Metaphors we believe by: the pantheon of 2019

It’s 2013, and I’m lounging on the hardwood floor of my childhood bedroom with a blasphemous book that I smuggled home from college: Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. I devour the whole thing in a single sitting. It feels like Harris is letting me in on a giant secret, a Big Truth that my very Christian upbringing had kept hidden from me. God is dead, he says. We killed him a few hundred years ago and replaced him with a sophisticated scientific understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

Fast-forward six years, and I’ve started to realize that the God vs. science situation is a bit more complicated than Sam Harris led me to believe. The more I learn, the more I suspect that rationalists only managed to kill a very narrow and anthropomorphic conception of God. People who study complex systems started using new words to talk about god-like phenomena — metaphors that are more palatable to secular minds. I believe these new words can help scientifically-minded people better understand what it actually felt like to believe in God before science became a Thing. Let’s take a tour through the pantheon of 2019 and explore what these seven “gods” might teach us in our era of ecological crisis and post-truth confusion.

Aaron has been studying media history, digital anthropology and social psychology. “You can handle the post-truth!”

Technology is blurring all kinds of lines, from the physical and virtual, right through to life and death.

We are now dealing with lots of versions of “the truth” and what is real. New media tech is making us god-like in our ability to (re)shape people’s realities.

This reminded Aaron of his childhood in a very conservative christian home, where many difficult questions were answered with believing in god. With his now-secular view, he can see parallels with how we relate to new god metaphors.

What is metaphor?

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. – George Lakoff

We rely on metaphor extremely heavily in GUI design, very early MacOS shows this with its skeuomorphism. We are so used to them we forget they are metaphors – files, folders, trash/garbage cans, the web being “pages”, the ideas of cut/copy/paste which came from physical manuscripts.

Let’s zoom back out and begin our tour of seven different god metaphors.

The human colossus

An idea from Wait But Why, thinking about the entirety of humanity as a single being. The more we can and do communicate on a global scale, the more we become the human colossus; each human acting as a cell. The colossus can do things no individual could accomplish. It has however brought us to the brink of ecological disaster.

Moloch

The god of coordination failure. In mythology a god that demanded unreasonable sacrifices. Moloch gives us a way to imagine our strange inability to stop things we collectively wish to stop. Nuclear weapons, climate change. Intractable coordination problems perpetuating harmful problems, at the cost of humanity.

The Uruk Machine

The god of heartless market forces. A god named for the Uruk period of Mesopotamian mass urbanisation. The Uruk Machine has authoritarian impulses and cannot care about anything which does not strengthen the economy, no matter the social unrest it causes. The pattern plays out when small groups are trampled by a larger, more powerful group. This happened when european colonists arrived and collided with native Americans. Clashes over ownership of property happened when one side did not even have a strong concept of such ownership. One force overwhelmed the other. The Uruk Machine bulldozes what was there before, at the cost of our emotional wellbeing.

The Stack

The God of Systems Thinking… the most academic god, named by MIT’s Benjamin Bratton.

This is a way to imagine how geopolitics are shaped in the present day.

User – anything from a human to a self-driving car
Interface – how people interact with the stack
Address – anything from a home to an IP address
City – smart cities of the future
Cloud – servers
Earth – the raw materials to make devices

The stack is a theory of governance, thinking how we might control the stack as technology and humanity evolve side by side. A technologist’s dream. Not actively hostile to humans, simply indifferent.

Yggdrasil

The god of spooky entanglement, from Norse mythology. A huge tree that connects the multiverse together. In a world where billions of people are networked even small local actions can have unforseen effects – the butterfly effect via data packets. Nothing is “someone else’s problem”, everything is connected and can come back on us.

It’s surprising we think of the internet as a cloud, rather than a tree like Yggdrasil’s branches and roots.

The Singularity

The god of artificially-intelligent utopia. The closest god to generating a real-life religion. People who believe they can vanquish Moloch by creating AI sufficiently advanced to grant immortality to humans. There are many similarities to the idea of The Rapture in christianity, a moment in the future when they will be saved, to transcend from the human.

Egregore

The god of collective intelligence. This arises whenever a group of humans gather around a common goal. A distributed intelligence, crossing a lot of minds and machines. We talk about corporate entities acting as a unit, even though they are made up of people and materiel. Whether gods, demons or dictators, Egregors are very powerful. Egregor makes room for plurality, for every group of people there is a collective intelligence that rises up. Thanks to the internet, more Egregors appear all the time – a cambrian explosion of Egregors.

What can these “gods” teach us and how do they relate to the deities of old?

In the Middle Ages, people could not help but experience themselves as determined by God. – Hubert Dreyfus, All Things Shining

Humans are pretty bad about reasoning on complex systems. We tend to reductionism, to seek simplistic explanations that are easier to accept. We’ve created a world beyond any complexity people could have imagined in medieval times.

People have always known our ideas of god as ruling a kingdom were metaphors for bigger, harder ideas. They are not literal things, they are metaphors for big ideas. The pantheon we see now won’t make sense in future.

These new gods can leave people depressed. There is a tight feedback loop between the gods we believe in and the societies we create.

But these gods should give us hope. They re-acquaint us with the paradoxical idea that complex systems are both bigger than us and inside us as well.

This pantheon is not an exhaustive list, there are many more.

Look for the hidden metaphors that guide your own thinking.

@aaronzlewis | Aaron’s blog post ‘Metaphors we believe by’