Brian MacMillan

Silent Dusk

BM Silent Dusk

03 When We All Have Brains and Other Stories

05 Mr. Market

07 Current Research

In addition to the specific research projects listed below, I am actively working on what I call “real-time” research papers. The traditional means of publishing data involves discrete samples in static texts. My intention is to rethink this process in light of 21st Century technologies, specifically to create research projects that can be updated in real-time on web pages, including statistical analyses and the visualization of results. I am using the D3 javascript library, the statistical analysis package num-py and the web framework angular.js in this project.

Incidence of War Trauma in Survivors of Torture who have been Sexually Assaulted

I am working with Dr. Kristina Jones from Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, under the aegis of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, on research related to the incidence and intensity of post-traumatic stress disorder in torture survivors. Our work was presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual conference in spring 2015 and at the 10th Annual Research Symposium of the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (sponsored by the State Department), on March 5, 2018. It is being prepared for immediate publication.

NGO Roots of the World Wide Web. The traditional narrative about the formation of the World Wide Web focuses on the enhancement of a university-based US military research network by HTML enabled graphical browsers and commercial email, in the early 1990s. While this narrative explains the spread of the Internet within American, British and Canadian academia, it does not explain the spread of the Internet to much of the rest of the world. This essay looks at the considerable technological impact that the 1992 Rio UN Conference on Climate Change had on the spread of Internet technologies to developing nations (particularly Brazil), focusing specifically on the work of NGOs like Web Networks, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and the Tides Foundation.

Public Goods Game Between 2015 and 2017 I worked with Julian Wills at New York University Department of Psychology on research related to selfishness and altruism. I have written a web-based game that employs a node.js and the jQuery mobile responsive design library. The goal of this tool is to examine factors influencing group-oriented and selfish behavior. One of our most interesting experiments measured the impact of testosterone levels on game outcomes, conducted at the Neuro Leadership Conference in November 2016. Provisional results suggests a correlation between testosterone levels and selfish behavior, but are not conclusive. My collaborator in this project, Julian Wills, has been recruited by Facebook, in part because of this research. This project is in abeyance pending additional funding.

Techniques for the Creation of Cubist Dance Video. This essay, the documentation of my digital media Master’s thesis project at NYU, is a playbook of tools that videographers/editors can use to create cubist video. I focus on the use of buffering and frame subtraction to simultaneously create multiple perspectives on an event, and to compress sequences of actions into one image.

Negation: The Concept of Negative in Art, Logic, Mathematics, Philosophy and Science. This paper analyzes the concept of “negative” from a multidisciplinary (visual art/language philosophy) perspective.

Rethinking Heidegger’s Phenomenological Web. This essay uses a pun on Heidegger’s famous notion of the phenomenological web as a starting point for a discussion about how virtual and trans-human technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of human reality.

In addition to these specific projects, I have a passionate interest in epistemology, particularly as it relates statistical analysis. My current area of reflection is the relationship between deductive and inductive inference, particularly as they relate to the issues of evidence, proof and meaning.

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06 Technical Skills

Databases Oracle, Sybase SQL Server, MS SQL Server, MS SQL server, DB2, MS Access, Foxpro, dBase. I have also assisted students with Postgres and MongoDB.

Mapping Arc GIS and Google Maps

ETL Informatica

Content Management Systems Documentum, Sharepoint, WordPress, Ghost

Operating Systems Linux, Solaris, Windows 2000 and 2003 servers, OS/400, XP, NT, Vista, OS-X, Ubuntu

Trading Platforms, BART/Tram, Clearvision, CLS

Programming Languages Perl, SQL, Javascript, Java, Pascal, CGI, PHP, Foxbase, dbase III-VI, Lua, Processing, Python, Visual Basic, C#. I have managed projects which used C++ and Open Frameworks.

Frameworks and Web Libraries: Struts, Ruby on Rails, Drupal, Angular JS, jQuery, jQuery UI. As a teacher I have helped students debug many others.

Web servers: Weblogic, Apache, Websphere, IIE

Communication Protocols/Messaging Technologies MQ, Tibco, XML, FXML, OSC, ODBC, JDBC.

Graphics Applications Photoshop, Illustrator, In Design, After Effects, Corel Paint, Corel Draw, Quark Express, Flash, Max / MSP, GIMP, Ventura Publisher, Pure Data

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02 Academic Awards

Graduate Center Scholarship Award, Polytechnic Institute, NYU, 2007, 2008

William Dunlop Modern History Prize, University of Toronto,1984

James Henderson English/History Award, University of Toronto, 1981

Bronze Shield for scholastic and extracurricular activities, 1980

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09 Media Appearances

Time Magazine Canada, “The New Nomads”, Cover story on the migration of Canadian   technologists to America, June 28, 1999

Debater on the Public Broadcasting Service, representing Canada in a Canada-US College debate   on capital punishment, 1986

Debater, The Great Debate, TV Ontario, fall 1979

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Conference Papers

Incidence of PTSD in Male Torture Survivors Who Are Also Victims of Sexual Assault, APA Toronto 2015

Non-governmental Organization Roots of the World Wide Web at the Environmental Activism in the Digital Age conference, April 4, 2014, New York University.

Use of the 1871 Industrial Census in the Study of Development Patterns in Grey and Bruce County, Conference on Technology and History, Guelph University, 1993

08 Non-Refereed Publications

I was hired by the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies to produce 20 research reports on all areas of research at Ontario’s Universities. This project had a profound impact on the scope of my knowledge.

The Flow Through Hypothesis, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Computer Science, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Computer Science, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Electrical Engineering, OCGS, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Economics, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Business and Management, OCGS, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Geology, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Mathematics, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on English, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1990
Discipline Report on Comparative Literature, OCGS, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on English, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on Modern Languages, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on History, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on Sociology, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on Psychology, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on Physical Education, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1989
Discipline Report on Medicine, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1988
Discipline Report on Non-Medical Health Sciences, OCGS, Toronto: 1988
Discipline Report on Education , Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, Toronto: 1988

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10 Volunteer Work

Volunteer/Guest Lecturer, NYU Ability Program, fall 2014. I was a guest lecturer (4 lectures in total) in Allan Goldstein’s class on digital narrative. My role was to apply the lectures from my Digital Storytelling class, taught in Spring 2014, to a class in which sociology and engineering students illustrate/visualize a story related to the goals, struggles and/or achievements of people with cerebral palsy.

Toronto Environmental Alliance, graphic design, 1990

Board Member, Donna Uchizono Dance Company 2004 – 2007

Pollution Probe, research and data management 1986 – 1990

The Associated Blind, 1991

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05 Exhibitions and Artistic Commissions

August 2012 Anatomically Incorrect Festival, New York. I presented Flappescope, a dance piece created in Max/MSP which uses kaleidescopes, mirror images and an absolute difference shader.

August 2011 Mind-full Festival, New York. I presented a series of data visualizations based on noise algorithms, saw tooth waves and Voronoi tessellations. Several of these can be found on the video tab at, although the true impact of the videos cannot be seen, because the bitrates and resolution of the pieces are higher than can currently be viewed (practically) on the internet.

June 2011 Lucky 7 Festival, New York. I presented some of my cubist dance video experiments.

May 2011 Up in Arms Festival, New York. I presented some of my cubist dance video experiments.

April 2011 Euphoric Femme, Toronto. Artistic consultant on an installation piece that used blue tooth, Wii remotes and Max/MSP to create an interactive, multi-user sound and art piece. I worked with the artist Teresa Ascencao.

Feb. 2011        What Next Festival, Hamilton, Ontario. Premiered the video commission Rain Coming with the Hamilton Philharmonic. To view, please go to Please note that the bit rate and resolution of the piece presents poorly via the internet.

