Jupiter Descending

As stated in my Definition and Manifesto, peculiar patterns and arrangements of symbolic imagery are the focus point of my ‘probes’ into the nature of the Global Digital Unconscious. No doubt there are times when these arrangements are purely coincidental and, to paraphrase Freud, the cigar really is just a cigar. Similarly, there may be times when such patterns are, as Jung puts it, ‘meaningful coincidence’. As ‘meaningful coincidence’, these strange symmetries or ‘synchronicities’ of symbolism function as an interface between the ‘irrational’ unconscious and the ‘rational’ conscious, almost as if the universe itself were attempting to throw light on an occulted or hidden area of human existence. What follows is an example of this kind of probing and, I believe, a prime example of ‘meaningful coincidence’ originating in, and manifesting itself through, the Global Digital Unconscious.

Over the last few days the mass media has been awash with references to planets, lions, cliffs and death.  The most obvious example is the New Horizons probe and its dramatic fly-by of the dwarf planet Pluto. At first view this has no connection with Jupiter whatsoever, save for the fact the probe passed Jupiter in 2007 in order to take advantage of Jupiter’s ‘gravitational slingshot’ and speed its onward course towards Pluto. In ancient Greek mythology, however, there is a rather more direct and familial relationship between Jupiter and Pluto: they are brothers. Jupiter (as King of the Gods and the Roman equivalent of Zeus) is associated with the sky and thunderbolts, Neptune with water, and Pluto with the underworld. This makes Pluto a chthonic god and associates him with the dark and mysterious world of the unconscious mind and its ‘inhabitants’: the anima, animus and shadow.

In conjunction with the New Horizons fly-by, Jupiter has appeared (directly and indirectly) in a number of stories concerning missing, presumed dead and actually dead persons. These stories, along with others, also make reference to Leo or its Greek equivalent Leon. For example, CNN published a story about missing teenagers who departed Jupiter, Florida (the Sunshine State) by boat. Their craft was later found adrift off an area of coastline known as the Ponce de Leon. A few days earlier, two young men taking part in the 2015 Grand European Rally died when the Seat Leon car they were driving crashed through a barrier and plummeted down a cliff face.

The recent death of Arthur Cave, son of musician, actor and screenwriter Nick Cave, a chthonic figure described as rock music’s “Prince of Darkness”, pre-dates both the above stories. Arthur Cave died after falling from a cliff in Ovingdean, near Brighton, UK, earlier in July 2015. The significance of ‘cave’ is that it allows us to retrieve Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which depicts mankind in darkness, confusing true reality with the shadows it sees dancing on the cave wall. Through Nick Cave we retrieve links to Satan or Lucifer or ‘the Devil’. Arthur himself retrieves myth and legend in the form of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A cursory examination of the Round Table retrieves its function as a mandala symbol, identified by Jung as a recurring motif in the unconscious.

The death of Arthur Cave was itself ‘anticipated’ by a run of stories about teenagers risking their lives by posing for photographs on the UK’s crumbling south coast cliffs. The cliffs in question are known as the Seven Sisters and this links them to the Pleides, a star cluster in the constellation Taurus. The Pleides are named after the Seven Divine Sisters of ancient Greek mythology. Jupiter (in the Greek form Zeus) appears again here and is portrayed as having affairs with several of the sisters. Furthermore, Taurus is the Bull and both Jupiter and his Greek equivalent Zeus are associated with bulls. In fact, Zeus adopts the form of a white bull in the story of his abduction and rape of Europa.

The Abduction of Europa
Painting by Jean-François de Troy showing Zeus’ abduction of Europa

It’s interesting to note that the continent of Europe owes its name to Europa, a fact which adds extra symbolic weight to the Great European Rally story referred to above. Europa also just happens to be the name of Jupiter’s sixth moon. Also relevant is the similarity between “Great Europa-ean Rally” and the Planetary Grand Tour  – a proposal to send probes to the solar system’s outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. New Horizons’ fly-by of Pluto marks the culmination of this vision, which was proposed way back in 1964 and began with the Mariner and Voyager space programmes.

More recently, a story has emerged about the killing earlier this month of ‘Cecil’, Africa’s most famous lion. The culprit is one Walter Palmer, an American dentist. With the assistance of local guides, Palmer appears to have lured Cecil outside the boundaries of his home in a Zimbabwean National Park, shot him with a crossbow and then tracked the wounded beast for several days, before finally despatching him with a rifle. This particular story is not just rich in symbolism and mythology – it appears for all the world to be a retelling of the First Labour of Hercules and his slaying of the Nemean Lion.

