The Best Time to Take the Measure of a New Technology

In defense of brick and mortar bookstores, particularly used book stores, advocates frequently appeal to the virtue of serendipity and the pleasure of an unexpected discovery. You may know what you’re looking for, but you never know what you might find. Ostensibly, recommendation algorithms serve the same function in online contexts, but the effect is rather the opposite of serendipity and the discoveries are always expected.

Take, for instance, this book I stumbled on at a local used book store: Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing by Michael Heim. The book is currently #3,577,358 in Amazon’s Bestsellers Ranking, and it has been bought so infrequently that no other book is linked to it. My chances of ever finding this book were vanishingly small, but on Amazon they were slimmer still.

I’m quite glad, though, that Electric Language did cross my path. Heim’s book is a remarkably rich meditation on the meaning of word processing, something we now take for granted and do not think about at all. Heim wrote his book in 1987. The article in which he first explored the topic appeared in 1984. In other words, Heim was contemplating word processing while the practice was still relatively new. Heim imagines that some might object that it was still too early to take the measure of word processing. Heim’s rejoinder is worth quoting at length:

“Yet it is precisely this point in time that causes us to become philosophical. For it is at the moment of such transitions that the past becomes clear as a past, as obsolescent, and the future becomes clear as destiny, a challenge of the unknown. A philosophical study of digital writing made five or ten years from now would be better than one written now in the sense of being more comprehensive, more fully certain in its grasp of the new writing. At the same time, however, the felt contrast with the older writing technology would have become faded by the gradually increasing distance from typewritten and mechanical writing. Like our involvement with the automobile, that with processing texts will grow in transparency–until it becomes a condition of our daily life, taken for granted.

But what is granted to us in each epoch was at one time a beginning, a start, a change that was startling. Though the conditions of daily living do become transparent, they still draw upon our energies and upon the time of our lives; they soon become necessary conditions and come to structure our lives. It is incumbent on us then to grow philosophical while we can still be startled, for philosophy, if Aristotle can be trusted, begins in wonder, and, as Heraclitus suggests, ‘One should not act or speak as if asleep.'”

It is when a technology is not yet taken for granted that it is available to thought. It is only when a living memory of the “felt contrast” remains that the significance of the new technology is truly evident. Counterintuitive conclusions, perhaps, but I think he’s right. There’s a way of understanding a new technology that is available only to those who live through its appearance and adoption, and who know, first hand, what it displaced. As I’ve written before, this explains, in part, why it is so tempting to view critics of new technologies as Chicken Littles:

One of the recurring rhetorical tropes that I’ve listed as a Borg Complex symptom is that of noting that every new technology elicits criticism and evokes fear, society always survives the so-called moral panic or techno-panic, and thus concluding, QED, that those critiques and fears, including those being presently expressed, are always misguided and overblown. It’s a pattern of thought I’ve complained about more than once. In fact, it features as the tenth of myunsolicited points of advice to tech writers.

Now, while it is true, as Adam Thierer has noted here, that we should try to understand how societies and individuals have come to cope with or otherwise integrate new technologies, it is not the case that such negotiated settlements are always unalloyed goods for society or for individuals. But this line of argument is compelling to the degree that living memory of what has been displaced has been lost. I may know at an intellectual level what has been lost, because I read about it in a book for example, but it is another thing altogether to have felt that loss. We move on, in other words, because we forget the losses, or, more to the point, because we never knew or experienced the losses for ourselves–they were always someone else’s problem.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 9 and 10

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5Chapter 6, Chapters 7 & 8

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A little over a week ago, a Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed during a test flight, leaving one pilot dead and the other badly injured. The SpaceShipTwo model craft, designed to ferry paying customers to the edge of space and back, was still in its testing phase. It appears from the latest reports that the crash was the result of pilot error.

Regardless of the cause, the crash was a tragedy, and it has elicited pointed criticism of the burgeoning private space flight industry. Writing for Time, Jeffrey Kluger’s offered some especially biting commentary:

“But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?”

Kluger’s piece in turn prompted a response from Rand Simberg at The New Atlantis. Simberg’s piece, “In Defense of Daring,” offers the counter-example of James E. Webb, another “amateur” who nonetheless directed NASA during the heady days of the Apollo program. Mr. Simberg has written a book titled Safe Is Not An Option about how an “obsession” with “getting everyone back alive” is “killing” the space program. Obviously, this is man with a high tolerance for risk. The account of the crash Simberg referenced in his piece was a blog post at Reason which included the following counsel: “Risk is part of innovation, and we should let people continue to put their lives on the line if they do so with full understanding of those risks.”

