Prometheus wired: the hope for democracy in the age of network technology
1 941 -1 993) iii 'The kittdest of all God's dispensations is that individuals cannot predict the f i t w e in detail. " -George Grant, 1965 Heartfelt thanks to: Edward Andrew for his wisdom, generosity, courage and friendship; Mary Stone for her love and for nailing my ass to the facts; Ronald Beiner and Richard Simeon for their support, advice, and criticism. Thanks also to the family of 115 Major Street and 284 Euclid Avenue, for making a place for me.. .see you in the Big House guys.
... s John Perry Barlow, as quoted in Evan Solomon, "Unlikely Messiah", Shift, Sept.-Oct., 1995, p. 31. Ted White, MP, Reform Party of Canada. Personal correspondence, 22 November 1995. technology and politics to bear on a number of the questions facing us as we head into the age of networks. The movement of digitized information over computer networks is, according to Barlow, "the most profound technological shift since the capture ~f j r e . "~ Judging by the many volumes heralding the onset of a new "information society", the rush of governments to dispense public resources in developing digital infrastructure, the reconfiguration of education systems in observance of perceived technological imperatives, and the sustained buzz emanating from mainstream media, Barlow is not alone in thinking so. However, the choice of fire as a counterpoint to computer networks is probably more interesting than the audacity of this pronouncement. Fire, of course, is at the very heart of the modern technological mythology. The myth of Prometheus the fire-giver is an ancient one, but the drama it depicts illuminates much about the modem technological spirit.' Basically, the story is as follows. After being insulted by Prometheus, Zeus exacted revenge by punishing human beings, the children of Prometheus. Zeus "hid the livelihood of men ... hid the bread of life ... and hid fire". Upon witnessing the toil which accompanied this deprivation, Prometheus concealed a flame in a fennel-stalk and "stole again for men" the instrument they had lost? This theft did not concern Zeus enough to punish Prometheus directly, and he worried so little about the human possession of fire that he did not bother to retrieve it. Instead, he visited evil upon men in the form of Pandora, the "allgifted" female who released amongst the Titans all the grievous gifts of her John Perry Barlow, as quoted in Evan Solomon, "Unlikely Messiah", p. 31. Emphasis added. The tragedy of Prometheus has been recounted by the likes of Ovid, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Plato, Byron, Goethe, Longfellow, and both Shelleys. For a brief summary of the development of the myth, see Olga Raggio, "The Myth of Prometheus: Its Sunrival and Metamorphoses up to the Eighteenth Century", Journal of t h Warbourg and Courtauld Institutes, xxi:l, 1958, pps. 44-62. Hesiod, 'Works and Days", Hesiod: The Poems and Fragments, A.W. Mair, trans. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1908), lines 42-50. pestilent jar, save one: "Only hope abode within her unbreakable chamber under the lips of the jar, and flew not forth/"' Deprived of hope, human beings could make little use of fire. Seeing this, Prometheuswhose name translates literally as "fore-thought"was moved to commit the crime that ultimately brought the wrath of Zeus upon him: Prometheus: I caused mortals no longer to foresee their own doom. Chorus: Of what sort was the cure thou didst find for this affliction? Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell in their breasts7 For this, Prometheus was chained to a rock, his ever-regenerating liver devoured in perpetuity by an insatiable eagle. Why was this such a heinous crimeindeed, more heinous than the theft of fire itselfand what does it have to do with the modem technological spirit? Fire illuminates the physical world, but it is hope that blinds people to their own mortality and entices them to look forward to their future. More than this, hope invites people to impress their designs upon that future, to make a future for themselves, to be creative using whatever means they can come up with. Hope seduces human beings into modifying Providence, resisting necessity, and regarding themselves as gods with dominion over a world they are capable of creating. Hope frees our minds so they can set to work on freeing our bodies. Fire was a means but, without the support of hope, its flames could be contained. In the face of hope, Zeus was doomed. With hope in their breasts and brandishing a fiery torch, human beings were free to Iight the way to their own destiny. Ibid., lines 97-98.