June 2009       Necropolis Festival, New York. Presented a photographic exhibit of still images from videos created using absolute difference shaders, for example Glass Dance,

May 2008       Tibetan Book of the Dead, New York. Presented an interactive video and motion- sensing installation.

Dec. 2007       V Brooklyn Video Festival, Brooklyn NY, December 2007. Presented a project which used Max/MSP to illustrate an object database of Brooklyn.

2004                Wai Café, NY. Presented portrait photography and 9/11 photographs.

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01 Education

Masters in Science, Integrated Digital Media, Polytechnic Institute of Engineering at New York University, 2009. I graduated from this program at the top of my class.

Masters in Economic History, University of Toronto, incomplete. I completed the course work for my degree but did not complete my thesis because I was recruited by Nabisco to work on their computer security system.

B.A. Honours, University of Toronto, Economics and History, 1986.

Secondary School Honours Graduation Diploma, University of Toronto Schools, 1981.

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04 Work Experience II

Freelance Developer and Consultant, 1989 – present. I have done contract work for a variety of clients including Good Robot (I employed Max/MSP and an Arduino micro-controller to control a motion sensitive sales kiosk), Rainforest Alliance (I created a cell-phone based, web/map enabled field research data collection tool).

Freelance Graphic Designer, Video Editor, 1990 – present. I have done contract/subcontract work for New York University, James Marquand Real-estate, Kaplan University, Ontario Hydro, and Pollution Probe, among other clients.

Freelance Visual Artist, 2008 – present. I have two main artistic interests, cubist video and the visualization of mathematical topologies. I am also working on creating a filter to make dance video look like charcoal drawings (please see the samples pages that I have appended to this document).

Freelance Instructor, 1990 – present. I have done a variety of freelance training projects including teaching Grade 7 students mathematics using art (2011); teaching video programming to the video artist Charles Atlas (2009); and a wide range of corporate and technical college training.

Researcher, City Technical College of NY, Ontological Database Design and Implementation, 2007 – 2008. I was part of a small team of researchers who put together a multi-media database of downtown Brooklyn as part of an experimental project on database interfaces. This system used digital architectural models (Maya objects) provided by the City of New York to construct a three dimensional model of Brooklyn’s downtown. This three dimensional interface was used to trigger queries against the Protege reasoning engine. The communication layer was Java /RMI; the display layers were constructed in Pure Data and Max / MSP.


Assistant Vice President and Project Manager, Options and Foreign Exchange Technology, Lehman Brothers, 2003 – 2007, Corporate Advisory Technology, 2001-2003, Investment Banking Technology, 2001-2003, and Fixed Income Technology 1997-2000. In these positions I managed teams of developers in America, India, Japan and the United Kingdom on work related to futures, options and foreign exchange trading, investment banking and fixed income derivatives. On a daily basis I dealt with up to 35 distinct applications, and 5 different database management systems (Oracle, DB2, Sybase, MS SQL Server and Access), some of which were responsible for millions of transactions; and three of which were identified as “Tier 1” applications, which were subject to stringent compliance monitoring.

Javascript Instructor, Ziff Davis, September 1997 – January 1998.

Senior Programmer/Analyst, KPMG, April 1997 – May 1997

Senior Programmer/Analyst and Architect, United Parcel Services, April 1996 – April 1997

I helped to design the front end for the UPS order taking system, which at that time was one of the largest distributed databases in the world; and had 35,000 daily users (and millions of customers).

Project Manager and Senior Programmer/Analyst, Nabisco,August 1995 – April 1996

I worked on a number of projects at Nabisco related to information security and Microsoft Exchange.

Senior Programmer/Analyst, BMW Canada, November 1994 – April 1995.

Instructor, Institute for Computer Studies, Institute for Advanced Technology, Beezix Software and Logan Design Systems, 1990 – 1995.

Researcher, AdAge Ontario, 1990 – 1995. I worked on a multi-year project analyzing the relative benefits of distributive versus centralized database topologies.

Researcher, Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, 1988 – 1990

In this position I researched, wrote and designed 19 research reports related to 539 of Ontario’s graduate programs. This project has a profound impact on my intellectual development because it required me systematically to review all areas of research currently being conducted in North America..

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11 Positions in Student Politics

Although these credentials are quite old, I include them to demonstrate that I have considerable experience as a public speaker and an expert knowledge of Roberts Rules of Order.

President, University of Toronto Debating Union, University of Toronto

Speaker of the House, U of T Model Parliament, University of Toronto

President, Southern Ontario Model United Nations Assembly, University of Toronto

Speaker, Trinity College Joint Student Union, University of Toronto

Speaker, St. Michael’s College Student Administrative Council, University of Toronto

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Protected: 01 Dream of a Perfect World

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09 Ithilæn

02 Circles 6 – 1


03 White Lines Dance


05 Glass Dance


06 Up in Arms


02 Non-military Sources for the World Wide Web

Photo credit: Brian MacMillan

This essay argues that the 1992 Rio Summit on Climate Change (the “Earth Summit”) was one of the catalysts for the development and success of the World Wide Web. I know because I watched it happen! The paper was presented at the “Environmental Story Telling” Conference, MAGNET, NYU-POLY, April 2015. Note that I am in the process of web-publishing this presentation. The content is pretty much done, but I need to take a morning off to add the (extensive) footnotes. A pdf version is available upon request.


Non-Military Sources for the World Wide Web: The Association for Progressive Communications and the Expansion of the Internet in Brazil and Southern Africa, 1990-1996

The explosion of Internet use during the 1990s was an extremely complicated process, marked by the intermixing of political, economic and social agendas that were, often, only related to the Internet itself in an ancillary fashion. Unfortunately, the bulk of academic research on Internet history only lightly touches upon these complexities and instead focuses on simple, popular narratives, which though broadly speaking are accurate, are incomplete because they are facile and in most cases tell a story that is technologically deterministic.

The academic literature about the history of the Internet falls into several categories. The dominant narrative analyzes the development of the Internet using the tools of institutional historiography, focusing specifically on the alliance between military contractors, the American university system and the United States Department of Defense. Other dominant narratives analyze the history of the Internet from the perspective of enabling technologies, such as TCP/IP, Unix, packet switching and Ethernet; enabling applications, like email; and the technologists that developed them. Though all of these narratives have slightly different explanations for the development of the Internet until 1990, that vary more in terms of emphasis than content, all of them explain the rapid expansion of the Internet during the 1990s in terms of the spread of the World Wide Web. The rapid and extensive adoption of the World Wide Web during the 1990s is generally attributed to the development of NCSA Mosaic, and later Netscape, by Marc Andreessen, and Netscape’s subsequent adoption as the primary tool for Internet access.

Janet Abbate’s article “Government, Business, and the Making of the Internet” is among the best of the institutional histories of the early Internet. Her article clearly lays out the relationship between the department of defense, military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and the university system. A very similar, though more focused, story is told by Arthur Nortberg in his history Information Processing for the Pentagon, as well as in online histories, such as the Internet Society’s “Brief History of the Internet”.

The institutional histories of the Internet are closely paralleled by the technological histories. Among the most cited of these histories, are Netizens, by Michael and Ronda Hauben, Casting the Net, by Peter Salus, and Where Wizards Stay Up Late, by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. These academic works are supplemented by hundreds of articles and web pages which lionize the creative genius and financial successes of lone entrepreneurs. Where Wizard’s Stay Up Late is probably the most representative of the genre, and exhibits all of its strengths and weaknesses. One of the myths of the Internet has always been that it has been a product of brilliant, typically maverick, individuals. The myth is compelling not only because there are so many examples in the history of the Internet of remarkable men, including Steven Jobs, Eric Brin and Tim Berners-Lee, who at least to an extent confirm the theory, but also because the theory dovetails so completely with a dominant myth of American society about the loner who goes outside “the system” in order to improve it. From this perspective, Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout who transformed the world, becoming fabulously wealthy as he did so, is the iconic example. Though Hafner’s story of internet wizards makes for a compelling read, it is somewhat aggravating to a historian because the social, economic, cultural and economic transformations that the Internet ‘wizards’ have initiated are presented as a given and not explained.

