Jacob Brogan: Before I shifted to writing I was an academic. And I think the two-hour mark of conferences was the point at which I faded, to the extent that I was paying attention before. So if you'll forgive me I'm going to try to just gross you out just a little bit, just to maybe wake you up.

Earlier this week I visited the National Zoo here in Washington DC, where an extraordinarily patient researcher tried to show me samples of a tiny nematodal skin parasite—a little worm—that appears to be infecting an animal species that was already facing extinction.

There are several reasons why this was difficult for me. One of them, as I pointed out not at all humbly I'm afraid to the researcher, I have extremely long eyelashes. I don't know if you can see from where you are. But they're quite luscious. And it's quite difficult because of that to lean into a microscope. She kept saying, "Pull your head back. Pull your head back." But I just really wanted to lean into this experience of looking at this parasite.

The other problem, which was probably more pressing, is that as as you may know if you've looked through a microscope recently and are also someone like me who barely remembers his biology classes, most skin samples under a microscope don't actually look like anything, unless you really know what you're looking at.

So I'm looking at these slides and just sort of trying to take it in stride and recognize that this murky pink blot that I'm looking at is in fact some kind of tiny worm. It's not really getting through to me, this worm, until the researcher, who had this very helpful little arrow that she could move around on the slide, points out this tiny line of black dots inside what appears to be an air bubble. They're minuscule even at the microscopic scale that we're studying them. But she makes it zoom in just a bit more and I can see that there are these small little balls that make up that black line.

"See that?" she says. "Those are worm eggs." All of a sudden, like that I catch myself itching at my own skin. Convinced that I too am literally filthy with worm eggs. Which I probably am.

"Is there any chance," I say, "that this stuff is on my skin?"

Well no, of course not. This particular nematode is not on my skin. But thinking back to the trouble with my eyelashes she responds, "Have you ever heard about the mites that live in your eyelashes? They're mostly harmless."

And like that, I realize I'm a landscape. I'm a habitat. I'm an ecosystem. And that means that my body is not my own. At some fundamental level, I'm not me. Thanks, science. It's what I needed to know today.

Now, I'm going to ask them to roll a clip that you will at first think has nothing to do with nematodes.


Listen to me very carefully. Watching this scene from Terminator 2, I'm drawn to one thing in particular. Not the grotesque horror of Arnold paring away his flesh, although apparently it was even grosser in the original cut of the film. It's not that that I'm drawn to, but rather it's the reactions of the two characters watching him, Miles and Tarissa Dyson. Even before they know what's happening, but after they do all the more so, they respond with a kind of outsized horror, screaming and writhing as if they were the ones under the knife. As if Arnold were peeling away the flesh from their arms.

Now you might dismiss this, perhaps reasonably, as a bit of comical overacting. I'm not convinced, though, that that's what we're seeing here. I'd suggest that we're witnessing something else, something more like what I felt peering at those nematode eggs under the microscope. What they're seeing as he peels away his arm isn't horrifying because it's gross, but because it's uncanny, in something like the Freudian sense.

"The uncanny," Freud wrote in 1919, "is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us," something once familiar. He's trading here on the German word for the uncanny, unheimlich, which as I understand it means something literally like "unhomely." For Freud, unhomely is not the negation or opposite of home, but that which shows us that home has always been something other than what we thought it was. Uncanny things are those things that estrange us from ourselves and our world, precisely because they call us back to where we came from. Freud in other words, and maybe not surprisingly if you know your Freud, thought that we feel something is uncanny when it brings to mind sentiments or ideas that we've repressed.

While I'm not here to talk about the repressed, this is still important for our purposes today, I think. Because Freud thought it wasn't the unknown that scared us most, but the known. And here it's worth noting that the panel you're about to listen to is on the fear of the unknown.

Freud wrote, "Some new things are frightening but not by any means all." That is, it's not novelty that frightens us, although it sometimes seems to, not the newness of science or of technology in particular. And as I learned staring through the microscope earlier this week, when the new is frightening it's mostly because the more we learn, the more alien old things begin to seem.

This sentiment is also central I think to the scientific horror of a book like Frankenstein, where the quest for knowledge mostly serves to teach us how much larger the world is than we realized. I see something similar at work in this scene from Terminator 2, something I'm inclined to call the technological uncanny. The technological uncanny would be what we experience when new discoveries imbue familiar things with unfamiliar qualities. What the Dysons, those two horrified characters quaking on the floor, are realizing in this scene is that they may not be who they think they are. Or what they think they are.

There's a sort of sequel to this scene from from Terminator 2 in the recent film Ex Machina, where Domhnall Gleason's character slices into his own arm with a razor and peers into his mouth in the mirror, trying to convince himself that he is also not a robot. And that's the trick. Once we start to realize how much hides beneath the surface of the visible world, how many "slimy things do crawl with legs upon the slimy sea," as Mary Shelley's beloved Samuel Taylor Coleridge puts it, we also begin to learn how little we know.

So. This is the lesson I take from this scene from Terminator 2. It's not the strangeness of new technologies that frightens us but the way technology threatens to make us strangers to ourselves. In a semi-Freudian spirit, then, I'd like to propose that where Frankenstein and its spawn are concerned, our fear of the unknown may really be about our discomfort with knowing.


Ed Finn: To lead us fear­less­ly into a con­ver­sa­tion about the fear of the unknown, let me intro­duce Bina Venkataraman, a Carnegie Fellow here at New America and Director of Global Policy Iinitiatives at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Bina Venkataraman: Thank you. And I’d like to invite up our pan­el, who I’ll intro­duce once you can see their faces.

So we have here with us today Dave Guston, who is the Founding Director and a pro­fes­sor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. And Charlotte Gordon, who is the author of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, and she’s also a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor be com­modi­ties that Endicott College. And Annalee Newitz, who is the tech cul­ture edi­tor at Ars Technica, and the author of sev­er­al books, most recent­ly Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction.

