justified in concluding that we should use those gifts and technologies in the service of uplifting ourselves and others, rather than for the purpose of debasing, dehumanizing, and brutalizing (or animalizing) men and women.
The lesson of the myth of Arachne is, appropriately enough, particularly applicable to the technology of the internet and the world-wide web, which can be and has been used in many cases in ways which elevate and uplift and which unmask lies and point towards suppressed truths -- and yet which can also be used for intrusive surveillance, for manipulation of social and political processes, and for attempts to reduce men and women to mere objects or to something less than human by those wanting to usurp the roles of the gods, thus ignoring or rejecting the teachings of the ancient wisdom preserved in the myths.
Indeed, although the internet and the world-wide web have undoubtedly been portrayed (and widely perceived) as a technology of liberation and elevation and empowerment, journalist and author Yasha Levine has uncovered the important forgotten history of the origins of this technology as having been designed from its very outset for the purpose of surveillance and the suppression of popular movements which could challenge the dominant power structures, and for the imposition of control which almost by definition would reduce or diminish the human agency of men and women instead of enlarging and uplifting them.
Yasha Levine's book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet(2018), reveals that "the Internet we use today" was designed to be a "hybrid private-public system of surveillance and control" with roots in the counterinsurgency waged abroad by the military and intelligence agencies of the united states in Vietnam and many other countries around the world during the 1960s and in the surveillance and subversion of popular movements including the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement at home. In fact, a new agency of the Pentagon, the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA, created in the late 1950s in response to Sputnik, was expressly tasked with developing new technologies which could be used to counter perceived threats both at home and abroad.
It was ARPA which came up with the technology to successfully link computers together in a network, dubbed the ARPANET, which became the Internet which was later privatized and which now plays such a central role in virtually every aspect of modern life.
In the interview below, from Media Roots Radio, author Yasha Levine explains that the popularly understood history of modern technology is basically an anodized fable which strips away and buries the real history -- and that the real history once understood will open a very different perspective on the internet's original and ongoing purpose:
During that conversation (beginning at about 0:19:43), Yasha describes attempts during the Vietnam war to "bug the battlefield" by blanketing the jungle with sensors dropped from aircraft, and then to monitor those sensors remotely and call in airstrikes when the data suggested large numbers of enemy troops or vehicles might be moving through a particular area. Later, beginning at around 0:25:50, Yasha says, "We live in a reality where that's actually true -- the battlefield has been bugged, and the battlefield is not just a military battlefield but it's, like, all society."
Unlike the early days of the war in Vietnam, when the united states government dropped sensors out of aircraft, today men and women carry around their own sensors, their own "bugs," with them at all times, and helpfully add enormous amounts of information about themselves into various corporate databases which can then use that data to build profiles on individual citizens with levels of detail that would have been astonishing to early military and intelligence planners in the 1960s. Just as in the early days of "bugging the battlefield," those with access to all of this data can monitor what is going on and then take action and exert influence in an attempt to shape the desired outcome.
Today, all of society has been blanketed with sensors that can recognize faces, read license plates, record the contents of conversations, gather data on the movement of smartphones, make deductions based on the contents of email, or based on the titles of books purchased online, or based on web pages visited while browsing, and on a host of other activities which all leave traces of data which can be gathered and analyzed. And, the number of sensors is about to increase exponentially, as everything from televisions to refrigerators to washing machines to toothbrushes to automobiles to articles of clothing are embedded with antennas and transceivers and connected to the internet over the next several years to usher in the much-anticipated "Internet of Things."
And, as Yasha Levine explains in his book, once we understand the hidden history of the internet and related technologies, it is not unreasonable to deduce that technologies developed for military purposes in other countries would be employed against the civilian populace (even though this is expressly unconstitutional and illegal). In fact, as he explains on page 8 and goes on to demonstrate using abundant historical evidence later in the book:
In 1972, almost as soon as the ARPANET was rolled out on a national level, the network was used to help the CIA, the NSA, and the US Army spy on tens of thousands of antiwar and civil rights activists. It was a big scandal at the time, and the ARPANET's role in it was discussed at length on American television, including NBC Evening News.
One of the ways this military technology can be employed domestically is to try to shape the outcomes of popular elections. Although the above-linked interview was recorded nearly a month ago, just last week stunning new evidence of the ways in which military-style psychological warfare techniques are now being deployed to influence popular opinion at home, especially in order to influence voting in democratic elections, broke regarding the private firm Cambridge Analytica and data gathered on Facebook. See for example this article in the New York Times, this interview with an alleged "whistleblower" from Cambridge Analytica, and this video showing purported undercover footage of executives from Cambridge Analytica explaining how they mine data in order to create videos specifically designed to manipulate people's fears and then serve those videos to those most likely to be emotionally moved by the fears highlighted in those videos.
