Prometheus connected: liberation and fate after the digital revolution

The world of myth is one dominated by fate – a supra-human imperative keeping people in their place. In our high-tech world we would like to think that not a trace of that old fatalism remains. “By the sweat of thy brow thou shalt earn thy bread,” the Old Testament decreed. No, human ingenuity can defy the imperative and take the sweat out of the work. But there is a story to be told here about how one way of defying fate ends up recreating the very thing it was supposed to obliterate.

According to one version of the story the protagonist is Prometheus. He is the figure in Greek mythology who best brings together the ideas of the future (the etymology of his name alone has to do with looking to the future), defiance, science, technology and a civilisation made possible by technology.

In maintaining the continuing significance of this myth we are following in the footsteps of Mary Shelley, whose story of scientific hubris has the subtitle: The Modern Prometheus. Unlike others (Percy Shelley and Byron) who were writing hymns to the heroism of the Promethean at the same time, Mary Shelley’s story suggests that modern Promethean defiance could initiate a dark fate for humanity.

Promethean hubris

The ancient Prometheus

To begin at the beginning: Humanity, so the story goes, was in a miserable condition: naked, cold and surviving on a diet of raw food. Humanity had been neglected by the gods. While Zeus remained cold to the plight of humanity, Prometheus was moved to intervene. In an act that was both one of defiance towards Zeus and of tremendous generosity towards humanity he used his cunning to find a way to steal fire from the gods, giving it to humanity together with the gift of the knowledge of how to make the things that would improve their lot.

Thus the story of civilisation begins with technology: fire, and it begins with a defiant assertion of the will that refuses the fate allotted to humanity. That defiant refusal of limitations is the essence of the Promethean attitude.

In the world of the ancient Greeks it went without saying that there would be a heavy price to be paid for such an outrageous act of defiance. Prometheus has to suffer for his deed. He is bound in chains to the remotest cliff. And this punishment re-establishes the balance of the ancient Greek world – a world shot through with a consciousness that fate cannot ultimately be evaded.

The modern Prometheus

Let us skip to the modern period. Like all deities, Prometheus dies, but the Promethean spirit lives on in the ambitions of science and technology to defy the limits imposed upon humanity by nature – to defy our fate as natural beings. And the assumption is that science and technology can effect a defiance way beyond anything Prometheus could ever have dreamed of, and effect it without suffering anything comparable to his fate.

Scientific revolution

One notable feature of the modern Promethean spirit is that it retains at least a trace of the old generosity. As evidence of this we might recall the famous speech given by Harold Wilson in 1963, when he was leader of the UK Labour Party in opposition. In that speech Wilson was looking forward to a bright new future for humanity – a future that would be forged in what he referred to as the white heat of a scientific revolution. The generosity is most evident here:

It is very nice that we should be putting so much research into colour television…[but] what we should be doing is developing the means of mass producing simple tractors and ploughs to increase food production…we ought to be giving more thought to developing…simple one- or two-horsepower steam engines, because that is what the world needs, able to use local fuels, and capable of lifting water from that ditch to those fields a few hundred yards away.

Wilson isn’t saying it is all about the rise of British industry, nor is he saying it is all about the West beating the Soviet Union in a race for supremacy. No, it is about addressing what the “world needs”. (We leave aside the issue of whether anything came of this. What matters here is the evolution of the mythology.)

The post-modern Prometheus

Post-modern Prometheanism thinks of itself as being wiser than its predecessor. The modern belief in planning (and Wilson was all for large-scale plans for the perfection of humanity), leads, it is said, to the industrialisation of everything, including people, who end up being treated like bricks in the wall of the totally organised society. Post-modern Prometheanism casts itself as a movement of liberation defying the older industrial order that insisted upon subservience and conformity to the plan.

The idea is that the post-modern Prometheanism belongs to a world (dis)organised around the horizontal technology of the internet, as opposed to the vertical technologies of the Fordist factory and central planning. And in this digital world the future is imagined to belong to a figure somewhat different to the scientific man that Wilson was praising.

Seth Godin is very good at describing the personality type that our horizontally connected society needs most: someone who doesn’t think the world owes them a living, but accepts it is up to them individually to make things happen; someone who insists on being the master of their destiny, wanting to seize new ground; someone with the boldness to challenge the status quo; a rebel keen to overturn the limits of what lizard-brained types think is possible; someone who has the guts to fly blind; willing to take a leap into the void.

Seth Godin the post-modern Promethean

Here we have a new version of the Promethean attitude. What distinguishes it is the one-sided emphasis upon defiance and cunning, cut off now from any of the former generosity. The key word is creativity, and, according to the spin, the most dynamic people who are really pushing things forward now are right-brain types. Seth Godin tells his audience, “You are artists.” Sir Ken Robinson agrees, lending his name to a campaign pushing for greater emphasis on creativity, framed as a historical need to allow the right side of the brain to gain ascendancy at last over the left. The campaign’s website states:

Creativity is the #1 leadership trait of the future…
As we look forward to a future of rapid technological and social change, it’s clear that a creativity deficit would have sweeping consequences.
We need to nurture the skills that will help future generations solve 21st century problems.

Art and creativity here have absolutely nothing to do with paint and canvas or rhyme and metre. Instead they have to do with what Godin calls the willingness to fly blind. The scientist wants everything to be predictable. The artist is someone keen to start things without having a clue how they might turn out.

