FRANKENSTEIN 200: Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this

A tale born out of a ghost-story competition between Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and English poet Lord Byron, ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’ has exceeded 300 editions and inspired more than 90 films – in addition to hundreds of academic texts and comic books, even – over the past two centuries. The book was first published anonymously in January 1818 and continues to be cited today in conversations concerning scientific progress, ethics and sometimes, the vanity of humankind.

In this issue, Western News celebrates the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

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 As I stood with my arm hooked around a nearby support, lurching with the train, the pre-recorded male announcer’s voice on the intercom gave the usual orders: “Move over, make room at the doors.” Nobody shifted, except one teen who exhaled a bored “Whatever,” dragging out the ‘r’ for a few heartbeats.

That was in the late 1980s when Atlanta put in an automated train that ran between its widely spaced air terminals. My first time on an airport subway, I was intrigued. More than that, I was curious no one paid any attention to the announcement.

On a trip through Atlanta a year later, we heard the same announcements – again pre-recorded, but this time with a woman’s voice. Everyone moved from the doors when she asked, despite the usual commuter grumbling.

I asked a local about it later and he shrugged, “Yeah, people just didn’t do what the guy said, so they put the woman back in.”

Why do human beings pay attention to fake female voices and not to male ones? Why do we have digital assistants – whether they run computer searches, take orders to control our house climate or play love interests – that are ‘women’? (When in truth they’re not anyone or anything, beyond a construct in our heads.)

Would people have paid money to hear a digital Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with a ‘flesh’ Scarlett Johansson in a film called Him? Johansson has by now played a sexually alluring woman converted into a cluster of murderous nano-machines (Lucy), an alien sex toy luring men to their deaths (Under the Skin) and, more recently, Major Kusanagi, the white-washed cyborg cop in the wretched American adaptation of Ghost in the Shell in which she pulls her body apart while killing a tank.

Johansson hasn’t been fetishized as a woman so much as a female machine that has in some way gone wrong. We’ve seen the same script play out with Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina – the mother-board fatale. (I have to say, I’m not finding it in my personal ROM to designate these as feminist victories.)

What irony would Mary Shelley draw from these texts, having written her cautionary parable about the reach of science and the problem of men who wish to give birth?

Men giving birth typically hasn’t gone well. Men gave birth to nuclear weapons, something the scientists at Trinity spoke about. Oppenheimer’s quoting of the Bhagavad Gita – “Now I am become death.” – seems a commentary on human foolishness, but also about a newborn weapons system that will command its own universe, reframe the world in its own image, open uranium processing plants and create sacrifice zones where no human will be able to visit for millenia.

Maybe Oppenheimer foresaw the chains of missile silos, those rabbit warrens of weaponry, aborning across continents.

Shelley would have known Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the nameless voice haranguing me from my voicemail, are new beings – low-grade artificial intelligences with the capacity to sound coy, cute and enticing. I suspect more than one person out there is having an intimate relationship with some software.

The female artificial-intelligence kick we’re on is an extension of Frankenstein’s monster. It can talk for itself and can even give instructions, but will be successful only if people believe it can be fully controlled, ordered around, made passive.

This is the new flesh David Cronenberg, working from the text by Marshall McLuhan, brought to electric life in his 1982 Videodrome. There, skin was breached in hilariously grotesque ways as James Woods became an all-in-one human VCR and gun holster.

But where Cronenberg was all dire consequences, we’re head-down immersed in cheerful acceptance. As long as the collections of subroutines and algorithms have engaging female names and are passively obedient, we won’t worry our devices are quickly coming to life. They’re getting faster, more mobile and smarter ­– while we’re buried in the digital fire brought to us by the new Prometheans of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Kindle.

Shelley was writing about what technology wants. She understood: Once something is made, it summons its own world, which is likely to be a piece of ours. The Monster, an innocent who’s far less monstrous than Frankenstein’s world of science that cobbles it together, immediately asks for what it’s missing: a mate. (Get busy, Victor.)

Do you recall the precise moment you picked up a smart phone and thought, “From this moment I devote my deepest attention, no matter how inane the things I see, to this screen?” Did you ever actually make that choice or did you inherit it?

Technology cares if you’re not interested. People who make a living at this, who venture towards the riches to be made with a new app or digital toy, won’t stop giving us technology. They’ll make it look like a good deal for us – we’re connected (albeit not in the flesh); we know everything (although we don’t, really); and we can do everything (except that the machines are now better at learning effects in art and music than we are).

Technology calls out to technology. The question for us is, who or what answers? Are you upgrading because you can, or want to or need to? How much compulsion do you feel?

I was already well trained by the system. Even in the late 1980s on a train between airport terminals, I was following orders, doing what a machine told me to do.

Mary Shelley warned me there would be days – or centuries – like this. I don’t fear for the future; I don’t think about it. The present machines are so lively and lovely.

Tim Blackmore is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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Read more from the Western News celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time by Wendy Pearson

Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning by Tim Wilson

Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this by Tim Blackmore

Embracing the loneliness of monsters by Christopher Keep

Of Frankenstein and the White House by Steven Bruhm