“The machines seem to run us, crystallizing in their mechanical or electronic pulses the means of our desires.”

-Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization

I wish I had a cell phone at this moment. The image is perfect and fleeting, and I’d like to photograph it.

Hanging on the museum wall is a painting of a woman standing on a balcony. Beyond her is an open field, flowers, soft pastels. In her hand she is holding something and gazing at it as if into a mirror.

Standing directly in front of the painting is a young woman, around the age of the painted woman. She is standing in the precise orientation of the woman in the painting, holding a smartphone in the same way the painted woman holds whatever she is holding, and gazing into it. The real woman stands by the painted woman like a shadow, and part of me wonders if she is a prop, someone the museum pays to have the experience I am having, or an artist teaching us museum-goers something.

I don’t have a cell phone or any other camera on me, so I can only encounter the moment for what it is and compose this verbal account of it. The unpainted woman walks away, and I go to look at the painting up close. On the little placard next to it is the title: “Pandora’s Box.”

It’s easy to bash technology. All you need is a hammer. One swing and that thing that seems so mythically smart is useless. But it’s impossible to kill technology. One person can bash one screen—or drown it in a bucket of water, or crush it in a bench vice—but legions of them will remain.

And who among us wants to throw all our screens on a bonfire anyway? Not me. I mean, I don’t carry the devil in my pocket, but I’m certainly typing on one right now. And I don’t plan to just put this computer in a backpack, hike through the woods to the rockface behind our house, and drop the thing off the cliff.

When technology has overwhelmed our culture so thoroughly, such minor confrontations are like throwing a towel at the Great Flood. Better to go back to the beginning, to wonder about the name of this thing we are gazing into.

Do you know the story of Pandora’s Box?

A Greek god creates god-like men, which angers Zeus, the king of those gods. The man-maker then steals heavenly fire to give to the men, and Zeus loses it. He asks another god to make a woman. This first woman receives gifts from other gods and her name, Pandora, means “all-gifted” or “all-giving.” Zeus, still angered, gives her a box containing all miseries and tells her not to open it. Of course she does, and those miseries fly out into the world. But the man-maker had snuck hope into her box, and Pandora, seeing what she’s unleashed, snaps the box closed before hope escapes.

Over the ages, people tell the story over and over. They slightly alter it, tell it their own way, write the story down, paint it. They understand the story differently. Is hope a plague like the rest of the contents? Or is it a redemptive gift? Or both or something else?

At some point, people come to see the story as not real, never was, never will be. They retell it as a simplistic metaphor. They name computer apps after it. They roll their eyes at one more mean, old, Euro-centric, patriarchal framing of women.

Mostly, they forget it. The title remains in the lexicon as a remnant, defined as something that is “the source of all troubles.” It’s death complete, someone hangs the story in a museum. Among other lifeless artifacts, it suffers no context. It causes no fear. Like the other paintings, it doesn’t scream or bleed but simply hangs there for polite observation. Even a cross could be hanging next to the painting, and it too would be flattened, suspended in the abyss of modernity like a decoration. Magically, that to which it referred, which once had more reality than the painting, has disappeared.

But a strange thing happens when a god goes missing, or a story. From beneath our consciousness, from beyond our atheism, or materialism, or whatever you call industrial culture’s muted experience of divine reality, the story comes roaring back, devil be damned.

Unaware, we can stand in a museum, in a temple of modernity that extracts life from all other temples. We can gaze into the vengeful gift of a god while that god stands right behind us, unseen, not believed in, multiplying his box of miseries into every pocket in the museum and beyond.

Invisible now, his vengeance is boundless, flying out into the world without barrier. The myth having escaped into the world, Pandora’s Box, that source of all troubles, hides everywhere among us. We just don’t see it that way, or call it that name.

It’s a damn cell phone, not a myth. You can crush a cell phone in any number of ways, pitch it to your kid for batting practice, or just press a button and turn it off. You can’t do that to a myth.

I was once chatting with a member of the local Amish community, whose friend had recently had a prolonged stay at the hospital. The television was constantly going in the hospital room. After getting out, this person for whom screens had no role in shaping perception or culture reported this: If you watch that thing long enough, you start to believe what it’s saying is true.

That’s the point. We’re not in control like we think we are. It doesn’t matter how much consciousness, intelligence or will-power we muster, when we open that box, forces much bigger than us are unleashed and work their powers on us. I’m talking about the box in the story, not the one we’re gazing into.

Image credit: “Pandora’s Box” via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. You may know the prophecy of the Greek saint Cosmas the Aetolian (+1779) who said that in future days Satan would put himself in a box, and would scream from the box day and night and his horns would stick out of the top.

    Sounds vaguely familiar…..

  2. I got rid of my cell phone 2 years ago now and have never looked back. Throw them dang slave devices away I say and taste some freedom! Great essay Joe, keep
    ’em coming!

  3. “Throw them dang slave devices away I say and taste some freedom!”

    I had a bumper sticker made that says “State Your Independence. Ice-pick Your Smart-phone.” I get comments on it somewhat regularly (although I did have one 20-something ask me what “ice-pick” meant).

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