Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 1 and 2

When I began writing the first Reading Frankenstein post, I did not anticipate putting down nearly 2,000 words. I’m pretty sure that’s not the optimal length for this sort of exercise. My goal moving forward will be to take on two chapters per post and keep each post as close to 1,000 words as possible. We’ll see how that that goes. Now on to chapter one.

With the first chapter the role of the narrator is handed over to Victor Frankenstein, who begins his story by telling of his charmed childhood. We learn that both his father and mother were saintly human beings of outstanding virtue. Frankenstein’s mother, Caroline, was the daughter of a man named Beaufort, whom Frankenstein’s father loved “with the truest friendship.” Unfortunately, Beaufort sank into poverty, and, despite his daughter’s best efforts, died destitute and despairing. Frankenstein’s father tracked the family down and rescued Caroline from her impoverished life. Two years later they married.

This little vignette, one of many such personal histories scattered throughout the novel, touches again on the theme of friendship already introduced in Walton’s letters. The vignette is also a fall narrative, i.e., it describes someone’s fall from a position of prestige or wealth or honor and the ensuing consequences. It’s a pattern that recurs throughout the story establishing a Fall motif that resonates with the significance of Paradise Lost to the story. As of yet, I’m not sure what more to make of it.

Frankenstein then goes on to describe the doting love his parents lavish upon him: “I was their plaything and their idol, and something better–their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed upon them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me.” Of course, this amounts to a painful indictment of Frankenstein’s own dereliction of duty toward his own creation, but it is not at all clear that Frankenstein himself registers this fact. It’s thus poignantly ironic when Frankenstein speaks of his parents’ “deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life.” This all prepares us to later hear with sympathy the Monster’s justification of his actions on the grounds of his abandonment and rejection by Frankenstein. Frankenstein here appears to be testifying as a witness against himself.

This first chapter concludes with the introduction of Elizabeth Lavenza. Like Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth’s father, an Italian solider, experiences a fall; he is either dead or languishing away in an Austrian prison. She was entrusted to the care of a family who themselves had fallen on hard times. Frankenstein’s mother entered the home of this poor family in an act of charity, and she was immediately captivated by Elizabeth’s radiant beauty. Shelley’s characters are consistently described rather lavishly, some might say melodramatically. Perhaps this reflects a certain writerly immaturity, Shelley was not yet twenty when the novel was complete. Or it may by a conscious effort to cast her characters as ideal types; more on that in a moment. With the family’s blessing, Caroline takes Elizabeth home with her, and she becomes little Victor’s “beautiful and adored companion.”

In the second chapter, Frankenstein goes on to describe the deep bond he forms with Elizabeth as the two, about a year apart in age, grow up together. “Harmony was the soul of our companionship,” he explains. As he tells us of the nature of their relationship, it’s clear that “harmony” was a precise and apt word choice. They two complemented one another. Although, more to the point, it was to Elizabeth that Frankenstein ascribed a kind of controlling influence. It doesn’t appear that Elizabeth derived a similar effect from Victor. This dynamic was anticipated in Walton’s desire, expressed in a letter to his sister, to find a friend who would “regulate” his mind.

Victor confesses that, for his part, he was “more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.” By contrast, “She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets.” And she also found “ample scope for admiration and delight” in the “wondrous scenes that surrounded our Swiss home.” “While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things,” Frankenstein notes, “I delighted in investigating their causes.” Shelley is here setting up a rather conventional dichotomy and trading on a venerable, though minor, motif in Western literature. But that is not say that it is wholly without merit. We might say that the difference is between perceiving the world as a gift to be delighted in, on the one hand, or, as Frankenstein puts it, “a secret which I desired to divine.”

Later on, a second son is born, and the family settles down in Geneva. Then we are introduced to Henry Clerval, a classmate of Victor’s, who becomes a great friend to both he and Elizabeth. As with Walton, we first learn about Henry’s disposition by learning of the books that shaped his imagination as a child. In Henry’s case, these were “books of chivalry and romance.” We learn as well that Henry “composed heroic songs” and wrote “many a tale of enchantment and knightly adventure.” Etc.

Victor, however, returns to the course of his own interests. He confesses that “neither the structure of languages nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states, possessed attraction for [him].” It was, rather, “the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn.”

He happily acknowledges that the influence of Elizabeth moderated the more unhealthy tendencies of his temperament, and not only his. Clerval, who “occupied himself … with the moral relation of things” also benefited from Elizabeth’s influence. It was she who “unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.”

