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The Search for Thoth

by Jane Ginn

In early 1998 I visited some of the most important historical sites along the Nile in Egypt.  At several of the ancient temples I was struck by the images of the ancient Egyptian god Thoth.  Based on research I had conducted prior to the trip I knew that Thoth was the patron of the scribes, a large, educated and powerful class in Egypt from about 2,000 BC to about  30 BC.  This bureaucracy of elite scribes promoted the cooperation of the people with the various Pharaohs through elaborate religious rituals aimed at the various gods that were worshiped at that time.  Thoth, the god of the scribes, is usually depicted with the head of an ibis or a baboon. 

He was believed to be one of the gods, along with his wife Ma’at, who maintained the universe[i].  Thoth was seen as an arbiter of godly disputes, the overlord of the arts of magic, the creator of the system of writing, and the progenitor of science.    Thoth was evident in many of the carvings I photographed in my visits to temples at Edfu, Luxor and other sites.

The power of the scribe class in ancient Egypt is only now beginning to be rivaled.

Then, the massive bureaucracy that emerged to manage construction of the pyramids and the various temples was enabled through the use of the written language, known only to the scribes.  It was through this cartel on language that power and control were asserted.  Now, the ‘scribes’ are those that understand and use the power of the Internet.  They are called programmers and software developers and network administrators.  They are information technology specialists.  They are the sales people and the marketers and inventors in the high technology world.  They are also the security specialists and the hackers.  Where is Thoth for these people, the new overlords of modern society?

Creator of the System of Writing

In 2010 Douglas Rushkoff wrote a book called Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In it he expounded on how we can use digital tools to enhance our humanity, rather than extract from it.  He uses simple constructs like time and place to reflect on the larger issues of how we engage with the world.  He also deals with complexity, identity and scale, among other key concepts.  My purpose here today is not to detail his commands; it is a quick read and well worth your time.  I highly recommend it.  Rather, I mention the book here because I’d like to use the title as a jumping off place to connect the dots with my key theme, that of control by knowledge.

For those of you that know anything about software engineering, you know that the art and science of developing programming languages has gone through a major evolution over the past 30 years.  The COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) was one of the first languages used for business and financial applications.  From the 1985 American National Standards Institute (ANSI) version it was considered to be a “structured language construct.”  Structured programming makes extensive use of subroutines, block structures and “for” and “while” loops to improve the clarity and quality of the code.  With the onset of distributed computing the need arose for a programming model that could execute in a distributed environment.  That was when the idea of Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) was developed.  It is built on the notion that discrete reusable units of programming logic can be deployed as it relates to commands and functions that are specific to a predefined “object.”  An object might be a single user’s profile or a bank account or a character in a computer game.  These ‘objects’ could then be deployed and controlled in a non-linear context, in contrast to structured programming models.

Over the past 10+ years there have been many different languages that have been developed.  Each one carries its own rules and syntax and each one is aimed at solving different problems on different pieces of equipment and over different types of networks.  The theme that runs through each of these languages is logic.  If there is a Thoth equivalent in modern time, it might be characterized as logic.

But the information technology ecosystem is more than just programming logic and software engineering; it is an entire complex of interactions between software, hardware, networks and humans that control all of these functions.

Progenitor of Science

So when I use the term logic, what am I referring to?  In Western civilization Aristotle established Logic as a formal systematic study of the principles of valid inference and correct reasoning.  It is integral to mathematics, computer science (and artificial intelligence), and semantics.  In the field of philosophy the study of logic is split into:  1) inductive reasoning, and 2) deductive reasoning.  For our purposes here I am using it to convey a way of thinking.

In ancient Egypt the use of complex religious rituals to venerate and serve the various gods enabled the scribes to obfuscate their slavish traditions.  Some moderns would argue that the Internet, and the language of technology serves the same function.  Although built on principles of logic it is functioning as a fulcrum to further, rather than reduce, the digital divide.  The cultural clashes, the rouge crackers, the porn purveyors and other fringe uses of the Internet tool have alienated many people.  The growing unease about the potential for cyber war and the reality of cyber crime is forcing the confrontation between those that want to regulate the medium and those that want to keep the Internet totally free of “government” interference.  The Internet as merely a technical tool is a dream of the past; its uses are now so politicized that the notion of logic and science are now like shadows on the wall of the cave.

Arbiter of […] Disputes

This elusive Thoth that represented so much to so many people over so many centuries had another function.  He was, as I noted above, the arbiter of godly disputes.

If we drop the notion of “godly” as is appropriate for this secular topic, and focus on the notion of arbitration we see that, indeed, the Internet fulfills that role.  The democratization of information is purported to be one of the key instigators of the Arab Spring and other populist uprisings that characterized political action in 2011.

So now we find ourselves back in Egypt.  Only now, we are not casting back 2,000+ years, but we are, instead, smack dab in the middle of an ideological dispute about the future of the country.  In recent remarks by the Minister of International Cooperation (Faiza Abul Naga, to a group of judges) she claimed that “America is behind the anarchy” that the Egyptians have seen recently.  Her remarks have resulted in the incarceration of workers from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and are jeopardizing the long-standing international aid program of the U.S. for Egypt.  The Internet, itself, is implicated here.  The democratization of information and the feeling of empowerment that the Egyptian people have developed have given them the strength to stand up to governance actions that are not seen to be in the best interests of the people.  We are seeing this all over the world at this time. But, for an entrenched bureaucratic military regime, that is too easy of an explanation.  It is much more convenient to find a scapegoat.

The New Scribes

The unleashing of the language of the Internet by making the user interface friendly (i.e., browsers, email, downloadable apps, etc.) has served as a catalyst for this political change.  Like the old Pharaohs that wanted to hold onto power after the Ptolemaic reign had run its course, the modern Generals and lawmakers in Egypt needed a scapegoat.  Faiza Abul Naga found one in her blame game.  Unfortunately, this did not take into account the many millions of dollars that the tax payers of the U.S. have sent to her country to try to build the infrastructure and stabilize the economy.

Here is a recent summary of the U.S. foreign aid to Egypt since 2001 that was compiled by Vaughn Aubuchon.

Click on image to enlarge


Setting strategic considerations for the Suez Canal aside, US citizens occupied with their own economic and financial problems are not likely to tolerate continued support of an Egyptian regime that exploits old unenforced laws for the purpose of finding a scapegoat for their own inadequate performance in governance.  The best course of action here would be a diplomatic one that offers clemency for the NGO workers and reduced involvement by the US and other western nations in the Egyptian reconstruction.

That would be a win/win situation.  But, of course, these kinds of solutions are just as elusive as Thoth was to the scribes.



[i] For scholars of Indian religious history the god Shiva plays this vital role as both the creator and destroyer of the universe.  Shiva, however, had multiple consorts including Parvati, Devi, Shakti, Durga and others.

One Response to The Search for Thoth

  1. hgtest

    February 18, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Very interesting article.