Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 3 and 4

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2

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At the end of chapter two, Victor Frankenstein, who is narrating his story to Walton, left us with an ominous note of impending doom: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” Having had his early fascination with the medieval alchemists shattered, Victor found that he was more at ease and better able to enjoy his days. But as he notes forebodingly, this was not to last.

In the first two chapters Victor recounted not only his fascination with the alchemists and their quest to unlock the secrets of nature and uncover the mysteries of life; he also recalled his idyllic childhood. In chapter three, he tells Walton of the first tragedy that befalls him and disturbs his earthly paradise, the death of his mother. He introduces this part of his story by framing it as “an omen, as it were, of my future misery.”

These instances of rather heavy-handed foreshadowing, and they are quite frequent, might come off as more than a little melodramatic and perhaps a fault of Shelley’s, but remembering that this is the voice of Frankenstein as he is relating his story to Walton suggests to me that these instances of ominous foreshadowing and invocations of dark fate operate instead as half-conscious justifications of his actions. It seems to me, in other words, that while he rues the desolation that has followed his actions, Victor is rather more resentful than repentant.

In any case, he tells of his mother’s untimely death from scarlet fever. She contracted the disease by attending, against the counsel of her loved ones, to Elizabeth, who had first fallen ill. Elizabeth recovers; Victor’s mother does not. Of course, she dies in the same saintly fashion that she lived, cheerfully resigned and thinking of others even in her last moments. Her parting words to Victor and Elizabeth reveal her long-held desire to see the two married. Soon thereafter she “died calmly.”

His mother’s death had postponed Victor’s departure for the university of Ingolstadt, but, after an appropriate time of mourning, Victor prepares once again to leave. He makes his goodbyes to Henry, Elizabeth, and his father. Henry, we are told, “deeply felt the misfortune of being debarred from a liberal education” by a merchant father who saw little to be gained from it; however, he remained resolved “not to be chained to the miserable details of commerce.”

Upon arriving at Ingolstadt, Victor introduces himself to a professor of natural philosophy named M. Krempe. Krempe informs Victor that the time he devoted to studying the old alchemists had been entirely wasted. Victor, of course, already suspected as much. Krempe tells Victor that he needs to start from scratch with his scientific education and gives him the name of a series of books with which to do so.

But Victor is disenchanted. He was contemptuous of the “uses of modern natural philosophy.” “It was very different,” he explains, “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.” And, in his view, obviously not for the better. The earlier unattainable but grand ambitions of the alchemists fired his imagination; the viable but mundane workings of contemporary science were like a wet blanket. “I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur,” he complains, “for realities of little worth.”

This is an interesting passage in light of contemporary debates about the state of technological innovation. Frankenstein’s laments faintly echo the Techno Stagnation Angst of critics like Peter Thiel. Like Frankenstein, Thiel and others like him worry that we’ve lost our ability to imagine and actualize grand technological projects. And they’re disappointed with what we have accomplished, like the Internet, say.

But Victor is not disappointed for long. He meets another professor at Ingolstadt, one M. Waldman, who, while an accomplished practitioner of modern science, is not nearly so dismissive of the old alchemists as Krempe had been. Victor attends one of Waldman’s lectures and hears him praise the achievements of modern science in a way that manages to rekindle Victor’s imagination. He speaks, in a lingo we would readily recognize, of the “miracles” of modern science: “They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”

This is enough to reawaken Frankenstein’s ambitions: “So much has been done … more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Frankenstein went on to meet with Waldman, who was happy to have “gained a disciple” and furnished Victor with all the books he required. Thus the day ended–a day that “decided my future destiny,” Victor proclaims.

In chapter four, we learn that over the course of the next two years, Frankenstein made astonishing progress in the sciences owing to his obsessive work ethic, easily eclipsing his fellow students and matching his professors in knowledge and skill. During this time, we also learn, Waldman became a “true friend” to Frankenstein. But it is the obsessive nature of Frankenstein’s work that is the focus of this chapter. He was eager and ardent in the pursuit of knowledge and frequently greeted the dawn still hard at work in his laboratory.