In both the scholarly literature and in the trade press, the history of the Internet is presented in a remarkably consistent, and largely non-contentious manner. Virtually all commentators agree that the development of ARPANET – the communications backbone of the university-military research efforts – in 1969 was a critical stage in the development of the infrastructure of the internet and that the development of certain key technologies by brilliant inventors such as Kernigan and Ritchie (Unix), Paul Baran (packet switching) and Tim Berners-Lee (HTML) was a necessary condition for the creation of the Internet as we know it. Even those commentators, such as Ian Peter, who challenge this narrative, do so primarily to emphasize that European universities and researchers also contributed technologically to the development of critical internet technologies, and were also part of the military-university network that evolved into the internet. The problem with these histories occurs when they attempt to explain the transformation of the Internet from a purely military-university research infrastructure, to the dominant global electronic network during the 1990s.

Janet Abbate provides one of the more scholarly summaries of the transformation,

“[in the early 1990s there] were still many obstacles to finding information on the internet, however. There was no way to link information found in different documents, and the various protocols that had evolved for exchanging information were not compatible; no one program could handle formats as diverse as ftp, mail, gopher, and WAIS. … All of these issues were addressed by a net Internet application that became known as the World Wide Web. The Web would fundamentally change the Internet, not by expanding its infrastructure or underlying protocols, but by providing an application that would lure millions of new users. The Web also changed people’s perception of the Internet: Instead of being seen as a research tool or even a conduit for messages between people, the network took on new roles as an entertainment medium, a shop window, and a vehicle for presenting one’s person to the world.”


David Hudson, in Rewired provides a more breathless, and typical, description of the transformation initiated by the World Wide Web:

“Marc Andreessen’s realization of Mosaic, based on the work of Berners-Lee and the hypertext theorists before him, is generally recognized as the beginning of the web as it is now known. Mosaic, the first web browser to win over the Net masses, was released in 1993 and made freely accessible to the public. The adjective phenomenal, so often overused in this industry, is genuinely applicable to the…’explosion’ in the growth of the web after Mosaic appeared on the scene. Starting with next to nothing, the rates of the web growth (quoted in the press) hovering around tens of thousands of percent over ridiculously short periods of time were no real surprise.

It is not particularly surprising that the Netscape-as-engine-of-Internet growth story should have become the dominant narrative in histories of the Internet during the 1990s. The technologist-entrepreneur story, as noted above, is an important computer-era myth. This bias is enhanced by the nature of Internet development itself. As late as 1995, 40% of all Internet traffic, according to Pacific Telephone, occurred in California ; and to this day the majority of trade journals and many of the authors of Internet histories are California-based and are active as Silicon Valley consultants. The proponents of the conventional narrative are merely describing themselves and their experiences.

Though there is a kernel of truth to the World Wide Web thesis, particularly as an explanation for Internet growth in the later part of the decade, it is a quite inadequate thesis for explaining the growth of web use from 313,000 to 93,047,785 hosts between October 1990 and July 2000 , and more importantly, it does not explain the expansion of the Internet globally: throughout this period Internet access in Latin America, Africa and Asia was predominantly, and in most developing exclusively, text-based. Even in developed countries, the penetration of World Wide Web technologies was far less pervasive and thorough than the literature suggests simply because the bandwidth of v.32bis modems – the dominant means of internet access from personal computers in this period – was only 14,400 baud, making the display of graphical web pages quite inconvenient. It is not until the appearance of the faster v.90 modem later in the decade, and the concurrent rapid expansion of corporate networks, that Internet users in developed countries began to take advantage of the multi-media capabilities of the World Wide Web. Even then, adoption of World Wide Web technologies was slow: research that suggests that as recently as 2002, up to 84% of Internet users connected to the Internet exclusively for email, a technology that even today only incidentally embodies World Wide Web technologies.

These problems in the historical literature about the expansion of the Internet out of California and academia, have been noted and partially addressed. In the social sciences there is a considerable body of literature, which addresses the mechanics of Internet growth. This literature has applied models from information theory related to the diffusion of innovation, and the importance of contagion to technology adoption. Amitava Dutt and Rahul Roy, for example, in their work “The Mechanics of Internet Growth” attempt to quantify correlations between infrastructure, education, income, government policy, and the rate of internet growth. Such work does much to broaden our understanding of Internet growth, but like all efforts to construct predictive models, results in deterministic conclusions that gloss over the role of human agency in technological diffusion.

The most important question left unanswered by the literature is how and why exactly did various sectors of society adopt the Internet? On one level the question is quite prosaic, for the answer lies in millions of decisions by individuals to buy personal computers, struggle with modems and pursue their idiosyncratic interests through user groups, bulletin boards and social networks. On another level, it is fundamental, touching at the very heart of the question of how the internal structure of our society and economy has changed over the past generation as a result of the widespread use of Internet technologies; and how it is that global society has truly begun to emerge.

At a broad level of analysis there are four areas that had the biggest impact on the growth of the Internet during the period under discussion. The decision by the largest purveyors of email services, American Online, CompuServe and Delphi, to transfer their user base to the Internet was responsible for a considerable portion of the growth in Internet use during 1992-94. Not only did this transfer bring a large number of people into the Internet fold, the decision was followed by an explosive growth in the users of these services in the years immediately following the transfer. A second significant factor in the spread of the Internet was the decision on the part of the owners and operators of purpose built networks to adopt Internet technologies, either partially or wholly, during this period. Among the largest networks to do so were BITNET in the area of academic communication, LEXIS/NEXIS for legal research, ERIC for educational research, EDGAR for securities filings, and the networks of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in the fields of social and environmental activism. Two other important developments begin in this time but are less significant until the late 1990s: the commercialization of the Internet; and the spread of Internet use into civil society as a result of the diffusion of personal computers.

Of the agents cited above, the experience of the Association for Progressive Communications provides many significant insights into the question of how it was that the use of the Internet spread from a small number of research institutions clustered in California and in the east coast of the United States in the 1980s to become a global economic, political and social force one generation later.

The Association for Progressive Communications was founded in 1990 as a merger of the networks of GreenNet (UK), IBASE (Brazil), Nicarao (Nicaragua), NordNet (Sweden), Pegasus (Australia), Web Networks (Canada) and the Institute for Global Communications (USA). The Institute for Global Communications was the result of an earlier merger of EcoNet and PeaceNet. The IGC itself was an initiative by the Tides Foundation to promote a progressive agenda within America and internationally. By 1992, the APC connected over 11,000 Non-Government Organizations (or Community Service Organizations, to use a more recent term for these groups) and individuals in over 90 countries through ten major hubs.

At the time of its creation, the APC had one of the few global electronic communications networks, encompassing not only thousands of organizations from the countries of its founding members, but also, through GreenNet’s Fido network, providing electronic email and bulletin board services to Community Service Organizations (CSOs) throughout the world. Over the course of the next four years APC, through the independent activities of its member organizations, and centrally through the Institute for Global Communications, was responsible for the expansion of Internet services throughout Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. In most developing countries, the APC provided among the very first non-governmental Internet gateways, and in some, like Brazil, it was the very first public Internet service provider (ISP). An examination of APC’s role as an ISP in Brazil and southern Africa between 1990 and 1996 provides many clues as to the role of human agency in the spread of the Internet, and does much to fill in gaps in the story about the global expansion of the Internet.