So we have a great pan­el here. And despite the billing that this is about the fear of the unknown, in talk­ing amongst our­selves I think maybe a more apt name for what we’re going to talk about would be Fear and Loathing: from Frankenstein to the Future.” We real­ly want to explore fear writ large: fear of the unknown; fear of the known, as Jacob so apt­ly brought up; fear of the hideous and the strange; and look at how the themes of that car­ry from Frankenstein into how we think about sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy today and how we think about the future.

So Charlotte, if you would not mind kick­ing us off, as our expert on the life of Mary Shelley, what do we real­ly know about how Mary Shelley intend­ed to rep­re­sent fear in Frankenstein? What was she try­ing to say about her own fear, about the fear of oth­ers, and what can that tell us?

Charlotte Gordon: Thank you. Did you set Jacob up ahead of time?

Venkataraman: No. We talked not at all.

Gordon: That was per­fect. I think that it’s fun­ny, because Frankenstein has gone down in his­to­ry as the first nov­el of sci­ence fic­tion, it’s about sci­ence, it’s about inno­va­tion, it’s about the future. And I think anoth­er very inter­est­ing way to read Frankenstein is to see it as polit­i­cal com­men­tary and a real explo­ration of what Mary Shelley feared about what she knew. Which is why I thought Jacob’s intro­duc­tion to our pan­el was so per­fect.

And what was it that Mary Shelley knew? Well, she was born in 1797. And so if we just pause for a sec­ond and think about what it meant to be a woman in 1797, it was­n’t a lot of fun. Women could not own their own prop­er­ty. They could­n’t have mon­ey. They could not ini­ti­ate a divorce. Their chil­dren were con­sid­ered their hus­bands’. According to sort of English polit­i­cal the­o­ry and English thought, noth­ing was more dan­ger­ous and harm­ful to the king­dom than dis­or­der, and so the role of men in English soci­ety was to keep women—their daugh­ters, their sis­ters, and their wives—under con­trol. It was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the man or the hus­band to dis­ci­pline his wife. The only rule was that the whip that he use should not be thick­er than the thumb—that’s where we get the idea of the rule of thumb.

So in many ways, you can read Frankenstein as a real explo­ration and a real con­dem­na­tion… This might be a lit­tle bit hard since we don’t have the text in front of us and you’re not my stu­dents, so I can’t brow­beat you into open­ing the text. [Guston flips through a clipped stack of pages] Okay, we do have the text in front of us.

Really, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that most of the peo­ple, most of Mary Shelley’s con­tem­po­raries, did not think that the sit­u­a­tion for women was bad. It was just how it was. But Mary was dif­fer­ent because not only, as Susan point­ed out, was she the daugh­ter of William Godwin, rock­star polit­i­cal philoso­pher. Even more impor­tant­ly she was the daugh­ter (thank you, Joey) of Mary Wollstonecraft, rad­i­cal fem­i­nist who wrote a vin­di­ca­tion of the rights of woman and was an inter­na­tion­al super­star amongst lib­er­als and rad­i­cals, and was called a whore and a hye­na in pet­ti­coats by every­one else. And there were a lot of them.

Unfortunately for lit­tle Mary Shelley, her moth­er died ten days after giv­ing birth to her. But, Mary read all of her moth­er’s books and by the time she was 12 or 13 years old she had decid­ed I am going to live accord­ing to my moth­er’s ideals. I am going to be a bea­con of free­dom. I am going to fight for jus­tice for all peo­ple.” And she ded­i­cat­ed her life, in fact, to liv­ing accord­ing to her moth­er’s ideals.

Really inter­est­ing­ly, as she’s writ­ing Frankenstein, she suf­fers two ter­ri­ble expe­ri­ences, which are two young women that she was close to killed them­selves. Why did they kill them­selves? (And her own moth­er Mary Wollstonecraft had had also tried to kill her­self, twice.) Why? Because in 18… Well, through­out the 18th cen­tu­ry, through the 19th cen­tu­ry, what was more mon­strous to English soci­ety than an unwed moth­er? Or worse even than that, a woman who thought for her­self. An inde­pen­dent woman, an ambi­tious woman, and an intel­lec­tu­al woman.

So Mary Shelley, when she’s writ­ing Frankenstein, is think­ing— I know it’s strange to think about, but she’s think­ing less about tech­nol­o­gy than she is about the social ills that she her­self has endured and that those close to her have endured. And she’s real­ly describ­ing a world, if you think about it, in which there are no moth­ers. In which the ideals of—as she saw it—of fem­i­nin­i­ty or of women—and we would com­pli­cat­ed that dis­cus­sion now—but for Mary Shelley did not exist.

So Victor Frankenstein works in iso­la­tion rather than a com­mu­ni­ty. He’s dri­ven by ambi­tion and by self-promotion in that sense. And then he does­n’t nur­ture or edu­cate his cre­ation. He’s a hor­ri­ble par­ent. This is ter­ri­ble, thinks Mary Shelley. And the only voice of san­i­ty in the entire nov­el is off-stage… It’s Walton’s sis­ter, that he writes to, who writes let­ters to him. And in fact that’s real­ly how the nov­el ends, I just have to say, is Walton lis­tens to his sis­ter, who says, Stop with the ambi­tion, already. Leave North Pole, come home and be with your fam­i­ly and live in com­mu­ni­ty like a nor­mal human being.” Like a good human being, is the impli­ca­tion.

So what is Frankenstein real­ly about? It’s about all the things we’ve been talk­ing about today, but it’s an incred­i­ble, damn­ing, polit­i­cal com­men­tary about life in England in 18—during Mary Shelley’s life, but on into now, too. There’s of course impli­ca­tions.