For a brief moment he considers returning home to visit his friends, but as he approaches a particular breakthrough, he changes his mind and remains at Ingolstadt. The breakthrough involved the origins of the “principle of life.” In order to explore this mystery, Frankenstein delves into the macabre: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.” He makes a study of human decomposition and of the forces of decay, and, in the midst of that darkness, “a sudden light” broke upon him, “a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple.”

Assuring Walton that these were not the recollections of a “madman,” he proclaims, “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” But, of course, he will not reveal the nature of his discovery to Walton, even though, or especially because, he notices Walton’s eagerness, wonder, and hope. Instead, he reaffirms his call for Walton to take his experience as a cautionary tale: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Frankenstein goes on to tell Walton about how he decided to create a human body so that he might animate it and become the father of a new species. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through … A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” And, he adds, “I might, in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” Frankenstein sought the powers of creation and resurrection, and once again he set to his task obsessively.

With “breathless eagerness,” he “pursued nature to her hiding places.” He goes on to describe his dabbling among graves, torturing living animals, collecting bones, disturbing the “secrets of the human frame,” and all of this in isolation. Seasons came and went and he did not mark their beauty. The same urgency which made him unresponsive to the natural world led him to forget his friends and family. Only with preemptive defensiveness did he consider how his father might chide him for not writing.

Recalling this time, Frankenstein concludes,

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”

Interestingly, Shelley has Frankenstein add to this advice the following consideration: “If this rule were always observed [...] Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” A reminder perhaps, that Shelley is after something more here than simply a critique of technology (to put it anachronistically). Shelley, I think, is articulating a tragic vision of civilization’s unfolding. But, as I’m reading her at this juncture in the story, she is also suggesting that the root of this tragedy is a fragmentation of our knowledge of the world (and perhaps especially our “know-how”), our political or moral sense, and our aesthetic sense. Frankenstein’s descent, after all, coincides with an increasing isolation from both a community of friendship wherein the moral sense might be sustained and an increasing alienation from the beauty of the world around him.

In the next chapter, the Monster is born and things get interesting.

Technology and “The Human Condition”

If you’re a regular reader, you know that increasingly my attention has been turning toward the work of Hannah Arendt. My interest in Arendt’s work, particularly as it speaks to technology, was sparked a few years ago when I began reading The Human Condition. Below are some comments, prepared for another context, discussing Arendt’s Prologue to that book. 

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In the Prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt wrote, “What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears.” In her framing, these newest experiences and most recent fears were born out of technological developments that had come about within Arendt’s own lifetime, particularly those that had transpired in the two decades that preceded the writing of The Human Condition. Among the more notable of these developments were the successful harnessing of atomic power and the launching, just one year prior to the publication of Arendt’s book, of the first manmade object into earth’s orbit. These two developments powerfully signaled the end of one age of human history and the opening of another. Positioned in this liminal space, Arendt explained that her purpose was “to trace back modern world alienation, its twofold flight from the earth in the universe and from the world into the self, to its origins, in order to arrive at an understanding of the nature of society as it had developed and presented itself at the very moment when it was overcome by the advent of a new and yet unknown age.”

It is striking how similar Arendt’s concerns are to our own experiences and fears nearly sixty years later. Arendt, for instance, wrote about the advent of automation, which threatened to “empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring” just at the point when human beings had lost sight of the “higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” In our own day, we are told “robots will—and must—take our jobs.” [Arendt, by the way, wasn't the only worried about automation.]

Similarly, Arendt spoke forebodingly of scientific aspirations that are today associated with advocates of Transhumanism. These aspirations include the prospect of radical human enhancement, the creation of artificial life, and the achievement of super-longevity. “This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years,” Arendt suggests, “seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” We should not doubt the capability of scientists to make good on this claim, Arendt tells us, “just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.” Sixty years later, the Transhumanist vision moves from the fringes of public discussion to the mainstream, and we still retain the power to destroy all organic life on earth, although this is not much discussed any longer.

