rich, relevant material in those programs and in a companion book that includes all twenty-four hours of those talks, which were whittled down to a mere six hours for the PBS series itself.
Campbell and Moyers spoke over a period of two years at George Lukas’s Skywalker Ranch and later at the Museum of Natural History in New York. In the course of their talks, Joseph Campbell repeated several times in
different contexts that our contemporary life had no relevant myths. Things were changing too fast, he believed, for a mythology to form. He defined myths as metaphors, stories that harmonize our lives with reality. They express the experience of living in terms that are appropriate for a specific time. But our lives have essentially been demythologized in the latter part of the twentieth century (and perhaps even earlier). Yet the old myths are still useful as guides, Campbell always maintained; they provide messages and hints about what it means to be alive.
Various journalists, scholars, and innovative thinkers today are writing about the nature of our life today and how we can accommodate the prevailing technology and flood of information and live successfully amid all of it. In effect, they are attempting to articulate various parts of the dominant symbols, metaphors, and stories—a mythology of sorts for today. And so I thought it would be interesting to use this blog to explore some these writings within the context of mythology as Campbell defined it and to bring some of his wisdom to bear on the problem of how we live in this world of the early twenty-first century.
One of the most powerful symbols of our time is of course the Internet, also known as the World Wide Web or just the Web, and it is having a profound influence on the way we think about things. Daniel Weinberger, whose book Too Big to Know I reviewed on January 24th of this year the shape and nature of knowledge: Human knowledge, Weinberger argues, is assuming the shape of—and the scale of—the Internet. One solution to the resulting information overload, then, is to build not hierarchies but networks. Weinberger claims this is a serious shift in knowledge itself (although I believe it may be more of a shift in our approach to perceiving and manage information). Weinberger writes: “The Internet’s abundant capacity has removed the old artificial constraints on publishing—including getting our content checked and verified.”In case you don’t think this is necessarily a good thing, he expands on this vision: “The new strategy of publishing everything we find thus results in an immense cloud of data, free of theory, published before verified, and available to anyone with an Internet connection.”
This may sound a bit like the Wikipedia version of knowledge, but with less rigorous rules. In fact, it closely resembles a free-for-all of knowledge. Weinberger sees the structure of the Internet changing our understanding of scientific facts. He claims that authority no longer reigns, even in scientific research, because truth is always being debated and revised. But that has been the nature of science for centuries, as science learns more and more about the world around us. Weinberger claims we can best learn to use the Net by understanding that authority, or the truth, is “the last page in the linked chain you visit” does not follow. But this seems to be to be more whimsy
than anything else. In fact, given the uneven level of the quality of information one can find on the Internet, it simply doesn’t make sense to say that the last page is the final word on a given topic. The last page could be
completely specious, contradicting many highly informative pages that preceded it.
The idea that only now is knowledge networked is also very questionable. As C.W. Anderson points out in his review in The Atlantic of Too Big To Know, knowledge has always been networked, just not electronically. Using the example of finding the population of Pittsburg in 1983 in an almanac, Anderson writes: “What do
almanacs, census bureaus, government funding streams, volunteers, the notebooks volunteers carry, and libraries amount to, if not a network?” So too I would point out that learning has never been a linear process. As one researches a topic, one might move from a chapter in one book to a journal article to three books on the topic and on and on until one is satisfied of the grasp of the knowledge available. It wasn’t as easy as clicking on links but it was always a process of exploration with some serendipity and surprise always bound to be part of the experience.
Nevertheless, Weinberger’s whole thesis is representative of a growing body of literature that derives its energy, its
vision, and its sense of mystery (often verging on mysticism) from the image of the Internet, and this phenomenon in itself bears more close examination. Is this the beginning of a new mythology, a new set of symbols and stories that help us explain to ourselves and each other what it means to experience life today? Or is it just an overreaction to a powerful but essentially mechanistic intrusion of new electronic capabilities into our environment? Moyers writes that the last time he saw Joseph Campbell, he asked him if he still believed “that we are at this moment participating in one of the very greatest leaps of the human spirit to a knowledge not only of outside nature but also of our own deep inward mystery.” Campbell thought about that for a moment and then replied, “The greatest ever.”
Perhaps the next phase is always the greatest ever, when it comes to science. I’m not sure our grounding in our own human spirits though is making a comparable leap forward however.
See also: Joseph Campbell Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his memory and works, including making available a large collection on work unpublished during his lifetime.