Myths and Machines, part 3

Pontus Wärnestål
4 min readMay 20, 2024

Welcome to “Myths and Machines,” the third part in a series of short texts that draw from the rich tapestry of ancient myths to explore the ethical lessons they offer for the development of artificial intelligence. Each story, from the cautionary tale of Pandora’s Box to the relentless pursuit of Sisyphus, serves as a reminder of the principles that could guide our technological endeavors.

Today, we take a look at the flight of Icarus and draw a parallell to how social media lost track of its original idea and aimed for something different. (Previous texts: part 1, part 2.)

Daedalus and Icarus: The Perils of Algorithmic Ambition

The story of Daedalus and Icarus offers a lesson about the dangers of overambition and the importance of respecting limitations. Daedalus, a brilliant inventor, and his son Icarus were imprisoned on the island of Crete by King Minos. To escape, Daedalus crafted wings from feathers and wax, cautioning Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or the sea. Enraptured by the freedom of flight, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, soared too high, and fell to his death as the sun melted the wax in his wings.

A painting of Icarus falling from the sky while his father Daedalus, who is flying beside him, watches in horror.
By After Peter Paul Rubens/ Peter Paul Rubens/ Jacob Peter Gowy —, Public Domain,

This myth encapsulates the dual nature of innovation: the thrill of new possibilities and the peril of hubris. It serves as a poignant reminder that ambition must be balanced with caution, especially when pushing the boundaries of technology.

Today, the tale of Daedalus and Icarus is reflected in many forms. The most obvious is of course the aim to create artificial general intelligence (AGI). But I would like to direct the tale to the evolution of social media’s algorithmic news feeds. Initially, these systems were heralded for their ability to connect people across the globe, creating communities and fostering communication. The wings of social media lifted us to unprecedented levels of connectivity and information sharing, promising a new era of global unity.

However, just like Icarus’s flight, the unrestrained ambition to maximize engagement has led to significant unintended consequences. Algorithmic curation of news feeds designed to prioritize sensational content in order to maximize ad revenue have fostered polarization, the spread of misinformation, and contributed to the erosion of democratic processes. The very tools that were meant to unite us have instead driven us apart.

This new, updated ambition behind social media algorithms is rooted in the desire to keep users engaged, feeding them content that aligns with their interests and biases (and make money). Just like Icarus abandonded the original quest, he shifted course for his own ambition, which led to ruin. The relentless drive for engagement has created echo chambers, where users are continually exposed to similar viewpoints, reinforcing their beliefs and deepening divisions. This is akin to Icarus soaring ever higher, intoxicated by the thrill of flight, but unaware of the impending danger.

Moreover, the phenomenon of doomscrolling — endlessly consuming negative news — has emerged as a byproduct of these algorithms. In the pursuit of keeping users glued to their screens, the algorithms often prioritize alarming and distressing content, leading to increased anxiety and mental health issues. This mirrors Icarus’s tragic fall, highlighting the destructive potential of unchecked technological ambition.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus teaches us that while technological advancements can offer incredible opportunities, they must be pursued with a mindful approach to their broader impacts and not lose sight of what new overambitious goals could yield. The lesson for developers and tech companies is clear: ambition must be tempered with ethical considerations and a commitment to the well-being of users.

Policymakers and developers need to collaborate to create frameworks that prioritize transparency, accountability, and user welfare. This includes implementing measures to curb the spread of misinformation, promoting diverse viewpoints, and ensuring that algorithms do not exploit human vulnerabilities for profit.

By the way: the story can also be applied to the development of search engines and Google. The Page Rank algorithm was at its inception a good tool for everyone involved. (The first decade or so of Google search is in a way like the first flight of Icarus and Daedalus.) But then, something happened. People quickly realized that searching aligns with “intent”, so you can infer interest in products and services based on what people search for. This made Google the world’s most efficient ad service platform. (They got a glimpse of the sun, so to speak, and just like Icarus, they got tempted to shift focus and “aim higher”.)

Take-Away Message:

While the wings of social media algorithms have the power to elevate and connect us, unchecked ambition can lead to devastating consequences when society crashes into the sun. To harness the full potential of these technologies, we must balance innovation with responsibility, ensuring that they serve to enhance, rather than undermine, our shared humanity.

Resources: warnings for the modern day Icaruses of the tech world

  • The film “The Social Dilemma” explains how AI-powered social media has affected wide range of societal aspects. Did you know that 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there?
  • This conversation continues in “The AI Dilemma”.

Next up: The Labyrinth and the Minotaur

Our journey through myths and machines continues with another tale from King Minos world: the tale of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. Following the cautionary lesson of Icarus’s overambition, we will now explore the complexities of AI systems and the challenges of navigating these sophisticated structures. Where is Ariadne when you need her? Read on –›



Pontus Wärnestål

Deputy Professor (PhD) at Halmstad University (Sweden). Father of two. I ride my bike to work.