It would seem, then, that in the characters of Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry, Shelley is offering us ideal types. Victor clearly represents the spirit of the natural sciences, as Shelley understood them, and the pursuit of knowledge more generally. Henry appears to represent what we might call the political sphere. I’m not entirely sure how I would characterize Elizabeth: we may say that she represents the poetic, or simply art perhaps; maybe Nature; beauty or love also come to mind.

In fact, as I think about it, it would seem that the most obvious correspondence is to the three parts of the soul in ancient Greek philosophy: thumos, eros, and logos. Victor corresponds to the logos–roughly speaking, the rational component of the soul that is attuned to Truth. Henry corresponds to thumos, often translated “spiritedness”–the passionate, courageous aspect of the soul attuned to Goodness. And, finally, Elizabeth corresponds to eros–the varied capacity of the soul to love, which is attuned to Beauty. In Plato’s famous formulation, logos or reason, steers the chariot hitched to the unwieldy horses thumos and eros. Through the relationship of these three characters, Shelley seems to be suggesting that it is eros, the soul’s attunement to Beauty as represented by Elizabeth, that ought to be steering the soul. On this reading, the novel can’t be read simplistically as a critique of the natural sciences or the pursuit of knowledge as such. It suggests that the pursuit of knowledge has it’s place but it must be in harmony with thumos and eros, and the primacy of the latter might be the key to achieving that harmony.

Finally, and I’ll try to make this brief, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the sources of Victor’s fascination (or fixation) with the natural sciences, and particularly with the natural sciences conceived as a quest for esoteric knowledge and power. Again, books are to blame, as they were with Walton and Henry. In this case, it is a chance encounter with the writings of the famous Renaissance alchemist and magician, Cornelius Agrippa, that sets the tragic trajectory of Victor’s life. Agrippa leads Victor to the writing of other notables such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. He is captivated by their attempts to peer into the deep secrets of the universe, and he has no idea that their work has been roundly discredited. As a result of his reading, Victor “entered with the greatest diligence into the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life,” especially the latter. Echoing Bacon and anticipating the Transhumanists, he declares, “what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!”

With childish vigor and innocence he pursues his studies despite a rebuff from his father, who, taking one look at Agrippa’s book, casually dismisses it as rubbish. Later, when he is about fifteen years old, after watching lightning obliterate an oak tree, he is captivated by a “man of great research in natural philosophy” who, luck would have it, was visiting his family. This man was well-versed in the latest theories of electricity and galvanism, and his ensuing discussion makes Victor question all that he had learned from the alchemists. This leads him to despair of the possibility of scientific knowledge, and he turns to mathematics believing it to be “built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.”

Despite the joy and tranquility that ensued, Victor’s turn away from the pursuit of the secrets of life would not last. He describes this temporary sobriety as “the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelope me.” There’s more than a hint of fatalism in the way that Victor narrates his own story. “Destiny was too potent,” he says, “and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”

That destiny begins to unfold in the next chapter, which we’ll look at in the next day or two.

Reading Frankenstein

For some time now I’ve wanted to write about Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic tale, first published in 1818, has long struck me as one of those works whose brilliance has been dulled by familiarity (and, more often than not, a familiarity stemming not from the novel itself but from its myriad pop cultural incarnations). It is, to speak anachronistically, a story that explores technology as force in human affairs, and it is typically read as a cautionary tale. It is that, to be sure, but I think that leaving it there sells the novel considerably short.

I’ve failed, however, to follow through on the impulse to write about the story mostly because the task grew larger and larger the more I thought about it, and it was, consequently, easier to put it off than to begin it. But now, as I’m reading the novel again, I’ve decided to make a go of it. Rather than write a single post on Frankenstein, however, I’ve decided (naturally) to blog through my reading of it.

What I’m envisioning is a series of posts that will each take a handful of chapters under consideration (there are 24 altogether, not counting the letters that frame the story at the outset). With each post I’m intending mostly to think with the novel as it were, chiefly by articulating my understanding of the multiple threads that Shelley weaves together throughout the story. And, of course, I invite you to think along with me and make it a conversation if your so inclined.

