Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Monomyth: An Easter Egg in the Matrix

The Video Game of Digital Life

“The unreal is more powerful than the real.
Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.
Because it's only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last.
Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.“
— Chuck Palahniuk

Image courtesy of artida / shutterstock

Storytelling: Programed in Your DNA, Written in Binary

Truth is far stranger than fiction.  And so, it should come as no surprise that scientists have hypothesized that our universe as we know it is a vastly complex computer simulation, not unlike the one found in the Matrix movies.  However, what is noteworthy is that for the first time there is now a way to test this hypothesis.

In addition, recent experiments have discovered a viable method of encoding digital information using DNA.  One gram of organic matter can now reliably hold more than one million CD's worth of data.  Right now, the process of encoding and decoding information like this is prohibitively expensive.  But we can do it right now.

What could an intelligence hundreds of thousands of years more advanced than us be capable of?

What if the genetic code of every living organism on Earth is far more than just a blue print for life, but is serving as a massive biological hard drive?  What if all living things are components of a biological archive of information on an ungodly scale?

From the beginning of human history, big existential questions have always lurked in our subconscious minds. Who are we really?  What purpose do our lives have?  Is there a greater meaning to existence?

Awake or Sleeping: Mythology is Still Important

If data can be written into our DNA, and our brains can be considered complex biological CPU's, couldn't stories then be the source code or operating system for the subconscious matrix of our lives? I don't think it really matters whether we live in a hyper advanced massively multi-player simulation running on organic hardware, or if in fact, we do exist in "real life."  Either way, the importance of stories and a narrative structure is intrinsic to who and what we are as human beings.  It's how we communicate with each other, even how we process thought.

Unlike the Matrix films, no one has yet discovered a way to hack reality.  The closest we've come to it is creating our own simulated realities.  Stories.
"The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use them."
-- Philip K. Dick
We write a lot about modern mythology on this blog.  Given our URL, that shouldn't come as a big surprise.  But we often speak from personal experience, or in generalities.  Even this post, which I hope sheds some light on the topic, only briefly touches on scientific proof of the importance of myth.

Of course, a lot has already been written on the subject--by individuals far more qualified than I.  Here are just a few breadcrumbs to help you on your way...

Discovering the Monomyth

Stories have a lot in common with each other—whether they are in books, films, or spoken: they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the similarities don’t end there; they also have something else in common with each other.  A hidden x-factor.

Or, at least the stories that we can connect with do.  The ones that we don’t just hear--the ones that actually speak to us.  The stories that have characters we care about; the books that we can’t put down; the movies we cringe at...

These movies, books, and stories are frequently so different from each other, it might not look like they couldn't in anyway be related.  Aand yet, pull back the skin, rip out the tendons and muscles, you’ll eventually make a surprising discovery: they all have the exact same skeleton.

They all contain the same narrative DNA: the monomyth.

DVD Extra from the Warner Brothers Film “The Matrix“

The Monomyth in Contemporary Narratives

The Call to Adventure

The message received by Neo
Image © Warner Brothers, The Matrix
Follow the white rabbit down the hole, and into another world.  One hidden deep inside the core of humanities’ collective subconscious.  One that is strange and frightening, and yet simultaneously familiar and comforting.

Free yourself from the fictional prisons that the corporate elite, and political aristocracy have caged your imaginations in, and escape to an ancient world where our ancestors did more than ponder  the meaning of life, the universe, and everything...they went on adventures to discover them.

Imagine that right after you read the spinach green text above on your browser, you really did hear two knocks behind you?

Knock.  Knock.

How would you feel? What would be going through your mind? Suddenly, that fictional world that was once a safe and entertaining refuge, has transformed into a gateway to another reality.  One filled with unsettling possibilities.

What if it wasn’t just a story?  What if it wasn’t just fiction? This is the primary element that makes transmedia such an exciting development in storytelling.  The third wall separating the participant from the story can now be knocked down.  Instead of reading, listening, or watching the story unfold, they actually become a part of it. This interaction is a key element missing from most commercial projects that have been mistakenly labeled “transmedia.”

Red vs. Blue

Image © Warner Brothers, The Matrix
“I imagine you feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole…you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind…take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes…”
— Morpheus, The Matrix

That rabbit hole?  It’s deep.  Really deep.

Tens of thousands of years before the first ancient cave paintings were just figments in their creators heads, the capacity to tell stories—and the need to hear them—was hardwired into our DNA. That’s the untapped power of myth.  A power humanity long ago tossed aside as just a relic.