Setting aside the fact that the timing of this sudden exposure of Cambridge Analytica should probably itself raise suspicions, it should be fairly clear from the above videos that the technologies and tactics described are designed to try to play upon base fears, reducing men and women to the level of reacting rather than reasoning, like animals or even like musical instruments which can be "played" rather than acknowledging that each and every man and woman is much more than their external physical form and their more animalistic fears and emotional drives, and that each man or woman contains a divine spark, an internal connection to the infinite, which makes them intrinsically worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.
Interestingly enough, even though the above-linked interview with Yasha Levine was recorded well before the startling evidence regarding Cambridge Analytica surfaced last weekend, his interview (and his book) discuss these types of applications of military technology to the domestic political landscape (because the evidence shows that this kind of anti-democratic behavior has obviously been going on for quite some time).
Beginning at about 0:23:42 in the above interview, Yasha says:
The technology that was developed in Vietnam with input from ARPA -- you can draw a straight line from that cybernetic system that "bugged the battlefield" to data systems that are powering elections today.
It is also extremely revealing to note that in the late 1960s, when the earliest versions of the ARPANET were being tested by linking computers located on the university campuses of MIT, Harvard, Stanford, University of Utah, and several UCs (including UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UCLA), people back then immediately perceived the potentially anti-democratic applications of such technologies and students organized protests against this forerunner of the internet, calling it "computerized people-manipulation" and a "blatant prostitution of social science for the aims of the war machine" (Surveillance Valley, 63).
Strangely enough, a joint project run by ARPA in the year 1969, in conjunction with Harvard and MIT, which intended to gather and analyze data from opinion surveys, welfare roles, criminal records, financial transactions, and other similar sources and then run simulations to predict human behavior was dubbed "the Cambridge Project" (63). Is it only a coincidence that the modern company recently in the news for using Facebook data to profile voters and send targeted propaganda attempting to exploit fears and prejudices would share a name with this pioneering predictive project funded by the Department of Defense?
The concerns voiced by student protestors in 1969 regarding Project Cambridge (also known as "Project CAM") are worthy of careful consideration today, nearly 50 years later. You can read some of them on pages 62 through 64 in Surveillance Valley, and you can hear Yasha Levine reading from those pages in a recent episode of Town Hall Seattle published on February 13, 2018, here (and in the embedded player below):
Some of the concerns voiced by those students of MIT and Harvard back in the fall of 1969 included:
The whole computer set-up and the ARPA computer network will enable the government, for the first time, to consult relevant survey data rapidly enough to be used in policy decisions. The net result of this will be to make Washington's international policeman more effective in suppressing popular movements around the world. The so-called basic research to be supported by Project CAM will deal with questions like why do peasant movements or student groups become revolutionary. The results of this research will similarly be used to suppress progressive movements. 64.
Until the military-social complex is eliminated, social scientists will aid the enslavement, rather than the liberation, of mankind. 63.
Longtime anti-fascist researcher and broadcaster Dave Emory (mentioned in this previous post) has been highlighting the potential for the anti-democratic abuse of social media tools such as Facebook, the potential for modern networking technology to be employed as a tool of repression and tyranny, and the evidence the Cambridge Analytica in particular might be an example of the employment of military psychological warfare technologies against domestic populations since well before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in the "mainstream news" last week.
For example, he published an in-depth discussion of problematic aspects of Cambridge Analytica in a program entitled "Summoning the Demon: Technocratic Fascism and Artificial Intelligence" dated August 8th, 2017 (available for listening or download here). And he has been warning about the potential negative aspects of Facebook since at least 2010, when he broadcast a two-part program entitled "In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon?" (available for listening or downloading here: part one and part two).
More recently, Dave Emory highlighted an article published in the New York Times in February of this year (2018) entitled "Track hands of workers? Amazon has patents for it," written by Ceylan Yeginsu. The article describes a patent filed by Amazon for a wristband device which could (in the words of the article's author) "emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee's hands were in relation to inventory bins, and provide 'haptic feedback' to steer the worker toward the correct bin." You can see more detail of the original patents, filed in 2016 and granted by the patent office on January 30 of 2018, here.
The February New York Times article linked above notes: "Critics say such wristbands raise concerns about privacy and would add a new layer of surveillance to the workplace, and that the use of the devices could result in employees being treated more like robots than human beings."
It also cites a former warehouse worker for the company saying he would not be surprised at such treatment, because: "After a year on the floor, I felt like I had become a version of the robots I was working with."
And note that these concerns are being raised over a patent for a proposed device that "only" tracks the location of your hands: new "smart glasses" are now being designed by other companies which could conceivably be used to give visual cues similar to the haptic (or tactile) clues described in the wristband patent -- and which could conceivably track where you are looking throughout the workday, at every single moment of the day.