One man’s hubris is another man’s daring, it would seem. I don’t mean to be glib. In fact, I think the line between hubris and daring runs right through the heart of civilization. Both are quintessentially human qualities, and, while hubris is dangerous, a dearth of daring is not without its own set of problems. Wisdom is knowing one from the other.

I say all of that by way of getting back around to Frankenstein, a story centered on just this tension between daring and hubris. As we come to Frankenstein’s encounter with his Creature and hear the Creature’s account of how he has spent the first two years of his existence, we begin to pick up on Shelley’s tragic theory of civilization. The tragedy lies in the seemingly inextricable link between daring and hubris symbolized by the symbiotic relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature.

In chapter nine, Frankenstein describes the guilt and misery that enveloped him in the months after William’s death and Justine’s execution. Despite the force with which he expresses his sorrow and seeming depth of his regret, however, it remains difficult for the reader, at least for this reader, to take him at his word. For instance, consider the following passage:

“… I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more much more (I persuaded myself), was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them into practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.”

So, yes, “a hell of intense tortures”–but does this not all seem rather self-absorbed? There is still a certain blindness at work here. There is a fixation on the depth of his own suffering, on how the course of events have stripped him of the satisfactions of a clean conscience. Moreover, it seems as if he has not yet questioned the motives and ambitions that led him to bring the Creature into existence in the first place. Nor is there any sense of guilt about his abandonment of the Creature.

But there is fear: fear that the disaster would strike again, fear which mingled with and contaminated whatever love he felt, for that love also constituted its objects as potential targets for the Creature’s violence. And this fear yielded hate and a thirst for revenge. Here’s how Frankenstein expresses this cycle that turns love into hate:

“I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness …. There was always scope for fear, so long as any thing I loved remained behind …. When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation.”

I can’t help but hear echoes of St. Augustine in these lines. The misery of the human condition is rooted in a profound disordering of our loves such that love is plagued by fear and even twisted into hate. And it is not hate which is love’s opposite, but rather fear. Hate is simply the form that love takes when it has been deformed by fear. But, precisely for this reason, Frankenstein cannot rightly interpret his own motives. He believes his hate is justified because it is rooted in his love for his friends and family. Hate, then, is the shape that love takes when it is threatened and vulnerable. Although this suggests that the love in view is ultimately self-love, and self-love cannot be brought to recognize it’s own failures. Consequently, guilt must be externalized or projected; it cannot be allowed to call into question one’s own motives and desires. In this case, Frankenstein’s hatred of the Creature is directly proportional to the guilt he experiences. But he and the Creature are one, so his hatred is a form of self-loathing, it is self-destructive. And, I would suggest, Shelley would have us read the relationship between Frankenstein and his creature as a microcosm of human civilization.

Elizabeth is more clear-sighted. She is blind to the existence of the Creature and to Frankenstein’s complicity in William’s and Justine’s deaths, but her perception of the world is nearer the mark. No longer are vice and injustice distant, abstract realities. “Now misery has come home,” she admits, “and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood.” There again the word monster is used to describe someone other than the Creature, in this case human society as a whole. Earlier we’d read how Justine, under pressure from her confessor, had almost come to believe herself the monster others thought her to be.

But while Victor cannot help but project the guilt that is properly his onto the Creature, Elizabeth’s nature is such that she can’t help but internalize the corruption she rightly perceives in the world. “Yet I am certainly unjust,” is how she follows up her indictment of humanity. She interprets Victor’s agitation as the lingering manifestation of his sorrow over William’s murder and his righteous indignation at the injustice of Justine’s death. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But we are reminded of how perception is a function of love. Elizabeth’s love for Frankenstein leads her to interpret his demeanor and actions sympathetically. This contrasts sharply, of course, with Frankenstein’s loveless perception of his own Creature.

Throughout the remainder of the chapter we read about Frankenstein’s journey into the Alps in search of the peace that Nature might bring. Much of what follows is a literary representation of the natural sublime with a touch of the gothic, “ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains,” for instance. But the “kindly influence” of “maternal nature” had no effect; it failed to overturn Frankenstein’s restless misery.