It was in the context of such fears and such experiences that Arendt wrote, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” The simplicity of the proposal, of course, masks the astounding complexity against which the task must unfold. Even in her own day, Arendt feared that we could not rise to the challenge. “[I]t could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” A similar concern had been registered by the poet W.H. Auden, who, in 1945, wrote of the modern mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

For her part, Arendt continued, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.” With that Arendt spoke more than she knew; she anticipated the computer age. But Arendt did not look warmly upon the prospect of thinking and speaking supported by artificial machines. She reckoned the prospect a form of slavery, not to the machines but to our “know-how,” a form of knowledge which Arendt opposed to thought. (Arendt would go on to expand her thinking about thought in an unfinished and posthumously published work, The Life of the Mind.)

Moreover, Arendt contended that the question of technology is also a political question; it is, in other words, a question of how human beings live and act together. It is, consequently, a matter of meaningful speech. In Arendt’s view, and it is hard to imagine the case being otherwise, politics is premised on the ability of human beings to “talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.” These considerations raise the further question of action. Even if we were able to think what we were doing with regard to technology, would it be possible to act meaningfully on the deliberations of such thought? What is the relationship, in other words, not only of technology to thought but of technology to the character of political communities? Finally, returning to the question of machine-assisted thinking, would such thought be politically consequential given that politics depends on meaningful speech?

Already, in 1958, Arendt perceived that the advances of scientific knowledge were secured in the rarefied language of advanced mathematics, a language that was not susceptible to translation into the more ordinary forms of human speech. Today, some forms of machine-assisted thinking, particularly those collected under the concept of Big Data, promise knowledge without understanding. Such knowledge may be useful, but it may also prove difficult to incorporate into the deliberative discourse of political communities.

In a few pages, then, Arendt managed to present a series of concerns and questions that remain vital today. Can we think what we are doing, particularly with the Promethean powers of modern technology? Can our technology help us with such thinking? Can we act in politically meaningful ways on the basis of such thought?

Elon Musk: Prophet of Cosmic Manifest Destiny

There’s a well-known story about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s agreement to write stories about Space and Time. Dissatisfied with the state of Space/Time stories in the 1930s, the two decided to write the kind of stories they wanted to read. Lewis agreed to write a story focused on Space, and Tolkien agreed to write a story focused on Time. Ultimately, Lewis followed through and produced the three books popularly known as his Space Trilogy. Tolkien never quite got around to writing his story about Time, he was too busy finishing some business about a ring.

SpaceXI relate that story because I was reminded of it as I read about SpaceX and Tesla founder, Elon Musk. I’ve written about Peter Thiel a time or two recently, but Thiel isn’t the only tech entrepreneur with an expansive vision for the future. Whereas Thiel’s interests seem to gravitate toward technologies associated with Transhumanism, however, fellow PayPal alum Elon Musk’s interests are interplanetary in scope. It is as if, not unlike Lewis and Tolkien, Musk and Thiel decided to split up Space and Time between them. They, of course, would do more than write–they would seek to conquer their respective fields. Thiel sets out to conquer Time through the radical human enhancement and Musk sets out to conquer Space through interplanetary colonization. Interestingly enough, the ultimate success of their wildest dreams rather depend on one another.

Musk was recently interviewed by Ross Anderson for Aeon. Anderson’s title for his nearly 7,000 word essay that resulted, “Exodus,” is apt on at least two counts. It encompasses both the central theme of the interview–interplanetary migration for the sake of species survival–and the religious themes evoked by Anderson.

It’s a long, interesting piece, but here are some of the highlights, particularly in light of recent posts considering technological innovation, culture, and the religion of technology.

First, a snapshot of Musk’s stated vision for space travel:

“I had come to SpaceX to talk to Musk about his vision for the future of space exploration, and I opened our conversation by asking him an old question: why do we spend so much money in space, when Earth is rife with misery, human and otherwise? It might seem like an unfair question. Musk is a private businessman, not a publicly funded space agency. But he is also a special case. His biggest customer is NASA and, more importantly, Musk is someone who says he wants to influence the future of humanity. He will tell you so at the slightest prompting, without so much as flinching at the grandiosity of it, or the track record of people who have used this language in the past. Musk enjoys making money, of course, and he seems to relish the billionaire lifestyle, but he is more than just a capitalist. Whatever else might be said about him, Musk has staked his fortune on businesses that address fundamental human concerns. And so I wondered, why space?