In some ways, Internet usage spread in Brazil along very similar lines to developed countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada. In the 1980s the backbone of the Brazilian Internet was the RNP network, which represented the communications infrastructure of the Brazilian University research system. The maintenance and development of this infrastructure was promoted by the National Research Council (CNPq), an agency of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Unlike in the developed world, however, the military importance of the Internet, though present, was decidedly secondary. Adoption of the Internet by civil society also followed a dramatically different path than in the developed world.

Perhaps the most important influence on the expansion of the Internet in Brazil was the exile of Carlos Afonso – the future director of IBASE – to Canada following the military coupe in Chile, where he then lived, in 1973. Afonso, while in Canada, established contacts with various activists, including Herbert de Souza (Betinho), with whom he founded the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) shortly before returning to Brazil in 1980. In an interview published by the International Development Research Corporation – a Canadian Crown Corporation that plays a significant role in the story of APC’s Internet work, Carlos described his return to Brazil as follows,

I came home, late in 1980, with an Apple II computer in my luggage. It had 64 Ks of RAM, which was considered huge at the time… I had, in addition, two floppy disks and a printer. That is all we had in the way of equipment, to begin with. Things were made all the more difficult by the extremely severe regulations restricting equipment imports in those days.

That Carlos should mention the importance of the Apple II computer is not incidental to this story: most of the activist work that Carlos did for the next 20 years both facilitated and benefited from technology transfer and diffusion.

In July 1989 IBASE, with assistance from the Institute for Global Communications, one of the founding members of the Association for Progressive Communications, established Alternex, the first non-governmental Internet Service Provider in Brazil. For its first years as an Internet service provider IBASE/Alternex was a tiny operation providing Internet email connectivity to a handful of Community Service Organizations. Its technological capabilities were expanded dramatically as a result of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, a story that underlines the critical importance that human networks had on the expansion of the Internet in Brazil.

The United Nations had, since the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, actively invited Community Service Organizations as participants, and was indirectly responsible for the creation of a number of them, for example the international branches of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth in the United States and Pollution Probe in Canada. This practice of inviting CSOs to United Nations Conferences had over the following two decades following the Stockholm Conference increased until, at the time of the Rio summit, CSO participation in the UNCED NGO forum was far greater than the participation of UN bureaucrats and diplomats in the Conference itself.

The extensive interest of CSOs in attending the Rio Summit posed serious logistical problems for the UNCED Secretariat, in terms of disseminating information about and soliciting input for UNCED’s various working groups and committees. Shortly following the first of the three preconference meetings of UNCED in Nairobi in 1990 Maurice Strong, the head of the Secretariat and his Senior Advisor Peter Thatcher, began discussions with Bill Leland of EcoNet and Bob Loeb and Galen Dixon of the Telecommunications Cooperative Network. The American environmentalist Robert Pollard acted as an intermediary and was the person responsible for drafting the proposal that was ultimately presented to Strong by the APC for providing computer services to UNCED. The introduction to this proposal is quoted below,


The proceedings leading into UNCED have a number of distinct constituencies, action arenas and agendas that the design of the UNCED electronic conferencing needs to address. These include the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development itself and the workings of the Preparatory Committee, in which delegates from national governments will participate, along with non-government organizations (NGOs) in consultative status to the UN; there is also a need for structuring access to the formal UN proceedings and deliberations by other NGOs, by private voluntary organizations (PVOs) and by individuals.

In each country, there will be a need for NGOs and others to organize to raise the issues of UNCED on their national agendas. In this context, there will be several different areas of focus; some organizations will be directing their attention towards government and the development of national legislative agendas; others will be will be developing action agendas within a variety of grassroots constituencies at a national level; others still will be developing local or regional forums in which issues of environment and development will be addressed.

Furthermore, there have been preliminary discussions about convening a “Congress of the People of the Earth” in Brazil at the time of UNCED (June 1992) as a parallel conference for NGOs and other grassroots groups with a concern for addressing issues of environment and development. Appropriate use of electronic conferencing could play a key role in preparations and planning for such a gathering.

Within each of these contexts, the use of electronic conferencing can play a valuable role. While there will be a value in having separate electronic conferences within each action arena, all will need to maintain access to a core set of information on the UNCED proceedings, and there will be many areas of overlap and/or need for dialogue between participants in the different action arenas.

The intended role for the APC was to provide support services for UNCED. Nevertheless, it was openly acknowledged – as the proposal above indicates – that one of the goals behind APC’s participation was to effect legislative change in participant countries. Commenting on this, Rory O’Brien of Web Networks (the Canadian founding member of APC) says, “It must be stressed that the UN efforts were overlaid on the concurrent independent efforts of the APC to electronically network civil society both locally and globally” with the intention of promoting the APC’s global environmental and social justice agenda. Interestingly, this overt political agenda provoked very little negative commentary. When asked about this, O’Brien noted that at the time promoting international communication through the use of the Internet was viewed as a politically neutral activity so organizations and individuals with widely diverging political viewpoints were able to benignly cooperate with each other.

Though no one disputed that the ability of the APC to provide the support services required for UNCED, the technological infrastructure of Alternex, the Brazilian branch of APC, was inadequate to the task at hand. According to Maureen James of Web Networks Alternex’s technological challenges were so severe – and importing computer technology so costly and time consuming – that the first IGC staff member to fly to Brazil on the UNCED project had to smuggle a computer in his personal luggage in order to expedite the upgrade process.
Carlos Afonso, writing in 1996, summarized the tremendous impact that the Rio Conference was to have on Alternex’s infrastructure,

AlterNet provided only e-mail connectivity to the Internet. However, at the end of 1990 several environmental organizations approached IBASE to suggest the development of a major independent project of electronic communication to be made available at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) … IBASE prepared a detailed Internet project for UNCED and submitted it to the UNCED Secretariat. It was accepted and included as part of the general host country agreement between the government of Brazil and the United Nations for the conference. As a consequence AlterNex underwent a major upgrade, replacing its aging 386-based UNIX machines with a network of Sun SPARC stations specially donated by Sun Microsystems.

At the same time that Alternex was being upgraded for UNCED, an extremely well connected, Canadian-based Texan, Langston James Goree VI, was contracted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian based environmental organization, to work with the Brazilian NGO – the Institute for Prehistory, Anthropology and Ecology (IPHAE) – both during and after the Rio Conference to promote the “redemocratization” (sic) of Brazil, and to use computer technology to connect NGO’s in Brazil’s northeastern states and the Amazon with each other, and through the Alternex hub, with the world. The goal of the project was to ensure that the international ties being forged by Alternex were cemented through the enhancement of its national network.

These efforts were very successful. In 1994, the Movement for Ethics in Politics, an IBASE initiative which extensively used Alternex for mobilization, played an instrumental role in forcing President Fernando Collor to resign because of allegations of corruption. Over the next decade IBASE’s extended these policy successes to the point that most of its agenda has been adopted and implemented by the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Though most discussions of Alternex focus on its political role, it is important to note that Alternex also played a significant role in the expansion of open source technologies throughout Brazil and Latin America. When Alternex began providing Internet services, installing a telephone line in Brazil could cost upwards of $3,000, a steep price by developed world standards and prohibitive within the Brazilian context. Alternex, throughout this period took a proactive view of its role in Brazil, actively working with the Brazilian University community, including RNP and Brazil’s network of computer technical colleges (CSI) to provide Internet services and technical training to the poorest components of Brazilian society. This work not only helped facilitate Internet penetration within Brazil, it also firmly established the use of open source technologies throughout Latin America, for Alternex acted not merely as a Brazilian ISP, but also (briefly) as a regional hub which provided internet gateway services to organizations in Ecuador and Uruguay.