The tenth chapter opens with Frankenstein on the second day of his excursion and another invocation of the natural sublime. The snow-topped mountains, the ravines, the woods–“they all gathered round me,” Frankenstein remembers, “and bade me be at peace.” But when he awoke the next morning, it was as if nature had hid herself from him. A rain storm had moved in and “thick mists hid the summits of the mountains.” Frankenstein’s response is telling: “Still I would penetrate their misty veil, and seek them in their cloudy retreats. What were rain and storm to me?” Shelley would have us see that Frankenstein is unchanged. He is still intent on peering behind the veils that nature raises around herself and ignoring her warnings.

Because he was familiar with the path, he forgoes a guide as he prepares to ascend the peak of Montanvert. Not only might we read this decision as yet another manifestation of Frankenstein’s hubris, his explanation for his decision is also telling: “the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene.” This is telling, I think, because isolation has been part of Frankenstein’s undoing all along. He isolated himself from the “regulating” influence of his friends and disaster followed. Interestingly, we are about to discover through the Creature’s own narrative, that he longs for nothing more than companionship. Frankenstein, on the other hand, pursues isolation–but he fails to find it. With “superhuman speed” he sees the Creature bounding toward him.

Their reunion is a bit, how shall we put it … tense. Frankenstein lashes out at the Creature, whom he addresses as “Devil” and “vile insect” and then threatens to kill. The Creature’s reaction, at least as I hear it, is almost humorously deadpanned: “I expected this reaction.” But immediately thereafter he launches into an eloquent statement of his case against Frankenstein:

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet, you my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind.”

The Creature here makes explicit what has already been implicit: Frankenstein and the Creature are bound to one another till death. Also, Frankenstein sports thus with life because he has already done so in bringing the Creature to life. He judges himself competent to create life and to take life.

Frankenstein does not take the Creature’s entreaty kindly. In fact, he is unhinged by rage. He lunges at the Creature, but the Creature easily evades him. “Be calm!” the Creature urges. Indeed, in this exchange, it is the Creature who appears to be the more rational of the pair. He kindly reminds Frankenstein that he made the Creature larger and stronger than himself. “But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee,” he adds.

“I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

He goes on in a similar vein until finally he urges Frankenstein to hear his tale. Then, he adds, Frankenstein can decide whether or not he still wants to kill him.

It is, initially anyway, quite easy to sympathize with the Creature as he pleads his case. Indeed, his appeals are moving. “Believe me, Frankenstein,” he continues, ” I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity.” He is an unfallen Adam that is nonetheless punished; a Satan who has not rebelled and is nonetheless cast down. It is here that we begin to hear something of Frankenstein’s own voice in the Creature. Like Frankenstein, the Creature asserts his own innocence, an innocence of which he was stripped by external forces. Like Frankenstein, although with perhaps greater plausibility, he frames himself as a victim of circumstances. (We’ll see in time whether or not we can fully credit the Creature’s own account.) To Frankenstein’s accusations, the Creature retorts with biting sarcasm, “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”

This announces the Creature’s case against, not only Frankenstein, but the human race as a whole. Frankenstein continues to resist. He curses the day he made the Creature as well as his own responsible hands. “Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form,” he demands. In a curiously playful moment the creatures covers Frankenstein’s eyes with his hand and says, “Thus I relieve thee, my creator.” Frankenstein is not amused. He flings the Creature’s hand away from his face.

But the Creature finally prevails on Frankenstein to follow him to his cave so that he might hear his “long and strange tale.” Responding to faint stirrings of his conscience, Frankenstein agrees to follow the Creature. They sit down with a fire between them, and the Creature begins to tell his story. In the following chapter, the narration is handed over to the Creature, and we hear his account of the last two years, filtered through Frankenstein’s recollection.

A Thought About Thinking

Several posts in the last few months have touched on the idea of thinking, mostly with reference to the work of Hannah Arendt. “Thinking what we are doing” was a recurring theme in her writing, and it could very easily serve as a slogan, along with the line from McLuhan below the blog’s title, for what I am trying to do here.