I’m not sure what kind of pace I’m going to be able to keep up, but I hope to wrap up the posts within three weeks or so. If you don’t own a copy of the book, Project Gutenberg offers the novel in a variety of formats. Sometime tomorrow (Monday) I’ll kick things off with the first post on the letters that frame the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. The letters are written by a man named Robert Walton, who is leading an expedition to the North Pole, to his sister. The narration of the story is then passed off to Victor Frankenstein, who tells his story to Walton. There is later another shift at the heart of the novel as the monster tells Frankenstein about his experience. Frankenstein then assumes control of the narrative again, and finally it passes once more to Walton.

A couple of disclaimers: First, I am not a literary critic by training, so take what ensues as the scribblings of an interested amateur. Secondly, I am not familiar, at least not in any serious way, with the secondary literature on either Shelley or her novel. If you do want a little background on Shelley’s life, you might consider the biographical essay at the Poetry Foundation. Finally, I won’t be making any serious effort to avoid spoilers as I write about the story.

More to come.

Thinking About Big Data

I want to pass on to you three pieces on what has come to be known as Big Data, a diverse set of practices enabled by the power of modern computing to accumulate and process massive amounts of data. The first piece, “View from Nowhere,” is by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson argues that the aspirations attached to Big Data, particularly in the realm of human affairs, amounts to a revival of Positivism:

“The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected with the ‘right’ methodology to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality is an old and familiar one: positivism. This is the understanding that the social world can be known and explained from a value-neutral, transcendent view from nowhere in particular.”

Jurgenson goes on to challenge these positivist assumptions through a critical reading of OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).

The second piece is an op-ed in the NY Times by Frank Pasquale, “The Dark Market for Personal Data.” Pasquale considers the risks to privacy associated with gathering and selling of personal information by companies equipped to mine and package such data. Pasquale concludes,

“We need regulation to help consumers recognize the perils of the new information landscape without being overwhelmed with data. The right to be notified about the use of one’s data and the right to challenge and correct errors is fundamental. Without these protections, we’ll continue to be judged by a big-data Star Chamber of unaccountable decision makers using questionable sources.”

Finally, here is a journal article, “Obscurity and Privacy,” by Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog. Selinger and Hartzog offer obscurity as an explanatory concept to help clarify our thinking about the sorts of issues that usually get lumped together as matters of privacy. Privacy, however, may not be a sufficiently robust concept to meet the challenges posed by Big Data.

“Obscurity identifies some of the fundamental ways information can be obtained or kept out of reach, correctly interpreted or misunderstood. Appeals to obscurity can generate explanatory power, clarifying how advances in the sciences of data collection and analysis, innovation in domains related to information and communication technology, and changes to social norms can alter the privacy landscape and give rise to three core problems: 1) new breaches of etiquette, 2) new privacy interests, and 3) new privacy harms.”

In each of these areas, obscurity names the relative confidence individuals can have that the data trail they leave behind as a matter of course will not be readily accessible:

“When information is hard to understand, the only people who will grasp it are those with sufficient motivation to push past the layer of opacity protecting it. Sense-making processes of interpretation are required to understand what is communicated and, if applicable, whom the communications concerns. If the hermeneutic challenge is too steep, the person attempting to decipher the content can come to faulty conclusions, or grow frustrated and give up the detective work. In the latter case, effort becomes a deterrent, just like in instances where information is not readily available.”

Big Data practices have made it increasingly difficult to achieve this relative obscurity thus posing a novel set social and personal challenges. For example, the risks Pasquale identifies in his op-ed may be understood as risks that follow from a loss of obscurity. Read the whole piece for a better understanding of these challenges. In fact, be sure to read all three pieces. Jurgenson, Selinger, and Pasquale are among our most thoughtful guides in these matters.

Allow me to wrap this post up with a couple of additional observations. Returning to Jurgenson’s thesis about Big Data–that Big Data is a neo-Positivist ideology–I’m reminded that positivist sociology, or social physics, was premised on the assumption that the social realm operated in predictable law-like fashion, much as the natural world operated according to the Newtonian world picture. In other words, human action was, at root, rational and thus predictable. The early twentieth century profoundly challenged this confidence in human rationality. Think, for instance, of the carnage of the Great War and Freudianism. Suddenly, humanity seemed less rational and, consequently, the prospect of uncovering law-like principles of human society must have seemed far more implausible. Interestingly, this irrationality preserved our humanity, insofar as our humanity was understood to consist of an irreducible spontaneity, freedom, and unpredictability. In other words, so long as the Other against which our humanity was defined was the Machine.