Whereas the role of the APC in the Rio Summit underlines how various components of civil society, including international aid organizations, multinational corporations, environmental lobby groups, and individual activists could cooperate to initiate technological diffusion, the role of APC in extending internet service to southern Africa provides a much different account of the importance of human agency to the spread of Internet technology in the early 1990s.

The situation in southern Africa during the early 1990s was quite different than in Brazil. Whereas Brazil already had an established, albeit expensive and incomplete, telecommunications infrastructure, in much of southern Africa, particularly rural areas, there was no infrastructure whatsoever. The political situation in southern Africa was also much different. Brazil’s government was democratically elected and somewhat supportive of CSO’s, particularly those with religious affiliation. In sharp contrast, Zimbabwe and Malawi had authoritarian governments that were overtly hostile to any form of non-governmental political activity; and the Republic of South Africa was in transition to a multi-racial government (the first non-racial election was held in 1994, which the African National Congress handily won). Only Botswana and Mozambique were full democracies.

In 1992, the APC convened a Global Networking Workshop in Toronto to consider issues related to extending its services throughout the developing world. The working paper of the Africa Workshop provides valuable insights into the state of Africa’s networking infrastructure at that time.
As of February, 1992, there were eight Fido systems in Africa operating as hosts for about over 100 end users who are able to send and receive electronic mail and conferences… These systems are operated by a broad range of different organisations: quasi-state bodies like the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research in Accra, Ghana; international non-governmental bodies such as the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; single large International NGOs like Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Nairobi, Kenya; coalitions of NGOs as in MANGO in Harare, Zimbabwe; autonomous NGO service organisations such as WorkNet in Johannesburg, South Africa.

… Some systems run on 386s with 120 MB hard disks, some run on slow XTs with only 20MB hard disk. An XT is adequate to serve the needs of 15-50 users when Fido software is used to automate and compress message transfers. Each host has a Telebit T2500 dual standard modem connected to a single phone line. This modem supports high-speed links (9600 or 19200 baud) as well as the standard 1200 and 2400 baud. The standard speeds are mainly for users, while the high-speed links provide gateways to systems of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC).

Not only were Internet users in Africa using legacy technologies that were between 1 and 3 generations behind the developed world, but African telephone networks, when they existed at all, were so noisy that two way communication was impossible. The Working Group on Africa put together a list of recommendations for hardware and software that could inexpensively address these issues.

In 1994, the Canadian Government, through its foreign aid agency CIDA, contracted the Canadian branch of APC, Web Networks, to begin working on the integration of CSOs in Ecuador and Africa. CIDA money was supplemented by funds from the Netherlands Foreign Ministry and the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC). Other organizations, which provided non-monetary support included Partnership Africa Canada and OXFAM Canada.

The work that was done by IGC employees Maureen James and Rob Ellis on this project for SANGONET in the Republic of South Africa was not unlike the work done by IGC employees several years earlier for Alternex. SANGONET was an already existing computer network in a country, like Brazil, that was already partially developed. There were some differences in terms of the goals of their work. Whereas the work in Rio was strongly influenced by an environmentalist and social activist agenda, the work in South Africa and Botswana had a public health component, focusing particularly on issues related to the spread of AIDS; as well as women’s issues.

The APC efforts in Malawi and Zimbabwe were quite different, however, than in Brazil. In these countries, the IGC employee Mike Jensen, with a knapsack stuffed full of network gear, hiked around the countryside as a form of digital missionary, setting up connectivity to the APC network for those NGOs which were interested and which APC deemed had operations consistent with their mandate.

The extremely colorful experiences of Mike Jensen underline a number of interesting points about the manner in which the Internet initially penetrated southern Africa. The most obvious, of course, is how personal the process was. In part, this was a reflection of the lack of resources available – one dedicated and capable individual could do the work that dozens did elsewhere. Another important consideration was political. The authoritarian governments in Zimbabwe and Malawi did not appreciate the work that Jensen was doing. Because he acted as an individual he could hide his activities from the authorities far more effectively than an institution could. Jensen was a very creative and resourceful individual who actively sought out solutions to problems posed by government hostility and censorship, for example by using satellite phones to circumvent the Zimbabwe telephone system entirely. Jensen’s work points to a considerably different dynamic in the technology transfer process in southern Africa. Whereas in Brazil, Carlos Afonso of IBASE/Alternex and Wim Groeneveld of IPHAE actively solicited financing for their network projects, the African work by Web Networks and the IGC was initiated by Canadians who were – at least an to extent – proselytizers for the new technologies. The mechanics of this process is hinted at in the introduction to Arnie Mikelson’s 1992 report “Networking in Africa”,
On first consideration, computer communications in Africa would seem an inappropriate form of development when basics such as food, sanitation, clean water and health care are in short supply. In fact, computer networking is the ideal tool for enabling and improving communications in these areas because it makes such efficient use of scarce resources.

There is no mention in Web Network’s documentation about any interest on the part of Africans to connect to the APC, and there was only a cursory discussion about whether CIDA’s money would have been better spent on food aid or schoolbooks. Though there undoubtedly was African interest in connecting to APC, for example through the Partnership Africa Council, it is important to note that the Web Networks African project was a classic example of tied aid, where a donor country dictates how it’s funding is to be spent. In this instance it is possible to argue that there was a push factor in the diffusion of Internet technology to southern Africa, unlike the case of Brazil, where Carlos Afonso very clearly was encouraging Internet diffusion to promote his own political and social agenda.

The social and political mechanisms by which the Internet spread to Latin America and southern Africa point to the critical importance that human agency played in the process of technological diffusion and the relative unimportance of technology itself in this process. Had the NSF decided not to commercialize the Internet as a result of military considerations, it is certain that the same actors would have promoted a similar agenda using a slightly different communications infrastructure. Most of the players viewed the Internet as merely one tool among many that could be used to further particular goals, like mobilizing global public opinion in order to increase AIDS awareness or reduce economic inequality.

These insights about the role of human agency in technology transfer apply equally to the process of technology diffusion in developed countries. It is very useful to consider exactly what the distinct motivations were of the millions of people who adopted the Internet in developed countries during the 1990s. Many were pushed into the Internet through their affiliation with purpose built networks that chose to connect for particular institutional reasons. Many more chose to connect for a host of idiosyncratic reasons that they considered sufficient to justify the considerable effort that Internet adoption entailed.

When the study of Internet adoption focuses on human agency it is possible to consider the transformations that Internet use inducing in our society, and the mechanisms of these transformations. Clay Shirkey, in his work Here Comes Everybody has written about the way in which the Internet has altered the way people organize; David Weinberger, in his work Small Pieces Loosely Joined has considered the manner in which the Internet has altered our conceptions of space, time and society; Peter Morville in Ambient Findability and Information Architecture for the World Wide Web has discussed a number of ways in which the Internet is altering who we are and how our world is (and should be) designed. In addition, a host of thinkers have considered how the theory of emergence – “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems” – relates to daily activities on the Internet.

One of the surprising gaps in Internet historiography is that none of these approaches, which are explicitly concerned with the structure, development and functioning of the Internet, has been applied to the history of the Internet itself. This study suggests that applying some of the methodologies employed by philosophers, designers and social scientists, could be extremely useful to explaining, in a nuanced fashion, the development and spread of the Internet. The explosion of communications networks during the 1980s, for example, and the final merger of these networks into the Internet, follows many of the patterns found in emergent systems, not just in terms of which networks triumphed and how, but also in terms of which networks, like BITNET, ultimately failed. The APC itself is an example of a small, successful, emergent system that spread through a persistent increase in links between its many technological and human nodes.
The ultimate problem for the historian is that to make arguments that encompass both human agency and systems theory requires a tremendous amount of detailed scholarship. The study of the expansion of the APC into Brazil and Africa has been relatively simple to conduct, because the APC was not that large an organization and its records are relatively well preserved. Understanding to story of how the Internet was adopted by corporations and individuals during the latter part of the 1990s is a far more challenging task, but one well worth embarking on because, unfortunately, most current explanations of the growth of the Internet are far too simplistic and technologically deterministic.

