Wow, this is the first time (although I can’t guarantee you that it will be the last) that I’m going to share with you a story that was not written by myself. And there’s an excellent reason for that. I don’t think that I’ve read a single story (or an article if you please) that had so much influence on me about today’s technology. It was written by Quinn Norton and published in a book called Share This Book (2012) by Share Foundation. Please, read it thoroughly. I promise you that you will be amazed by this astonishing piece of writing.
Advice for Living in this World
Every day is stranger than the last one.
Each of us has a point where we fall short, where we can’t go on at this mad pace. We ride the wave as long as we can until we start to drown in time and change, and nothing makes sense anymore. And then we fight back from that insanity. This is so common an experience, it’s practically a rite of passage in our new online lives.
Somewhere along the way our networks exceeded us. We spent 12,000 years carving civilization out of the wild, and at the very edge of its most technical, most complex, most beautiful moment, it became wild again. Like a matryoshka doll of our human disasters, from within our safe, designed and managed world, we built forests of infinite darkness. In the spaces between our devices, we populated this new wild with the predatorial spirits we’d exterminated from the outer landscape. Once again we face disease, dark creatures, black magics, and the all-seeing eyes of evil gods, all in the worlds we’ve created between us, all embedded in our most logical and mathematical system.
Technological life is just becoming life, it takes the weird and violent paths of life. Our network is biologically complex, unpredictable, a state of nature. It’s obtaining the qualities of forests, seas, galaxies – filled with unearthly beauty, the apprehension of which will pull the breath from your lungs. And like nature, it’s complex and messy and every story, every single one, ends in death.
We need the oldest human tools for this new landscape. This is an age of elemental magic, battling wizards, and capricious gods. To make sense of this world, the routers and servers need their own nymphs and dryads, cable lays need the Shinto river gods, and we need to see Coyote and Raven passing through the application layer, bickering and upsetting the world as they go, but eventually bringing us pieces of the sun.
These are the opening moments of a mythic age, a polytheistic age. The drab but reliable monotheism, the old man God, and the careful and slow secular rationalism he engendered, then fought, kept order in the world for a long time. God and Secular Rationalism were both cut from the same cloth, mostly by reasonable men with proper ways to go about things that made the world predictable, rational, reasonable, hierarchal. But they couldn’t run fast enough to catch us in the 21st century. We overwhelmed them with a trillion tiny imps, little daemon servants that spawned, made trouble, and died before an ant could so much as shake its legs. We can still hear the Old Man and Rationalism screaming in the ever receding distance behind us, and before us, a world of chaos and weird constructed and endlessly self constructing from their technological inventions.
Our laptops will live in the corners of our domiciles, and we will take them with us, like the ancestral Roman housegods. We will come to see programming as magical incantations: cantrips that make small things happen, or great and long rituals that can stop time or turn the world from light to dark. We increasingly live in fear of these magics, not understanding them, but knowing there are those few gifted and sinister humans who do.
And the stories we will have, of them, of us! In the coming years we are going to need many gods to make sense of this world. We will write many new myths to teach our loved ones and keep them safe. With no chance of understanding it all, we will need superstitions to guide us through the forests of the net. We face the old magic of ghosts in our machines, the sympathetic magic of DNA samples, and the voodoo of control in true names. Any sufficiently advanced magic turns out to be indistinguishable from technology.
I encourage you to pick up one of the old religions, and an amulet against the evil eye– perhaps TOR + one of those lovely mediterranean glass beads. Read the old myths, and consider how they might be useful, how they are, in fact, true now. Find out the basic sigils that folks use in dark woods, and carry talismans against things that prey on network travelers in the downcycle night. We have ways for times like these, we just haven’t used them in a while. These are the things we need to dust off, gods and myths are how we manage unmanageable nature– even if we supposedly built it. Without them, we are lost, outdated, clinging to old ways and being harvested by evil things that eat the slow and careful. Nature, even this strange network nature we’ve created, does not reduce, it does not compress, and like all free things, it is terribly dangerous.
Rationalism had its run, but it’s just not rational anymore.