If Big Data is neo-Positivist, and I think Jurgenson is certainly on to something with that characterization, it aims to transcend the earlier failure of Comteian Positivism. It acknowledges the irrationality of human behavior, but it construes it, paradoxically, as Predictable Irrationality. In other words, it suggests that we can know what we cannot understand. And this recalls Evgeny Morozov’s critical remarks in “Every Little Byte Counts,”

“The predictive models Tucker celebrates are good at telling us what could happen, but they cannot tell us why. As Tucker himself acknowledges, we can learn that some people are more prone to having flat tires and, by analyzing heaps of data, we can even identify who they are — which might be enough to prevent an accident — but the exact reasons defy us.

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.”

It also suggests that some of the anxieties associated with Big Data may not be unlike those occasioned by the earlier positivism–they are anxieties about our humanity. If we buy into the story Big Data tells about itself, then it threatens, finally, to make our actions scrutable and predictable, suggesting that we are not as free, independent, spontaneous, or unique as we might imagine ourselves to be.

Why We’re Anxious About Technological Stagnation, And Why We Shouldn’t Be

William Robinson Leigh - '"Visionary City," 1908

William Robinson Leigh – ‘”Visionary City,” 1908

Virginia Postrel thinks that Peter Thiel is wrong about the future. I think she is about half right, roughly.

If I read her correctly, Postrel’s thesis runs something like this: our lack of optimism about the future is not the consequence of fewer “moonshot” technological innovations, rather it stems from a failure to tell positive stories about the incremental improvements that have made the present better than the past.

In what follows, I want to take a close look at Postrel’s argument and some of its underlying assumptions because I think the piece reflects some interesting tensions in our thinking about technology and innovation.

Let’s start where Postrel does, with her examples of what I’m going to start calling Tech Stagnation Angst (TSA–sure there’s another TSA out there, but maybe the overlap is instructive).

Her points of departure are the science-fiction author Neal Stephenson and, big surprise, our would-be Francis Bacon, the tech-entrepreneur cum philosopher of innovation, Peter Thiel.

I’ve written enough about Thiel (e.g., here and here) to let mention of him go without further comment. Bottom line: yes, he’s is poster-boy for TSA. Now here’s Postrel quoting Stephenson on the worries that spurred him to write a series of positive stories about the future:

“’I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,’ writes Stephenson in the preface to ‘Hieroglyph,’ a science-fiction anthology hoping ‘to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.’”

Here’s the first point I want to register: stories alone will not shape our outlook about the future, especially not if they’re consciously designed to do so.

I’ve also recently written about pleas for more hopeful science-fiction writing, pleas which seem to be a symptom of TSA. Needless to say, Stephenson is not the only one who thinks that dystopian science-fiction is poisoning our imagination for the future. Witness, for instance, Kevin Kelly’s recent offer of cash for the best happy 100-word story about the next 100 years.

About these, Postrel is mostly right–writing happy stories will not change the spirit of the age. Stories are powerful, and they can shape our imagination. But compelling fiction tends to tap into some existing aspect of the zeitgeist rather than consciously setting out to change it. The artificiality of the latter enterprise dooms it. It’s that whole thing about how you can’t tell someone how to sublimate.

Postrel adds the following public comments by Stephenson:

“’There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,’ Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, ‘and that there’s some cosmic balance at work–that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.’”

Postrel comments: “He’s identified a real problem, but his remedy — ‘more interesting Apollo-like projects’ — won’t work.” Again, I think Postrel is right, but only to an extent.

She is, on the one hand, right to challenge the simplistic fix that Stephenson lays out. But there are at least two additional points that need to be made.

First, while I agree that “more moonshots”–which just now, in my own mental wunderkammer, echoed “more cowbell” is not the right prescription for our time, I think Postrel ignores the degree to which “moonshots” fueled the public imagination for a very long time.

These “moonshots” we keep hearing about longingly might just be shorthand for the phenomena that David Nye labeled the American Technological Sublime. You can click that link to read more about it, but here is the short version: Nye documented responses to new technologies throughout the 19th and early to mid-20th century that verged on religious awe. These experiences were elicited by technologies of tremendous and hitherto unseen scale or dynamism (railroads, the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, atomic weapons, the Saturn V, etc.), and they were channeled into what amounted to a civil religion, public celebrations of national character and unity.

I would argue that Tech Stagnation Angst is, in fact, a response, wrong-headed perhaps, to the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime, which, as Nye himself explained, by the late 20th century had morphed into what he called the consumer sublime, a tacky simulated (!) version of the genuine experience.