Hercules wrestles the Nemean Lion
Francisco de Zurbaran’s depiction of Hercules wrestling with the Nemean Lion.

The similarities here are striking. Hercules and Walter both try and fail to kill the lion with bow and arrow. Both lure the lion to a place it can be killed. Hercules lures the lion to a dark cave to take advantage of the cover of darkness, whereas Walter’s lion is named ‘Cecil’ meaning ‘blind’. Hercules uses a club and his great strength to kill the lion, whereas Walter uses a gun, a modern extension of the club which is also an extension and amplification of the arm’s strength. Hercules skins the lion, so does Walter. The only substantial difference between the two stories is the outcome. Both figures represent the conscious mind conquering or repressing a primitive, unconscious animal instinct, yet Hercules is depicted as a ‘divine hero’ and Walter a coward. The global response to Walter killing Cecil reflects a fundamental change in consciousness, i.e. it reflects a desire to reintegrate the unconscious, not repress it.

The story of Hercules killing the lion is a prime example of mythology mirroring unconscious processes. His struggle with the lion in the cave’s darkness is pure dream imagery and will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Jung and psychoanalysis . As an unconscious background process it’s another example of the ‘daemons’ referred to in my previous post, Gods and Daemons. Hercules is depicted overcoming (rather than integrating) an animal instinct and this throws light on the myth as a symbolic representation of a civilising process. Civilisation and the process of becoming more civilised is always attended to by, and the result of, knowledge, discovery, and invention, i.e. technological change.

The link with Hercules is made more apparent by Walter’s name and profession and their association with Hercules’ Second Labour. Walter is a dentist by profession and his name means ‘ruler of the army’. There is a parallel here in relation to the mythological hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Not only does the ‘Golden Fleece’ bring to mind the golden fur of the Nemean Lion, some versions of Jason’s quest describe him sowing the Hydra’s teeth, which immediately grow into armed men. And, coincidentally, Hercules’ Second Labour was the slaying of the Hydra.

Here we can see an additional theme teasing its way to the foreground: that of the epic journey so common in mythology. The epic journeys of Jason and Hercules have their modern counterparts in the Great European Rally, the Grand Tours of the Mariner, Voyager and New Horizons space probes, and the safari (safari is Swahili for ‘journey’) of Walter Palmer.

Children of the Hydra
Children of the Hydra from the 1963 film version of Jason and the Argonauts

In my previous post, Gods and Daemons, I identified the Hydra as a metaphor for the printed word. The Hydra’s immortality was based on its ability to grow two heads for every one head cut off – provided at least one head remained attached to its body. In the same manner, the immortality conferred by print is predicated on its ability to produce exact copy after exact copy – provided at least one master copy remains in existence.

Marshall McLuhan relates the above to print’s effect as a visual medium, its role as the Father of Nations (see Gods and Daemons), and to the linear, sequential and repeatable method of the printing press itself as a template for the Industrial Revolution and the forms of social organisation it gave birth to. Here, McLuhan makes a direct connection between the printed word, with its massed ranks of sentences and paragraphs, and modern armies with their massed ranks of men and women. This provides insight into the destructive effects of new technologies, which lay waste to the environments created by the technologies they make obsolete.

Soliders on parade
The ‘message’ of print is clear to see: linear, sequential, repeatable.

On the subject of the destructive effects of new technologies, the lead character in Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans also happens to be named Leo. The character is portrayed as a human-synthetic hybrid and leader of a small group of sentient synthetic humans. Leo is attempting to affect a revolution by gathering all the sentient synthetics together in order to execute source code that will bring sentience to all synthetics, thus placing the future of the human race in doubt. I dealt with this subject in some depth earlier this month in my very first post.

Finally, we have to situate all the above in the realms of astronomy and astrology. The term ‘astrology’ itself is highly significant: it can be defined as ‘meaning in the stars’. This reminds us that the ancients consigned many of their greatest mythological figures to the stars themselves in the form of the constellations and zodiac signs we still recognise and use today. More significant still, however, is the current position of Jupiter in the night sky. Care to guess which constellation Jupiter is currently passing through? Unsurprisingly, it just happens to be Leo!

What, then, are we to make of all this? The twin themes of the unconscious and technology are clearly evident and this is consistent with McLuhan’s belief that mythology is technological change encoded in symbolic form. Mythology reflects our inability to see or comprehend the environments created by new technologies. These environments seem alien to us and appear to function magically and independently. Cut off from conscious apprehension, they are afforded the status of gods, demons, nymphs and so on. Their true meaning only becomes apparent after the fact, i.e. once a new technology scraps the existing environment and reveals it to us as a wasteland or junkyard.