Venkataraman: So have we been read­ing this wrong? When we think— I mean, aside from read­ing it wrong. But when we think about the fear of the unknown, we car­ry on this idea. Like, Frankenstein is syn­ony­mous with hor­ror and fear, right. Are we read­ing this wrong in think­ing that she was try­ing to tell us to be afraid— Is she actu­al­ly con­demn­ing being afraid of the unknown, in this case the unknown being fem­i­nin­i­ty or women?

Gordon: Oh, that’s such a great ques­tion. Well I…you know, I’m a writer, I’m a thinker. So I don’t think any read­ing is ever wrong. So, no. I’ve loved every­thing we’ve been talk­ing about and I think the appli­ca­tions are all there for us.

But, I do think that if there’s a sort of moral” to Frankenstein, that who did Mary Shelley her­self most iden­ti­fy with? Probably the crea­ture. You know, as Joey said, the unnamed crea­ture.” Why? Because that’s how peo­ple respond­ed to her. As an intel­lec­tu­al woman and as an unwed moth­er, she was called a whore. When peo­ple found out that she wrote Frankenstein they said what kind of woman would write such a book? Must be some­thing wrong with her. There’s some­thing per­verse about a woman who would write such a book.

So lat­er in her life she says, I wrote it, but that’s because the idea came to me in a dream.” And we know that isn’t true because we have her note­books. She in fact thought of the idea. She worked on it real­ly hard. She worked on it real­ly hard while young women around her were killing them­selves. And also, inci­den­tal­ly, she was read­ing the his­to­ry of slav­ery. So she’s ded­i­cat­ing her­self to the ideas of social injus­tice and the suf­fer­ing of those who are con­sid­ered mon­strous by their own soci­ety, her­self includ­ed.

So, she sees her­self as a woman who’s trying—she wants to pub­lish and be smart in her world, as some­one who’s going evoke feel­ings of mon­st— [To audi­ence (Joey Eschrich?)] You said a feel­ing of mon­stros­i­ty? People will react to her as though she’s a mon­ster, and she’s say­ing, Don’t do that.”

Annalee Newitz: What’s real­ly inter­est­ing, too, if you think about the way Frankenstein has been adapt­ed, espe­cial­ly through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, is that slow­ly, the nar­ra­tives have become a lot more Team Monster rather than Team Frankenstein. And it’s been fun to watch these—

Gordon: Is that true?

Newitz: Yes, because we’re slow­ly start­ing to sym­pa­thize more with the mon­ster—

Gordon: Yay.

Newitz: And I think we can look at that in the— Yay! I’ve always been [crosstalk] Team Monster—

Gordon: I know. Me, too.

Newitz: —so I just want to lay that out there right now.

Gordon: I felt so bad for the mon­ster.

Newitz: We should feel ter­ri­ble—

Gordon: He want­ed friends…

Newitz: —because the mon­ster is hor­rif­i­cal­ly abused. Like you said, if we look at the mon­ster as a stand-in for a woman who’s think­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, or some­one who’s been enslaved, this is a crea­ture who is respond­ing to cir­cum­stance. The crea­ture has only ever expe­ri­enced cru­el­ty. So of course he dish­es it out. He’s only expe­ri­enced vio­lence and rejec­tion. So of course he dish­es it out.

But I think if you real­ly want to sort of com­plete the arc and go all the way up to the present day and think about a mod­ern Frankenstein nar­ra­tive, Westworld, the new TV series, is a fan­tas­tic exam­ple. And in fact the great thing is that of course Westworld is also an adap­ta­tion of a pre­vi­ous nar­ra­tive which had male pro­tag­o­nists and of course now it has female pro­tag­o­nists and African-American pro­tag­o­nists. And it’s very much explic­it­ly about what hap­pens when you’re a crea­ture who’s been made by an indif­fer­ent, kind of cor­po­rate sci­ence— I mean, there’s some com­pli­ca­tions there and we could talk about Westworld after­ward.

But I think that that’s a nar­ra­tive where we are ful­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the cre­ations and the crea­tures, and we under­stand that they’re being abused, that their minds are being tor­ment­ed by the act of cre­ation, and that their only hope for free­dom is vio­lent upris­ing. That’s their only hope. And to gain con­trol over the means of their own pro­duc­tion, which actu­al­ly hap­pens in a fan­tas­tic episode—sorry, spoilers—where they learn— One of the char­ac­ters learns how to take con­trol of her own pro­gram­ming. And it’s such a fan­tas­tic scene. It would be like if Frankenstein said, Alright, screw you—” I’m sor­ry, Frankenstein’s mon­ster said, Screw you, Frankenstein. I’m gonna remake myself to be bet­ter.”

And so I think we have seen that come full cir­cle and I do think that that is a response to cul­tur­al changes, and to how peo­ple under­stand the process of mak­ing an arti­fi­cial being, which of course is becom­ing more and more real­is­tic in an age of robots.

David Guston: That is one of the holes in the plot of the orig­i­nal nov­el. The crea­ture actu­al­ly uncov­ers Victor’s notes, that had not been revealed to the read­er pre­vi­ous­ly. And you say, Well, crea­ture, if you’re so smart do it your­self. Don’t ask the guy to do it for you.” But to turn it back to the this fram­ing of the fear of the unknown, I want to know who’s respon­si­ble for that. It was­n’t Joey, prob­a­bly. It was­n’t Ed.

Venkataraman: It’s Frankenstein.

Guston: It was by com­mit­tee, okay.

Guston: So by fram­ing it as a fear of the unknown, it puts the know­ers in con­trol of whether there is fear, of what exact­ly the response is. And if you sort of take down a list of what char­ac­ters in the nov­el are actu­al­ly afraid of, these are real threats to dearly-held val­ues. There’s fear of loss and lone­li­ness. There is fear of the oth­er. There’s fear of dishar­mo­ny. There’s fear of female sex­u­al­i­ty and pow­er. There’s fear of the inver­sion of the master/slave rela­tion­ship.

