Frankensteins R Us

In 1797, at the dawn of the industrial age, Goethe wrote “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a poem about a magician-in-training who, through his arrogance and half-baked powers, unleashes a chain of events he cannot control. About twenty years later, a young Mary Shelley answered a dare to write a ghost story, which she shared at a small gathering at Lake Geneva. Her story, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, was published as a novel on January 1st 1818.

Both are stories about our powers to create things that then take on a life of their own. Goethe’s poem comes to a climax when the apprentice calls out in a panic:

Master, come to my assistance! –
Wrong I was in calling
Spirits, I avow,
For I find them galling,
Cannot rule them now.

It foreshadows Emerson’s remarks that “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Fortunately, the master does return and tells the enchanted broom that had run amok to “be hiding and subsiding!” He cancels the treacherous spell just in the nick of time.

Shelley’s tale doesn’t end so nicely: the monster goes on a murderous rampage and his creator is unable to hunt him down and put a stop to the carnage. There’s the question we face about our own story as we unleash technological powers complete with unintended consequences: will we sail through safely or will we, like Victor Frankenstein, meet with “destruction and infallible misery”? Who foretold our fate: Goethe or Shelley?

The name Prometheus in Shelley’s subtitle means forethought, which gives us the god-like power to bring something into being from non-being. But her intention here may best be read ironically, indicating that forethought is precisely what we lack. We make things without having thought through in advance what will transpire. Our ape brains cannot fathom our tech culture. Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest modern philosopher of techno-caution, once quipped that “only a god can save us.” But if we are the only god around, will we be up to the task of saving ourselves?

sorcIn Goethe’s poem, disaster is averted through a more skillful application of the same magic that conjured the problem in the first place. The term for this nowadays is “reflexive modernity,” the idea that modernity can deal with the problems of its own creation through learning and improvement. Whatever problems arise from technoscience we can fix with more technoscience. In environmentalism, this is known as ecomodernism. In transhumanist circles, it is called the proactionary principle, which “involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting.”

Frankenstein, by contrast, is a precautionary tale. Imbued with the impulse to transform nature, humans risk extending beyond their proper reach. Victor Frankenstein comes to rue the ambition to become “greater than his nature will allow.” He laments: “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world.” It is better to not know…or perhaps we could give it a Socratic twist and say it is better to not let yourself think that you actually know. Hubris will be the death of us all.


frankWhat has me worried is that a growing chorus of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are getting cold feet. After creating something, they turn around and scream: oh crap! Are they like the apprentice calling for a master who will rescue us? Or are they like Frankenstein engaged in a futile quest to squelch something that is already beyond our control?

Consider some examples. Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and an early investor in Facebook, recently announced his status as a social media “conscientious objector.” Facebook, he claims, is likely damaging children’s brains and definitely exploiting human psychological weaknesses. There are more Silicon Valley refuseniks. Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the Facebook “like” button, has deleted the app from his phone, citing worries about addiction, continuous partial attention disorder, and the demise of democracy at the hands of social media. Former Google employee Tristan Harris and Loren Bricther who invented the slot machine-like pull-to-refresh mechanism for twitter feeds are both warning us about the dangers of their creatures.

Anthony Ingraffea spent the first twenty-five years of his engineering career trying to figure out how to get more fossil fuels out of rocks. From 1978 to 2003, he worked on both government and industry grants to improve hydraulic fracturing. His own research never panned out, but when he learned of the success of others and the magnitude of chemicals and water required, he was “aghast” and said, “It was as if [I’d] been working on something [my] whole life and somebody comes and turns it into Frankenstein.” Over the past ten years he has become one of the nation’s leading fracking opponents, speaking out in hundreds of forums and in the Gasland documentaries about its environmental, climate, and health dangers. The industry that once funded him now regularly trolls and attacks him.

Jennifer Doudna is the main scientist behind the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. In her new book, A Crack in Creation, she writes that CRISPR could eliminate several diseases and improve lives, but it could also be used in ways similar to Nazi eugenics. Doudna has nightmares where Hitler asks her to explain “the uses and implications of this amazing technology.” She organized a conference at Napa Valley like the Asilomar Conference decades earlier at the dawn of recombinant DNA technology. The scientists at Napa fell short of calling for a moratorium, but they did urge that the safety issues of CRISPR “be thoroughly investigated and understood before any attempts at human engineering are sanctioned, if ever, for clinical testing.”

Elon Musk worries that with Artificial Intelligence we are “summoning the devil.” AI is, for him, “our greatest existential threat.” Musk has super-charged Dr. Frankenstein’s initial impulse of evading his abominable creation: he is working on interplanetary colonization so that we can run all the way to Mars when AI goes rogue on planet Earth.

The anthropologist Bruno Latour would chastise Musk for this kind of thing. The way Latour sees it, the moral of Frankenstein is not that we should stop making monsters but, rather, that we should love our monsters. The problem wasn’t Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris, but his unfeeling – he abandoned his ‘child’ rather than educated it so that it learned to behave. Becoming godlike doesn’t mean we will achieve total control and blissful detachment from the world – no, it means (like parenting) being constantly folded into developments, tending, fretting, and caring. Musk’s initiative OpenAI, which seeks to develop safer AI technologies, is more what Latour has in mind.

As it turns out, Latour is putting his own advice to the test. He is the creator-in-chief of the scariest monster of our times. This creature is not actually a product of science, but rather a way of thinking about science. Latour spent his career showing how scientific facts are socially constructed, that there is no such thing as unbiased access to truth, in short that objectivity is a sham and science is never really settled or certain. But now he watches in horror as this spirit of deconstruction and distrust takes root in our post-truth age of alternative facts, climate change denialists, and media bubbles that are sorted into tribal epistemologies. In a recent interview, Latour regrets his earlier “juvenile enthusiasm” in attacking science and vows to reverse course and hunt down the demon of skepticism he once so passionately animated: “We will have to regain some of the authority of science. That is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies.”

In order to love our monsters we have to have some basic agreement about when they are misbehaving and what to do about it. That agreement comes through widespread trust in the traditional institutions of truth – science, the media, and universities. Latour sought to liberate us from the paternalism of the experts inhabiting these institutions. It was a noble quest. But his acid, combined with the chaos of social media, has corroded things more deeply than he imagined. Now it is bias all the way down, everything is susceptible to a knee-jerk accusation of ‘fake news!’ Climate change may be the ultimate abomination or maybe it’s a hoax. Who can tell? The skepticism-induced paralysis is hardly conducive to chasing monsters.

Victor Frankenstein pursued his monster all the way up to the artic. The ice stopped his hunt, and the monster attacked and killed Frankenstein overnight. It makes you wonder: what if that chase were to happen now that the polar ice has so starkly retreated. Maybe Frankenstein would have caught his prey. I guess it depends…could the monster swim?


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