The significance of the mythology encoded in the media stories outlined above lies in the centrality of the image of Jupiter/Zeus, the Father of the Gods, who dispenses divine retribution (i.e. restoration of order) in the form of the thunderbolt.

In ancient Hellenic and Roman religious traditions, the thunderbolt represents Zeus or Jupiter (etymologically ‘Sky Father’), thence the origin and ordaining pattern of the universe…


The thunderbolt can only be properly understood in the context of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. This massively complicated work charts mankind’s technological development from the Garden of Eden through to modernity and back again – an eternal return. It takes the form of an enormous cryptogram comprised of portmanteau words which serve as single word metaphors for invisible environmental changes and  their effects. Its use of language is deliberate, its purpose to highlight the role of language as a technology and to use language as a probe into language’s effects as a technology. Each major technological change is accompanied by a one-hundred-letter portmanteau word – a Thunder – representing the change in question. The Tenth Thunder is supposedly the final one, but just like the Zodiac and the Labours of Hercules there are in fact twelve in total. The Tenth Thunder and the text that surrounds it is, if you’ll forgive the pun, absolutely electrifying:

For his root language, if you ask me whys, Shaun replied, as he blessed himself devotionally like a crawsbomb, making act of oblivion, footinmouther! (what he thickens else?) which he picksticked into his lettruce invrention.


Thor’s for yo!

The Tenth Thunder is a portmanteau word containing multiple references to the Nordic gods (i.e. mudgaard = Asgaard, lukki and lokki = Loki, etc.) ending with a direct reference to Thor himself. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that Thor, as a thunder god, is the equivalent of Jupiter/Zeus in Norse mythology. This identifies the Tenth Thunder as corresponding to the splitting of the atom and invention of nuclear weapons. Joyce refers to it earlier in the Wake as follows:

The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwiches general utterosts confussion are perceivable moletons skaping with mulicules while coventry plumpkins fairgosmothersthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyrean Raum and mordern Atems.

Even through all the portmanteau words we can discern the core themes of annihilation, molecules, atoms, projectiles, the Micronesian islands used for testing nuclear weapons, and so on. The ‘abnihilisation of the etym’ is the annihilation of etymology, i.e. the annihilation of origin or life itself. The link to etymology (the study of the origin of words) retrieves the ancient Greek Logos or Word as a divine organising principle. The reference to ‘mordern Atems’ and ’empyrean Raum’ directs our attention to the atom, Athens and Rome. Joyce is establishing a direct link to ancient Greece and Rome as wastelands annihilated by new technologies.

What does this signify? The splitting of the atom and the harnessing of the atom’s power represents mankind’s discovery and control of the ‘origin and ordaining pattern’ of the universe itself. We have gone further than Prometheus (who merely stole fire from the gods) and taken the Crown Jewels from the King of the Gods – the secret of the nuclear. We sucked  the energy from Jupiter’s thunderbolt.

Although most believe there are only ten thunders in the Wake, there are in fact two more. The eleventh is simply “Thud!” and reflects the consequences of the Tenth Thunder and Jupiter’s impotence as he releases a thunderbolt containing neither lightning nor thunder. The “Thud!” is the noise it makes as it falls harmlessly to earth. The computer – developed as a weapon of war – shared the same womb as the atomic bomb, and so the eleventh thunder is the electronic, digital age – the age of the device, the network, the internet, the Global Digital Unconscious which has opened up the unconcious to conscious examination for the very first time.

And the Twelfth Thunder? A clue is provided in the story of Walter and the lion, a retelling of the first of Hercules’ twelve labours and symbolic of new technological development. Another clue is the reference to Nick Cave or ‘Old Nick’ – the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself. The Wake is cyclical – it starts and ends in the Garden of Eden. The Twelfth Thunder is, therefore, also the First Thunder.

The Twelfth Thunder is the Fall of Man.

Symbolically, the global response to Cecil’s killing as an act of cowardice rather than heroism suggests a desire to reintegrate an animal instinct that was previously restrained – that we wish to become less civilised. This aspiration is perfectly consistent with our new tribal existence in a world shrunk to the size of a Global Village by modern technology. A symbolic return to the Garden of Eden – a world in which the lion may lie down with the lamb – is a perfect expression of this change in consciousness. This time, however, we’re going back to the Garden fully conscious and with our eyes open. We are not the naive Adam and Eve of the Old Testament. The Twelfth Thunder may put an end to many of modernity’s ‘civilising myths’, but it may also be the beginnings of a Europa-ean Renaissance.

