Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm, William Turner. Wikimedia Commons.

on monsters

This is the fourth chapter in a series of pieces about our modern relationship with time and the future. Titled Hourglass, It’s an exploration into how our abstract view of time has changed in modernity, how it has met (or has yet to meet) the needs of the present, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

First Chapter / Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

But first, let’s talk about the end of the world.

The Day the World Ended

On April 10, 1815, the world ended. It began with a rumble, from deep within the earth, a hunger reminiscent of old gods and titans that had been left disregarded for too long and refused to be ignored. Next came fire. The sky erupted in flames, plumes of smoke covering the sky in sheets, raining down ashes. If you were close enough, you’d be lucky to scream before you were killed on the spot. Rivers of hell poured down the countryside, destroying everything in their wake. Well, fuck. We had a good run, didn’t we? Humanity had finally met its match.

The Year Without Summer

Mount Tambora. Wikimedia Commons.

So it must have seemed for anyone living near Sumbawa, Indonesia at the time. Mount Tambora’s eruption was the largest recorded volcanic eruption in human history, 100 times bigger than that of Mt. St. Helens¹. In roughly 3 days, 175 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris was ejected into the air, comprising of about 50 cubic kilometers of magma². In colloquial terms, that’s known as a shitload of magma. No one knew it at the time, but halfway around the world, Europe would be plunged into nearly two years of winter, earning 1816 the nickname “The Year Without a Summer”. These next few years would destroy the livelihoods of countless farmers as failed harvests and poor crop yields drove them into hunger and famine¹. In short, 1815–1817 turned out to be a pretty terrible year for just about everybody. But, fortunately for us, some people didn’t quite get the memo.

On that very same year where summer was robbed from Europe, a small group of English tourists decided to self-isolate in summer villa near Geneva³. Picture this: a group of young adults, holed up for the summer (which was really the winter), in a nice little villa, the storm outside battering at the windows as a warm fire crackled inside. A perfect time to exchange spooky ghost stories. Also a perfect time, these rascals decided, to get hilariously and ridiculously high on opium¹. And so they did. Let’s meet the crew, shall we?

Two poets, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were present. But most notably was the to-be novelist Mary Shelley, who over her time in dreary, wintry Switzerland, would write Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus when she was only 18. The story follows Victor Frankenstein on his attempt to create sentient life — known simply as “the Creature”, the being, described at first as beautiful, begins to repulse Dr. Frankenstein once he realizes what he’s made. In a desperate attempt to find love, the Creature turns to his creator in a plea to make him a companion. Victor adamantly refuses, turning the Creature against him, ultimately spelling out death and destruction for Victor’s loved ones, the Creature, and Victor himself⁴.

Modern portrayals of Frankenstein show his beast as a horrid creation, a destructive force that inspires fear and terror. But it misses out on the incredible nuance of the story itself. A key feature that is often overlooked is the alleged beauty of his creation at first sight; indeed, Frankenstein modeled the beast after an ideal, hoping to create a being that was better than himself. It’s not until later that the doctor deems his creation hideous and wretched. A second point is the lesser well-known subtitle of the book: the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a titan who shaped humans out of clay. In a famous act of compassion, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and bestowed it upon mankind — a tool so useful that they, too, could become god-like. As punishment for his hubris, the gods sent him to exile, forever chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an Eagle every day. Victor, like Prometheus, suffers from his hubris in creating something that he wishes to be greater than himself, leading to his eventual downfall.

The Postmodern Prometheus

The themes in Shelley’s novel are perhaps more relevant today than ever. With the creation of novel gene-editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9, it’s now possible to make selective edits to DNA⁵. These may prove incredibly useful in treating diseases like HIV, sickle-cell anemia, and cancer⁵. But the bigger question remains about the use of this technology beyond their ability to heal — it’s not a question of if, but when, these technologies will be used to enhance or modify humans in ways we can’t even imagine⁶. True, current technologies are still in their early stages, but progress is accelerating faster than regulations, and we may soon be looking over the edge of creation itself⁶. Frankenstein can be viewed as a warning for the road ahead, one which we need to treat seriously; in order to avoid making catastrophic mistakes. Descent with modification, indeed.

These themes extend beyond our physical bodies to encompass our minds as well — an idea we will return to in a later chapter. Already, companies like Google’s DeepMind and OpenAI are using brain-inspired algorithms (also known as “Deep Neural Networks” or “Deep Learning”) to generate music, drive cars, and win at strategy-based videogames. If you’re hoping that these companies have strong ethics guidelines and detailed plans for the road ahead, I have some less-than-encouraging news for you. First, the guidelines that the government has on these novel technologies are more or less nonexistent, or at the very least laughably insufficient. One needs to look no further than Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, and his testimony to Congress to see that our politicians are totally out of their depth. Here’s a now-infamous exchange from that hearing:

Orrin Hatch [R-UT]: “How do you [Mark Zuckerberg] sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

Mark Zuckerburg: “Senator, we run ads.” [7]

That was in 2018. Facebook introduced ads in 2007, over a decade earlier⁸. It’s also hard to imagine a case where companies can successfully self-regulate; existing ethics guidelines sound more aspirational than actionable, and most are often incredibly vague, and not particularly insightful. See for yourself: here’s Google’s set of AI guidelines, written by the CEO, Sundar Pichai⁹. But this chapter isn’t about the specifics of artificial intelligence, it’s about what Shelley’s story has to say about it. And it turns out, quite a lot. Frankenstein is an exploration into the creation of sentient beings, and the consequences it holds for us. Victor was lucky. His Creature wanted a partner, something he was presumably able to provide if he wanted to. What if we create intelligence for which we have nothing to offer? More on that in a later chapter.

