Meiro Koizumi's Prometheus Bound at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Gallery 13



By Lee Vinsel


The Montréal Review, May 2024

I learned about Marc Andreessen’s “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto” when it was published on October 16, 2023, because my social media feeds, where I mostly follow academics working in fields of humanistic and social scientific technology studies, were full of people who were totally triggered by it. They were flipping out. (For shorthand, I am going to refer to these various academic fields as “technology studies” throughout the rest of the essay.)

Andreessen was trained as a software engineer, and early in his career he co-created the web browser Mosaic and co-founded Netscape before going on to found several other firms. Later, he co-founded the venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, and for years now, he’s mostly been known as a venture capitalist and an extremely influential one at that. His blog posts on various business and technology topics often went viral, and he has been seen as an important advisor to many large and powerful Silicon Valley firms.

Like many figures in such “tech” circles, Andreessen feels that people have become overly dour and—a term that gets thrown around a lot—“pessimistic” about the promises of technology for human thriving. And if you look from his perspective, you can see why he feels this way. He has dedicated his life to the creation and promotion of new technologies, and likely feels that critics have lost any sense of balance in their appraisals. He also obviously has deep financial interests incentivizing him to believe this is true. Andreessen wrote his manifesto to stick up for technology, which he believes still has the capacity to greatly improve human life.

Some but not all fields of technology studies are “critical” in the sense of questioning the intentions and imperatives of designers and corporations who create technologies. For a variety of historical reasons, much of the attention of such folks is currently aimed at digital technology firms of the Silicon Valley type. There is a small-to-medium publishing and speaker industry dedicated to going after Silicon Valley elites. Andreessen’s manifesto seemed especially designed to whip such folks into a froth, and, boy, froth they did.

Like many such manifestos, Andreessen’s is a mixed bag that leans towards lousy. Much of it was vague; much of it, question-begging; some of it, downright silly. But, unsurprisingly, there were also glimmers of truth here and there. Here is one bit that struck me as accurate: In a section called “Lies,” in which Andreessen argues that “we are being lied to” by people who only emphasize the negative effects of technologies, he writes,

“The myth of Prometheus – in various updated forms like Frankenstein, Oppenheimer, and Terminator – haunts our nightmares.”

This statement seems to me to be true in an important sense. While the myth of Prometheus was clearly a bad story for Prometheus, who was cursed to have an eagle eat his liver out each day, it is not so obvious that it is bad for humanity, who Prometheus blesses with knowledge and tools through his rebellion. Indeed, many basic texts on classical mythology cast Prometheus as an unalloyed champion of humanity.1

Now, probably we can pin the transformation of the meaning of the Prometheus myth on Shelley’s Frankenstein and especially on how that text has been revisited, taken up, and applied in recent decades (e.g. “Frankenfoods”). I am more interested in how the myth gets used today, what people take it to mean, how they deploy it as a gesture in conversations about technology.

In what follows, I want to make a few brief points: First, it is striking how few experts in technology studies use the Prometheus myth for their work. I believe this is because how the myth is taken these days runs counter to technology studies’ typical commitment to opposing “technological determinism.” But second, I think it is understandable why non-experts deploy the myth: contrary to the emphases of some technology studies experts, technological change, at the aggregate level, certainly feels like a force that is outside of the control of individuals. The problem with how the myth of Prometheus is used today is that it singles out technology when, in reality, all kinds of aggregate changes are beyond our control as individuals, including wars, global pandemics, and economic shifts including both development and deindustrialization. For this reason – to fit one of the themes of this special issue – the myth is a distraction that is, in most cases, best abandoned. It obscures more than it unveils.

Before I get to that, though, I want to briefly reflect on a kind of pragmatist approach that focuses on the use of myths: I have been thinking a lot about the uses of myths in recent years after I began revisiting Plato’s dialogues in my late-30s and early-40s. When I was an undergraduate philosophy major, professors from the analytical philosophy tradition would, like, outline Socrates’s statements about the “Forms” as if they were some kind of metaphysical argument. Indeed, they called it the “Theory of Forms,” a phrase that appears to have only come into being in the mid-20th century. When I revisited Plato as a mature adult, however, I came to believe it was basically bananas to treat Socrates’ statements about the Forms in this way. First off, Socrates almost always talks about the Forms in sections that are poetic and mythic. And what is he doing in those sections? Well, mostly he is inviting others to a way of living. Rather than being some big metaphysical theory, talk of the Forms seems to be a poetic and indirect way of suggesting that life should be lived in pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness.2 In other words, when we see someone deploying a myth we have to ask ourselves, what, in this specific context, are they DOING? And importantly, we often use myths to express something that is inarticulate, that lies more at the level of feeling and action than that of fully logical, or rational, thought.