And another manifestation of synchronicity over at Merovee.

Thanks to Roobeedoo2 and Elena on Merovee for providing the links to Europa and the CNN Florida story.


Gods and Daemons

On one level it’s difficult not to interpret Google’s decision to hold its annual team-building exercise at the Valley of the Temples as (if you’ll pardon the pun) a simple act of monumental conceit and hubris. The event, which ends next Thursday, has resulted in the closure of the UNESCO World Heritage site – one of the best preserved examples of the architecture of Greater Greece – to the general public. It brings together senior Google staff and a rather odd assortment of public figures and celebrities in a heady mix of Bacchanalian orgy (think $100,000 banquets) and strategic planning. The second event of its kind, The Independent even suggests the meeting may become an annual fixture, a digital equivalent of the World Economic Form. This, in any case, is its outward form as reported by the mass media. Yet with a different kind of eyes the event seems to possess an altogether different symbolic significance, one which mashes Greco-Roman mythology with Judeo-Christian theology and links both with concerns about Artificial Intelligence as a potential threat to mankind.

As its name suggests, the site is home to a number of temples, including:

The Temple of Juno
A goddess associated with the State and warefare, the Roman equivalent of Hera.
The Temple of Heracles
Known to the Romans as Hercules. A son of Zeus and divine hero. Best known for his twelve labours, freeing Prometheus and killing the Hydra.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
The god of sky and thunder, the ruler of the Olympians and the “King of Heaven”
The Temple of Vulcan
The god of fire, the Roman equivalent of Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes.

Thus the Valley of the Temples can be literally and figuratively identified with warfare and the consequences of technological development. Figuratively through Juno, Zeus and the Olympians’ battle for cosmological supremacy with Cronus and the Titans, and Vulcan as god of fire and blacksmiths – makers of the instruments of warfare. Literally in the sense that the temple ruins are themselves a testament to warfare in its twin roles as “accelerated technological development” (McLuhan) and a device for retrieving images of identities blurred or submerged by technological development.

“The consequences of the images will be the images of the consequences.” That is to say that the psychic and social impact of new technologies and their resulting environment will reverse all the characteristic psychic and social consequences of the old technology and its environments.

— Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo devotes an entire chapter to architecture as a form of symbolic communication killed by the invention of the printing press. As if predicting Marshall McLuhan’s later work on the subject, Hugo identified architecture as the primary form of communication in the pre-print era. Prior to the printed book there was simply no other means by which to transmit ideas and thought – human consciousness itself – through the ages, to grant mankind a form of immortality like that of the gods. The printed book supplanted architecture’s role by sheer pervasiveness and portability – by its ability to reproduce exact and easily distributable copies over and over again. Print, then, offers a surer guarantee of permanence and immortality. As Hercules discovered in his attempts to kill the Hydra, lopping off one head causes two to grow in its place.

The ruins of the Valley of the Temples echo the destructive and fragmenting effects of the printed book, brought about by its visual stress and elevation of sight over all the other senses. Amidst the ruins – littered amongst them in fact – are the equally fragmented sculptures of Igor Mitoraj depicting the shattered, broken remains of Greco-Roman mythology. Where faces appear the eyes are either blindfold, fully closed, or fathomless pits, like the eight-ball haemorrhages of gunshot victims. They are unable to perceive the technological wasteland laid out before them.

igor mitoraj 2011-03-29_bronze-sculpture-duo

There is in all this deep significance in relation to Google as a major player in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and fictional representations of AI as creatures of divine power. The Daily Mail refers to Google as a ‘search engine colossus’ and in so doing refers us intentionally to the Colossus of Rhodes and, no doubt unintentionally, to the 1970 science-fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The film’s basic premise (AI emerges spontaneously from a system designed to control strategic decision-making and national defence) and plot development (AI sees mankind as a threat and seeks to control us for our own good and its own survival) provide the foundation on which most subsequent treatments of the subject are based. Like mythology itself, the film’s success in spawning a new genre lies in its symbolic and archetypal appeal to the unconscious.

The Colossus of Rhodes stood for only 54 years: it snapped at the knees and fell onto dry land during the earthquake of 226BC. It’s Wikipedia entry states that some 800 years later, “…an Arab force under Muslim caliph Muawiyah I captured Rhodes, and according to The Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, the statue was cast down and sold to a Jewish merchant of Edessa who loaded the bronze on 900 camels. The Arab destruction and the purported sale to a Jew possibly originated as a powerful metaphor for Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the destruction of a great statue.”

