Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Computer-mediated social insignia

If you could ask the world's richest man, one of its most prominent philanthropists, a question about the interaction between technology and mythology, what would you want to know? Microsoft chairman Bill Gates got such a question after his keynote speech to a conference of 1700 people from 90 countries who have received the company's Most Valuable Professional award for their contributions to various user communities for Microsoft products. (I have been an MVP since 1994.) This question from one of my MVP colleagues sure made my day:

If we take a long view of society, over 100,000 years, we see that tools fairly quickly transition from a utilitarian artifact into some form of social insignia. The war club becomes the king's mace, for example. Now, if we look at the information products out there, you're wondering how will the Microsoft products of the future become useful social insignias to identify groups, clans and members of the species. I'm wondering if you're addressing that question.

The evolution of computer-mediated insignia doesn't seem that farfetched at all, and indeed Gates had an answer. He said that Microsoft is studying how what he called "reputational marks" contribute to the growth of a "trust hierarchy," especially within a social network. As an example, he cited the importance of Xbox achievement records to that game system's community.

Microsoft Research also has been investigating such things as how to make online avatars more realistic by directing their eyes' gaze, how to make sharing mechanisms more manageable by understanding how people abstract others into different trust levels, and how to visualize the "experts" and "hot topics" in an online community and how they change over time.

In hero myths, a key moment comes when the hero chooses to accept the help of an ally, often an animal or a supernatural being. Knowing who to trust also is the key to successful online social networking and perhaps is the crucial question behind all spam filtering software as well.

Friday, March 9, 2007

I saw Raven

Violence between clans, lust for power, fidelity to the tribe -- it's all there in Macbeth, especially when performed by the Perseverance Theatre from Juneau, Alaska, in Tlingit and English, with dance and music.
The presence of Raven, brought by storyteller/dancer Gene Tagaban/Guuy Yaaw, gave the story an extra edge. If you're in the Washington, DC, area, a few tickets are still available for performances at the National Museum of the American Indian through March 18, but some shows are already sold out.

We were particularly struck by the similarity between some of the Tlingit dance postures and movements and those of the Maori haka from New Zealand/Aoteroa. A case of shared origin and diffusion by migration? Or independent invention by projection from the collective unconscious?

Raven photo from

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The measure of a god

I came seeking the Eye of Horus,
that I might bring it back and count it.
I found it [and now it is] complete, counted and sound,
so that it can flame up to the sky
and blow above and below ...

When I ended my last post with the thought that "the observer (me) must choose a place to stand to take the measure of the falcon-headed god," little did I know that the chief symbol of Horus itself is a measuring tool. The six individual shapes that comprise the eye of Horus are the signs used by the ancient Egyptians for fractional portions -- 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64 -- of the hekat, a standard unit of grain or flour.

What does the eye of Horus have to do with a unit of measure? The eye plays a central part in the story of how Horus ruthlessly fought against his uncle, Set (or Seth), who had killed Horus' father, Osiris. Horus bore qualities amalgamated from his identity as the sky god, his right eye representing the sun and his left eye, the moon. Seth ripped out Horus' left eye and tore it into six pieces. Thoth, the god of mathematics and the moon (which also appears to shrink and grow by fractions each month), magically restored Horus' eye, and the chief gods granted Horus kingship over a united Egypt.

The role of the sound eye of Horus as a symbol of healing and wholeness was reinforced by another myth in which Horus brings the restored eye to his father, Osiris, who consumes it as an offering meal and is regenerated. The Horus eye appears frequently on tombs and temples as a protective sign and offering. Tutankhamen's mummy was found to bear a gold, lapis lazuli, and glass eye of Horus amulet, which the pharaoh may have worn in real life.

The resemblance of the healing eye of Horus, with its fractional component shapes, to the form of the letter R is given by some as an explanation for how the Rx sign came to be associated with prescriptions from Roman times until the present day. Even more interesting is the suggestion that the Egyptians may have recognized that the geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 ... converges toward but never reaches unity, thus bridging the finite world of weights and measures with the infinite world of the gods and strengthening the role of the eye of Horus as a symbol of order.

To learn more about the eye of Horus, check out these articles:

Hymn of Thoth from the Coffin Texts, III, 343, as cited in Rundle Clark, R.T. (1959). Myth and symbol in ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 225.

Horus eye fraction image by BenoƮt Stella licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license versions 2.5.