Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine


Thor May

Lae, Papua New Guinea, 1987 







Preface: This little essay is a bit mischievous, and apparently politically incorrect enough to have sparked outrage in the minds of some sensitive souls from the polite dinner party set. Although it has no claims to academic decency, I have preserved it online as a stimulant to fancier research, since I think the metaphor the essay runs on captures some essential truths.


The essay had its genesis in the startled observations of a fresh expatriate teaching in foreign surrounds. In this case, it was the PNG University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1987. I found my untried liberal conscience struggling to comprehend the sheer incompetence of people faced with institutions and technology which didn't seem to work. Many of the locals were bright and friendly enough, but somewhere a spark of insight was missing. Much later, surveying Australia with the naked eyes of a returnee, it was all too clear that the paralysis of imagination was a universal problem. 






Have you danced with the ghost ...


I am going to tell you the secret of a super-culture, to which I belong. You may not hear me, but at least I will do my best to tell you. 


First of all, be clear that super-culture belongs to no country, nationality, race, sect or language group. Its members have been scattered in every age and latitude. We have had, of course, our different under-cultures to divide us. However the super-culture has been our gift and burden. 


Secondly, forgive my impertinence, but I must remind you of some of the signs of super-culture. I wish not to be boastful (for everyone has a culture), but merely to set the scene for my explanation. 


Super-culture designed the clothes and the shoes that you are wearing. It designed the building that you are in and the chair that you are sitting on. Also all the vehicles that you travel in, the pen that you write with, and the radios and televisions that you listen to. Super-culture produced almost all the knowledge that you learn in schools and universities. It is the source of most of the music that you listen to, the novels that you read, and the games that you play. It provided the systems and procedures that allow businesses and government administration to function. It developed ways to allow large numbers of people with conflicting interests to share power, to transfer power without bloodshed, to accept mediation by impartial judges, and to work together for a common good. It is the most powerful culture on the planet earth. 


For many centuries a small number of the super-cultural group have tried to influence their original under-cultures, as well as foreign under-cultures. They have chosen in this way for many reasons, good and bad. Some wished to learn about the other cultures, some wished to trade, some to teach, and some even wanted to conquer. Whatever their purpose however, they have all brought a part of the super-culture with them to these other people. Almost everywhere foreign cultures have tried to copy or adapt parts of the super-culture into their own. 


I am a teacher, and what I try to teach is some part of my super-culture to people in other cultures. This is not always easy. People naturally feel that by showing them another way to do things, this teacher is insulting their own culture and their own values. If the super-culture that I bring is obviously very powerful and can't be defeated easily, then the people may smile and come to my school, but in their hearts they are often jealous and bitter. This is a natural human reaction, but it makes me sad. Finally, it forces me to look very closely at the super-culture that I bring, and to ask why indeed it is so powerful. After all, I am only a man, no more intelligent, charming or gifted than the people I teach, but this knowledge that I convey overwhelms all opposition. 


Those of us who work in other cultures (at home and abroad) have noticed something puzzling. In a large number of cases the people we teach our ways to happily learn to drive cars, use telephones and work in business offices. They come to the schools and universities we set up and pass examinations in the knowledge that we teach them.....BUT, but, but .... the technology and the knowledge is dead in their hands and minds. They don't take the knowledge from my super-culture as a starting point to develop even better ideas. They use it like a religious ritual, like a powerful magic. They don't use the pen that I give them to design an even better pen. They will watch a clock until the battery runs down, then throw it away. 


Something is missing. The people of my super-culture have demonstrated the power of their machines. They have even made a gift of the machines. But they have not given away the ghost in the machines: the spirit that made them in the first place. Like any spirit, you have to catch this one by surprise to see it at all, but once you have seen it and accepted it, you are changed forever. Let me tell you about the ghost in the machine. It is the secret of super-culture. 


The ghost is unbalanced. That is its essential quality. It can never lie down, but must dance forever. While you dance with this ghost you are never secure. You never know the whole truth, but only enough to get by with for the time being. You may expect the sun to rise tomorrow, but you are not quite certain because the ghost has not told you everything there is to know about heaven and earth. 


The ghost is a very tricky partner, and dazzlingly clever. You have to use all your wits to stay in the dance. It is not enough to follow the old steps, even though they make a nice pattern. If you follow the old steps, round and round, in a little while you suddenly find that you are dancing by yourself. When you dance by yourself, without the ghost, your culture becomes an empty shell, like the cast-off skin of a snake or a cicada. 


To dance with the ghost you have to invent new steps all the time. You invent three steps and the ghost will show you another five to follow. The ghost knew this new dance all the time, but it was not going to show you until you invented those first steps yourself. In my super-culture we call making new dance steps by several names: innovation, invention, scientific discovery, philosophizing. The steps may be concrete or intellectual - it makes no difference to the ghost - but they must be made. 


The extra steps the ghost reveals, once we have shown initiative, my under-culture usually calls "the laws of Nature" or "scientific laws" or even "the whole truth". These names are very misleading. Maybe the ghost itself told us to use them as a joke. The names like "law of Nature" sound final, and this disguise leads many to lose the ghost as a dance partner forever. They are probably also the reason that so many strangers accept the empty shell of my super-culture without understanding. To repeat, each "law of Nature" is just a small pattern that the ghost has followed our invention with. To see a larger pattern holding this small pattern we must take another three steps ourselves again. The ghost laughs and gives us five more .... and suddenly the "law of Nature" looks entirely different, once again. While we have the energy to dance, there is no end to this contest with the ghost. 


Now I want you to consider the qualities of mind that can keep you dancing with the ghost. Firstly there is initiative. You must take those three steps. The ghost will never do it for you. Secondly there is wit. You must use every bit of intelligence and ability that you have been blessed with, for the ghost has no time for fools. Thirdly there is skepticism. You must always doubt that you have discovered perfection, for although the ghost will give you five beautiful steps to follow your three, it has countless others hidden and will quickly tire of your simple-minded discovery. Finally, there is humility. It is exhilarating, wonderful to invent three steps and be whirled on by the ghost to a new vision. But the ghost endlessly mocks those who make three steps and proudly consider themselves masters of the universe. 


I can see that you are becoming very curious about the owners of this super-culture. What is it's home, you ask. What is its island, country, continent of origin? Well, super-culture began with the first spark of independent intelligence, and from that moment its territory has been the galaxy of the human mind. If you know a bit of history, or have walked the byways of this planet, you will realize by now that you have met dancers with the ghost in the machine in some very exotic places. By a Bronze Age hunter's fire perhaps, in Classical Greece, in Song Dynasty China, in a l2th Century Arabian university. Nowadays you may find a dancer in an Eskimo hut, a Papua New Guinean village, or a space laboratory in Palo Alto, California. The members of super-culture are scattered across the face of the earth, but we recognize each other whenever we happen to meet. 




Acknowledgement: The "Ghost in the Machine" image comes from a brilliant polymer clay sculpture by Jan Morris (


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  

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All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.



"Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine" © Thor May; all rights reserved 1987-2013