Musk did not give me the usual reasons. He did not claim that we need space to inspire people. He did not sell space as an R & D lab, a font for spin-off technologies like astronaut food and wilderness blankets. He did not say that space is the ultimate testing ground for the human intellect. Instead, he said that going to Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease.

‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct.”

While discussing our failure, thus far, to find intelligent life, Musk observed:

“At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities.”

He then went on to explain why he thinks we’ve not yet encountered intelligent life:

“Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’”

A reminder dropped in by Anderson of the pedigree of Musk’s ambitions:

“In 1610, the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, in a letter to Galileo: ‘Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.'”

And then, toward the end of the piece, Anderson begins to play up the religion of technology jargon (emphasis mine):

“But a million people on Mars sounds like a techno-futurist fantasy, one that would make Ray Kurzweil blush. And yet, the very existence of SpaceX is fantasy. After talking with Musk, I took a stroll through his cathedral-like rocket factory.”

….

“This fear, that the sacred mission of SpaceX could be compromised, resurfaced when I asked Musk if he would one day go to Mars himself.  ‘I’d like to go, but if there is a high risk of death, I wouldn’t want to put the company in jeopardy,’ he told me. ‘I only want to go when I could be confident that my death wouldn’t result in the primary mission of the company falling away.’ It’s possible to read Musk as a Noah figure, a man obsessed with building a great vessel, one that will safeguard humankind against global catastrophe. But he seems to see himself as a Moses, someone who makes it possible to pass through the wilderness – the ‘empty wastes,’ as Kepler put it to Galileo – but never sets foot in the Promised Land.”

….

You can see why NASA has given Musk a shot at human spaceflight. He makes a great rocket but, more than that, he has the old vision in him. He is a revivalist, for those of us who still buy into cosmic manifest destiny. And he can preach. He says we are doomed if we stay here. He says we will suffer fire and brimstone, and even extinction. He says we should go with him, to that darkest and most treacherous of shores. He promises a miracle.

Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt on Technology and Ultimate Values

In a 1979 collection of essays, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, edited by Melvyn Hill, I came across transcripts from a 1972 conference on Arendt’s work. I found the exchange below, between Arendt and the philosopher Hans Jonas, intriguing enough to type out here for your perusal, intriguing particularly in light of recent posts. I believe this, then, is the only place on the web that you’ll find this little clip, an exclusive brought to you by The Frailest Thing! I found the opening and closing statements by Jonas especially interesting.

Hans Jonas: That there is at the bottom of all our being and of our action the desire to share the world with other men is incontestable, but we want to share a certain world with certain men. And if it is the task of politics to make the world a fitting home for man, that raises the question: “What is a fitting home for man?”

It can only be decided if we form some idea of what man is or ought to be. And that again cannot be determined, except arbitrarily, if we cannot make appeal to some truth about man which can validate judgement of this kind, and the derivative judgment of political taste that crops up in the concrete situations–and especially if it is a question of deciding how the future world should look–which we have to do all the time dealing with technological enterprises that are having an impact on the total dispensation of things.

Now it is not the case that Kant simply made appeal to judgment. He also made appeal to the concept of the good. There is such an idea as the supreme good however we define it. And perhaps it escapes definition. It cannot be an entirely empty concept and it is related to our conception of what man is. In other words, that which has by unanimous consensus here been declared dead and done with–namely, metaphysics–has to be called in at some place to give us a final directive.

Our powers of decision reach far beyond the handling of immediate situations and of the short-term future. Our powers of doing or acting now extend over such matters as really involve a judgment or an insight into or a faith in–I leave that open–some ultimates. For in ordinary politics as it has been understood until the twentieth century we could do with penultimates. It is not true that the condition of the commonwealth had to be decided by the really ultimate values or standards. When it is a matter, as it is under the conditions of modern technology, that willy-nilly we are embarking on courses which affect the total condition of things on earth and the total future condition of man, then I don’t think we can simply wash our hands and say Western metaphysics has got us into an impasse and we declare it bankrupt and we appeal now to shareable judgments–where, for God’s sake, we do not mean by shared judgments shared with a majority or shared with any defined group. We can share judgments to our perdition with many but we must make an appeal beyond that sphere!