These are real things that are real­ly oper­a­tive to Mary and to oth­er peo­ple in her soci­ety. And by these things get­ting sort of pushed off to the side the same way that we think of say, Luddism as a move­ment of igno­rance and reac­tion when there were real val­ues to real peo­ple being able to put food on their table and pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, we do some­thing dif­fer­ent that’s prob­a­bly not good for the way we want to ask ques­tions about con­tem­po­rary sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy.

Venkataraman: Well, I think this is a great point. And it’s impor­tant to com­pli­cate this idea. Is it real­ly the unknown we’re afraid of, or is it some­thing else? And I think con­tem­po­rary psy­chol­o­gists would say well actu­al­ly we’re more afraid of what’s salient. So we’re more afraid of a ter­ror­ist attack because we see it on the news and it’s con­stant­ly being reit­er­at­ed for us. It’s an avail­abil­i­ty heuris­tic, or the ter­mi­nol­o­gy.

But we’re less afraid of a dis­tant prob­lem like cli­mate change because we see less of it or we’re see­ing more of the impacts of that. And I am just so curi­ous how, David for you, think­ing about areas of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, do you think it’s the fear of the unknown that com­pli­cates and leads to most of the con­tro­ver­sies we see around new areas of tech­nol­o­gy like nan­otech­nol­o­gy, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence… Or do you think there’s some­thing else at play, and how’s that—

Guston: Yeah. No, I think there’s a lot more at play. And actu­al­ly, what I would also want to do around that kind of fram­ing is turn it around to fig­ure out who the we” is, as well. Because the we is nev­er uni­tary. The we is sort of this you know, com­pos­ite, mon­strous kind of thing. And we have a vari­ety of social and tech­ni­cal means to try to fig­ure out who that we is.

So we just had an inter­est­ing elec­tion that we heard about you know, Trumpenstein and Frankentrump pre­vi­ous­ly. But you know, we have these inter­est­ing com­pos­ites of machines and peo­ple and orders and behav­iors and rules that try to cre­ate what the we is, that try to con­sti­tute who we the peo­ple are in this coun­try. And it turns out well you know, it gets real­ly messy when you try to do that. You use some rules, say the num­ber of peo­ple who vot­ed for some­body, and you get one result. And you use a dif­fer­ent set of rules, the num­ber of peo­ple in cer­tain states that total up cer­tain num­bers of elec­tors, and you get a dif­fer­ent result. So fig­ur­ing out who that we is that is feel­ing what it is that we want them to feel is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, too.

Venkataraman: So let me put it to you anoth­er way. How often does fear oper­at­ing on the part of the pub­lic or politi­cians fac­tor into the devel­op­ment of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy? Like, what can you tell us about recent devel­op­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and how you see fear play­ing a role in their devel­op­ment or non-development?

Guston: I’m going to push back again sud­den­ly, because usu­al­ly the way this is cast is that the sci­en­tists and the the engineers—the technologists—have the knowl­edge. They are the ones who oper­ate ratio­nal­ly and the pub­lic is either accept­ing of or afraid of the kinds of things that they’re offered.

Well you know, why do a lot of things get cre­at­ed, any­way? Because of fear of lone­li­ness, fear of death… And so it’s not the case that fear and knowl­edge oper­ate in a dichoto­my. The peo­ple with knowl­edge oper­ate out of fear as well, and the peo­ple who are nor­mal­ly cast as afraid in the Frankenstein films, the folks with the pitch­forks, have ratio­nal respons­es in many instances.

And so I real­ly actu­al­ly want to not just move the unknown off to the side, but I want to move the fear off to the side, also. Because I think it’s fair­ly destruc­tive in talk­ing about how it is that, to go back to the pre­vi­ous pan­el, that a whole mess of dif­fer­ent peo­ple can come togeth­er and talk about what it is that we want out of new sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and not sim­ply a reac­tion between the ratio­nal and the afraid.

Venkataraman: Well, it’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion you raise and I’m going to pierce through that dichoto­my as well, because I think we assume that fear is irra­tional. But aren’t there a lot of fears that are per­fect­ly ratio­nal? If you’re stand­ing on the edge of a cliff, it’s pret­ty ratio­nal to be afraid, right.

So is it ratio­nal? What lev­el of fear about emerg­ing technologies—and Annalee I’d like to hear your per­spec­tive on this—is ratio­nal to bring into the con­ver­sa­tion, or is pro­duc­tive in the con­ver­sa­tion? How should we be talk­ing about our fears in a way that helps guide us.

Newitz: You know, it’s a good ques­tion. I will always remem­ber when I met the syn­thet­ic biol­o­gist Drew Endy, who’s at Stanford now. And he told me, I hate Frankenstein because it’s wrecked my career.” And he was quite pas­sion­ate about it, and he real­ly felt that because he was doing genet­ic engi­neer­ing— Which of course was not designed to be used on humans, it was going to be used on real­ly quite safe projects, and projects where they built safe­ty con­cerns into their exper­i­ments from the begin­ning.

But he felt that when­ev­er you use the phrase genet­ic engi­neer­ing” peo­ple would imme­di­ate­ly jump to the Frankenstein fear and they’d say, You’re play­ing God,” or You’re try­ing to destroy nature,” as if nature is some­thing that we can quan­ti­fy and as if we haven’t been chang­ing nature for like over 8,000 years using agri­cul­ture. Everybody always for­gets about agri­cul­ture and how we actu­al­ly have rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed tons of species—animal species and plant species—for a long time.

