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.
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.
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.