The Age of Monsters
Episode 4: What Happens When Morality is Commodified?
This was originally posted on the GM blog.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
— Antonio Gramsci
The Supply & Demand of Order & Morality
What happens when we live in a society where morality becomes a commodity that becomes exploited? A cult of authenticity is born and it becomes the primary vehicle that drives all moral values.
“The compulsion of authenticity leads to narcissistic introspection, a permanent occupation with one’s psychology. Communication is also organized psychologically. The society of authenticity is a society of intimacy and exposure. The nudism of the soul into which we are encouraged lends society a pornographic character. Social relations are more genuine and authentic the more intimate they are, the more they reveal what was private.”
We live in a performance society. As the philosopher, Byung-Chul Han states “All members perform themselves. All produce themselves. Everyone pays homage to the cult of the self, the worship of self in which everyone is his or her priest.”
When traditional morals are no longer the source of life’s meaning, and sacred symbols no longer describe any sort of underlying reality, what unfolds is total and complete context collapse. We now live in infinite realities where symbols, old and new mean anything.
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time ––when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...
The dumbing down of Americans is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”
— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
How does one navigate this demon-haunted world?
Since the beginning of human time, we have used myths and folklore to explain the supernatural. Our fantastic imaginations dreamed up monsters to scare children, and gods to scare men. Science has dispelled many of these myths. The gravitational force of the moon has made gods like Poseidon and Neptune obsolete.
Yet, we still invoke mythological beings in our modern times.
A unicorn is a billion-dollar company. A beast is someone that is supremely good at something. We Frankenstein something together. Bedtime stories teach life lessons to children. Mermaids live in Disney fairytales. Pixar shows us we all have our demons.
Myths don’t have much of a role in the world of hard science, but in the world of human consciousness, it has always been used to make life more comprehensible. To explain the unexplainable. Myth-making was humanity’s first way of thinking.
“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life's pain, the greater life's reply.” “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words.
— Joseph Campbell
There are many many ways to interpret mythology, but for our purposes, we only need to know about two. The unhealthy and the healthy.
The unhealthy use of myths dehumanizes and demonizes whole races and cultures. It defrags the human soul and is instead, is led by the body. As Carl Sagan noted, democratic society is continually threatened by the abandonment of reason and regression to magical thinking and emotionally satisfying explanations of life and history. It reads tea leaves, palms, horoscopes, and tarot cards to find occult meaning in Monster Energy drinks, forums, pizza shops, and the specter of state. Widespread corruption and propaganda make vulnerable people sensitive to conspiracy theories because of the injustices they perceive in the media and in their own lives. While it’s near impossible to get physically lost, people are walking around without a moral compass to guide them. Most people are spiritually lost. Their minds weak and susceptible to radical beliefs.
The healthy exploration of mythology progresses one’s spiritual journey. Storytellers use the hero’s journey to map the arc of their characters. Art, wisdom, values, virtues, and philosophy are born from mythology to guide the intangible nature of our human psyche.
Hidden Monsters & Superstructures
One useful way to look at our current culture is through the idea of superstructures. If infrastructure is the technology stack, social structures are coordination protocols; mediating governance, law, and economics. Superstructures are the cultural forces that run on top of it all. It binds everything together and orients what everyone is working towards. The operating system of culture. You can get a better understanding of any culture if you map out its superstructures.
Looking at our culture in this way helps us avoid pointing out problems in a narrow reductionist way. It allows us to look at everything as a system–isolating elements, feedback loops, and incentives.
Take for example institutions in finance, media, and the government. As they become more bureaucratic, they become unrecognizable because of institutional decay. They begin to have coordination challenges and agency problems. No longer serving the very people they set out to serve. Inertia sets in. Their incentives become perverse as the institution is captured by bad actors that maintain the status quo for their own self-interests.
This is how start-ups, particularly in technology can outmaneuver large institutions. They become hyper agents, selecting only effective people.
A problem arises when we begin to label people and institutions. Dehumanizing one side or the other does little to nothing. Even if we can identify the problem and label the monster we still have no way of understanding how to defeat it.
While superstructures allow us to identify the monster, we still need a symbolic interface to reveal its hidden nature. You never get through the dungeon without knowing the mechanics of the final boss fight.
A lesser-known aspect of mythology we can employ as a symbolic interface is Cryptozoology. The study of hidden animals. A disputed branch of science populated by elusive creatures both presumed to exist, and not to exist, such as vampires and leviathans. These creatures are referred to as cryptids.
You can think of god, states, and networks as sort of leviathans. Media, politics, and tech as a hydra. Zombie companies are entities that earn just enough money to service their debts. Companies are vampires based on how they harvest their labor force. Venture capitalists invest in thunder lizards (Godzilla-like companies that disrupt markets). On the one hand, mystical thinking is dangerous when it spreads hatred and distorts one’s sense of reality, but on the other hand historical mythology can help us navigate the paranormal entities and phenomena of our times.
“Madness in individuals is something rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.
— Fredrich Nietzsche
Just as people turn to stoic philosophy to adapt their minds to the complexity of modern life, we can use cryptozoology as a symbolic layer over superstructures to reveal the true form of multi-agent systems. Hyper-agents that are well adapted to society usually have this historical context, and are able to be effective against these systems.
Hidden monsters from mythology have a unique way of describing the behavior of unrecognizable entities that are born from human hive-mind states because they themselves have been developed by the deepest corners of our collective consciousness. This is especially useful since isolating problems to any one individual or institution proves meaningless when language continually fails to graph the issues at hand. Words are continually stolen and weaponized. Cancel culture polices thought and control.
A couple metaphorical cryptids have reappeared in our modern-day culture to explain the state of some of our superstructures. Take for example the concept of Moloch and Eggregors.
Moloch appears in many ancient texts, but has been used in social or political allegories to indicate something that demands immense sacrifice and subservience. In popular forms its shown in horror films to depict devil worship. In classical forms, Karl Marx referred to things like money as Moloch. Slate Star Codex has an excellent post called Meditations on Moloch.
An egregore is a group thought form. It can be created either intentionally or unintentionally and becomes an autonomous entity with the power to influence. A group with a common purpose like a family, a club, a political party, a church, or a country can create an egregore, for better or worse depending upon the type of thought that created it. The team over at Rebel Wisdom covers Egregores quite extensively.
You can start to see how it is much more helpful to describe things that require intense sacrifice like late-stage capitalism as Moloch or social media culture as a sort of egregore instead of blaming “our government” or “Facebook”.