And so I think that there’s a num­ber of ques­tions that we have to bring to any project, whether it’s autonomous cars or genet­ic engi­neer­ing, around safe­ty, and around unex­pect­ed out­comes. And that kind of goes back telling dif­fer­ent sto­ries oth­er than Frankenstein. Because Frankenstein is a sce­nario, if you want to look at it that way. It’s a sce­nario where a guy who’s a total dick makes a mon­ster and—

Gordon: He was fear­less.

Newitz: Maybe. I mean, or maybe he’s actu­al­ly full of fear, you know. Maybe he actu­al­ly build­ing it out of a fear of lone­li­ness or some­thing like that. But he cre­ates a crea­ture and turns it into a mon­ster. And he neglects it and he mis­treats it, and yeah it turns out to be a real­ly bad sit­u­a­tion. But you know, there might’ve been anoth­er way out. There might’ve been a way of rear­ing that crea­ture as a child and send­ing it to school and doing all kinds of nice things for it. Maybe I’d give it a col­lege edu­ca­tion and health­care. All those things might’ve real­ly helped the out­come for the mon­ster. Maybe giv­en a name, too, while you’re at it.

And so I think that a great idea would be to have a whole set of sto­ries that we can tell, that aren’t just Frankenstein. That are counter-stories about what would be a good out­come? What would be a ver­sion of this kind of sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment where we do the right thing, or where kind of, as Sam was say­ing in the pre­vi­ous pan­el, kind of have a mid­dle of the road approach where we’re not real­ly total­ly igno­rant and fear­ful and we’re not com­plete­ly in con­trol, but we kind of iter­ate.

And so I think there’s a lot of nar­ra­tives out there like that. There’s actu­al­ly a fan­tas­tic project that’s going on right now, which is about the Anthropocene, which is the kind of geo­log­i­cal era that we’re in now that’s sort of human-created. And there’s a lot of fears about cli­mate change, obvi­ous­ly, and what our role in it as humans is. But a bunch of uni­ver­si­ties have got­ten togeth­er and cre­at­ed a set of sto­ries about how to have a good Anthropocene. And actu­al­ly, you can find it online. It’s called goodan​thro​pocenes​.net or some­thing like that.

And they’re sto­ries tak­en from real life but also sci­ence fic­tion about moves toward actu­al­ly car­ing for the envi­ron­ment in a sus­tain­able way using tech­nol­o­gy or using oth­er tech­niques, and just sort of think­ing about well, what would be a good out­come. And not a per­fect out­come where we’re all liv­ing in like a super land where we’re all eight feet tall and live for­ev­er. But where we do okay. We don’t destroy the world, but we mud­dle through and we man­age to repair the things that we do wrong.

Venkataraman: That’s fas­ci­nat­ing, but— Oh. Jump in, Dave.

Guston: The two pieces from the Frankenstein genre that appeal to me in exact­ly that way are of course Young Frankenstein

Gordon: Very impor­tant, isn’t it?

Guston: —high­light­ed when Gene Wilder goes into the the cell with the crea­ture and warned them not to open the door no mat­ter what hap­pens. You know, he pan­ics, he pounds the door, and then he says, Hello, hand­some!” And it’s that moment when he decides to love his crea­ture. And of course that goes to Frankenweenie, which is not a Frankenstein sto­ry but a boy and his dog sto­ry. But the point of course is that the cre­ator is work­ing with a being that he has this deep con­nec­tion with and loves to the ends of the Earth. And that’s the sort of per­fec­tion of the love the crea­ture” inter­pre­ta­tion.

Newitz: There’s also Frankenhooker [audi­ence laugh­ter] Which you guys have all seen?

Venkataraman: Take notes, every­body. This is the impor­tant part.

Newitz: Actually a very under­rat­ed nar­ra­tive from the 1990s, Frankenhooker, which actu­al­ly ends with a kind of col­lec­tive upris­ing of the women who been abused and turned into this crea­ture. So it’s kind of awe­some.

Guston: Which is also where Penny Dreadful is going.

Newitz: Yes. Penny Dreadful, anoth­er key Frankenstein nar­ra­tive, yeah.

Gordon: The thing that’s inter­est­ing about the orig­i­nal Frankenstein is that she embeds— I love this idea of many sto­ries. I think you’re so right that that’s kind of where hope lies and that will help us get to this sort of mid­dle ground, or the com­pli­cat­ed ground, help us with our entan­gled ground.

And I think one of the things that Mary Shelley embeds in the nov­el is the crea­ture’s inno­cence. Because if you think about it, when he begins… That’s why the lov­ing of the crea­tures is so mov­ing in these oth­er sto­ries, is that he’s very well read. He gives him­self essen­tial­ly his cre­ator’s edu­ca­tion. He reads Paradise Lost… He spends a lot of time hop­ing… I mean, that’s the sort of irony of it. He spends all of his time hop­ing for this beau­ti­ful con­nec­tion. Which is why I love that you sa— You know, we’re on Team Monster for a while there, hop­ing.

And so I think you’re so right that if we have these oth­er sto­ries, or in my mind what I did most recent­ly for Slate was I wrote— I end­ed up chang­ing it so it was­n’t an open let­ter from Dr. Frankenstein to Elon Musk. But that’s how I first thought of it. And what I end­ed up doing instead was I just said here’s three lessons that Victor Frankenstein should have learned, and you Elon Musk with OpenAI can ben­e­fit from.” The idea of not work­ing in iso­la­tion. The idea of putting many brains on a project, not just to stop the bad tyrant who’s going to get hold of the inven­tion, what­ev­er it is. And not just to sort through the bugs but also of course to— This is where I’m the his­to­ri­an and I’m not the futur­ist, so I won’t talk about what all those minds can do.

But the third one also was fund­ing. Frankenstein had very poor fund­ing. That’s why the mon­ster— I hate say­ing mon­ster. That’s why the cre­ation was kind of funny-looking. I mean, if you had to go dig up from a bunch of dif­fer­ent graves… An arm here and a leg there, and a skull that does­n’t match, you’re not going to have a beau­ti­ful thing, either.

