October 18, 2012

On Google and Moby Dick

Gregory Peck as Ahab
Google's home page today pays tribute to the 161st anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Whether this tribute reflects any particular affection for the novel on the part of Google's leadership, I don't know. In any event there's considerable irony in the choice, given that Google's quests for expansion and control can be seen as contemporary manifestations of the technocratic mania that drove Captain Ahab's quest to find and kill the white whale.

Moby Dick is too expansive to pin "the meaning of Ahab" down to a single theme, but it's clear that Ahab's use of the technologies of whaling combined with his relentless nature serve in many passages as symbols of the Industrial Revolution, which was transforming Melville's times as decisively as the computer revolution is transforming our own. It's also clear that Melville saw technology as a force that tended to promote power, ego, and domination at the expense of mystery, humility, and reverence.

Ahab is described as a man who is made not of flesh and blood but of "solid bronze." At one point he compares the forward motion of his will to that of a locomotive. "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails," he says, "whereon my soul is grooved to run." At another point, in a rare moment of reflection, he acknowledges that he is turning a commercial whaling expedition into a voyage over the edge of the abyss. "[A]ll my means are sane," he says, "my motive and my object mad."

Ahab also notes, with a mixture of triumph and surprise, that all the crew members of the Pequod (all the world, that is) have acquiesced to his methods and his goals. "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least," he says, "but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve." 

Herman Melville
One sailor on the Pequod successfully resists Ahab's mission, albeit passively, and that's Ishmael. Melville portrays Ishmael as the quintessential dreamer, and thus the antithesis of technocratic efficiency. When on duty in the crow's nest, he confesses that he's more apt to contemplate the wonders of the cosmos than to keep an eye out for whales. Ship owners risk their profit, he warns, by hiring men like him. "[Y]our whales must be seen before they can be killed," he says; "and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of [whale oil] the richer."

In the end, of course, it is Ishmael alone who survives, which may or may not be Melville's version of a happy ending. What ending is in store for all of us who have enlisted on the good ship Google remains to be seen. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

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