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—
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 goodanthropocenes.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?”
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—
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?
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.