variety, and, of course, with its “promise.” Depending on whom you listen to, the Web promises specific transformative powers, from the spread of democracy to the end of history, from equal access to all information to a repository of the sum of human knowledge that is utterly unfathomable in its size and breadth. The Web’s decentralized structure itself has even become a model for all sorts of peer-to-peer networks, from which “collective intelligence” will emerge to solve many of the world’s thorniest problems. It’s enough to make you think that
surely the cultural equivalent of the second coming is at hand.
The Web has indeed captured the general imagination, but what is actually emerging is a common living mythology for our time. A major component of any mythology is power of epic proportions, recounted in larger-than-life
stories. Today’s ever-expanding Internet of website nodes offers a story of the power of technology and may well provide a symbol that helps us understand the experience of what is like to live today.
In ancient times, humans constructed mythological symbols out of their physical environment and their way of life. In the hunting and herding societies, animals played key roles in the myths and rituals. In the agrarian societies, the planting cycle provided the focus for myths. So it is not surprising that, in a society woven through with various digital technologies that have changed the way we live and work—as well as the way we think and interact with others—that technology should find a central place in the myths of our day.
And by myths here I mean living, vital myths, which are neither true nor false but through their symbols speak directly to what it means to experience life at a particular time in history. The famous mythographer Joseph
Campbell (1904-1987) spent his life studying, writing, and teaching others about the world of mythologies. Whereas dreams are private myths, Campbell would say, myths are public dreams. Mythologies are really stories that contain archetypal symbols, symbols that have been used in countless inflections throughout the
mythologies of the world.
Campbell found remarkably similar and detailed stories of deaths and resurrections, virgin births, heroes’ journeys, and many other images and narratives. Like Jung and many others, Campbell emphasized that these similarities existed and resonated with so many people throughout the ages because myths originate in the unconscious. They are biologically grounded in the psyche, which Campbell defined as “the inward experience of the human body,
which is essentially the same in all human beings, with the same organs, the same instincts, the same impulses, the same conflicts, the same fears.”
So one key to the powerful attraction to the Web for many people as they approach it from different angles with varying interpretations and emphases, is that the web, which is sometimes called a net, is itself an archetypal symbol that recurs in other cultures and mythologies as a metaphor for, among other things, interconnectedness. One classic mythical symbol is the Hindu “Net of Indra,” or “Net of Gems.” The Net of Indra is an infinite net that contains a gem at every crossing of one thread with another. Each gem reflects all the other gems. Everything is interrelated and everything that occurs does so in relation to everything else. Campbell sees a similar insight in the nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s idea about the shape of an individual’s life. Schopenhauer observed that towards the end of your life you can look back and see a consistent order, a plan, to it. People you seem to have met by chance become important agents in the structure of your life. And you too have served unintentionally a similar role in the lives of others, so that one gathers a larger vision of the unfolding of life “like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else.” Schopenhauer wrote that it is as if a single dreamer were dreaming a dream in which all the characters dream as well, so that everything links to everything else. James Joyce developed a similar theme in his final work, Finnegans Wake.
Campbell also told an American Indian story where the web again plays a central role in conveying the idea of interconnection. An American Indian chief, Chief Seattle, wrote to the President of the United States in 1852
in response to an inquiry from the government about buying tribal lands to accommodate new influxes of immigrants from Europe. The basic theme was one of the interdependence of all of nature: “But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? . . . The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. . . . Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Power, light, vastness, interconnection, transcendence beyond the visible—all these characteristics of the web converge in these various images. And this may explain why our electronic web—with its pulsing light, expanding toward some unknown and unseen space, connecting countless people, institutions, and sources of information through an endless array of light-emitting nodes—captures the imagination of so many today as they dream the dream of life in the here and now.
As Joseph Campbell always maintained, myths may evoke mystery and awe, their symbols leading forward. They point to clues of the spiritual potentialities of human life. While Campbell said it was impossible to predict what the next mythology might be, any more than it’s possible to predict what one might dream on any given night, he did believe that any new myth would have to take into account the planet as a whole and include the machines of our
modern life. This is the focus of our mythology: the story of the progress of technology, with the computer engineers as our magicians and the web as the source of all knowledge, both our Delphic oracle and the symbol of the interconnected nodes of the human race.