Hard News by Russell Brown


The Messenger God

Two weeks from today, on Thursday June 6, I'm hosting one of Auckland Museum's 2013 LATE series, Gods and Men, with Judge David Harvey, Rosabel Tan of the excellent Pantograph Punch blog and the New Zealand Herald's switched-on social media editor Troy Rawhiti-Forbes. My allocated Greek god is Hermes -- the god of communications, invention and more.

We'll take our cue from the short essay below, which I wrote for the LATE season booklet, and I figure we'll touch on everything from the news-versus-noise of the Boston Marathon bombings to 3D printing, commerce and copyright. But I'm interested in what you all think about the theme, so please do accept my invitation to share some adventurous thoughts here.


If we know anything about Hermes, it's that he is the Messenger god.

On that basis alone, we could easily appoint him the patron of an era where a billion Facebook users send around eight billion messages a day, and where trillions of IP packets every second flash across the global network, each like a tiny digital envelope, carrying the address of its sender and recipient, and some fraction of an image or an idea. The Roman name for Hermes, Mercury, embodies a modern space where delays are literally calculated in microseconds.

But that's only where it starts.

Hermes was an inventor from birth -- his first exploits were accomplished from the cradle -- and, by legend, he is responsible for the alphabet, numbers, astronomy, music, measures, weights; even the the lyre and the guitar and the plectrum with which they are played. It's pretty safe to assume he also invented the internet.

Hermes' purview is in fact the entire modern, connected world. The world of transactions and journeys, trade and literature, oratory and wit. When you follow on Twitter the stars you will never meet, he is there too, as the intercessor between gods and men. He was the original flattener of hierarchies.

But, as they say on Facebook, it's complicated.

The god who facilitated mystical truth was also a liar and a thief. His offspring included both a nurturing shepherd (Eudorus) and a sociopath (Myrtilus). And we can see all those conflicts in Hermes' world.

The same innovations that fostered open government and the Arab Spring have also brought along cyber-bullying, sexting and surveillance states. We fret about the post-literate world while more people write more words than at any point in human history. The debate over copyright is really a battle between the innate interests of two of Hermes' works; communications and commerce.

How does invention itself change when knowledge is -- or ought to be -- frictionless? Are we doing better science? And if so, is that making a better world? If open knowledge is such a good, why was the info-rights campaigner Aaron Swartz -- who "liberated" thousands of academic and scientific journals -- prosecuted so zealously that he took his own life last year?

Predictions, of course, are perilous. In 1978, the BBC Horizon programme broadcast an episode called Now the Chips Are Down, which forecast a calamitous future as a consequence of the adoption of the computer microchip: whole industries vanishing, permanent mass unemployment. It didn't turn out that way. And yet we are seeing existential threats to sectors on which we thought we could rely -- not least, the free and independent press we like to regard as a pilar of democracy.

Around the same time, it was still easy to find economists who believed that a similar calamity would befall New Zealand if the country surrendered its economic barriers. The farms that fed us would fail if they were not subsidised. They didn't. Yet we are beginning to count the terrible environmental cost of our burgeoning role as the world's dairy farm.

What kind of world has Hermes wrought? What are the implications of the buzzing, constant, real-time world in which we now live? Is it a better world? Or just one with new problems?

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