05 Asura and Devas / Angels and Devils

This essay examines the concepts of asuras and devas in Hindu, Zoroastrian, Manichaean and Christian theology. It looks specifically at the split that occurred in the religion of the Indian and Persian branches of the Aryan language group around the time of Zoroaster, with a particular focus on the development of the concepts of both God and Devil from the early Aryan magical beings, devas.

Disclaimer: When I wrote this paper as a graduate student I was far more impressed by Richard Dawkins concept of memes than I am now. Though I use Dawkin’s idea as a means of structuring my narrative, the real goal of this essay is to tell the remarkable story of how our concepts of both God (deus) and Devil had origin in the same magical beings (devas) worshiped by our Indo-European ancestors. A second disclaimer. Since the time this paper was first written some ground-breaking research in genetic history has been conducted which has created a firm evidentiary basis for the story of the origin and spread of the Indo-European language group. One quiet Saturday I will need to update this paper to reflect that research (as well as fix a bit of the formatting).



One of the most important religious memes in the culture of the Indo-European language groups, is the concept of the deva, which is found in some form in the majority of the myths, philosophies and/or religions of the Indo-European peoples. In one major branch of the meme, devas are magical beings with varying powers, that are often but not exclusively associated with good. In another branch they are demons and/or agents of the devil. In contemporary western European culture both memes occur in the form of the contradictory concepts of devils and divinity. The story of how the original deva meme split approximately 2,500 years ago into two major branches and then re-merged during the spread of Christianity, provides interesting material for the evaluation of the relevance of memetic theory to cultural analysis.

Table One
The Deva in Indo-European Mythology

  Irish Ger. Iran. Indo Aryan Greek Norse Baltic
  dagda tiwaz daeva devā deus/dyeus vanir dievas
Morally ambivalent  
Young gods overthrow old gods      

In Indo-Aryan, Norse, Greek, Irish, Germanic and Baltic mythology devas are beneficent magical beings that in certain instances resemble spirits, and in others, gods. The stories found in each of these mythologies roughly follow the prototype found in the earliest Maṇḍalas of the Ṛg Veda, which relate an epic tale about how the devās, led by their King Indra, killed the dragon Vṛtra and overthrew the ásurās. The following quotation from Maṇḍala I. 32 is the most often cited version of this story, though references to this story are found throughout the first Maṇḍala. Griffith’s translation is used because it captures the epic spirit of the story,

I will declare the manly deeds of Indra … the Thunder-wielder … He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents. … Impetuous as a bull, [Indra] chose the Soma and in three sacred beakers drank the juices. … As trunks of trees, what time the axe hath felled them, low on the earth so lies the prostrate Dragon. He, like a mad weak warrior, challenged Indra, the great impetuous many-slaying Hero [the drinker of Soma to the dregs] … Footless and handless still he challenged Indra, who smote him with his bolt between the shoulders. Emasculate yet claiming manly vigour, thus Vrtra lay with scattered limbs dissevered… A horse’s tail wast thou when he, O Indra, smote on thy bolt; thou, God without a second, Thou hast won back the kine [cows], hast won the Soma; thou hast let loose to flow the Seven Rivers.1
In the Ṛg Veda, the confrontation between the devās and the ásurās is presented as an epic battle between old and new gods.

The same division appears in Norse (and Germanic) mythology, where the Vanir, the young gods, supplant the Aesir.2 Likewise, in Greek mythology Zeus, a younger god, overthrows ancient gods. Baltic and Irish mythology are similar to that of the Greeks and the Norse, though in these branches devas (diewas/dagda) appear as magical beings and are less god-like. 4

Despite the structural similarity of these myths, there are notable differences within them that reflect the transformations that occurred to Aryan society as it dispersed through Europe and Asia in the second and first millennium BCE (Figure One). Within the Vedic (Indo-Aryan) myths, for example, the role of devās is far less consistent than what we know of the other myths. For example, in Maṇḍala I.174. one finds Indra referred to as an ásurā.5 In Maṇḍala X. 124 the second most cited deva in the Ṛg Veda, Varuna, is asked by Indra to quite being king of the ásurās and to become a devā. It has been suggested that this inconsistency is a reflection of the transformations that Vedic religion underwent as the Indo-Aryans migrated from Afghanistan to the Indus and Ganges river valleys. 6

Update based on “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family, Science, 24 Aug 2012 Vol. 337, Issue 6097, pp 957-960

The Indus and Ganges river valleys were not uninhabited when the pastoral Aryans migrated through the Khyber and Bolan passes in the Kashmir and the Indus River valley in the middle of the second millennium. 7 The region, which had been dominated by the Harappan civilization, was still densely populated even after the large Harappan cities disappeared circa 1700 BCE. 8 Over time, assisted by such factors as spoked-wheel chariots 9 domesticated horses 10, and a mutation that made them lactose tolerant as adults11 , the Aryans asserted themselves as rulers of Punjab, the Indus and Ganges rivers. Historical and archeological records confirm the view that the movement of the Aryan people into India involved an assimilating process which involved a merger of Aryan, Dravidian and tribal cultures.12 The results are a religion quite different from that of the original Aryans. By 500 BCE the worship of devās had become tied intimately to geography – specific gods were worshiped in temples of holy places. Control over the ritual sacrifices had been taken by the Aryan priestly class, the Brahmans. Through their control over sacrifices the Brahmans exercised, along with the warrior class, control over the Indian caste system.13

The Greek version of the deva meme begins from the same spot as the Vedic story: the champion of the younger gods, Zeus (like Indra, a sky god), overthrows the older gods. Unlike in the Vedic version, however, the meme does not become an ideological justification for the primacy of a sacerdotal caste, though the Greek priests, because of their control over sacrifices, did have considerable power. There is, however, a significant similarity between the Greek and Indian assimilation processes. The Greeks religion, like that of the Indo-Aryans, was changed by contact with the indigenous peoples of the Mediterranean into one that featured temple worship.14 Paul Thieme, in an article investigating evidence for a proto-Aryan religion, summarizes the distinction between the Aryan (Vedic) and other Near Eastern polytheistic religions as follows,

We have to bear in mind that Mesopotamian and Anatolian polytheism, on the one hand, and Vedic polytheism on the other, represent two distinctly different types. The first one is a temple religion. In such as religion generally each god has his temple where his image is worshiped. If the same god has different temples, he is likely to be regarded as a different god in each place… the greatness of the god depends on the greatness of the temple… Vedic religion does not know temples or images. The power of a god has no geographical limits and has no relation to the importance of a place of worship. His omnipotence is limited only functionally…15

The Nordic, Baltic, Germanic and Celtic deva myths are similar to the Vedic and Greek model but have a significantly different view of the role of priests. In India, and to a lesser extent Greece and Rome, priests play an important role as enforcers of a social order. In the other European traditions priests are more like powerful shamans who have personal powers over devas that they can use for particular purposes, like encouraging favorable winds on a raid.16 It is tempting to argue that the Northern European branch of the meme is the one that is truest to the pre-historical prototype, because it developed without any of the assimilating processes that occurred in the Mediterranean, the Near East and India: the northern forests of Europe were sparsely inhabited when the Aryans arrived.

