Friday, September 30, 2011
The Magic Box
It sits on all our desks; is carried in satchels; is sought out in coffee houses and libraries. Without it, we are like addicts without a fix. With it, we are addicts with a fix! It links us to the world: to our family and friends, to our business connections, to opportunities to buy and sell, or to disseminate or glean information. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Way Things Were, that benighted archetypal state, just a few short years ago, before computers took the world by storm. We are enthralled, in the true sense of being thralls.
When we think of the history of the computer, we seldom include its mythic, archetypal roots. We think in terms of brilliant minds working into the night hours in garages or university computer labs; of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But, in fact, we ought to be thinking of Thoth in ancient Egypt or Pandora, in ancient Greece, for that is where the long, dangling roots of this particular technology meet their mythic soil.
From Egyptian mythology comes a tale of a dreadful Magic Box, containing a compendium of the most powerful magic, the Book of Thoth. Sought by a Pharaoh’s son named Nefrekeptah, the box was eventually found beneath the middle of the Nile River, at Koptos. In an iron box was a box of bronze; in the bronze box, a sycamore box; in the sycamore box, an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box, a silver box; in the silver box was a golden box, within which lay the Book of Thoth. All around the iron box were terrible twists of snakes and scorpions, and it was guarded by a serpent that could not be slain.
Nefrekeptah managed to surmount all these difficulties and obtain the Book of Thoth, only to have his life begin to fall apart in shocking and terrifying ways. Eventually, much chastened, he managed to return the Book to its rightful owner, and his life and that of his family was spared.
Greek Pandora’s story is similar. Given a locked box by the god Zeus and cautioned never to open it, Pandora, consumed with curiosity, stole the key while its keeper was sleeping and opened the box. Out flew every kind of disease and sickness, hate and envy, and all manner of nasty things that people had never experienced before. Pandora slammed the lid closed, but it was too late: all the bad things had already flown away into the world.
Utterly devastated by her destructive act of disobedience, Pandora opened the box again, to show her husband that, indeed, it was empty. Suddenly, out flew one last thing: Hope. Whether Hope is the redeeming gift, as many interpret it, or the cruelest deception of all, as pessimists would have it, is a matter for philosophical debate. However, this story reinforces the notion of the dubious gifts contained in Magic Boxes.
When I wrote my first novel, Owl Woman, the home computer had not yet been invented. I wore out two electric typewriters composing that novel, numberless typewriter ribbons, and created pounds of manuscript. In order to edit, I literally cut with scissors and pasted with Scotch Tape. Then, the final mess of uneven, lumpy pages had to be re-typed one more time, before it was plunked into a manuscript box for mailing to my agent—a far cry from pushing some keys, running Spell Check and then sending it off into the ethers with an electronic whoosh.
So I am as passionate a devotee of the computer as you will find. As with any numinous object, however, I never lose my essential wariness and awe of this little titanium box that sits so innocently on its desk/altar. Inside, a veritable Wild West exists, where the unscrupulous prey upon the innocent with impunity and the pioneering push ever further into uncharted territory. Violences of various kinds are inflicted there, where child pornography rings flourish and hackers break in to steal identities. Meanwhile, scholars bend over tomes housed in libraries half a world away, heedless of hucksters extolling snake oil over the same electronic pulse; strange viruses infect the unwary and unprotected and spies lurk, intent on invading our privacy.
Let the uninitiated beware: only fools and the arrogant trespass unmindfully in magical realms. This is a Magic Box, indeed!