Saturday, October 27, 2012

What Frankenstein Means Today

Last night I joined my favorite event of the month: My book club! This month we read and discussed Frankenstein. As I drove to the event, I felt very worried about the meeting because I had recommended we read this classic about the unnamed monster that Dr Frankenstein created. Reading the book for the second time made me realize some strong themes in the book but also made me realize how romantic and almost silly of a book Mary Shelly wrote.

First lets talk about the romantic aspects. I use the word romantic as the literary meaning of the word. The longing for nature. The belief, championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th-century, holds we should forsake our cities, technology and weapons and return to the idyllic garden. Mary Shelly goes on and on about in her descriptions of nature in her book. Frankenstein creates The Monster by his use of science which is contrary to nature. He uses technology to create a being who never should have been. The monster too knows he should never have been and long the companionship and love of other beings.

Now let's move to the silly aspects. The Monster learns within two years how to speak with grammatical sentences by observing a near by a family! After studying Chinese for four months, I can tell you that it's not as easy to learn a language as it was for The Monster. I won't even mention the difficultly which Frankenstein overcomes so easy to make a fully working being from morgue scraps, and that he was going to make a bride for the monster with functioning reproductive system... I'd like to see how that was possible.

Let's move from the silly to the enduring piece that Mary Shelly displays so clearly for me. Responsibility for our progeny rings as the theme. Michael Crichton picked up this theme and used it as the central plot of all of his books: Man creates using his technology and his creations turn on him.  Dr. Ian Malcolm in The Lost World, "Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming."

This idea still rings true. Today's science is finally catching up to where we expect it to be. I love the quote, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed", in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993). But its starting to get more evenly distributed and affordable. You can fly into space on Virgin Galactic.

You can get your DNA sequenced and drugs made for your unique issues. Google can tell us everything we want to know. We can get any book instantly. We can collaborate on projects with anyone across the globe. We can almost travel anywhere on our globe with in 36 hours for under $5k. We can even use our technology to recapture nature with satellite images poachers can be tracked and arrested. Winter, the dolphin with prosthetic tail can swim again. Technology and science has given us supreme power that Mary Shelly could never have dreamed of.

But with all this there’s always that fear of our science turn on us and it does. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put thousands out of work and cause untold ecological damage. Hackers from around the globe attach institutions they don't care for. Hundreds are dying from tainted medicine. Viruses can spread around the globe in 36 hours as we travel from one destination to another.

So what's to be done? What can we do? Dr Victor Frankenstein told Walton that he should avoid scientific discovery and exploration as the worst waste of time. “Learn from me . . . 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.”

But I abandon this belief. I love technology. Just yesterday I was having lunch with an amazing local business leader and she was telling me about a device to help folks suffering from Alzheimer's disease. This device makes their lives significantly better for the care givers and the patients. I know technology can and does make the world better. We all just need to learn how to deal with it. I hope we will. I believe there is hope.

In a podcase from To The Best of our Knowlege titled "Thinking about Thinking," they were saying that people always worry about new technology. When fire was invented no doubt lots of cavemen complained that it was dangerous and would kill them. But eventually the cavemen learned how to use it and control it. The same way we will grow and learn how to manage our technology and science.

In order to make sure Mary Shelly's worst fears don't come true we need to do the following:
1.      At the most basic level we need government to get out of the way. Remove the obstacles from our economy that moves technology forward. We need to remove red tape that stops industry from developing.
2.      Next step, we need to reach for what Umair Haque calls “Betterness.” He talks about measuring a business not by its income sheet, not even by its normal its balance sheet, but by the value it creates in the community and world. In this type of paradigm board members, C-level executives and employees strive to ensure their products and services aren’t taking value out of the world by destroying environments, but instead do everything they can to make the world a better place as defined in their “Ambition statements”
3.      We need to remove obstacles from our bright young people's way and get them into science and engineering. Let them focus on the issues and create solutions. We need role models to get in front of kids and show them that technology makes a great career. Here we all can get involved. Mentor, teach, and encourage them.

Together we can make a difference and not let the progeny get away from us.

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