The second major development of the deva meme, the one that leads ultimately to the concept of the devil Satan, occurs at almost exactly the same time that the ancient Iranians branch from the Indo-Aryans, in the second millennium BCE.17 The first references to devas as explicitly bad magical being, are recorded in the principal religious texts of the Mazdean religion, which are collectively referred to as the Avesta. The exact dates of the works are unknown but they are typically placed in the period between 1200 BCE and 600 BCE18 The Avesta is comprised of a number of chapters (Table Two). The oldest, and most theologically significant, is the Yasna, which is divided into a number of parts – the Gāthās (hymns), which tradition holds were written by the prophet Zoroaster himself; the Haptañhāiti Gāthā, which were probably written at the same time as the Gāthās, though are less rigidly monotheistic than the Gāthās; and Yasna proper, which is a collection of liturgical writings.

Table Two: The Zoroastrian Canon

Main Text ChaptersComments
Gathas 28–34 &
43–53 of
the Avesta
Zoroaster’s revelation
Haptañhāiti Gatha six 35–42 of
the Avesta
Old as One Ṛg Veda
YasnasRest of AvestaPriest rituals
Khoda Avesta Priest rituals
Vendidad (“against the daevas”)  Priest rituals

In the Avesta, particularly in the sections attributed to Zoroaster, daevas (devas) are presented as enemies of God (Ahura Mazda). The theology is complicated, in so far as the religion is ostensibly monotheistic, so the daevas oppose but are not equal in force to Ahura Mazda. The following prayer, which admonishes the believer to reject the daevas and worship Ahura Mazda, summarizes the basic Zoroastrian creed:

Truly in my lifetime I have been condemned as the greatest defiler, I who seek to satisfy with truth those who are poorly protected, O Mazda! With good apportioning of gifts come to me, support me! … (4) Those who with ill purpose increased with their tongues fury and cruelty, they the non-pastors among pastors, for whom evil deeds have prevailed, they having no good deeds, they serve the Daevas, which is the religion of the wicked man. (5) But he, O Mazda, is himself the sacrifice and oblation who has allied his Inner Self with Good Purpose. Whoever belongs to Devotion is of the (same) good lineage as Truth, and as all those in Thy dominion (khshathra), Lord… (10) This Thou dost guard in Thy house, O Mazda – good purpose, and the souls of the just, and reverence with which there is devotion and sacrifice – this Thou dost guard, O Thou of mighty power, with abiding strength. (11) But the wicked, of bad power, bad act, bad word, bad Inner Self, bad purpose – (departed) souls will encounter (them) with ill nourishment, they shall be rightful guests in the House of the Lie. (12) What help hast Thou, through Truth, for him who invokes Thee? What help, through Good Purpose, for Zarathushtra, who will celebrate You all, Lord Mazda, with praises, while longing for the best in your possession?19

The Iranian version of the deva meme migrated from eastern Iran into Parthia and Media during the first millennium BCE, along with the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) religion. According to Farsee tradition, Zoroastrianism initially is the state religion of Khorosan, although the details surrounding the conversion of the possibly mythical Khorosan (Chorasmian) King Vishtāspa are disputed by historians.20
Whitley, C.F. “The Date and Teaching of Zarathustra” Numen, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3. (Sep., 1957) pp 215-227
In the sixth century the Anshans (from Pars), led by the Achaemenian king Cyrus, conquered Khorosan and immediately began to incorporate elements of Mazdaism into their official ideology (Figure 2). By time the reign of Xerxes I, approximately 100 years after Cyrus, Zoroastrianism has become the official religion of the Persian Empire.

Figure 2 – The Regions of Ancient Persia. Khorasan is the historical homeland of Zoroastrianism. Pars is the homeland of the Achaemenian rulers who contributed greatly to its diffusion through the Near Ea

A famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, once it had become the state religion of the Persian empire,

A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created man, who created peace for man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many … Says Xerxes the king: When I became king there was within these lands which are written above one which was restless. Aftward, Ahuramazda brought me help. By the favor of Ahuramazda I smote that land and put it in its place … within these lands was a land where formerly the dae18vas were worshipped. Afterward by the favor of Ahuramazda brought me help. By the favor of AhuramazdaI destroyed that community of daevas and proclaimed: The daevas you shall notA famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, once worship. Where formerly the daevas were worshipped, there I worshipped Ahuramazda and the holy Arta21

The daevas had become associated with the political enemies of the Achaemenian king and the priestly caste, the Magi.

The functioning of the meme in ancient Iranian and Vedic civilizations is remarkably similar even though the concepts of the daevas (devās) and the ahuras (ásurās) are nearly exactly inverted in Zoroastrianism relative to the Vedic tradition. In Iran, the Magi, like their Vedic counterparts the Brahmans, used their control over religious rituals like the Haoma (Soma) and Fire ceremonies, to exercise enormous political power.22

Although the deva meme thrived as an official ideology for Persia’s ruler, its spread was not limited in scope and impact to the Persian Empire. In Babylon, Persian ideas about daevas joined with the Babylonian notion of Satan to produce the Judeo-Christian-Islamic notion of devils, for example. 22 Several hundred years later, at the time of the birth of Jesus, a branch of Mazdaism, Mithraism, became the de facto religion of the Roman military at a time when Persians, under the Seleucids, were actually active enemies of Romans in the middle east.24 Another branch of Mazdaism, Manichaeanism, also spread widely throughout the Roman Empire. 25

One of the more interesting developments of the deva meme, as it migrated westward, was that the Indo-Aryan and Iranian branches of the meme, which has split approximately one millennium before Christianity, merged when Paul of Tarsus introduced the Jewish notion of devils into Greece and Rome during the first century of the Christian era.

As noted above, in ancient Greek mythology, demons (daimon) appear as magical beings that lie roughly between man and God, with a theological role very similar to the devas of northern European and Vedic mythology. Beginning in the sixth century BC, the pre-Socratics, led by Heraclitus, transform A famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, oncethe notion of daimon from something magical into something related to the moral choices/moral sensibilities of men (ethos) 26 This notion of daimon persists in the Greek world until the Christian era. 26

In the first century ACE Christian missionaries introduce the Jewish version of the deva meme into the Graeco-Roman world. By the time of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century ACE, the notion of daimon as something related to the moral consciousness of individuals has become been replaced by the purely pejorative notion of demons as a type of devil.

The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes this development,

The word [daimon], which is apparently derived from daio “to divide” or “apportion”, originally meant a divine being; it was occasionally applied to the higher gods and goddesses, but was more generally used to denote spiritual beings of a lower order coming between gods and men. For the most part these were beneficent beings, and their office was somewhat analogous to that of the angels in Christian theology. Thus the adjective eydaimon “happy”, properly meant one who was guided and guarded by a good demon. Some of these Greek demons, however, were evil and malignant. Hence we have the counterpart to eudamoniahappiness“, in kakodaimonia which denoted misfortune, or in its more original meaning, being under the possession of an evil demon. In the Greek of the New Testament and in the language of the early Fathers, the word was already restricted to the sinister sense, which was natural enough, now that even the higher gods of the Greeks had come to be regarded as devils.27 entry on demons, at

The triumph of the Judeo-Christian version of the deva meme, with its emphasis on Satan as king of the devils, leads to the near destruction of all other European religions. Nevertheless, the replacement of the old Indo-European religions by Christianity does not result in the destruction of all of those religions’ ideas. The Greek concept of divinity for example, persists, even as the notion of devils is propagated by Christianity. Likewise, much of the symbolism of the initial Indo-European religions persists in pagan, and Celtic revivalist practices to this day.


The branching of the deva meme into Indian, Iranian, Greek and northern European variants, and the subsequent triumph of but two of these variants, the Vedic and Christian, provide considerable material for the evaluation of the usefulness of memetic theory to the study of cultural history.