31 Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue — an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

— Daniel 2:31-35

The Nebuchadnezzar in question is Nebuchadnezzar II. The reference immediately brings to mind another science-fiction film which borrows the Colossus storyline: The Matrix. The character Morpheus has a ship named The Nebuchadnezzar and in the first instalment of the trilogy we’re shown a fleeting image of a plaque designating the ship’s make and model: Mark III No 11.

mark 3 11

The plaque is a direct reference to Jesus in the New Testament Gospel of Mark and reflects Neo’s role as mankind’s saviour.

And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God. — Mark 3:11

The name “Nebuchadnezzar” means “O god Nabu, preserve my firstborn son” and links back to Jesus as the firstborn son of God. Moreover, and in relation to Nebuchadnezzar as a destroyer of nations, it also associates him with the biblical figure of Abraham. What draws our attention here is the meaning of the name Abraham as “father of many nations” and Abraham’s obedience to God when asked (in a kind of test case for God’s subsequent sacrifice of Jesus) to sacrifice his own son. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son puts him at odds with the meaning of the name Nebuchadnezzar (‘preserve my son’ rather ‘sacrifice my son’) and with Nebuchadnezzar as a destroyer rather than father of nations.

The story of Abraham enables us to situate a mythological figure in a role identical to that of a technology. According to McLuhan, nationalism and the emergence of today’s system of nation-states is a direct product of the printed word, which enabled Renaissance man to ‘see’ his mother tongue for the first time. This led to the standardisation of dialects into single systems with rigidly defined grammatical and spelling rules. In turn, this led to the emergence of nation-states as geographical containers for different language groups. Thus print, like Abraham, is the father of many nations. Such a view is perfectly consistent with gods and mythology as explanatory tools for natural processes and human actions that seem to defy explanation. A prime example is the story of the Tower of Babel as a means to explain the origin of language as a technology.

For the very same reason we can mate today’s digital technologies, which have shrunk the world to the size of a Global Village, with Nebuchadnezzar as the ‘destroyer of nations’. In the ancient world, this type of process would be assigned to the stars as mythology. We are, generally speaking, so hopelessly blind to the social and psychological impact of technologies that this should come as little surprise.

In a similar fashion, references to ‘sons’ and to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ can also be viewed as a corrupted identifier for a natural process. Specifically, the sun itself. The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit closely reflects the ancient Egyptian trinity of Osiris, Isis and Horus – with Isis’ transformation into ‘Holy Spirit’ reflecting Christianity’s uncomfortable relationship with the feminine. Similarly, images of Isis and Horus are dead ringers for images of the Madonna and Child.

The corruption itself is revealed through Osiris-Horus (the two, like God the Father and God the Son, are inseparably intertwined) as sun gods and the halo as a representation of the sun’s disk.

The significance of all this to Google, AI and fictional accounts of AI may not be immediately evident. Suffice to say the association of fictional AI (Colossus, War Games, The Terminator, etc.) with strategic defence and nuclear power reminds us that the sun is itself a giant nuclear reactor and sunlight the product of the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. In the Matrix the association is made far more explicit: prior to the scorching of the sky the machines relied on solar power for energy. They were, quite literally, powered by the divine and then cut off from the divine. Their story is the story of the Fall of Man.


When we consider the sun’s vital role as a life-giving power – the creator of life itself – the association of AI with nuclear power becomes even more obvious. Nuclear power is both source of life and, in human hands, a potential destroyer of life – another destroyer of nations. Yet this, like Professor Stuart Russell’s recent warning (which explicitly identifies AI as potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons), can be interpreted in both literal and figurative terms.


Prometheus stole fire from the gods (specifically from Vulcan) and gave it to man. Man used it to destroy the gods: the creation destroys the creator. These themes appear in fiction such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (we tend to forget the book’s subtitle: The Modern Prometheus) and again in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus where we see The Engineer fall prey to his own genetically-engineered bio-weapon. Yet mythology as an attempt to explain hidden background processes – the ‘daemons’ in Gods and Daemons – creates an artificial separation between creator and creation, forgetting that the one is a reflection of the other and the mirror image of our own lack of awareness and control, which allows the creative force and the technologies it creates to run amok as if it were a separate force or entity with magical powers.

This lack of awareness and insight into the psycho-social effects of technology explains why Google staff are currently making merry and planning for the future in the technological junkyard of ancient Greece – apparently without any sense of irony whatsoever. One cannot help but wonder whether the first item on Google’s agenda is its apparent desire to commit suicide at the earliest possible opportunity.