Thinking, though, is one of those things that we do naturally, or so we believe, so it is therefore one of those things for which we have a hard time imagining an alternative mode. Let me try putting that another way. The more “natural” a fact about the world seems to us, the harder it is for us to imagine that it could be otherwise. What’s more, thinking about our own thinking is a dynamic best captured by trying to imagine jumping over our own shadow, although, finally, not impossible in the same way.

We all think, if by “thinking” we simply mean our stream of consciousness, our unending internal monologue. But, having thoughts does not necessarily equal thinking. That’s neither a terribly profound observation nor a controversial one. But what, then, does constitute thinking?

Here’s one line of thought in partial response. It’s tempting to associate thinking with “problem solving.” Thinking in these cases takes as its point of departure some problem that needs to be solved. Our thinking then sets out to understand the problem, perhaps by identifying its causes, before proceeding to propose solutions, solutions which usually involve the weighing of pros and cons.

This is the sort of thinking that we tend to prize, and for obvious reasons. When there are problems, we want solutions. We might call this sort of thinking technocratic thinking, or thinking on the model of engineering. By calling it this I don’t intend to disparage it. We need this sort of thinking, no doubt. But if this is the only sort of thinking we do, then we’ve impoverished the category.

But what’s the alternative?

The technocratic mode of thinking makes the assumption that all problems have solutions and all questions have answers. Or, what’s worse, that the only problems worth thinking about are those we can solve and the only questions worth asking are those that we can definitively answer. The corollary temptation is that we begin to look at life merely as a series of problems in search of a solution. We might call this the engineered life.

All of this further assumes that thinking itself is not inherently valuable; it is valuable only as a means to an end: in this case, either the solution or the answer.

We need, instead, to insist on the value of thinking as an end in itself. We might make a start by distinguishing between questions we answer and questions we live with–that is, questions we may never fully answer, but whose contemplation enriches our lives. We may further distinguish between problems we solve and problems we simply inhabit as a condition of being human.

This needs to be further elaborated, but I’ll leave that to your own thinking. I’ll also leave you with another line that has meant a lot to me over the years. It’s taken from a poem by Wendell Berry:

“We live the given life, not the planned.”

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 7 and 8

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6

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“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god,” Freud famously observed. But, he was quick to add, “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.” Writing in 1968, Edmund Leach appealed to the same rhetorical trope, only with a bit more confidence and panache: “Men have become like gods. Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?” Leach’s comments inspired the opening line of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Mary Shelley’s genius lay in vividly materializing, in the form of the Creature, the anxieties that must always attend such aims and aspirations. Whenever mortals fancy themselves gods, Frankenstein’s Creature lurks in the shadows, troubling all such fantasies.

In chapter seven, the doom that has been so frequently foreshadowed finally begins to unfold. The chapter opens with yet another letter, this one from Frankenstein’s father reporting that William, the youngest and most idealized of the Frankenstein children, has been murdered. Frankenstein is devastated, and he immediately departs for Geneva after a six year absence. As he approaches the city, he revels in the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the surrounding lakes, but even this sublime experience of nature cannot disperse his apprehension.

When he arrives, he finds the city gates locked, so he decides to pass the night in a nearby village. Unable to sleep, he wanders through the night and is caught in a lightning storm that ominously illuminates the surrounding mountain peaks. Then one of the flashes reveals to him the outline of an unmistakeable figure, “the wretch, the filthy daemon.” It had been two years since he’d last seen it, but immediately Frankenstein is convinced that his Creature was responsible for his brother’s murder.

At this juncture, Frankenstein considers once again whether or not he ought to tell his story, but he dissuades himself. He is sure that he would not be taken seriously and would only succeed in casting himself as a raving maniac. Even if he was believed, who could succeed in capturing the creature of preternatural strength and agility (another aspect of the Creature that the films always get wrong). He had after all just witnessed the Creature scaling the “perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve.” So he convinces himself to keep silent as he approaches his father’s home.

