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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings. From The Hávamál Part 1: Intro and Advice to a Visitor

Starting a New Project

An awesome student of mine recently took a trip to Iceland (right?!) and, being awesome and all, brought me a copy of the Hávamál, a didactic eddaic poem of Norse and Viking wisdom aphorisms. As I flipped through it, stopping on this entry and that, it struck me that it would be a lot of fun to blog on the 91 selections in my edition. So, in an attempt to revitalize my blogging and think through ethics, history, and contemporary internet culture I am going to try and offer a brief reflection each of the entries in my book at a rate of around four a week. Let's see how it goes.

Some Oversimplified History and Poor-man's Sociology

The Norsemen who settled Iceland are really exciting group in history given that, in addition to being Vikings, they set up a society which is arguably the closest thing humanity has produced to an organized Anarchic system. They did have laws and a recognizable social order so the anarchy was imperfect but they also depended on popular executive enforcement and - within  the limitations of certain family and semi-tribal systems - popular legislation and adjudication.

Basically they had a gathering place where a bard would recite their constitution and laws from memory. Then they would bring their complaints against one another and collectively vote to pass new laws and sentence people for infractions. If someone was voted guilty it was up to the community itself to enforce the ruling. So if a person was strong enough to resist punishment, or had enough tough friends that nobody wanted to go after him (or her, Vikings were delightfully egalitarian for their day) then they basically got away with it. The major punishment was being declared an outlaw (major or minor) which meant that laws no longer protected you and someone who killed you and/or stole your stuff, would not be guilty of any wrong doing.

 As I reflected on this, it struck me that this structure, popular enforcement of collaboratively generated and adjudicated laws, is pretty similar to the ways in which many parts of the Internet operate. Blog com-boxes, Facebook feeds and comments, and various media comments sections are created in a remarkably frontier-like manner, then policed according to communally evolving standards and enforced with widely varying degrees of rigor by the proprietors of those digital spaces. Major punishments include blocking and banning but have to be enforced by the community and a person who "trolls" and established "troll" is not guilty of trolling. In effect the social zones of the internet are functionally analogous to the family-claimed homesteads and hamlets of the early Icelandic settlements. I'm looking forward to seeing how far this analogy will actually extend but if you want to preempt me in the comments, have at it!

Here's a Crash Course Video on The Vikings

What am I Actually Doing Here

With all of that in place, I thought it would be a lot of fun to publicly explore applicability of Viking wisdom in an internet age. So I will be posting individual aphorisms from the Hávamál and then trying to apply them to internet ethics and culture before offering a little evaluation of the wisdom (or lack thereof) that emerges.

So Without Further Ado

1. Advice to A Visitor

When passing
a door-post
watch as you walk on,
inspect as you enter.
It is uncertain
where enemies lurk
or crouch in a dark corner

This is a picture of a happy teacher
This one translates pretty easily and goes straight home. If we just substitute "door-post" for "Facebook post" or "com-box" I think the reminder/caution is really well taken. When a friend or even acquaintance wrights or shares something, we are immediately and automatically in a somewhat precarious situation. If we "walk on", or scroll by and refuse to engage there is some safety there, but at the cost of potentially meaningful engagement and at the risk of offending a friend by rejecting their invitation (a sort of mental/intellectual/cultural offer of hospitality). But if we "enter" and engage with the post, it is uncertain whether enemies or trolls (the Icelandic or Internet variety) lurk in a dark corner. At the end of the day I think the insight here is that the world is unavoidably dangerous and that caution will serve us well.

Part 2: How to Seat a Guest

Get it on Amazon

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