Even if their response is misguided, Stephenson, Thiel, and all of those suffering from TSA are reacting to a real absence. While attitudes toward new technologies were often mixed, as Postrel points out, the popular response to new technologies of a grand scale in America has been overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of the atomic bomb). In fact, the response has been tinged with reverential awe, which functioned to sustain a powerful narrative about American exceptionalism grounded in our technological achievement.

It is only reasonable to expect that the eclipse of such a powerful cultural phenomena would yield a profoundly felt absence and not a little bit of anxiety. Again, I’m not endorsing the idea that we need only fabricate some more sublime experiences with moonshot-style projects and everything will be fine. On that score, I think Postrel is right. But in insisting that past optimism was chiefly grounded in relatively mundane accounts of how the present was incrementally better than the past, I think she misses other powerful forces at work in the complex way Americans came to think about technology in relation to the future.

In sum, technological projects of impressive scale and power have fueled America’s optimism about technology, thus their absence may very well account for tech stagnation angst. 

Postrel seems to waver with respect to the power of stories to shape the future, and she does so in a way that reinforces my point about the collapse of the sublime. “Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake,” Postrel writes, “when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people — that, in short, leaves out consumers.” She then adds that, “storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as Nye suggested, it is precisely the triumph of consumerism that, in part at least, accounts for the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime. To be clear, this is not a judgment call about the relative merits of consumer technology vs. moonshot/sublime technologies. It is simply a recognition of a historical feedback loop.

Innovation in a democratic, free-market society is driven by public sentiment; public sentiment is informed by our imaginative estimation of the good technology can achieve. In the American context at least, that imaginative estimation was shaped by the experience of the technological sublime. Once public sentiment became more narrowly consumeristic in the post-war period, technological innovation followed suit and, as a result, experience of the sublime faded. Fewer experiences of the sublime assured the ongoing collapse of innovation into consumer technology, narrowly conceived.

My second quibble with Postrel arises from her bristling at any criticisms of tech. Toward the end of her essay she calls for stories that do not “confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive.” But she seemingly has very little patience with criticism of the sort that might temper naive optimism. In this respect, she is not unlike some of the tech-boosters she criticizes. It’s just that she would have us be happy with the technologies the industry has given us rather than pine for more grandiose varieties. Whatever we do, it seems we shouldn’t complain. Don’t complain about what you haven’t gotten, and don’t complain about what you have. Basically, just happily embrace whatever the tech industry feeds you.

She complains, for example, that it is “depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom.” Click on that story and you will find fairly even-keeled and reasonable reporting on the consequences of the decreased demand for blood, consequences having to do both with jobs and future preparedness. It’s hardly depressing or gloomy. Elsewhere, with respect to Stephenson’s complaints about the relative triviality of Internet-based technologies, she tells us there’s already plenty of negative press out there, no need for Stephenson to pile on.

Then she goes on to tell us, “The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel.” Rather, she explains, “People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.” In other words, stories did matter, but only certain kinds of stories–real-life stories about how life was getting better.

Unfortunately, these stories began to change. Postrel goes on to give a litany of reasons “good and bad” explaining the change in the character of stories. Read the grouping of reasons for yourself, but they seem to amount to a recognition of the costs that came along with the advent of certain technologies and innovations. And to give these reasonable concerns and legitimate observations the pallor of unhinged lunacy, she caps the litany off with reference to the unfortunate growing resistance to vaccinations. See what she did there?

Postrel is right to stress that how we feel about the future has something to do with how we understand the present in light of the past (even though that’s not the whole story), and she is right to ask for something other than fashionable pessimism and naive optimism. But on the whole she seems to miss this balance herself. As I read her, she is calling for a balanced presentation of the relative merits and costs of technology, so long as we keep quiet about those costs.

Clearly, I have some reservations about the manner in which Postrel has made her case. On the one hand, with respect to what shapes our view of the future, I think she’s missed some important elements. Of course, one can’t be expected to say everything in a short piece. More importantly, I find her bristling at the critics of technology disingenuous. How else are we to temper our utopian expectations and the misguided longing for “moonshot” technologies if we are to forego searching criticism?

I want to wrap up, though, by commending Postrel’s urging that we seek to move forward with a clear-eyed vision for the future that eschews both unbridled optimism and thoughtless pessimism, one that seeks to meet our real needs and enrich our lives in a responsible and ethical manner.