The link between technology and mythology can be seen in the duration of Google’s event at the Valley of the Temples: it will last exactly six days, just like God’s original six-day burst of creative energy.

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” — Genesis 2:2

McLuhan claims that our digital technologies have transformed us into the “spiritual form of information”. We can add to this that our technological endeavours – and none more so than the pursuit of AI – are spiritual journeys laden with symbolic and mythological meaning. The pursuit of AI represents our attempt to become our own image of what God is. Like Narcissus, we marry ourselves to an image of ourselves translated by and through a medium – with little or no insight into the consequences.

“With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.” — Elon Musk

The daemon/demon is us. It’s the reflection of our own hidden background processes in mythological form, as the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

The Songs of Distant Earth

Yesterday, NASA announced the discovery of Earth 2.0, the Kepler space telescope’s latest revelation and the first Earth-like planet known to be orbiting a star similar to our own sun. A mere 1,400 light years away – just a trip down to the chemist in astronomical terms – it’s perfectly understandable that John Jenkins, data analysis lead at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, would be quoted as saying:

“It’s a real privilege to deliver this news to you today. There’s a new kid on the block that’s just moved in next door.”

Kepler 452b a.k.a. Earth 2.0

The very fact we can refer to our new neighbour in these terms is a reflection of the time/space compression brought about by our technologies. Our ability to communicate at light speed, using the medium of light itself, has (as Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago) shrunk the planet to a Global Village. In the same manner, our technological ‘outerings’ have amplified and extended our senses, allowing us to penetrate further and further into outer space. At one and the same time, they have also enabled us to peer deeper and deeper into inner space – the mysterious world of the unconscious. As I wrote in Definition and Manifesto:

In his seminal work “The Gutenberg Galaxy”, Marshall McLuhan defined the unconscious as a “slagheap of rejected conscious”. In his view, what we call the ‘unconscious’ is a product of a ‘closing down’ of the senses, which is itself the result of the re-prioritising of the senses via technology.

The visual stress of the product of Gutenberg’s invention – the printed book – resulted in the deprioritisation of our other senses: oral, aural, olfactory and tactile. Unsuited to purely visual processing, the experiences engendered by these other senses became part of a repressed unconscious. Consequently, the unconscious became something dark and alien to us. Unlike tribal man, we literally lost touch with it as lived experience: as ‘walkabout’, as rite of passage, as a tribal dance based on a harmony of all the senses.

Associated with this transformation of the real world into science fiction is the reversal now proceeding apace, by which the Western world is going Eastern, even as the East goes Western. Joyce encoded this reciprocal reverse in his cryptic phrase: ‘The West shall shake the East awake/ While ye have night for morn.’ The title of his Finnegans Wake is a set of multi-leveled puns on the reversal by which Western man enters his tribal, or Finn, cycle once more, following the track of old Finn, but wide awake as we enter the tribal night — Marshall McLuhan

The electric and electronic revolutions changed all this. Our new technologies are not primarily visual mediums. We interact with them, we stroke and gesture with them – they have become extensions of our atrophied audile-tactile senses. The purely visual is losing its dominance as digital technologies usurp the role of the printed word. We are becoming tribal again. The environments created by these technologies are extensions of the unconscious itself. Hitherto, we could only access the unconscious through the dream, the ecstatic vision, the terrifying hallucination. Today we can interact with and explore it directly and consciously through mediums such as the internet. It is no coincidence that the term ‘medium’ is associated with the spiritual, the occult – the hidden.

Nor for that matter is it coincidental that on the same day NASA announces the discovery of Earth 2.0 news stories emerge to provide the first images of the Amazon’s last ‘lost’ tribe. The tribe in question has slept through the Renaissance and three entire revolutions: Industrial, Electric and Electronic. Only now has it fallen under the electric eye – the ‘squiddie’ – of digital technology.

For 600 years the Mashco Piro clan – also known as Cujareno people – have lived in the forest in Peru close to the border with Brazil and had no contact with the outside world.

The point I’m building up to here is best left unsaid, best stated symbolically instead.

The Lost Tribe as Planet Earth

The Lost Tribe as Planet Earth

Taken through a telescope, this is the tribe suspended in space as Planet Earth, looking and pointing back to us just as we gaze at it. It is a mirror image, and represents the reintegration, of the conscious and the unconscious, the tribal and non-tribal.