It’s not that surprising. After all, who needs candles when you have a flash light, right?  But candles don’t need batteries; they don’t need to be recharged. And while the light they shine isn’t as revealing—or as bright as science. In our modern age, with our rigid world views, we can try to categorize everything in neat little piles.  But it won’t always work.
Eventually, when the piles get too big, a paperclip will either have to bend, or snap.  Rolling up the universe in the malleable tube of mythology might be less organized, and even a little messy; but it can get the job done when a paperclip can’t.

Am I suggesting that we throw away the paper clips of science, math, and physics, and replace them with stories? No, of course not.  That would be just a silly as throwing out all the rubber bands in our desks; after all, you never know when you might need one—ask McGuyver.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what most people have done by the time they reach adulthood.  They’ve tossed out the rubber bands of myth—or the few that they desperately cling to have snapped long ago, and no longer serve their purpose. When we‘re told by society to “grow up,” to toss the myths we've carried with us since childhood into the trash—it leaves us ill equipped to deal with reality.  Even if that reality is just a simulation.

Parent’s often lament that children don’t come with instruction manuals.  But they do: myth, legends, folklore, and other oral narratives were the cultural transmission devices of our ancestors.  These “stories” gave children their worldview, linked them to the other members of their society, taught them laws and cultural taboos, and gave them a map with several paths to follow into adulthood.

Image via Wikipedia 
(CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license)
Today, myth may feel like a forgotten and lifeless tuber, dissected in high school English classes, or studied under microscopes of intellect in universities—but, if planted, watered, and given time to grow, you will find that ancient myths are in fact seeds.  Seeds that massive trees of unlimited creative potential can grow from.

Why the Heroes Journey is Every-Man's Journey

"Not all who wander are lost."
 --J. R. R. Tolkien

Today, most people dismiss myths as quaint and ancient bedtime stories.  Fictional night lights that humanity conjured up in our infancy to help cope with the harsh, unforgiving, and unfathomable world we lived in. Today, when someone says something is a myth, they mean it is fantastical, untrue, and unimportant. But there are some people who refuse to let myth fade into mediocrity. The founder of this website, James Curcio, is one of those people.

In The Immanence of Myth he makes it abundantly clear that myth isn’t just important to our ancestors, but is still serving a vital role in our modern world.  He explains why myths haven’t disappeared, and in fact, they're hiding in plain sight. Traditional scholars have been so busy trying to find the “tree“ of modern mythology, they have been completely oblivious to the fact that they are standing in the middle of a forest of them.

Mr. Curcio’s study collects works from a number of scholars, artists, and self-styled social “misfits” who post on this site.  Individuals like myself who have seen the forest as well as the trees--who have taken it upon themselves to explore this newly discovered world of contemporary mythology.
“If myth is something long dead, a corpse exhumed with philosophical disinterest, then please consider this work an attempt at necromancy. But if myth is considered something dangerous; full of falsities, dead ends and mazes luring the unwary into a fugue of superstition, then consider it a whispered pass-phrase into another world: the world beyond the wallpaper. A world that recognizes the real is in the effect rendered, rather than in the thing symbolized. Conflicting fictions drive Holy wars. How is a history born of spilled blood unreal? How is it meaningless, even if all the Gods are just shadows cast on the wall by finger-puppets? Myth is not dead, nor is it false; it is living, and misunderstood…” — James Curcio, The Immanence of Myth
The truly amazing thing about myth is how the same story elements and motifs keep showing up in so many different places and times.  But the monomyth isn’t always obvious if you aren't looking for it.  Here's a map that may keep you from getting lost.

From Action Philosophers, by Ryan Dunlavey 

 My Personal Mythology

The next time you think about all of existence,  remember there is a possibility it's all just a computer simulation.  And if it is, like any program, it's likely to have quite a few Easter eggs.  If you want to find out the meaning of life, you might want to find them and crack them open.

I may know where a few of those mythological eggs are hidden.

My previous posts have focused on the transmedia revolution, and how technology is transforming storytelling.  But over the next several weeks, I will be wandering the winding path that is the Monomyth.  I will explore each stage, and share with you how my personal life has mirrored many of them.  In the process of learning about the Monomyth, you'll hear the story of my personal mythology.  And you'll learn why it's important to recognize the landmarks of the Monomyth in your own life.

This is but the first of many posts exploring the monomyth, and its many modern manifestations.  Make sure you check back, or subscribe to our RSS feed for additional updates.

What do you think about the Monomyth?  Has mythology and storytelling affected your life as deeply as it has mine?  Tell me how you feel about all this.  Is it all just a coincidence?  The wishful thinking of Jungian psychologists?  Or do you think there may be more to all this than we realize...?

--Peter Usagi

(Some of the content of this post originally appeared here)

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[Where is Modern Mythology? Mythos Media.]

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