Pandora's Mighty Soldiers

Amber_75At CES this year, I did an afterTV interview with a young blonde Texan called Amber Dalton. Amber is a top female gamer. Her cyber nom de guerre is Athena Twin and she is the leader of a female gaming gang called Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers (PMS).

The interview was surreal – even by Las Vegas’ incomparable standards. There were Athena Twin and I, beside the swimming pool of Hard Rock hotel, simultaneously chatting about X-Box live, fiber-to-the-home internet connectivity and the Greek myth of Pandora.

“So why did you name your gang after Pandora?” I asked her.

Athena Twin explained that Pandora represented an ancient Greek version of a female gamer. In a way, I think, she is right. But what she forgot to add is that the whole Web 2.0 revolution is itself an updated version of the old Pandora parable.

Prometheus, the creator of mankind and a particularly insolent god, tricks Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods, over the proceeds of a sacrificial bull. Prometheus behaves like a nineties-style Internet salesman in trying to pass off to Zeus animal bones dressed up as meat. Zeus’ punishment is to withhold fire from mankind. But Prometheus steals the fire and gives it to man. Zeus is furious. He orders Hephaestus, the god of fire, to forge a woman, the first mortal female. The other gods then adorn her with beauty, eloquence, sensuality and every other female quality seductive to man. She is named Pandora and she is the greatest of great seductions. The poet Hesiod, in his Works and Days, describes Pandora as a “calamity for man who lives by bread.” Prometheus senses trouble and refuses her; but his brother, Epimetheus, accepts Pandora as a bride. Pandora turns out to be too perfect to be true and she delivers destruction to the world.

Almost three thousand years after Hesiod’s epic poem, the media might have changed, but the story remains the same. Today’s Internet – the user-generated news blogs, search engines and social media sites -- is a replay of the original Greek myth. Like the beautiful yet destructive Pandora, this Web 2.0 revolution is too good to be true. It is as if this technology has been created by the gods, to test us, to tempt us, to punish us for our hubris, our self-confidence, our naive faith in the transformative power of the World Wide Web.

It is no coincidence that there are a couple of contemporary Internet companies named in honor of the destructive Pandora. Both these Silicon Valley firms are peddling technological dreams that epitomize the hubris of the current Internet revolution. One Pandora is destroying traditional music criticism; the other Pandora goes one step further and is destroying the traditional creators of all content -- human beings themselves.

Pandora.com, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up providing artificial intelligence that identifies our musical taste, has developed a “Music Genome Project” that, the company promises with a hubris that would amaze even the ancient Greeks, claims to be mapping out music’s entire DNA. One consequence of Pandora.com’s supposedly all-knowing algorithm is to make the conventional music critic, the traditional human guide to music, redundant. So for reviewers who “live by the bread” of music criticism, Pandora.com is indeed a calamity.

A second Bay Area start-up, named Pandorabots, sells easy-to-use software that enables anyone to build software robots -- “intelligent” online personalities that can be programmed to sing, sell and seduce. Pandorabots gives new meaning to the technology cliche “killer app”. By being able to broadcast virtual representations of ourselves on the Internet, Pandorabots makes human beings redundant. No wonder the software was named in honor of Pandora, humanity’s ultimate killer app.

The destructive Pandora.com and Pandorabots are not alone. Their same destruction is being unleashed by Google on libraries, Craigslist on newspapers, YouTube on Hollywood and Podtech on radio.

We – you, me and Athena Twin -- are the Epimetheus in the story. It’s a great seduction. All we need is a personal computer and access to the Internet, we are promised, to acquire the powers of Hephaestus, the god who forged Pandora. But, like the seductive Pandora, these promises are too good to be true. Instead of a cultural or economic renaissance, our love affair with user-generated content will end up killing traditional writing, knowledge, movies, music and radio. And, In exchange for this mass redundancy, we will get an increasingly narcissistic culture, the tyranny of meaningless information, ubiquitous advertising and the accession to power of the untalented amateur.

So thanks, Athena Twin, for your introduction to Greek mythology. I never would have thought about Pandora and her Mighty Soldiers without your inspiration.