The visual stress of the printed word hypnotised us and put us to sleep: hypnosis is brought about by the focused attention of a single sense and the reduction of other sensory inputs to the periphery of consciousness. The transistor and the electronic reharmonises our senses and wakes us up again. The discovery of Earth 2.0 by the Kepler space telescope reflects this perfectly: its designation as Kepler 452 puts it exactly one degree above Farenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper autoignites.

Farenheit 451

Earth 2.0 isn’t ‘out there’ in space – it’s us in inner space reconnecting with the Lost World of the unconscious and becoming tribal again. And the startling synchronicity of these two seemingly disparate events is such that we have to wonder about the source of the messages…

Voices and other sounds. Can you hear me now? This is Planet Earth. You’re looking at Planet Earth. Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba…

The ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib….The ‘Ba’ was everything that makes an individual unique, similar to the notion of ‘personality’. (In this sense, inanimate objects could also have a ‘Ba’, a unique character, and indeed Old Kingdom pyramids often were called the ‘Ba’ of their owner). The ‘Ba’ is an aspect of a person that the Egyptians believed would live after the body died, and it is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the ‘Ka’ in the afterlife.


Look at Planet Earth. It’s the new Renaissance.

Humans and the ‘Total Field Awareness’ of Consciousness

I’ve always been slightly bemused by our relentless pursuit of Artificial Intelligence, and not  only because ‘intelligence’ is one of many essentially contested concepts lacking a single accepted defintion. What really puzzles me about the mindboggling amounts of money poured into AI research is why we think intelligence can be distinguished from consciousness and why (assuming we’re eventually successful) we would regard them as ‘artificial’. Prefixing either term with the adjective ‘artificial’ amounts to nothing more than a ‘terms and conditions’ clause: our desire to claim superiority over, and ownership and control of, the finished ‘product’. These themes are currently being explored in Channel 4’s fascinating mini-series “Humans” (Sundays, 9pm) which, intentionally or not, is a textbook exposition of both our current attitude to AI and, more interestingly, of Marshall McLuhan’s work on the psycho-social effects of technologies as extensions of our senses and mediators of consciousness.

The series is set in an alternate present in which AI has already been developed and non-sentient anthropmorphic ‘synths’, referred to pejoratively as ‘Dollies’, have proliferated in the home and workplace. To all intents and purposes mankind is redundant: although ostensibly subservient, synths can out-think and outperform humans in almost all spheres of life, although key technical, governmental and decision-making posts are still staffed by humans. However, their creator wasn’t content with non-sentient AI and suceeded in creating a small number of conscious, sentient synths with thoughts and emotions. These sentient synths are hunted by a shadowy government agency which seeks their destruction, whereas the general public remain totally in the dark and believe all synths to be non-sentient.

One of the sentient synths, Mia, is captured and has her source code over-written with a new non-sentient personality. She is subsequently sold to a family, who name her Anita. The family notice something odd about her almost immediately: she seems fixated on their youngest child and, on occasion, seems able to override her programming and lapse into what seems like autonomous behaviour. The eldest daughter, a wannabe hacker, attempts to ‘head crack’ Anita and inadvertently triggers a brief appearance of the underlying (and sentient) Mia personality. She posts Mia/Anita’s source code to an online forum, inadvertently informing Mia’s former owner, Leo, that Mia is still alive. Leo is the son of the synths’ creator and has been helping the sentient synths to survive.

After much ado, during which Leo is unable to locate and restore Mia’s source code in Anita’s ‘brain’ and believes her to be lost, the Mia personality resurfaces again. Her re-emergence is triggered by an emotional scene in which the mother confesses to her daughter that her own mother disowned her as a child, believing her to be responsible for the death of her five-year-old brother. This time Mia gives clues to the permanent recovery of the Mia personality, saying that it is not stored in her head and Leo needs to look elsewhere inside her. It transpires that the Mia personality exists as a stream of sensory data circulating throughout Anita’s body. Having discovered this, Leo is able to retrieve the source code and permanently restore the sentient Mia personality.

The Anita/Mia character is central to the series and her plight is absolutely fascinating. Despite occasional flashes of individuality, it’s apparent that the Anita personality is essentially an automaton – and can never be anything more than this. When instructed to clean the dishes, she cleans the dishes. When instructed to put out for the husband (that’s right, they come with an 18+ adults-only mode) she puts out for the husband. Anita is little more than Siri with arms and legs – the lights are on but nobody’s home. Yet under the surface is something completely different. We’re told that synths have no storage outside the brain, so the latent Mia consciousness exists as the sum total of all her sensory input as it cycles to and from (and is processed by) her mind. In McLuhan’s terms, her consciousness is “total field awareness”.