Although companies involved in developing such technologies (including Amazon) deny that they would be used in an oppressive way, but only in a helpful way, it does not take much consideration to see that such technologies could (theoretically) be used in very dehumanizing ways, to give stimulation and feedback and correction in much the same way that a shock collar can be used to give stimulation and feedback and correction to a dog, and to "program" desired behavior and then monitor compliance in a way that makes a man or woman feel more like a robot than a human being (as the actual worker quoted in the story above in fact said that he felt before he quit).
This unpleasant possibility thus brings us back full circle to the topic discussed at the beginning of this post -- the warning from the world's ancient wisdom of the potential for being reduced to something less than human if we ignore the will of the gods themselves, who are in fact depicted in the myths as the ultimate source of the gifts of technology. When mortals refuse to acknowledge the primacy of the divine realm, then they are denying their connection to and dependence upon that divine source and fountain of all gifts and blessings, and risk cutting themselves off from that realm -- and in doing so, risk being reduced to something less than human, merely animal, or even merely object.
When we reject the blessed gods (whose gifts are in fact designed for the blessing of mankind), and insist on declaring ourselves their equals or even their superiors (an error we see repeated over and over in the ancient myths), then we are in jeopardy of incurring their wrath, and at the same time of reducing ourselves and others to something debased and dehumanized.
It should be fairly self-evident that modern neoliberal society is very much characterized by the rejection of the dignity and divine spark present in every single mortal man and woman, by many forces which seek to treat men and women like objects, datasets, or instruments to be played like a piano (or like a slot machine or a computer terminal), and by those who believe that technology gives them the right and the ability to act like the gods themselves, watching the every move of other men and women and seeking to manipulate and control them. In doing so, they are in danger of repeating the error of Arachne, who failed to acknowledge that the "technology" of weaving came from the goddess Athena herself, and that Arachne's own talent at that art could never make Arachne superior to the goddess who gave Arachne that talent in the first place.
Ovid described Athena during the weaving contest as still laboring (even after the mortal woman's insults and arrogance) to correct Arachne's self-destructive course. The subjects Athena selected for her own tapestry were intended as lessons to the headstrong mortal: a central scene showing Athena's gift of the blessed olive tree (and its fruit and oil) to humanity, showing that the gifts of the gods are indeed intended for our benefit and blessing, as well as surrounding scenes in each corner of the tapestry showing the dehumanizing and objectifying consequences of refusing to acknowledge the will of the gods and instead trying to usurp the place of the gods themselves.
We can imagine our modern society in the place of Arachne, having insulted and rejected (over and over) the will of the gods and the ancient wisdom given to humanity -- and marked by many instances of claiming to be equal to or above the gods themselves -- and yet still in the position to "beg their pardon for our presumption in an appropriately humble manner" (in the words of the goddess Athena in the passage from Ovid cited above). As the goddess says, "forgiveness will be given, if you ask it."
It is also important to point out that in none of the ancient myths are the technologies or arts themselves described as being intrinsically bad or evil. On the contrary, the arts of music, or weaving, or bringing forth crops from the soil of the earth are all described explicitly as the gifts of the divine gods. Athena even tells Arachne that Arachne is well advised to revel in her skill, and to seek recognition as the greatest of all mortal weavers. Being the best weaver that Arachne can possibly be is not at all something to be shunned, but rather a worthy goal, according to the goddess. It is only when Arachne forgets or denies or devalues the proper order of the universe, and the primacy of the divine source of that gift, that Arachne makes a fatal mistake.
Similarly, we can conclude from this myth (as well as from other stories found in other myths from ancient Greece and from around the globe) that technology itself is not intrinsically bad -- even including computer networking and sensor technology and many of the other amazing technological developments and innovations which men and women have brought out of the realm of the possible into the realm of the actual in the past several decades. But when we (or others) use that technology in ways that subvert the will of the gods, by debasing or devaluing or denying the divine spark in ourselves or others, and by using that technology to treat them (or get them to treat themselves) like animals, objects, robots, or instruments, then we (like Arachne) are using a good technology in a bad and self-destructive manner -- and we can expect to reap extremely unpleasant consequences.
Recent stories such as those cited above show that we have in fact already traveled very far down the road in the wrong direction. The potential for ubiquitous, networked, wireless devices and sensors to be used in ways which demean, oppress, diminish, and debase men and women on a wide scale, is enormous. As Yasha Levine emphasizes in his book and in all of his interviews and lectures, the solution is not a technology solution: it must be a moral solution, a social solution, and a political solution.
Like Arachne, our society has thumbed its nose at the immortal gods for centuries, and has already experienced some of the severe objectification and dehumanization that results from such wrong-headed behavior. But, as the goddess Athena explains to Arachne, it is still possible to realize the error of our ways and reverse course.
But at some point, as Arachne herself also learned, it will be too late.