Venkataraman: Maybe Frankenstein needs to tes­ti­fy before the House Science Committee. I was think­ing that could be a real­ly beau­ti­ful—

Gordon: That would be great. Yeah, because the oth­er thing Frankenstein did­n’t do is, with the lack of poor fund­ing and the iso­la­tion Frankenstein did not pre­pare the pub­lic for the advent of his cre­ation. So he was not out there telling peo­ple this kind of funny-looking thing is going to be com­ing charg­ing out of the woods… Don’t be scared, say, Greetings.” Say, Hello, hand­some.”

Guston: Say, Hello, hand­some.”

Gordon: Say, Hello, hand­some. I’m so hap­py to meet you. Have you read Paradise Lost?”

Venkataraman: Right.

Gordon: Yeah.

Newitz: So he did­n’t talk to the users, right?

Gordon: He did not talk to the users.

Newitz: He did not do any kind of… Nor, to be fair, did he talk to his cre­ation, once it became alive. And I think that’s the dif­fer­ence between the sci­ence that we’re talk­ing about now and maybe sci­ence we’ll be doing in fifty years where if we’re actu­al­ly cre­at­ing enti­ties that can make their own deci­sions and have some­thing like human con­scious­ness? Maybe it won’t be exact­ly like it. And maybe it won’t be fifty years, maybe it’ll be 200 years or 1,000 years or what­ev­er. But, how do you do that? Like, what kind of rules and ethics do you have when you’re cre­at­ing a being that is human-equivalent? I think then maybe you have to go toward think­ing about chil­dren and how do we treat chil­dren, which we don’t have a great record with, but yeah.

Guston: And that’s where I think some of the dis­cus­sion in the pre­vi­ous pan­el, in the sec­ond pan­el, around auton­o­my just did­n’t quite reach it. Because I don’t think you can read this nov­el and have an uncom­pli­cat­ed idea of auton­o­my and even think about trash­ing the word in a way, no mat­ter whether you’re talk­ing about humans or whether you’re talk­ing about sys­tems that humans cre­ate.

Because a whole part of this is wrapped up around how it is that crea­tures, whether they’re cre­at­ed nat­u­ral­ly or cre­at­ed oth­er­wise, con­sti­tute them­selves and are con­sti­tut­ed through inter­ac­tions. And the very con­cept of auton­o­my sort of bleeds away when you have that com­pli­ca­tion. So if you’re think­ing about cre­at­ing an autonomous sys­tem out of hard­ware and soft­ware… Well, the auton­o­my that you’ve made is one that is con­sti­tut­ed through a whole lot of pro­gram­mers, a whole lot of peo­ple who put stuff togeth­er, a whole lot of users that—

Gordon: Sailors.

Guston: And the sailors. And so what does the con­cept of auton­o­my actu­al­ly mean, when this thing is con­sti­tut­ed in all these diverse kinds of ways?

Venkataraman: I think you’re rais­ing a real­ly impor­tant point which I might cast a lit­tle bit under the veil of pre­dictabil­i­ty and unpre­dictabil­i­ty and sort of loss of con­trol, if you want to go back to the loss fram­ing. And I think that one of the things that’s so chal­leng­ing when we talk about areas of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and my area cli­mate change, is that there’s a lack of con­trol for any indi­vid­ual per­son on how you address it. And then there’s a whole lot of unpre­dictabil­i­ty in sort of how it plays out over the future.

And I’m just think­ing about your book, Annalee, and just how you’re try­ing to project us into this future where we face mass extinc­tion. How do we even get at these these prob­lems that are sort of unknown and uncer­tain, where we have very lit­tle con­trol? It seems to me that the fear can either cause us to just sort of hit the pan­ic but­ton, or cause us to com­plete­ly look away. Is there any way that we can get past that kind of fear when we think about the future?

Newitz: I think that’s what was so inter­est­ing about the intro­duc­tion about the uncan­ny and how what we’re real­ly afraid of is the stuff that we’re basi­cal­ly forc­ing our­selves to for­get. It’s stuff that we already know but we’re try­ing to look away, as you said. And I think with things like cli­mate change, which is what of course would lead to mass extinc­tion in many cas­es, you can’t… The way for­ward— I mean, part of it is sto­ry­telling, as I said. Sort of think­ing ahead by hav­ing a nar­ra­tive. And that nar­ra­tive does­n’t have to be sci­ence fic­tion. It can be some­thing that we get from cli­mate mod­el­ing. A lot of the best work that we have on the future of the cli­mate is com­ing from peo­ple who are tak­ing data and using that to project into the future what we might see from sea lev­el, or what we might see from tem­per­a­tures.

And those are sto­ries, too. Those are sto­ries about what’s going to hap­pen to the shape of the plan­et. We also have mod­els of what hap­pens to an ecosys­tem when enough species die out. You get to a point where if enough species die out then you get more species dying out, and more species dying out, and we can mod­el that, too. All of that sounds hor­ri­ble and peo­ple don’t want to think about it, and that’s the moment when peo­ple kin­da shut down and they want to for­get. And that’s why I think again it’s impor­tant to think in terms of a mid­dle way instead of say­ing, Okay, every sin­gle day we must con­front how ter­ri­ble we are and how we’re killing every­thing and every­thing is doomed.” Versus you know, every­thing is fine.

We have to have a sense of yeah, we’re gonna screw up. We screwed up. But we can fix it. And when we fix it well…maybe it won’t be per­fect but it’ll be a lit­tle bet­ter. And so there has to be a cer­tain amount in our sto­ries and our think­ing about the future, and even maybe our sci­ence, of a will­ing­ness to for­give and try again and try again. And when I say for­give, part of what I mean is for­give our­selves for screw­ing up. Because if you keep telling your­self you’re ter­ri­ble for hav­ing screwed things up, that is when you go into that shut­down mode. And that’s what hap­pens to Frankenstein, you know. He real­izes he screwed up and he just runs away from the prob­lem.