Allow me to be overly literal for a moment: We do not need to posit the human creation and use of tools as coming from some external magical force. The creation and use of tools is a part of human natural history. Other primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees, use basic tools, and one study found that chimpanzees showed greater degrees of helping novices, which we might view as “teaching,” when centered on complex tool tasks.3 Moreover, other early hominids, like Neanderthals, had tools, and recent evidence suggests that hominids may have been building boats as long as 500,000 years ago, long before the emergence of modern humans.4 Of course, humans developed and passed down technological knowledge at a scale and scope unknown in other species, and scholars of human evolution are interested in why and how this came to be the case. For much of human history, the improvement of technical knowledge was real but slow, with economic growth slow-roasting as something like 1% per annum. One thing that requires explanation is why the pace of technological change quickened so greatly in the 19th century, with the result that human productivity as captured in measures like GDP per capita took off like a rocket. A wide range of literatures, from Marxist historians to libertarian economists, have attempted to explain just that.

As technology studies emerged from the 1960s through the 1980s, many quarters defined themselves in opposition to technological determinism. What is technological determinism? Often the term is used in ways that make it very unclear, but this definition from Wikipedia gives a fair sense of what people mean: “A society’s technology progresses by following its own internal logic of efficiency while determining the development of the social structure and cultural values.” In the determinist view, technology is a force in its own right. Scholars criticized and challenged technological determinism in any number of ways, but one of the most common was by turning to the “social construction of technology.” This notion of “social construction” fits the historicist, relativist, “constructionist” trends that were common across the humanities and social sciences during this period, including, for example, examinations of the “construction” of ideas of race, gender, sexuality, disability, the environment, and so on and so forth. As opposed to technological determinism, social constructionists examine how technological systems emerge from human choices. Even large-scale issues like how greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change can be seen as arising from the aggregation of individual choices.

The predominance of social constructionist views is why we do not see more experts in technology studies drawing on the Prometheus myth. When we do see mentions of the myth in culture, just as Andreessen says, it is almost always to highlight the negative effects of human use of technology. But evocations of the myth are also almost always vague, romantic, and inarticulate – lacking understanding and detailed examination of the human choices that have led to the concerning consequences. We see this in spades in poet and speculative fiction author Andri Snær Magnason’s brief 2022 essay, “The Age of Invisible Fire,” where he writes, “Our greatest threat now seems to come from good old Prometheus . . .  The gods knew that we would not be able to handle the power of fire and things would eventually go very wrong.” Magnason gives us descriptions of inventors, like Oppenheimer (the nuclear bomb) and James Watt (the steam engine), and then heads onto the aggregate effects of these technological inventions, such as enormous greenhouse gas emissions, without giving any attention to the billions upon billions of human decisions that connect any act of invention to large-scale aggregate outcomes. Technology is a force that seems to act on its own.

From one angle, feeling that the aggregate effects of technology use is beyond our control as individuals is perfectly understandable, and scholars in technology studies should do a better job recognizing this reality. There are many examples where the aggregate effects of technology use impinge on our lives even if we work hard not to do the activities that are causing what we see as harms. For example, YOU might work hard to minimize your carbon footprint by riding your expensive bicycle down Draper road to campus, but that will not keep you from feeling the full brunt of climate change . YOU might reject automobile ownership altogether but that won’t change the fact that you live in an intensive automotive culture. Or YOU might choose to use a flip phone because you think that smartphone use is addictive and harmful in various ways, but everyone around you is still going to have their faces in their phones all the time whether you like it or not. Such cases could be multiplied. The fact that technology use can feel like a force imposed on your life is comprehensible in such circumstances, even sympathetically so.

The problem, though, is that there are many large social and material forces in the world that are outside of our control as individuals, including economic and demographic shifts, the spread of deadly diseases, war, and so on. Our use of the Promethean myth focuses too much on technology. What’s more, use of the word “technology” really only took off after World War II, and it is surrounded by various ideologies. We live in a period that attributes a great deal of change to technology even when doing so is not supported by evidence. For example, many have assumed that the significant decline in American manufacturing jobs arose from automation, but as economist Susan Houseman and others have shown efficiency gains in manufacturing have been very slow in recent decades. The causes of declining manufacturing employment lie elsewhere.

In this way, although understandable, the feeling that people use the myth of Prometheus to express sometimes not only lacks comprehension but also is just wrong. Such ignorance is a threat because, amongst other reasons, it can lead us to suggest misguided “solutions” to problems that we fundamentally misunderstand. We can only hope in such circumstances that the inarticulateness of myth can be replaced by the richness of strong understanding.

Lee Vinsel is an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.

1 For example, Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans

2 You see this in spades in Socrates’ extend myth in Phaedrus, which is clunky in some ways because of its obvious moral lesson, but which centers on persuading Phaedrus that he should not love ideas, or speeches, because they are exciting and interesting, though they are also that, but only when they chase truth. Similarly, in her masterful essay, “The Poetry of Phaedo,” Helen Bacon shows that Socrates’ use of myth in that dialogue is aimed at comforting his friends, preparing them for his absence, and encouraging them to go on with the philosophical life.

3 see here

4 see here



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