Technology of the Gods

Technology can give us the power of gods, but can it help us become more human?

The promise of technology is the promise of power. Power over the material world, and over our fates as humans. Power that was once the sole domain of the gods. It was from them that Prometheus stole fire to give to man, and with it the gifts of progress and civilisation. But Prometheus was punished for his audacity, chained to a rock to be eaten alive by Zeus’s eagle for all eternity. The gods do not forgive mortals who grasp for power. Icarus is burnt for flying too high, and Phaëton scars the earth when he attempts to ride the chariot of the sun god. We have harnessed fire and the heat of suns in nuclear energy. Looking in to the first nuclear mushroom cloud Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’

In the modern myths of science fiction men master the power of the gods. Faster than light travel transports us across galaxies. Cybernetics give us the strength of Hercules and brain implants make us as wise as the Oracle. Virtual reality computer simulations allow us to shape the world itself in the image of our dreams. The gifts of Prometheus today hold out the promise of a tomorrow beyond all imagination. Science fiction predicts a coming ‘technological singularity’, a ‘rapture of the nerds’, in which man is liberated from the limitations of material reality by ever more powerful technology. Why shouldn’t we take the power of the gods for our own?

Gods are cruel and capricious creatures. But no more so than the men who invent them. We make our gods in our own image, in the image of the power we desire. Zeus is the king of the gods because he is the archetype of every mortal king and emperor who has ever ruled, surrounded by a pantheon of lesser deities, modelled on the royal courts of queens, princes and lesser courtiers. The Christian god Jehovah, that ultimate white-bearded patriarch, faced with the aberrant race of men, chooses to obliterate his own creations through flood with no more sympathy or remorse than a corporate CEO downsizing his work force. Beautiful Ishtar was goddess of both love and war, a sacred whore who used both sex and violence to rule over men, as potent a symbol to her Babylonian followers as a prima donna pop star or Hollywood A-List actress today. Gods do not just walk among us, they are us. Our ideals of power and success made flesh. And they are as petty, powerful, vacuous, mysterious, destructive and creative as they have always been.

In Hindu and Buddhist mythology men and gods have always lived side by side. We are caught in the material illusions of Samsara, the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth that awaits us all, gods or mortals, until we discover the escape route. And not just gods and humans, but a hierarchy of hell demons, hungry ghosts and animal spirits, all caught in the unending cycle of material existence. From Samsara come the Western concepts of heaven and hell. But in the philosophy of the East both heaven and hell are a place on earth, a place that every being, from the lowest demon to the highest god, makes for itself. Traditional Buddhist mythology divides Samsara in to six realms, often depicted in richly illustrated artworks as the Wheel of Life.

The Hell Demon, the Hungry Ghost and the Animal Spirit. The three lowest creatures in the cycle of Samsara, and the three lowest states in the psychology it describes. The Hell Demon is consumed by anger, hate and violence. They can do nothing but kill or be killed. They represent our most basic drive for survival, and manifest powerfully in the psyche of the criminal, the murderer and the psychopath. The Hungry Ghost is our hunger, thirst and greed. They can only consume, and their appetites grow the more they are fed. This is the psychology of the addict, the junkie, the alcoholic. But these aspects of the psyche exist in all of us. And with enough pain and suffering any of us can be reduced to the psychological state of a demon, ghost, or even an animal.

The animal spirit contains both the hellish rage of the demon, and the hunger of the ghost. But more than anything, it lusts after sex. Gautama Buddha, the great philosopher of enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of Samsara, taught that if humans had one other drive as powerful as sex, enlightenment of any kind would be impossible. Spiritual seekers in every age have struggled to tame their sexual desire, or transmute it into the purer form of love. Even the gods are not immune to the lusts of their animal nature, so when Jupiter manifests to penetrate the maidenhood of a young virgin, it is always in the form of a swan or bull or lion. All humans are animals, but not all animals are human. And it is only when we can control the demons, ghosts and animals of our psyche that the higher realms of Samsara open to us.

Those higher realms are populated by the gods. The first realm is the home of the Asura or ‘jealous gods’. As all gods must, the Asura have risen above the base psychology of demons, ghosts and animals. But in their contest to enter the higher realms they have become consumed by pride, wrath and most of all jealousy. They fight endlessly among themselves for ever greater power. These are the politicians, celebrities, artists, entrepreneurs and business leaders of our world today. Powerful individuals capable of both great good and great evil, but always prideful of their position and jealous of any attack upon it. In the realm above the Asura are the Deva, or ‘divine gods’. Those who have reached such power that they no longer need concern themselves with the petty bickering and rivalries of their jealous underlings. But the Devas can be arrogant and cruel to those less powerful. And when their power wanes or is challenged, their untamed rage returns them to the beginning of the cycle as hell demons. The Devas are our aristocrats and socialites, those born to wealth and privilege, so detached from the world that they rarely play any significant part in it, beyond continuing to live off its wealth for as long as they are able. Prometheus’ true crime was not stealing the secret of fire, but revealing in the theft the falsity of the gods. That they do not stand aloof and above creation, but are as subject to its laws as all other creatures.