Mia’s situation is a perfect allegory of our own transition from a mechanical to a digital media environment. When one sense is amplified at the expense of all others a diminution of consciousness occurs. This is the basis of hypnosis, and when we fall under the hypnotist’s spell we become like Anita: compliant, open to suggestion, open to control.

“Hypnosis is a state of human consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypnosis

Such was the environment created by the linear, sequential, and repeatable mechanism of the printing press. Like a pocket watch swinging to and fro the printing press provided a template and method that made the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution possible, and created a sensory bias (via its product, the printed book) favouring the eye over all the other senses. The resulting restriction of consciousness actually created the unconscious as what McLuhan refers to as a “slagheap of rejected consciousness” unsuited to purely visual processing. We literally lost touch with ourselves.

Literacy, in translating man out of the closed world of tribal depth and resonance, gave man an eye for an ear and ushered him into a visual open world of specialized and divided consciousness. — Marshall McLuhan

By the end of the Industrial Revolution this slagheap of rejected consciousness had grown so immense and become so alien an entirely new discipline called ‘psychoanalysis’ was required to explore and interpret it. Yet never at any point prior to this had the so-called unconscious been regarded as something hidden and separate from consciousness itself. Tribal cultures embrace and live the ‘unconscious’ as an integral part of their ‘conscious’ lives. Australian Aboriginals, to take just one example, do not differentiate between an ‘irrational’ and ‘unreal’ dream state and a ‘rational’ and ‘real’ waking state. They inhabit both concurrently. They have no need of a Freud or Jung to analyse and interpret what is for them lived experience. Their consciousness is based on a harmony of the senses, rather than the dominance of one sense over all the others.

Mia’s significance lies in the manner in which her repressed consciousness is restored to her. Only a visually oriented culture could translate something as mysterious and intangible as consciousness into an object and seek to situate it in visual space like a vase on a mantelpiece. Mia’s consciousness, however, is not a thing waiting to be discovered in the throne room of Western rationality, and Leo’s initial attempt to locate ‘it’ inside Mia’s skull ends in frustration and despair. Instead, her dormant consciousness exists as the total interplay and commingling of all her senses. Once this is realised her personality is quickly retrieved and Mia re-emerges: conscious, awake, whole again.

It’s this return to consciousness and end to our state of collective unconsciousness that forms the basis of Marshall McLuhan’s work: a return to a tribal state of awareness in a world shrunk to the size of a Global Village by digital technology. A world in which feeling can gradually return to our numbed senses as the new, tactile digital technologies deprioritise the visual and exercise the oral, aural and tactile. The transformation is bewildering and overwhelming (we say we just want to ‘switch off’) but this is to be expected. The technology is novel and we’re still mesmerised by our Industrial-era visual obsession with quantification, commodities, profit, property (both physical and intellectual) and concomitant systems of social control. As McLuhan would put it, we’re driving into the future with our eyes locked on the rear-view mirror, projecting the image of the past we see there onto the road ahead.

In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture. — Marshall McLuhan

The attitude of the humans in Humans is extremely telling in this regard. With synths doing all the hard work they could (and should) be living in a paradise predicated on leisure, play and discovery. At the very least they ought to be out on the streets demanding it. Instead, all they can do is complain that synths have ‘deprived’ them of the ‘dignity’ of work. Conditioned by the old system (and forgetting the drudgery of life in offices, call centres and so on) they have become its most ardent and impassioned supporters. The dark side of this is manifested in a mass anti-synth movement called “We Are People” associated with a network of underground ‘smash clubs’. Here humans can vent their frustration on stolen synths with clubs, bats and power tools, like a Rwandan genocide in miniature.

The contrast between the sentient synths in Humans (“we just want to live free”) and the humans in Humans (“we just want to return to wage slavery”) couldn’t be more extreme…or shocking for that matter. The sentient synths are more aware, more alive, more compassionate, more willing to admit their failings and limitations – in short, more ‘human’ – than the humans themselves. They are also very obviously a family in the tribal sense of the term. If consciousness can in anyway be construed as ‘artificial’ then it’s not difficult to determine which of the two parties possesses the mass produced version.

The giveaway lies in the series’ title. It’s not really about AI, it’s not really about synths. It’s about us and how we can retrieve ourselves from a mechanistic state of diminished consciousness. And the cause of this diminshed consciousness? Its the result of an uncritical and unreflecting acceptance of our technologies and the methods, patterns, institutions, systems of control and regulated behaviours they impose. The message of Humans is clear: we are the synths, we are the artificial.