Venkataraman: So do you dis­agree with— Nancy on an ear­li­er pan­el was say­ing oh you know, when things go well it just makes for a crap­py sto­ry. But I hear you bring­ing up a cou­ple of times now that there can be a good— There’s a pos­i­tive sto­ry of impli­ca­tions of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. There’s a pos­i­tive sto­ry we can tell about the future. What’s the way to make that a good sto­ry?

Newitz: A great exam­ple would be Kim Stanley Robinson’s nov­el 2312, which is about the year 2312. So it’s set in the future. And it’s a sto­ry about a future solar sys­tem. And Earth is there, and Earth has kin­da fixed a lot of its envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. They’re doing things like rais­ing Florida back up out of the ocean. And they’ve de-extincted wolves by build­ing aster­oids where they have arti­fi­cial envi­ron­ments to de-extinct ani­mals. And so they shoot all these wolves down on to the plan­et to let them— I mean in safe­ty bub­bles. No wolves are harmed in the repop­u­lat­ing of the wilds.

But, they screw up all the time. People kill each oth­er. There’s a hor­rif­ic con­spir­a­cy to wreck all of these plans. There’s no sim­ple… Like, when we tell a good sto­ry, it has to be just kind of a good enough sto­ry. And so it becomes an inter­est­ing sto­ry when you think about about all the con­flict involved in try­ing to fix the mess. The mess is there, we’re tying to fix it. In the process of try­ing to fix it we’re going to make a new mess. When we raise Florida up out of the ocean, that’s going to wreck a bunch of new ecosys­tems that’ve formed. If all of the ice melts in the Arctic, say for exam­ple, a whole new econ­o­my will spring up in the Arctic. So if we re-ice the Arctic lat­er we’re going to screw up that econ­o­my. So there’s always new ways to screw things up, even if you’re fix­ing old prob­lems. And so I think the accep­tance that we have to have is things are always going to be ambigu­ous.

Venkataraman: I want to open it up to ques­tions, but you have a final thought on that?

Gordon: I was going to say I wish Mary Shelley were here. By the way, her name was not Mary Shelley when she wrote this book. Just so you remem­ber.

Venkataraman: Mmm, Mrs. Percy B.

Gordon: Yeah. She was not mar­ried. She was an unwed moth­er. Just want to remind you of that. You know, she did­n’t stop with Frankenstein. She had— There was more spawn. And the next book that she was going to write is called The Last Man, which is about a dis­ease. A mys­te­ri­ous dis­ease wipes out all of human­i­ty except for a few peo­ple who have many wood­en con­ver­sa­tions. I mean, it’s not a great nov­el.

But she finds her way out of the very sort of dystopi­an dilem­mas that she keeps dream­ing up. I mean her nov­els, hon­est­ly, they’re just not fun to read because she’s real­ly a philoso­pher and a thinker. So ideas dom­i­nate, and peo­ple being real and hav­ing actu­al con­ver­sa­tions that we can fol­low just aren’t impor­tant to her.

But, by the end of her fic­tion writ­ing career—and she goes on and she writes five more novels—what ends up hap­pen­ing is… Or, what ends up hap­pen­ing is very com­pli­cat­ed, but essen­tial­ly the idea of com­mu­ni­ty, of com­ing togeth­er in com­mu­ni­ty, that heroes…she says in her last nov­el, there are no heroes. All of the men are weak in her nov­els. And what ends up sav­ing peo­ple is the idea of women com­ing togeth­er and sav­ing men from their ambi­tion and learn­ing how to live togeth­er in a kind of com­mu­ni­tar­i­an, flawed, but still bet­ter than this sort of last man uni­verse. So I wish she could be on the pan­el, because she’d have a lot to say.

Venkataraman: She’d’ve got­ten like an A++ on the Bechdel Test, right, where women are sup­posed to have real con­ver­sa­tions.

Gordon: She total­ly would’ve, right.

Bina Venkataraman: So let's open up to some questions. I'm sure there's some interesting thoughts and questions. Questions encouraged, of course, with question marks. Is anyone afraid of asking questions? Why are you afraid?

Annalee Newitz: Fear of the unknown.

Audience 1: I'm not sure how to frame this, but I guess I've just been thinking a lot about the ways that Mary Godwin Shelley's novel has had unintended consequences of its own in the way it's been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times in culture. And I'm sure that sort of comes up all of the time in Frankenstein. But I suppose I would be particularly interested to hear anyone on this panel's thoughts about that. Was there something inherent in the novel that intended the consequences? You know, the sort of massive mythological effect that it's had? Or has culture done a real disservice to the novel, creating a myth that it itself has needed and continues to?

Charlotte Gordon: I just want to answer historically to begin with, before we talk before we talk about the metaphysical implications. Which is, Mary Shelley made not a penny out of Frankenstein, that only 500 copies were published in the first edition and not all of them sold. I mean, they didn't all sell. She made no money. And the reason why the name "Frankenstein" in the story became famous is because in England during that time, playwrights could just rip off novels freely. So the story itself gets popular on the stage and no one has to adhere to the novel itself. But the name Frankenstein, and the story therefore, becomes known by the public but people aren't sitting around reading the novel. So right almost from the beginning there's a detachment between the actual text and then the story as she's told. And I think another, corollary, question is why does everyone think that Frankenstein is the monster?

Newitz: [nods]

Gordon: Right? That mirror thing between Frankenstein and his creation. So I just had to be a historian.

Newitz: Yeah. And I think that's such an interesting point. Because I think that Frankenstein has become so well-known because of all these adaptations. And it's kind of the first fanfic phenomenon. Fanfic is when fans write their own versions of stories, or set in the universe of their favorite stories.