The cycle of Samsara is a portrait painted in myth of the society that created it, the society of the Indian sub-continent three millennia ago. A society stratified by wealth and a rigid caste system, not unlike our own globalised society today. And it is a map of the human psyche, from its hellish origins in the evolutionary struggle for survival, to its potential for godlike power and complexity. The same psychological forces drive us now as then, and keep us trapped in cycles of violence and addiction, oppression and power.

And it is technology, from the fire stolen by Prometheus, to the nuclear energy unleashed by Oppenheimer, that fuels the cycle of Samsara. It is technology that makes weapons for the hell demons to make war with. It is technology that feeds our hungry ghosts with addictive drugs. It is technology that exploits our animal drive for sex to keep us glued to our screens. And it is technology that fuels the fight for power between the jealous gods of our age. The billionaire industrialists and technology entrepreneurs who wield the power in our world.

But technology also has the potential to liberate. The sixth realm of Samsara is the realm of humans. It is depicted in some traditions as the highest realm, in others as balanced in the middle. To be human is to have overcome the anger, greed and lust of the lower realms, but also to have rejected the power struggles of the gods. To be human is hard. We are exposed to both the hatred of the lower realms, and the whims of the gods. But it is only as a human that we can escape the cycle of Samsara and achieve enlightenment. Only humans are capable of true learning, and hence true liberation. The question we must ask of our technology is this. Does it lead us further in to the cycle of Samsara, the cycle of violence, addiction, lust and the quest for god like power. Or does it, in the end, help us to become more human?

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What critics really mean when they say…

Nothing in publishing means what it says. Especially book reviews and the stuff they put in blurbs.

Renowned – unknown

Bestselling – crap

New York Times bestseller – utter crap

Seminal – almost dead

Legendary – actually dead

Cult – only readable by drug addicts

A powerful debut – you will never hear from this author again

Winner of… – went to uni / slept with a judge

A tale of love, hate and [INSERT IRONIC SUBJECT IE ironing, cats, bee keeping] – the book is essentially just the unremarkable life of the author who erroneously believes they are quite interesting

Volume 7 in the Chronicles of Tel’neth – sales started tappering off after Volume 2 and have never recovered, we’re hoping the author will die before we have to tell him he’s no longer in contract

One of our greatest living novelists – everyone is saying nice things about this but I really don’t know why

Hypnotic, spellbinding – didn’t get it

Brilliantly conceived, bold and exuberant – didn’t read it

Impossible to put down – only read the beginning

The long-awaited return of – written by the author after a minor nervous breakdown in a desperate attempt to pay their medical bills

The literary sensation of the year – author got to all the right parties

Astounding – competent

Astonishing – incoherent

Amazing – predictable

The list could go on forever. And why shouldn’t it? Tell me the ones I missed @damiengwalter

An open letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon

Dear Jeff,

Congratulations on your recent purchase of Goodreads The Washington Post All Creation. You already owned the world’s biggest marketplace for ebooks, and let’s give you credit for having the vision to make the Kindle happen. Now you own the biggest community of readers in the world, and those 16 million super-readers, and their influence over the reading habits of hundreds of millions of other people, only cost you a measley $150M. And let’s not forget Audible, the only significant audiobook producer in the world. And Shelfari. And the rest. You own it all Jeff.

We’re going through the most significant change in publishing since the printing press. We’re digitising all the old analogue forms that the written word was once stored and distributed in. Because of e-readers, smartphones and tablets most people now do their reading on digital devices. Bricks and mortar retailers are either bust or heading that way. You could buy up the major publishers but really, what’s the point? They will go bust sooner rather than later anyway, then you can buy their backlists cheap, or just go directly to the authors. The old infrastructure of publishing is dying, and you own the new infrastructure lock, stock and barrel.

None of that is up for debate. So what I’m really writing for is to ask a question. Now that you own publishing, what are you going to do with it?

I’m not so naive that I don’t already know the answer. You own an industry that used to be diversified over dozens of major businesses and thousands of smaller ones. And it’s a growth industry. People want more books than ever. We’re a society hungry for information. Ebook sales are going through the roof. So what you’re going to do with the digital publishing infrastructure is MAKE A HUGE FUCKING SHITLOAD OF MONEY…BEZOS HAZ ALL DA MONEYZ…as they say on the internet.

