By Derek Henderson Phd.
In the mid-1980’s, during a conversation about computers, the legendary mythologist Josephac Campbell asked his interviewer, the journalist Bill Moyers, if he had “ever looked inside one of those things,” to which Moyers responded—flatly, dismissively—“No, and I don’t intend to.”
Campbell’s reference to “those little tubes” in the computers of 1985 (which is, incidentally, the year after Apple released its first Macintosh computer) is surely quaint and mildly touching. After all, our iPods and cell phones have processing power magnitudes greater than the computers made up of “those little tubes,” and are, in many cases, smaller than the tubes themselves.
Yet while the size and architecture of the computers that so fascinated Campbell may strike us as sweet, I trust that his fascination with “the hierarchy of angels” on the circuit board, and his perception of “those little tubes” as “miracles,” must strike us as awe-inspiring.
Campbell sees in the circuitry and software of his time the evidence of a mythos in the making.
The programs that have been plugged into our computers and processors for the past several decades are as significant as the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, as potent as the ancient Indian Mahabharata, as momentous and as revelatory as the tablets of stone brought down by Moses, as meaningful as the Logos in the Gospel of John.
Like those ancient texts and revealed wisdoms, the little devices we hold in our hands have the potential to reveal to us new wisdoms, new revelations. They are opportunities for us to create myths for our time, myths that are, as poet Robert Duncan proposes, “an enduring design in which the actual living consciousness arises.”
It is important to note that Campbell does not see these technologies as saviors, but as means towards a contemporary mythology, towards a new salvation. The circuits and programs contain angels and miracles, yes, but angels and miracles are only ever real when they have prophets and saints for their communications.
Consider the magnitudes of difference in the scale of the first computers and our current, miniaturized supercomputers: the first computer, ENIAC, was as big as an airplane and weighed 30 tons, while an iPad, weighing a mere one and a half pounds, can perform 21,599,999,615 more operations per second than it’s predecessor. I am recalled to the monumental size of the ancient Greek Acropolis, and its contrast with the domestic devotions of the Romans to their household gods, such Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home.
Whereas 25 years ago, an entire generation worshiped at the marvels of an airplane-sized machine capable of simple computations, now we are each urged to turn off our cell phones so that their billions of computations per second won’t interrupt the computations that keep an actual airplane aloft. 25 years ago, people marveled as a whole at ENIAC, and now we walk around with Siri, a little mechanical angel in our pocket, who can tell you exactly how much less she weighs than ENIAC.
And it’s precisely those intimate, domestic things in our pockets that may be, mythically speaking, more grand than the grandest of monuments to the grandest of human achievements. Like the Romans and their devotion to the humble hearth, we all keep our little personal talismans, our tokens of remembrance and belief: rosaries, Qur’ans, rings from our grandfathers, bracelets from friends, seeds our two-year-old knew were somehow essential.
Such tokens are emphatically not distractions—instead, they become localized legends for us by virtue of memorializing a moment of meaningful experience, for being actual objects that recall us to an actual moment in the mythological narrative of our personal histories.
Similarly, the little angels in our pockets and on our desktops, in our laps and bags and every corner of our modern age, should be considered as something other than distractions, as means of entertaining our selves when we’re bored. Rather, when we reach for them, we ought to do so with reverence, and would do well to remember the words of Jane Ellen Harrison, another legendary mythographer: “We find in every sacrament what we bring.”
Our myths, in other words, are ours to write.