The disturbing development here only comes into view when we see the bigger picture – a context described in very honest terms in an article written by George Osborne in 2013 (when the UK Conservative Party MP was Chancellor of the Exchequer). There is a new digital economy. That’s where the most important new opportunities are. Osborne refers us to historic achievements of the recent past, mentioning Wikipedia and satnavs for bicycles. Then there is the brave new world of apps:

The proliferation of apps is fuelled by thousands of small developers, rather than the few goliaths who made up the market for software just a decade ago. The digital economy is booming, producing the kind of jobs we need to win in the global race.

In our horizontal, connected society thousands of digital Davids are slaying the old Goliaths, but does this resemble the spontaneous rebellion of ancient Prometheus? No, now there is a global race which we are all a part of, whether we like it or not. There is now a global imperative: Be Promethean or fail. School blazers have badges sewn onto them with the motto: Invent or Die. Prometheanism becomes obligatory.

And there is none of the old generosity. The global race is a race to invent, make and sell more stuff (and Osborne’s motto intended to inspire young people was: Make stuff, do things). Gone completely is the concern for human need and a recognition that cheap water pumps might be more important globally than satnavs for bikes. No, this is not a race to alleviate the plight of humanity. Nothing is said about where the race might be heading. Fly blind; ask no questions. Just race.

Here we see a fate that Mary Shelley imagined beautifully in the final image of her book, in which the Promethean protagonist is condemned to chase the product of his defiance to the end of his days. Similarly, in the world described by Godin and Robinson the acts of defiance have become deeds demanded by the imperatives of an insatiable system: invent more stuff, get back up Mount Olympus, use your cunning to steal something else and get back down here as fast as possible so we can tool up the factory and get it to market before the competition gets wind of anything. And then back up Olympus again. A never-ending race that has become so senseless it resembles the fate that the original Prometheus was supposed to have defied. And so the post-industrial Prometheus comes to be indistinguishable from Sisyphus, and heroic defiance comes to be indistinguishable from slavish compliance.

Aeschylus’s play about this mythic figure was titled: Prometheus Bound. In the second decade of the 19th century Percy Shelley wrote a poem entitled Prometheus Unbound, and the title alone ties into the assumption that the modern Prometheus can liberate humanity through heroic acts of self-assertion without unleashing anything resembling the fate of the ancient Prometheus. That assumption was false. Mary Shelley (Percy’s wife) was right. The story was destined to have an unhappy ending.

Addendum: Ivan Illich and Promethean deschooling

We want to add an expression of solidarity with Ivan Illich, who added a nice critique of the Promethean to the end of his book Deschooling Society, and we want to take this opportunity to clarify our opposition to a certain kind of pseudo-radicalism in education – the Promethean kind.

At first sight, a lot of the anti-schooling discourse that frames the school as a factory for an oppressively industrial society can seem to be a re-expression of what Ivan Illich was calling for. The new pseudo-radicals seem to take up Illich’s call for liberation – a liberation from forms of institutionalisation that reduce individuals to a means for the institution’s self-preservation.

But what is this a liberation for? The sort of pseudo-radicalism expressed by people like Seth Godin and Ken Robinson calls for an end to the old institutions (of the school, for instance) in order to speed up the global race. If this were based on a reading of Deschooling Society it would be a very bad reading, the sort of too-hasty reading that skimmed past passages like the following:

Ten years ago in Mexico it was the normal thing to be born and to die in one’s own home and to be buried by one’s friends. Only the soul’s needs were taken care of by the institutional church. Now to begin and end life at home become signs either of poverty or of special privilege. Dying and death have come under the institutional management of doctors and undertakers.

There is a hint here that what Illich is ultimately aiming at is re-establishing a new sense of the dignity of our finitude. This is the Illich who himself refused cancer treatment toward the end of his life. The revolution is not a simple breaking of the old bonds to clear the way for another round of Promethean self-assertion. No, the revolution aims at a non-Promethean acceptance of our finitude – our mortality.

In the last chapter of Deschooling Society Illich sums up the situation in this way:

The contemporary ideal is a pan-hygienic world: a world in which all contacts between men, and between men and their world, are the result of foresight and manipulation. School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world.

The ideal described here is Promethean. But the rejection of a planned world can be just as Promethean. In Illich’s view the only revolution worth fighting for is one that is distinctly anti-Promethean.

It is interesting to see Illich struggle and fail to articulate that non-Promethean attitude to our finitude. The last chapter of the book is by far the sketchiest, but if we skip that chapter we fail to see the import of the whole argument.

On the last page of Deschooling Society Illich expresses the hope that as the contradictions of a Promethean society become more evident and as the alienation of individuals from the natural environment becomes more and more acute, people will look again at planet Earth as if from a great distance and feel a nostalgia for an older sense of balance.

In the ensuing 40 or so years the anti-Promethean forces have not gained the ground Illich was hoping for. And we have people like Seth Godin and Ken Robinson making the slavish participation in the global Promethean race sound like the ultimate in liberation.

What we need now more than ever are not hasty calls for de-institutionalisation (which, in any case, often align nicely with the needs of the latest version of the Promethean empire) but a more thoughtful meditation on the kind of reconciliation with finitude that Illich was struggling, and failing, to articulate. We need to find a way to break out of this terrible Promethean dialectic.


written by Torn Halves on May 12, 2014 in digital revolution and Edtech and Ken Robinson with 2 comments