But come on Jeff, really? Huge personal fortunes from private ownership of social infrastructure is just *so* 20th Century. It’s not like you can go all Andrew Carnegie on us and start building libraries to assuage your immense sense of guilt…well you could but it would be the very *height* of irony as you’re primarily responsible for destroying them. Seriously, is there no other game plan than just grabbing all the money for Jeff? You know that feeling at the end of a game of Monopoly, when you’re stuffing the $500 notes in to your mouth screaming ‘JEFF WINS JEFF WINS JEFF WINS’ but the children are crying and your wife is looking at you like Diane Keaton confronting Michael Corleone in The Godfather? Well that’s how its going to be Jeff. Serious now.

Let me sell you another vision. And this is a sales pitch Jeff, except I want nothing except the chance to save your immortal soul from your own overwhelming greed.

You, Jeff Bezos, self-made billionaire and CEO of technology giant Amazon, have the chance to seal the deal on your reputation as one of the truly great figures in history. I’m not talking piffling ticks on the hide of humanity like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Fuck Caesar, Jeff. Fuck him to hell and back. I’m talking Gandhi here. I’m talking Buddha. I’m talking fucking Jesus, Jeff. That’s the scale of opportunity we’re talking about here Mr Bezos. Millennia from now mothers will name their children after you. Entire schools of philosophy will be dedicated to acclaiming your greatness. People will stop in the streets and pray to your name eight times daily. This is the Messiah shot Jeff, and you’re the only man in the game who can make it.*

Set the information free.

That’s it Jeff. That’s all you have to do. Just let it go free. Like a bird from a cage. The whole infrastructure is there and you, Jeff Bezos, hold the key. Just give it away. All the books ever written. And all the books that ever will be written. And all the reviews and essays and critical commentaries that will ever be written about them. The entire ecosystem of human knowledge, all in one digital archive, free for any member of the human race to access at any time and from any place. That’s not destroying libraries. It’s not even building new ones. It’s making the ultimate library. The library humankind has been working towards for its entire history. And you could be the man to finally make it happen. And with it usher in a new shining age of human development that will make the Enlightenment look like an episode of Deadwood.

And if you don’t?

We’re facing a new digital Dark Age. One where every bit of human knowledge is owned and locked down in DRM protected silos and only released when its corporate owners are paid. One where the profit motive governs every human transaction, where knowledge is power and power is money and knowledge only goes to those who can pay and we spiral in to a cycle of human ignorance that drags us back down in to the intellectual squalor of the dark ages. And right now Jeff you’re right up there as one of the four horseman bringing the apocalypse on, you and Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and Tim Cook and the host of money grubbing corporate non-entities you’re empowering to lock down every fragment of human knowledge. That’s the future Jeff, and if anyone even remembers your name for bringing it down on us, they’ll spit after they say it, like a curse.

Or you can prove yourself at least partially human, and do something worthwhile with all that power.

Yours,

Damien Walter
@damiengwalter

*When I say “the only”, be aware this is a time limited offer. Because power is fleeting, and how we use it determines what happens to us once it is gone.

Is the death of the bookshop a sign of progress?

High street bookshops maye soon be a distant memory. Should we take this as a sign of progress, or the regression of society to a pre-literate state?

Today the last big bookshop in Leicester, the city where I reside, closed its doors. The out of town Borders went three years ago. Waterstones on Market Street shut it’s doors today, leaving a much smaller sub-branch in the nearby shopping mall. I do not hold much hope of it surviving, and feel convinced at this point that dedicated high street book retailers will soon be a memory. That is sad. I love bookshops. But should we take it as a sign that society is regressing, or is it actually a sign of progress?

Some thoughts for both progress and regress:

REGRESS : The bookshops are closing. That’s where people buy books. Where are they going to buy books now? Taken in isolation, closing bookshops is a terrible sign of a crumbling society.

PROGRESS : Bookshops have been superseded by the internet, ebooks and smartphones, which form a much better infrastructure for distributing knowledge. Big gains for everyone.

REGRESS : That digital infrastructure is only accessible to people who can afford the technology and have the knowledge to use it.And it’s owned by a small number of mega tech corporations. Big loss of privacy and maybe freedom.

PROGRESS : Poorer people culturally excluded from bookshops, much more likely to access books via widely used and ever cheaper smartphones. Anyone can publish a book digitally.

REGRESS : The infrastructure of bookshops, publishers & distributors is what pays writers to write books. Without payment, only rich amateurs can have time to write.

PROGRESS : Retailers, publishers take a lot of the money made from selling books. Digital distribution might mean more money going to writers. Writing might become more like being a traditional artisan, as is happening in other creative professions. This is a big might.

Creative Writing at University of Leicester now offering £1000 bursaries for students.

Overall, I feel the argument for progress outweighs regress, quite substantially. But that doesn’t mean I cheer the death of bookshops. Progress means change, and change rarely comes without waving goodbye to things we love. We just have to believe that they space they leave behind will be filled with things we can love just as much or more.