Archetypes of the Internet
Dolores E. Brien
This article is adapted from a review of Mark Stefik's book Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors (The MIT Press, 1996) which was published in The Round Table Review (March/April 1997, V. 4, No. 4). The experience of the Internet has changed dramatically over the past two years. I would probably write a rather different review were I doing so today. Nevertheless, Stefik offers a stimulating perspective, one still worth thinking about. Your comments are welcome.
The Internet is not only a remarkable technological achievement, it is also an event with profound psychological import.Those who refuse to have anything to do with it, (Jungians among them), see it as another technological trap which will waste time, money, and energy, all of which are in short enough supply. It is unfortunate they think this way because the Internet is an extraordinary locus for fathoming the depths of the collective unconscious of our time.It can be as fertile a psychological field as fairy tales, folk lore, and ancient myths have been. On the Internet new myths are being formed, hitherto ignored archetypes are coming into their own, and new adventures for the psyche await us.
In developing his ideas on the archetypes, Jung emphasized certain ones which seemed to him fundamental, such as the mother, the father, the child, the shadow, the persona, the wise old man, the anima and the animus. But he never limited the archetypes to these few. He recognized that at different stages other archetypes would emerge and with them interpretations which would be appropriate for these stages, in order, he said, "to connect the life of the past that still exists in us with the life of the present, which threatens to slip away from us. (CW 9i, par. 267). The last phrase is particularly poignant. For it is our present condition, of which the Internet is an obvious manifestation, that we really need to understand. Unless we are open to its manifestations, its meaning will "slip away from us," likely leaving us in confusion and even more uncertainty about ourselves and our world than we are now.
Jung also warned against ascribing any one meaning to an archetype. To do that, he said, is to miss entirely the point of the archetypes, for "the one thing consistent with their nature is their manifold meaning, their almost limitless wealth of reference, which makes any unilateral formulation impossible." It is helpful to keep this in mind when dealing with the Internet, in which archetypes seem to emerge in images and metaphors which may not be familiar or entirely congenial to our habitual way of thinking.
Mark Stefik, a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, believes he has uncovered at least four archetypes hidden but dynamically present in the Internet. Why is he interested in archetypes? As he tells us in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors, (The MIT Press, 1996) he is interested in metaphors, first, because they express how we think about things and, finally, because they seem to embody deeply unconscious archetypes.The metaphors we use to describe an invention seem to be guiding our imaginations and influencing what we think that invention can become. The fact, he says, that we hardly notice when we adopt a metaphor for it -that this metaphor arises spontaneously - suggests that our understanding of the invention and its potential is still submerged in our unconscious.
At the time of the writing of this book the most familiar metaphor for the Internet was the "information superhighway." In many ways it is an appropriate metaphor because highways remind us of a complex network of roads connecting places and along which people and things are moved from one destination to another. This is not unlike the Internet, which is a network of communication lines along which information is moved from one source to another. Not everyone was satisfied with this metaphor, and as is often the case as things develop, new metaphors came into play. Bill Gates, Microsoft entrepreneur and the richest man in America, called his book on the information highway, The Road Ahead, but he, not surprisingly, prefers to see it as a marketplace or exchange. Show me your metaphor and I'll tell you who you are. Stefik also sees the limitations in this most commonly used metaphor of the information highway. Highways, for instance, are planned, but this is not the case with the Internet, which is self-organizing. Once built, highways have fixed locations, but this is not true of the Internet, which is always changing its connections as sources of information also change.
In place of the highway, Stefik prefers not one, but four metaphors (which are also functions of the Internet), each of which points to an archetype as its source: the Digital Library pointing to "Keeper of Knowledge;" Electronic Mail, to "Communicator" (or networker, matchmaker); Electronic Marketplace, to "Trader;" and finally, Digital Worlds, to "Adventurer." According to Stefik "These archetypes, with their deep and ancient roots in many cultures, represent what we see in others, but they are also parts of ourselves. This shared experience of cultural archetypes is part of what makes us what we are. Our goal in bringing them to mind is to enliven our imagination, so that when we make choices about the information infrastructure we draw on all the richness of the people we are." To understand these four archetypes as emerging out of basic instincts which have driven human beings since the beginning is not out of line with Jung's description of archetypes as "an image of instinct . . . a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives. . ." (CW 8 par 414).
All four of these archetypes, The Keeper of Knowledge, The Communicator, The Trader, and The Adventurer, are familiar ones, but the way in which Stefik describes their functioning in relation to the Internet will require some stretching of the imagination and willingness to enter into what is, for most of us, the largely unknown and somewhat threatening territory of communications technology. It isn't easy -at least I didn't find it so- but it does offer a challenge to reach beyond the more familiar contexts in which we have come to understand these particular archetypes and in doing so recognize how they are at work in our culture today. Whether they always meet Jung's criterion of an archetype as a striving towards a spiritual goal remains to be seen.
In each case Stefik attempts to link the impersonal metaphors of the Internet with their archetypal source in ancient myths. For the Digital Library he cites the myths of Keepers of Knowledge, referring to Prometheus and other fire bringers. Fire (knowledge), discovered or stolen from the gods, is preserved and handed down from generation to generation through the medium of the wise elders, the story tellers, singer of songs, or priests. The task of preserving and handing down knowledge has become the sacred trust of libraries. Although his book includes an essay which makes a spirited defense of libraries as physical places and as real as opposed to virtual centers of community culture, he is really talking about the compilation, organization and dissemination of knowledge by means of computer networks. This work, he is saying in effect, is archetypal in nature, driven as human beings seem to be to encompass all knowledge - and in our own time, to make that knowledge accessible to everyone. The keeper of tribal lore has now become a vast, infinitely complex, network of information systems. Embedded within it, the older figures are still discernible although imaginatively transformed. An essay by Ranjit Makkuni included in Internet Dreams describes how the practice of Tibetan Thangka painting is carried on today by means of multimedia technology, which includes music, dance, literature and interaction between student and teacher.