Simply saying so, of course, will not make it happen. But if we’ve lost our taste for escapist fantasies of transcendence about the future, perhaps we might then be better prepared to pursue a more humane vision for our future technologies.

Simulated Futures

There’s a lot of innovation talk going on right now, or maybe it is just that I’ve been more attuned to it of late. Either way, I keep coming across pieces that tackle the topic of technological innovation from a variety of angles.

While not narrowly focused on technological innovation, this wonderfully discursive post by Alan Jacobs raises a number of relevant considerations. Jacobs ranges far and wide, so I won’t try to summarize his thoughts here. You should read the whole piece, but here is the point I want to highlight. Taking a 2012 essay by David Graeber as his point of departure, Jacobs asks us to consider the following:

“How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? — or, or for that matter, an end to world hunger, something that C. P. Snow, in his famous lecture on ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences and humanities, saw as clearly within our grasp more than half-a-century ago? To see ‘sophisticated simulations’ of the things we used to hope we’d really achieve as good enough?”

Here’s the relevant passage in Graeber’s essay. After watching one of the more recent Star Wars films, he wonders how impressed with the special effects audiences of the older, fifties-era sci-fi films would be. His answer upon reflection: not very. Why? Because “they thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.” Graeber goes on to add,

“That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the ‘hyper-real,’ the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”

Here again is the theme of technological stagnation, of the death of genuine innovation. You can read the rest of Graeber’s piece for his own theories about the causes of this stagnation. What interested me was the suggestion that we’ve swapped genuine innovation for simulations. Of course, this interested me chiefly because it seems to reinforce and expand a point I made in yesterday’s post, that our fascination with virtual worlds may stem from the failure of our non-virtual world to yield the kind of possibilities for meaningful action that human beings crave.

As our hopes for the future seem to recede, our simulations of that future become ever more compelling.

Elsewhere, Lee Billings reports on his experience at the 2007 Singularity Summit:

“Over vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and red wine at a Bay Area villa, I had chatted with the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who planned to adopt an ‘aggressive’ strategy for investing in a ‘positive’ Singularity, which would be ‘the biggest boom ever,’ if it doesn’t first ‘blow up the whole world.’ I had talked with the autodidactic artificial-intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky about his fears that artificial minds might, once created, rapidly destroy the planet. At one point, the inventor-turned-proselytizer
 Ray Kurzweil teleconferenced in to discuss,
among other things, his plans for becoming transhuman, transcending his own biology to 
achieve some sort of
 eternal life. Kurzweil
 believes this is possible, 
even probable, provided he can just live to see
 The Singularity’s dawn, 
which he has pegged at 
sometime in the middle of the 21st century. To this end, he reportedly consumes some 150 vitamin supplements a day.”

Billings also noted that many of his conversations at the conference “carried a cynical sheen of eschatological hucksterism: Climb aboard, don’t delay, invest right now, and you, too, may be among the chosen who rise to power from the ashes of the former world!”

Eschatological hucksterism … well put, indeed. That’s a phrase I’ll be tucking away for future use.

And that leads me to the concluding chapter of David Noble’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. After surveying the religiously infused motives and rhetoric animating technological projects as diverse as the pursuit of AI, space exploration, and genetic engineering, Noble wrote

“As we have seen, those given to such imaginings are in the vanguard of technological development, amply endowed and in every way encouraged to realize their escapist fantasies. Often displaying a pathological dissatisfaction with, and deprecation of, the human condition, they are taking flight from the world, pointing us away from the earth, the flesh, the familiar–‘offering salvation by technical fix,’ in Mary Midgley’s apt description–all the while making the world over to conform to their vision of perfection.”

A little further on he concluded,

“Can we any longer afford to abide this system of blind belief? Ironically, the technological enterprise upon which we now ever more depend for the preservation and enlargement of our lives betrays a disdainful disregard for, indeed an impatience with, life itself. If dreams of technological escape from the burdens of mortality once translated into some relief of the human estate, the pursuit of technological transcendence has now perhaps outdistanced such earthly ends. If the religion of technology once fostered visions of social renovation, it also fueled fantasies of escaping society altogether. Today these bolder imaginings have gained sway, according to which as on philosopher of technology recently observed, ‘everything which exists at present … is deemed disposable.’ The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.”

I’ll leave you with that.