Upon his arrival, he is greeted by his brother Ernest who informs him that the murderer has been apprehended. Frankenstein is stunned to learn that Justine Moritz, the Frankenstein’s faithful servant and friend, has been charged with the murder and is soon to stand trial. Twice he protests that it cannot be and alludes to some knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but his claim seems not to register and, when he learns that compelling evidence has been presented against Justine, he convinces himself once more to remain silent. “My tale was not one to announce publicly,” since no one, he conveniently assures himself, would believe him. Elizabeth is the only one with the courage to insist publicly on Justine’s innocence, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

It is in the eighth chapter that we begin to perceive the depth of Frankenstein’s craven self-interest. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, but his own deeds convict him. He sits through the trial and says not a word. Only Elizabeth takes the stand in Justine’s defense. He claims again and again to be wracked by guilt for William’s death and Justine’s plight. He even goes so far as to say to Walton (remember the framing) that he would have confessed to the murder himself rather than see Justine found guilty if only his known whereabouts in Ingolstadt had not rendered such a claim conveniently implausible. What he does not do is reveal the Creature’s existence.

If we are tempted to take his rationalizations at face value, his claim to be suffering more than Justine should convince us otherwise. “The tortures of the accused,” he insists with a straight face, “did not equal mine.” Such is the claim of a deeply self-absorbed man, one who is still suffering from blinding hubris. For the remainder of the chapter he goes on and on insufferably about his own despair and tribulation, even as he accompanies Elizabeth to visit Justine in prison on the eve of her execution.

It’s worth noting that Justine had admitted to making a false confession under pressure from her confessor. In explaining to Elizabeth why she had done so, she says that her confessor “threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was.” This is the first time monster is used in reference to someone other than Frankenstein’s Creature, and it leads us to ask who, indeed, is the true monster in this story.

While Frankenstein watches on, Elizabeth commiserates with Justine. “I wish that I were to die with you,” she declares, “I cannot live in this world of misery.” Elizabeth here sounds a note that will become ever more pronounced, particularly in the Creature’s narrative: Frankenstein is just one instantiation of the tragedy at the core of human civilization. She and Justine have been let down by the institutions of justice and by their would-be advocates, especially Frankenstein, who had it in his power to save Justine. But he does not act.

“On the morrow,” Frankenstein informs Walton, “Justine died.” A rather too convenient use of the passive voice. The chapter closes with a melodramatic prophetic soliloquy from Frankenstein delivered in the third person and addressed, in absentia, to his family.

It’s not insignificant that this portion of the story features the lives of two women undone by Frankenstein’s recklessness and self-serving cowardice. In his discussion of Frankenstein in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, literary critic Roger Shattuck recalls the circumstances of Shelley’s life:

“[William Godwin] hardly knew how to take care of his daughter. She knew her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, only by the stories of her dedication to feminism, revolutionary causes, and friends in need. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the stereotype of the Romantic poet, carried Mary off at seventeen to the Continent without marrying her, to live for a time in the irregular household of another Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution. The men in the group were intent upon achieving glory through their genius; other concerns must not stand in their way.”

Further on, he adds of Frankenstein and the Creature, “The battle to which these awful adversaries commit themselves is the struggle for glory, the driving male condition that inspired Mary Shelley to write the book in horror and in protest.”

“The resolute moral stance of Frankenstein about observing our human limits can be seen now as exceptional,” Shattuck observes. In comparing Frankenstein to Goethe’s Faust, he writes, “The Romantics often did not seek harsh judgment of their scoundrel heroes. Apparently, it took a woman to inventory the destruction caused by the quest for knowledge and glory carried to excess ….”

Mary Shelley is often given credit for inventing Science Fiction with her writing of Frankenstein. I’d suggest as well that she be credited with composing the first work of tech criticism, and she does so, in part, because of her experience as one clear-sighted woman among men of genius in search of glory. It was her genius to anticipate how such a pursuit would play out not in the realm of letters, but in the increasingly potent realm of technology. Perhaps, then, we might also dub Mary Shelley the first woman in tech.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapter 6

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5

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Last month, in the Guardian’s “My Hero” series, Neil Gaiman chose to write about Mary Shelley. His brief reflections open by recalling the circumstances that led to the writing of Frankenstein: “The cold, wet summer of 1816, a night of ghost stories and a challenge allowed a young woman to delineate the darkness, and give us a way of looking at the world.” He concludes as follows:

“The glittering promise of science, offering life and miracles, and the nameless creature in the shadows, monster and miracle all in one, back from the dead, needing knowledge and love but able, in the end, only to destroy … it was Mary Shelley’s gift to us, and we would be infinitely poorer without it.”