Richard Dawkins identifies replication as one of the most important memetic concepts. In the God Delusion, he argues that,

[t]he most important objection is the allegation that memes are copied with insufficiently high fidelity to function as Darwinian replicators. The suspicion is that if the ‘mutation rate’ in every generation is high the meme itself will mutate itself out of existence before Darwinian selection can have an impact on its frequency in the meme pool.28

The core concepts of the deva meme did mutate as it developed and spread through Indo-European culture. The most compelling mutation, of course, is the inversion of the meaning of deva during the branching of the Iranians from the Indo-Aryans in the second millennium BC. It has been credibly argued that this inversion is quite possibly the result of a political feud, perhaps between two sacerdotal tribes vying for primacy.29 Berkley: University of California Press, 2002 Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that the split between the Iranians and the Indo-Aryans may well have been the result of Zoroaster’s reforms themselves.

There are other examples of drift in the deva meme as its spreads over Europe and the near east and India. In the cases of the Indo-Aryans, the Iranians and the Greeks, mutations follow cultural fault lines. The Iranian version of the meme is influenced by Babylonian culture, and the Greeks and Indo-Aryans are influenced by the temple religions of the Mediterranean and Dravidian people, respectively.

Despite these transformations in the core concepts of the meme, there are also examples of remarkable consistency. In the case of the northern European mythologies, which develop in the relative absence of other cultural influences, the basic stories remain consistent up until the Christian era. There are also examples of remarkable consistency in the Iranian and Indian stories over time. Though research has suggested that the works of oral traditions tend to drift considerably over time30 the overall content of the Vedic and ancient Iranian oral traditions reflect an incredible degree of consistency. The books of Avesta, for example, were probably first written down between 1,500 and 2,000 years after they were first composed. Likewise, the Vedas were first written down approximately 1,000 years after they were composed, and are still pat of a vibrant oral tradition.31 Despite this, the Vedas and the Avesta have been so well preserved that comparisons between one ancient language and the other can happen simply by making minor adjustments, for example replacing the Avestan H with a Sanskrit S. It is clear that these texts were considered extremely important by their respective cultures and were painstakingly preserved by them.

The second important aspect of the memetic approach to cultural history, is the notion of linkages. In the citation below, Dawkins explains the connection between the notion of linkages and memetic theory,

The other respect in which genes are not independent is very different from genetic linkage, and here there is a good memetic analogy. It concerns embryology which – the fact is often misunderstood – is completely distinct from genetics. Bodies are not jigsawed together as mosaics of phenotype pieces, each one contributed by a different gene. There is no one-to-one mapping between genes and units of anatomy or behavior. Genes ‘collaborate’ with hundreds of other genes in programming the developmental processes that culminate in a body, in the same kind of way as the words of a recipe collaborate in a cookery process that culminates in a dish. It is not the case that each word of the recipe corresponds to a different morsel of the dish.32

The concept of a meme is by its nature not reductionistic, but rather is integrative, in the sense that memes exist always within a broader cultural milieu, or what Susan Blackmore refers to as a “memeplex”.33 The concept of the deva, for example, can be easily placed with a number of Indo European memes originally initiated by the Aryans (see Table Three). These clusters of memes, when considered together, provide an extremely useful way of in-filling stories where the historical and/or archeological record is incomplete.

Table Three: Rituals Common to Major Indo-European Religions

Iranian Indo-Aryan Greek/Roman Norse/Baltic
Soma ceremony
Tree of life/world tree
Young gods overthrow old gods
Horse sacrifice associated with the coronation of kings
Bull/cow cults
Fire worship

Perhaps the most compelling of all of the arguments made by Dawkins and Blackmore is that memetic theory can help to explain the persistence of ideas, like martyrdom, that harm, or at least confer little benefit (defined as survival and replication) to their hosts. The idea is compelling, but is problematic in that it posits memes not merely as a way of explaining data, but as entities that act independently of, and often at odds with, the interests of their human hosts – agents without a discernible identity.

Rather than positing memes as an external force, perhaps it is simpler to consider who benefited from, and spread the memes. The primary human beneficiaries of the deva meme were the sacerdotal classes, and rulers of India, Iran and Christian Europe. In India the Brahmans leverage their control over the horse sacrifice ceremony, an Aryan practice which legitimated the rule of a tribal leader (and later king) to establish their primacy within the Varna (caste) system.34 In Iran, the Zoroastrian reformers from the east increasingly come into conflict with the efforts of the Magi, a sacerdotal tribe from Medea who ultimately seize control of the religion, and who then successfully leveraged their religious role to capture political power.35 In Christian Europe the Catholic Church extended its interests in a similar fashion. In these instances, the successful spread of the religion can be attributed to royal patronage, which is given in part because the ideologies of Christianity, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are used by the sacerdotal classes to affirm the legitimacy of the ruler. When considered in this light it is possible to argue that the approach of the deconstructionists such as Barthes, who analyze the irrationality of mythologies with the intention of unmasking the underlying class interests that ultimately inform them, is far more useful than the tools of the memeticists, who are studying similar problems. Alternatively, one can extend Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracies to make a similar point.36

The developments of the concept of the devil in Babylonia, and the concept of daimon in pre-Socratic Greece, and the spread of the Mithraic cult to Rome, however, all indicate that it is facile to consider the development of religious memes as strictly reflecting the class interests of priests and kings, or the institutional demands of bureaucracies. The development of the concept of Satan, the king of the devils, that occurs during the Jewish exile to Babylon for example, is viral in nature, reflecting inputs from Assyrian, Babylonian, Mediterranean and Iranian cultures and which results in an religious ideology quite distinct from –and ultimately at odds with – that of the ruling Achaemenians. The spread of the Mithra cult from areas controlled by Imperial Rome’s enemies, the Seleucids Empire (located roughly in modern Syria, Iraq and western Iran) into the heart of the Roman army likewise underscores the viral manner in which religious memes can mutate and then transfer across cultures, completely independently of the interests of the classes for which they provide ideological justification.

The case of the pre-Socratic transformation of the word daimon into something with moral philosophical underpinnings underscores another factor often overlooked by commentators in this field, which is simply that cultural changes are typically the result of human action (though not necessarily human agency), even if there is no historical record revealing the exact role of the actors. Again, the memetic approach, which underscores the viral nature of the spread of ideas, in this case from person to person, provides a very useful way of conceptualizing how it is that religions are created, persist and spread.

Memetic theory – despite its scientific provenance and pretensions – is ultimately not a method for creating repeatable, scientific cultural experiments; and the claim that memes can be considered as cultural units that are distinct from human agency, has by no means been conclusively proven. That does not make the concept useless. As we have seen, memetic theory provides extremely useful tools for studying the genesis and propagation of our culture’s often-times irrational and malignant myths.


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08 If we’re so rich, why aren’t we rich?

10 The Phenomenological Web

Changing the Subject: Rethinking the Phenomenological Web. This post is a pitch for an opinion piece about the philosophy of technology. The title is a pun on Heidegger’s theory about the phenomenological web. Whereas Heidegger when he used the term was referring to the structure of experiences and consciousness,  I am interested in how the internet is expanding beyond computers. I argue that augmented and virtual reality are changing not only our perceptions of reality, but who/what we are and reality itself.

05 Techniques for the Creation of Cubist Video

Still from Blue Dancer. The dancer is Danita Shaheen.

Cubism, in painting, involves manipulation of perspective and time, and often features the fragmentation and reconstruction of images. This paper, a re-worked version of my master’s thesis in digital media, documents how multiple cameras, irregularly shaped video planes and computer vision can be used to create real-time cubist videos that combine multiple perspectives and multiple time series into each video frame. Its a ton of work to transfer my written work to the internet, with no practical commercial value (except that cubist video is pretty cool), so this project is moving ahead rather slowly.  My cubist video work, I’m pleased to say, is proceeding apace. Watch for updates on the video tab!

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