Stefik associates the god Hermes or Mercury with the archetype of the Communicator in his discussion of Electronic Mail. One of the first e-mail systems on the Internet (when Internet was known as ARPANET) was called Hermes. A competing e-mail system at that time was called HG, a reference to Hg, the chemical sign for mercury, Herme's Roman name. This is really the "communication" age says Stefik, rather than the "information age," which we hear about more frequently. (Even libraries are not just in the business of collecting information but of communicating it as well.) E-mail, which links by phone, modem and computer millions of individuals and organizations throughout the world, is a phenomenal manifestation of our urge towards what Stefik calls "connectivity." Through the medium of e-mail, people seek affiliation, support, community; they chat, gossip, confide; they engage in common interests, look for emotional support, entertainment. E-mail makes obvious what is true of the entire Internet, whether we speak of it in terms of library or market place or adventure. It is a social phenomenon, a role which, as Stefik points out is as important as its functionality.
Trading (or its variations such as commerce) is not often given consideration by Jungians as having archetypal significance. But it is an instinct, and a powerful one at that, developed early on in human existence. Although it is largely ignored in studies of the archetypes, it is, as we know all too well, "what makes the world go round." How to make money on the Internet is one of the big issues of the day, but undoubtedly money will be made eventually. As the marketplace develops on the Internet, Stefik sees a paradigm shift in the very nature of business, of trading. Older businesses are hierarchical, patriarchal, reflecting what he labels "the warrior idea." Newer businesses, especially those whose "trading" takes place largely on the Internet, are better represented by "the trickster" archetype which emphasizes coordination, and communication. Realistically, both styles will exist side by side for a long time to come, even on the Internet.
Stefik's description of "Digital Worlds," the metaphor for "the Adventurer" (hero) archetype, comes as something of a surprise. I would have expected him to discuss as heroes those individuals or organizations (like his own, which is one of the most innovative in the field) that have contributed to our technological revolution. Stefik, however, sees the "adventure" in the context of the Internet as "an inward quest of renewal," which results in a better understanding of our relationship to others. Sometimes this adventure is solitary, but most commonly on the Internet it is experienced as a group. Some of this is done through the medium of "virtual realities" which to Stefik has much in common with the mythological creation stories. The difference is that they are created by ordinary people, not gods. Examples of such "digital creations" are the various MUDs (Multiple User Domains), such as Dimensions and Dungeons, which engage the fantasy of thousands of individuals. MUDs are virtual places on the Internet in which participants play characters of their own invention. These are social worlds, the only purpose of which is to interact with other participants, who in turn play invent and play characters. The experience of creating a whole world in cyberspace is intense, often emotional, and can be obsessive. They are unlike other electronic games in that no visuals are used, only text, and there is no goal to win. The only goal of this virtual life created by the participants is interaction with others with all the complications of real life interactions and then some. (A virtual "rape" is experienced with real life emotional consequences.)
In the section on "Digital Worlds," an exploration of an individual's dreams on the Internet is examined. Jeremy Taylor, a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist and dream researcher, well known for his work with dream groups set up and led an experimental "dream group." From a number of dreams submitted by the group, he chose one which was then circulated to everyone by e-mail along with instructions and some guidelines for dream work. Their nine participants gathered in a private "chat room" of America Online, and over a period of several days the dream was discussed. In evaluating the experience, Taylor concluded that the experience was immensely useful. For one thing, the symbols uncovered in the dreams were far more numerous and rich than had the dream been interpreted only by the therapist and client; the relationship was egalitarian; the anonymity of the participants was a safeguard. The question remains whether or not it can work with larger groups, which is more typical of the Internet.
The Internet is a phenomenon of the collective whether we see it as an instrument in the organization of knowledge, as a way of communicating with individuals or with groups, as a market place, or as a psychological or even spiritual venture. There are some individuals whose innovations from time to time, seem to represent an archetypal energy at work in the Internet. Ted Nelson, for instance, pioneered "hypertext," a tool which, by creating linkages between units of information, made the World Wide Web possible. But there are few of these individuals who stand out in the crowd, and there will probably be fewer in the future, for the Internet functions and advances more truly as a network, as a collective. Think of those "search engines" (Yahoo, Altavista, Hotbot, etc.) we rely on to find what we want on the Internet. Their intention is to construct an "ultimate index" to all knowledge. (At the same time what motivates them is the quest for profit, but this is a matter for another discussion.)
It should not be surprising that the Internet should be a container, however large the scale, for some of those deep, ancient, human impulses, which in varying degrees we all share. We are all interested in our past, interested in knowing about the world we live in; we all want to be in touch with others, to talk with them, to exchange ideas, gossip, problems, whatever is important to us; we buy and we sell to make money or to possess what we think we need. And all of this is compatible with the equally human urge to be inventive, to imagine, and to play. All of this can be realized, at least to some extent, on the Internet.
One last word-if the Internet acknowledges a god, that god has to be Hermes: mediator, communicator, messenger, trickster, patron of merchants, always on the move. His attributes seem as inexhaustible as does the Internet, of which he seems to be the soul.
© Dolores E. Brien 1997.