I like this idea of the nameless creature as Shelley’s gift to us. But what exactly is the nature of this gift? I would suggest that what Shelley has bequeathed to us is nothing less than the gift of thought. The creature is, as I see it, what some have called an object to think with, only it is an object of the imagination. It materializes, in our mind’s eye, the power conferred upon us by our knowledge, and it does so that we might think about what we can do.

At the end of her Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes,

“Once we see life through the cyborg prism, becoming one with a machine is reduced to a technical problem of finding the right operating system to make it (that is, us) run smoothly. When we live with implanted chips, we will be on a different footing in our relationships with computers. When we share other people’s tissue and genetic material, we will be on a different footing with the bodies of others. Our theories tell us stories about the objects of our lives. As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundaries between the born and created and between humans and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories.”

It seems to me that, given the realities Turkle anticipates, Frankenstein is exactly the story we need. It helps us think about what we make, but primarily by helping us think about ourselves. The creature in this story is nothing if not a mirror on which we might see ourselves. Of course, so too is Frankenstein.

The sixth chapter of Shelley’s novel opens with a letter from Elizabeth. It’s worth noting, briefly, the multiple layers of narration at this point in the story. Ostensibly, we are reading Elizabeth’s words to Frankenstein relayed by Frankenstein to Walton, who is in turn relaying them to his sister, Margaret. It’s easy to lose sight of this, but keeping this framework in mind, I think, is key to interpreting Frankenstein’s self-representation. It helps us sustain a healthy suspicion of Frankenstein’s framing of the events and, by extension, to also cast a critical eye on the rationalizations and justifications we offer for our own actions and motives.

Elizabeth’s letter functions chiefly to supply details that will render subsequent events more meaningful. We learn more, for instance, about the other Frankenstein siblings, the older Ernest and the younger William. We learn as well about Justine Moritz, a longstanding household servant in the Frankenstein household, who was beloved by all of the family.

There’s a curious digression in Elizabeth’s rehearsal of Justine’s history in which she notes how the nature of Swiss political culture has “produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it.” This is to assure us of Justine’s place in the family: “A servant in Geneva,” we are assured, “does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England. Justine, thus received in our family, learned the duties of a servant; a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”

Elizabeth goes on to speak glowingly of Ernest and, especially, of “little darling William.” All of this, of course, particularly in light of Frankenstein’s earlier claim to have lost everything, strikes us as preparation for a great tragedy.

The remainder of the chapter narrates Frankenstein’s continued recovery, which is sustained almost entirely by Henry Clerval’s loving attention. It was Clerval, Frankenstein tells us, who “called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children.” Once again, well-being is presented as a kind of equilibrium between our urge to know and to do, on the one hand, and our acceptance of the world as a gift on the other. And, once again, this equilibrium is the product of friendship. Friendship is a kind of anchor that keeps us from sinking into the maelstrom of self-absorption, a victim of virtues which, unregulated, become our vices. Clerval’s particular influence on Frankenstein was twofold: he brought Frankenstein out of himself into the world, and he brought the liberal arts to bear on a scientific imagination.

But all is not well, of course. Once released into the world, our action does not simply dissipate into nothingness, whatever we might wish. The creature is still at large, and Frankenstein’s greater sin is his failure to accept responsibility for what he has made. This refusal of responsibility is reflected in the disgust Frankenstein had now developed toward his former passion: “I had conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy.” Just seeing the implements of his former work induced “the agony of my nervous symptoms.” While introducing Clerval to his professors, Frankenstein would become visibly agitated when they praised his talent and skill.

Shelley paints Frankenstein as a man who is racked by guilt but also unwilling to confront it. His “violent antipathy ” toward what he had previously pursued with obsessive zeal suggests profound shame and a deep desire to burry and repress his transgression. More worrisome still is his decision to keep knowledge of the creature secret, even from Clerval. It’s more than a little ironic that the man who would rip open nature’s secrets now carefully guards his own.

Nothing good follows from Frankenstein’s refusal of responsibility, only an accumulation of disasters. The question this leaves us with is this: What would it mean for us to accept responsibility for what we make and for what we do with what is made for us? Makers and users both, it seems that we are, like Frankenstein, hell-bent on refusing responsibility for what we do with the technologies that have been furnished for us. It would seem, in fact, that the general tendency of our making is to create conditions that undermine the possibility of either thoughtfulness or responsibility. Shelley’s story, however, her gift to us, provokes our thinking and may even rekindle our sense of moral responsibility.