Arendt: I am afraid that I will have to answer. I am not going to go into the question of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Actually the question of the good doesn’t arise and the question of truth doesn’t arise. the whole book is actually concerned with the possible validity of these propositions.

Jonas: But it’s not political.

Arendt: No, but I said only of the validity: whether one can transfer it to the political sphere is also one of the very interesting, but at this moment side, issues. And this, of course, I have done, and I have done it by simply taking Kant’s late writing on politics. one of the main things here is a certain stand towards the French Revolution in Kant. But I am not going to go into that because it would lead us too far away from this question of ultimates.

Now if our future should depend on what you say now–namely that we will get an ultimate which from above will decide for us (and then the question is, of course, who is going to recognize this ultimate and which will be the rules for recognizing this ultimate–you have really an infinite regress here, but anyhow) i would be utterly pessimistic. If that is the case then we are lost. Because this actually demands that a new god will appear.

This word (God) was a Christian word in the Christian Middle Ages, and permitted very great skepticism, but one had it in the ultimate instance, because it was God. But because this [God] had disappeared Western humanity was back in the situation in which it had been before it was saved, or salvaged, or whatever, by the good news–since they didn’t believe in it any longer. That was the actual situation. And this situation sent them [i.e., the eighteenth century revolutionaries] back scrambling for antiquity. And not as in some cases because you are in love with Greek verse or Greek songs as may be the case in my case. But that was not their motivation.

That is, they were in all nakedness confronted with the fact that men exist in the plural. And no human being knows what is man in the singular. We know only “male and female created he them“–that is, from the beginning this plurality poses an enormous problem.

For instance, I am perfectly sure that this whole totalitarian catastrophe would not have happened if people still had believed in God, or in hell rather–that is, if there still were ultimates. There were no ultimates. And you know as well as I do that there were no ultimates which one could with validity appeal to. One couldn’t appeal to anybody.

And if you go through such a situation [as totalitarianism] the first thing you know is the following: you never know how somebody will act. You have the surprise of you life! This goes throughout all layers of society and it goes throughout various distinctions between men. And if you want to make a generalization then you could say that those who were still very firmly convinced of the so-called old values were the first to be ready to change their old values for a new set of values, provided they were given one. And I am afraid of this, because I think that the moment you give anybody a new set of values–or this famous “bannister” and a set of values, no matter. I do not believe that we can stabilize the situation in which we have been since the seventeenth century in any final way.

F.M. Barnard: Would you then agree with Voltaire? You raised this question of God and to some extent a metaphysic which one may question qua metaphysic but which one may regard as extremely useful socially.

Arendt: Entirely agree. We wouldn’t have to bother about this whole business if metaphysics and this whole value business hadn’t fallen down. We begin to question because of these events.

Jonas: I share with Hannah Arendt the position that we are not in possession of any ultimates, either by knowledge or by conviction or faith. And I also believe that we cannot have this as a command performance because “we need it so bitterly we therefore should have it.”

However, a part of wisdom is knowledge of ignorance. The Socratic attitude is to know that one does not know. And this realization of our ignorance can be of great practical importance in the exercise of the power of judgment, which is after all related to action in the political sphere, into future action, and far-reaching action.

Our enterprises have an eschatological tendency in them–a built in utopianism, namely, to move towards ultimate situation. Lacking the knowledge of ultimate values–or, of what is ultimately desirable–or, of what is man so that the world can be fitting for man, we should at least abstain from allowing eschatological situations to come about. This alone is a very important practical injunction that we can draw from the insight that only with some conception of ultimates are we entitled to embark on certain things. So that at least as a restraining force the point of view I brought in may be of some relevance.

Arendt: With is I would agree.

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.