The Myth of the Machine
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery. — William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell
Following close upon Meghan O’Gieblyn’s article on “transhumanism” as a contemporary theology of the Megamachine (“God in the machine“), yet another article — this one by Andrew Anthony — appeared in today’s Guardian also in a quite similar vein. “What if we’re living in a computer simulation?” describes what we might call, after Lewis Mumford, the contemporary “Myth of the Machine”, or the mysticism (or mystique) of megatechnics.
This is, indeed, an Age of Irony, because this new “myth of the machine” is also an example of the “return of the repressed” — for it is, in fact, the resurrection of the old doctrines of the Gnostics. Even students of Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy must find this contemporary insurgency (or “irruption”) of the “irrational” factors of magic, myth, and mysticism within the “logical” mental-rational structure of consciousness to be quite unnerving (and a most appropriate word that is, too. The meaning of “unnerving” is worth a post in itself).
To appreciate what is happening, all these developments must be seen in relation to those authors we’ve discussed earlier in The Chrysalis — Richard Stiver’s Technology as Magic, Algis Mikunas’s essay “Magic and Technological Culture”, Lee Worth Bailey’s The Enchantments of Technology, or Robert Romanyshyn’s Technology as Symptom & Dream. Lewis Mumford’s great contribution to all this (and I have recently taken up his writings with gusto) is to have interpreted the overarching mythos for all these developments — as “The Myth of the Machine”, or the mythos of megatechnics. In fact, Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (along with Technics and Civilization) and Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin very much complement each other in providing insight into the changes occurring in the present. They provide the interpretative context in which to understand these other works on magic and technology.
(And I might also mention, in that respect, Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics, The Master and His Emissary, not to leave unmentioned the works of William Blake which are also very relevant to “the myth of the machine”).
Basically, all these writers deal in some fashion with what we here call “the return of the repressed” (what Gebser calls “irruption”) or the influence of powerful “unconscious factors” in the shaping of contemporary events and thinking — the resurrection of “ancient forces” latent in the human form that the mental-rational consciousness structure (McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of consciousness or what we call “ego consciousness”) is quite unprepared and ill-equipped to handle. These unconscious forces of magic and myth are discombobulating our conventional understanding of what is “real”, but in ways that are dangerously delusional.
It’s these same unconscious forces that lie behind the myth of the mysterious master “controllers” or Controller, supposedly the architects of the simulated universe. It’s not difficult to see in these “controllers” the semblance of the old gods, returned in technical form as the arch-programmers of the Grand Simulation. In the “controllers” is also the old figure of the Gnostic demiurgos. The demiurgos — the Architect of the physical universe — was also called “Prince of Lies” or, in Buddhism, the demon Mara. In William Blake, the old demiurgos appears as the false god “Urizen”, who is Architect of the “Ulro”. Ulro is the “simulation” of the real. In the movie The Matrix, Urizen appears as “the Architect” who is, in turn, the demon “Mara”. Mara is called by the Buddha, in fact, “The Architect” and “Lord of my own ego”. Mara is who is called “Satan” by Jesus, who is the “Selfhood”, and therefore identical with Mara and with Blake’s “Urizen”.
The “God” that most people worship is actually Urizen or Mara or the demiurgos, which is why Nietzsche felt this “God” had to die so that the god of love and life could live, reborn in the name “Dionysus”. Dionysos is the name that McGilchrist calls “The Master”, and is identical in those terms with what Jill Bolte-Taylor calls “the Life Force Power of the Universe”. The God of conventional or fundamentalist religion is the form of The Emissary, who as “usurper” is the old Satan, Mara, Urizen, the Architect, the Sufi’s “false self”, the “Prince of Lies” or now the “Controller”.
The “Simulation” as such has always been known — as Maya or Lila, as the Christian “Cloud of Unknowing”, as Plato’s Cave, as Blake’s Ulro, as samsara, and by many other names, most currently as “the Matrix”. (In fact, the word “maya” is connected with the word “make” and “magic”).
The Simulation (the Matrix) is nothing new. Only “post-historic man” (Mumford, Seidenberg, and who is also to a certain extent “post-conscious man”) could think of this as a novelty of the rational mind now projected outwards as the Controller or controllers of the simulation — as engineers of the cosmic simulation or virtual reality. That’s only the deification of the Emissary, in effect — a fitting myth for the “culture of narcissism”. All technics is, in some form or another, a projection of the human form (vis Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man”), and we fall into a narcissistic spell and enchantment with them.
It’s utterly hilarious to read that billionaires finance scientists to discover how we can escape the simulation — the Matrix — by technical means. Utter folly, considering that this is what the true prophets have taught for millennia — the truth that sets free which is taken up once again by Nietzsche, but especially by Jean Gebser as “time-freedom”.
“Reality” as we think of it, is a simulation. It’s the very meaning of Jung’s “synchronicity” in fact, and which is connected to what Phenomenologists call the “intentionality” of consciousness. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” as Anais Nin put it. This is true. But it is also true that we are far, far more than we know, or even can know. It’s the gist of Blake’s Proverb of Hell: A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. We perceive things as we are, not as they are. It’s what distinguishes “the facts of the matter” from “the truth that sets free”.
This is what Gebser means by “diaphaneity” or “the transparency of the world”. Yes, it is a “simulation”. But it is we who are doing the simulating. The world we have made for ourselves is a mirror image of what we are and how we understand ourselves — both overtly and covertly, or manifestly or latently. There is already a large part of us that knows the truth and perceives the truth. It’s what Gebser calls “the vital centre” or “the Itself”. It’s denial and suppression by the ego-consciousness or Emissary is what creates “the unconscious” in the first place.
It’s certainly ironic, but quite autobiographical of the present human condition, that the old myths and the old gods also return today in the disguise of technics and megatechnics, but without apparently the slightest consciousness that they have done so. That is to say, it is not transparent, but opaque.
It’s true that what we call “reality” is a simulation. Seth also calls it “the camouflage universe”. But it is a simulation of ourselves. The simulation is what is referred to as “the Fall into Time”, which is samsaric existence. Lifting “the Veil of Maya” or dispelling “the Cloud of Unknowing” has always been available to human beings. The “myth of the machine” is just another veil, another cloud of unknowing.
Consciousness creates form. That is rather key even to understanding Gebser’s various civilisations as “structures of consciousness”.
The “myth of the machine” is, actually, an attempt by the “Emissary”, the ego-consciousness or intellect, to organise and control in some fashion the energies involved in return of the repressed, but without clearly understanding what those energies are. Without the spiritual guidance of the Wisdom Tradition and an “enlightened ego consciousness”, it will be disastrous. The Anthropocene is already a disaster, but largely proof that the ego-consciousness has played Sorcerer’s Apprentice with these energies — the old problem of hubris and Nemesis.
This present “myth of the machine” shows that the mental-rational consciousness has already gone a long ways towards becoming an automaton (something that Nietzsche also anticipated and also represented in Yablonski’s “robopathy“) — the ego-consciousness preparing to surrender all sense of responsibility for itself and the planet to its “programming” by “controllers”. And certainly, a large part of the meaning of “post-truth society” is owing to this, that large parts of the population are no longer interested at all in pursuing “the truth that sets free”, or has totally misunderstood the meaning of that as “time-freedom”.
This current “myth of the machine”, though, in all its ironies, brings to mind another of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell,
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth
But the image is not the truth itself.