At the present, I am rewriting a paper I published in the Eighties (“Model-Making and the Promethean Ego,” Spring 1982). I am up-dating this paper in order to apply its central argument to the current dangers to our democracy posed by social media since the 2016 Presidential Election. The warnings found in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Hesiod’s Theogony,which I wrote about in 1982 long before the late-Nineties tech boom, are particularly apt today and worthy of a fresh listen. The revised paper is newly conceived under the inspiration of Rene Girard, the late French philosopher-historian, and his theory that literature, both ancient and modern, is the richest source for contemplating human desire. If Girard is right, the literature of Prometheus, a veritable “god of technology” who Aeschylus says gave us architecture, mathematics, mining, ship-building, model-making, writing, memory, prediction, agriculture, medicine, and woodwork, is the place to look for deepening our understanding of technological yearnings. What we learn in that literature is not only that the making of models lies at the heart of our technological productions, but that that model-making is characterized by a hybris that renders it oblivious to the depths of human depravity. Aeschylus pictures our technological impulses as standing in need of a public humiliating “shaming” (Prometheus bound to his stone at the edge of the underworld) and a restoration to an appropriate limit or “measure” that has a grasp of the darkness of particular human desires. Facebook’s early idealistic efforts to “connect the world” in a sort of global town hall meeting started off well (Arab Spring in 2011), but evolved into the travesties of our 2016 Presidential Election. As Bret Stephens says, “In a better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into the open cesspool of the American mind.” Taking a cue from Girard, it is high time for us to turn once again to literature, particularly to the literature of the classical Greeks who gave us both Promethean model-making and democracy.
Since 2012 I have been leading a weekly philosophy discussion group at the Oak Creek Apartments on Sand Hill Road (across the street from Stanford University). The topics we have covered are wide-ranging, but always philosophical in nature; we have covered questions like “Is our democracy in danger?,” “What are the characteristics of good conversation?,” “Should there be ‘experts’ when it comes to aesthetic tastes?,” “What should be in any list of human rights?,” “What is the single thing that you desire most for your life?,” “What is friendship?,” “Is there an ultimate object of human desire?,” and more. It is not necessary to have a background in philosophy to participate and all are welcome. We meet from 3:00 – 4:30 every Wednesday (unless cancelled) in the Club House theater of Oak Creek Apartments,1600 Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304.