And so a lot of the adaptations of Frankenstein end up having the same kinds of conversations, in a weird way, that we've been having about, are we Team Monster or are we Team Frankenstein? And it allows us to have this kind of productive debate, but in the realm of fiction, so it's not too scary. We don't have to be talking about actual scientists and actual politicians. We can say well, why was the monster wronged? And what did Frankenstein do wrong?

And I think you see that played out in these adaptations. And some of them are super Team Monster. Some of them are just like the monster's horrible and can barely talk and it's really all about poor Frankenstein. Some of them create whole new characters.

David Guston: But there is, as you said about Drew Endy, this issue of scientists perceiving it as an anti-science screed. When people talk to scientists and engineers, a lot of motivation for them to do what they do, to do science for good in the world, actually comes from science fiction, undifferentiated between whether it's sort of pro-science science fiction or anti-science science fiction.

And my favorite example from Frankenstein is not from the novel but from the 1931 film where Earl Backen, who was the inventor of the transistorized pacemaker, saw the 1931 film as an 8 or 9 year-old boy, became fascinated with the connection between electricity and life, and created this essentially Frankensteinian technology in his garage, in the mid-1950s.

And so I don't know if there's anybody from NSF in the room right now, but Ed and I have fought this little battle with NSF about how much we identify the word "Frankenstein," the reference to the novel and the films, with work that is being sponsored by the National Science Foundation, because of this issue.

Gordon: Well, now we can go forth and see the novel as a woman-centered novel even though there's no women, really, in it. They die.

The other thing is that it's a half of a marital battle that she was having with Percy. So for the literary people in here, Percy goes on and write a long poem called Prometheus Unbound, which is almost exactly the opposite vision of Frankenstein. Science is going to help us in every way possible, and…

Joey Eschrich: Hi. I'm back with a question. I just wanted to see what you all thought about the thing that scares Victor the most in the novel it seems is to create a female creature, to create a bride, right? And so it strikes me that— And then maybe the points that you brought up, Charlotte, about femininity and politics at the time explain that. It seems striking to me that the thing that seems to horrify him the most—beyond words, really—and causes him to become violent, is the spectre of a female creature.

Gordon: I have so many thoughts about that, but I'm so curious to know what your thoughts and your thoughts are. [Indicating Newitz and Guston]

Newitz: I will say super briefly that I think that that is less a fear about femininity than it is about the racial other. Because what he's afraid of is that these two "monsters" are gonna go off and make babies. And they're going to take over Europe! Oh my God. What do you think that's about? I don't know. Hmm.

Eshrich: It doesn't sound relevant.

Newitz: It doesn't sound relevant to me.

Gordon: That would've been precisely what I would've said, as well. That it's a new race. It's a new race.

Guston: There's also one passage about the potential female creature being so strong that she could take any mate that she wanted if she rejected the creature.

Newitz: Yeah. So miscegenation, too. That's…a dark place.

Venkataraman: Okay, we're going to take one last quick question. We just have a couple of minutes. From the gentleman in the glasses here, who had his hand up. And then we get to the booze. So we have an incentive to speed this up.

Audience 2: So the two things that've been going through my mind in the last few minutes is the Industrial Revolution and also the huge upheaval in the democratic monarchy structures in Europe at that time. And I wondered if that sort of fear is implied in any of Frankenstein.

Gordon: [inaudible] …jump right in. Mary Shelley was deeply involved in the political systems and in protests against the political systems because of her own beliefs but also because of her mother, her father, and also her husband Percy. So, I think that Frankenstein can be read, as I think I've now said for the five thousandth time, as a political novel. That this is a novel about race. It's about gender. It's about the social injustices that she saw. I mean, it's a real cry out against social injustice.

As for the Industrial Revolution? It worried the Shelleys. The Industrial Revolution worried the Shelleys, but I would say that they were excited by innovation, technology, and science in general. That she herself—if she were here on the panel, which I'm imagining—she'd be pretty pro-science. On the one hand it's unchecked male ambition, racism, and inequality that she's against, not science per se.

Newitz: Although, it's interesting because I think Frankenstein, especially later, gets read as a figure for the proletariat. Not Frankenstein, the monster. Sorry, I have fallen totally into the trap. The monster's read as a figure for the proletariat. And especially the fact that the monster's made from parts. And I think that's part of the kind of assembly line idea that this is a creature that sort of you know, almost sums up what industrial production is like.

And oftentimes, the Frankenstein monster's kind of contrasted with Dracula, who kinda comes at the end of the 19th century, who's the sort of aristocratic monster, although also represents a bunch of other stuff, too. So I think that the Industrial Revolution does kinda haunt Frankenstein and the monster, but especially later. Especially in later adaptations. Especially because Frankenstein does rise up, you know, and kind of slay his maker—

Gordon: You mean the creature.

Newitz: The creature. I'm sorry. I apologize in advance for every—

Gordon: No, but that's fascinating. That's fascinating.

Guston: And there's… I'm a political scientist by training. And there's this wonderful frontispiece to some edition— (And there's actually real research to be done still on this stuff.) To an edition of Hobbes' Leviathan, which was probably— I mean, the book had to have been in Mary's father's library, whether this particular was there or not, which shows the Leviathan, which represents the body body politic as a composite being.

So we've got all these different composite beings running around. Not just the creature, but the governments that we constitute; in liberal society the corporations that we constitute, that are bodies that are fictional bodies that can earn profits, can endure past the lifetime of their owners. And so we have all these composites that we haven't figured out how to control yet.

Venkataraman: Wow. If we can't find resonance today in Frankenstein from that, I don't know how we could. Thank you all so much for a wonderful panel.

Further Reference

The Spawn of Frankenstein event page at New America, recap at Slate Future Tense, and Futurography's series on Frankenstein

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