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An annotated “Frankenstein” brings lessons for today

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Aug 02, 2019

Amidst all the calls for more ethics and considerations for social issues on the part of tech companies, this looks like quite an interesting and innovative way of approaching the problem. This review of the book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds gives a good overview of the contents and thinking.

The critical essays accompanying the text are eclectic, cross-disciplinary, and incisive, and they include contributions from beyond the academy, such as the essays by science fiction authors Elizabeth Bear and Cory Doctorow.

Using the novel as a canvas on which to think through contemporary issues.

These annotations often raise novel questions about technology and society, extrapolating from the technological conditions suggested by the novel into terms that might emerge today, alongside the more usual role of explanatory footnotes in a student text.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s Monster in another time of technological transition, the Industrial Revolution.

It is an important part of what gives “Frankenstein” its enduring hold on our contemporary imagination: Both the novel and the cultural icon derive their special pathos from what Heather E. Douglas’s critical essay shrewdly calls the “bitter aftertaste of technical sweetness”—tragedy set in the distinctly modern conditions of secular science and technology.

The piece and the book it refers also cover how Shelley’s work is regarded by many as the first work of science-fiction and how it was made possible not only by her great talent but also her education. She studied the humanities—literature, philosophy and classics, as well as the science of the day. Today these two aspects of education are often times presented as opposites, and in some kind of fight, where on the contrary they need to coexist and feed from each other. It’s something that more and more people realize and integrate in their teaching, planning, and hiring but which is still regularly disregarded in many technology circles.

From Elizabeth Bear’s essay, this sounds familier:

Victor, she says, is morally culpable for not taking responsibility for his creation and for his refusal to acknowledge his responsibility because he cannot see it for what it is. He runs away from it and refuses to engage with it. He refuses to engage with the creature and flees, and he does so because he is not able to see its essential nature, its needs and his part in their fulfilment—and that, Bear says, is on account of his monstrous “narcissism, this inability to engage with other creatures” as creatures like himself.

And brings two kinds of cautionary tales, both very much worthy of deeper reflection and of today’s challenges:

We can thus discern two kinds of cautionary tales in “Frankenstein” (there are others): one Miltonian and the other Promethean. The former is a warning to “creators”—scientists, engineers and what this new edition of “Frankenstein” calls “creators of all kinds”—of the risks of hubris: reaching to exercise knowledge and powers that are not fully understood, whose consequences cannot be predicted and which cannot be controlled. The latter, however—the Promethean—is a warning to these same creators that, when they *do* exercise that knowledge and power, they must be willing to take responsibility for the things they create, for the work of their hands, which is what Prometheus did and what Victor failed to do. [Emphasis mine.]

(Via Stuart Candy.)

Update: Sam Arbesman (who write a mean newsletter) sent me Frankenbook, an open access version of the book referenced above. It’s powered by PubPub which you should also check out.