These are all fascinating exercises in creative imagination, ones that people far above my pay grade have been chipping away at for decades. But I want to refocus for a second on Mary Shelley. Don’t you worry, in a few chapters we’ll return to the story of mankind and its future; after all, this is what I promised a whole three chapters ago. But for now, let’s focus on Frankenstein, not what the book spells out for our future, but what it did to our past.

The Monsters We’ve Made

If you leaf through old epics, you’ll find countless tales of adventurers and heroes. You’d come across Prometheus, who as we discussed earlier, gave fire to mankind at great personal cost. You’d come across stories of Hercules, of the Trojan War. But one thing you’d find is that all these stories would have been set in time periods long ago, filled with adventurers who tackled a primordial world that was wilder, larger, more impressive than the tame world that humans at the “present date” currently occupied. Take the Aeneid, written by Virgil around 20 B.C., for example. The stories that he recounted happened a full millennium before he wrote a single word! Of course, there were always plenty of people willing to write about the present, but the instigator of the plot was almost always human or supernatural in nature. In other words, the plot was driven by existing or past technologies, agents, or beings. Frankenstein changed all that.

For the first time, the story is moved forward not by an act of God or man alone. Set indeterminately in the 18th century, the story is modern and more or less contemporary with Mary Shelley. Victor creates his so-called monster from technology that did-not yet exist out of a medium, electricity, which was not yet fully understood. The future, not the past, was of interest — it was bigger, more interesting, more dangerous. The past was taken off of its pedestal, and the future came in to take its place as muse. In one fell swoop, Mary Shelley had created a beast of her own, one that would have incredible consequences for the future of literature. She had written a story, set near the present, using technologies of the future as the main instigator. She wouldn’t know it then, but she just invented the genre of science fiction, mind you, at the age of 18.

Today we equate science fiction with stories of space travel, alien technology, and fantastical book covers¹⁰ with their unique, wacky style. They captured the popular imagination, pushing the reader to imagine what comes next. As an art form, they detached themselves from other narratives that held fast to things currently in existence: old ways of living, old means of communication, even old gods, and replaced them with entirely new and alternate realities that were dizzying and disorienting, packed full of creative ideas about the future and the present. Science fiction was engaged in world-building, yes, but also future-building. By constructing worlds that were compelling, emotional, and complex, science fiction authors convinced readers that the future might hold something strange, something exciting, something, well, new! In short, science fiction helped pioneer the future as we know it — not just by presenting us with alternate realities that might come to fruition, but by challenging us to consider how our present might fit into that greater picture. In short, science fiction was a way for us to experience time travel (in itself another concept that many Sci-Fi writers began to explore) from the comfort of our own homes.

There were many things Mary Shelley didn’t know when she exchanged ghost stories with her friends. But cut her some slack, she had just invented a genre of writing; you’d be exhausted, too, if you had done the same. She didn’t know that the same volcano that had shrouded Europe in an unusually wintry summer would also tinge the sunsets remarkable shades of red. She didn’t know that the same year, a man by the name of William Turner would transfer these brilliant hues onto a canvas, marking a significant step towards abstraction in painting. Out of the winter would emerge a movement that had irreversible consequences for mankind. In 1818, Théodore Géricault would unveil his work The Raft of the Medusa, widely considered to be a seminal piece of work in this movement. This new intellectual movement emphasized humanism and liberalism as the paragons of morality, leading people towards enlightenment. At the same time, artists and scientists alike explored the power of emotion over rationality, an interplay that continues to this day in philosophical and scientific dialogue. This movement, later dubbed Romanticism (for its focus on emotions and individualism), would prove to be so influential that by 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would proclaim that “God is dead … And we have killed him.”

The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault. The image that started French Romanticism. Wikimedia Commons.

Since Romanticism, many philosophical and scientific movements have reshaped history, but the core ideas of humanism and liberalism remain strong. In some ways, this was the monster that Shelley unwittingly released upon the world — a movement that neither she, nor any of Romanticism’s unknowing participants could stop in its tracks. Perhaps I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the world ended on April 10, 1815, the year when Mount Tambora erupted. In the aftermath of that eruption, humans developed the most powerful tool that we have today: the future — that everlasting flame of hope that sustains even the least religious among us. For the first time, humans were sacred — our very life, our minds, our will, defining the moral compass of the modern world. We were the ones who would wield the torch of the future, and we were the ones who would bring it into fruition. The old world, and the old order, lay bare before us, shattered and in pieces.

But as Shelley astutely pointed out, creation comes at a cost, and nowhere is it more clear than in the consequence of her work, and the work of other Romantic artists, scientists, and philosophers. When Nietzsche made his now-famous declaration, he didn’t do it out of glee or self-indulgence. He looked at the world the Romanticists envisioned, one in which humans, not God, play the central role in creation, and he realized the cost we paid for it. In creating our future, we had killed God.

It remains to be seen what monsters we will create in His absence.

What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

— Friedrich Nietzsche

[1] Broad, William J. “A Volcanic Eruption That Reverberates 200 Years Later.” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com./2015/08/25/science/mount-tambora-volcano-eruption-1815.html.

[2] Klemetti, Erik. “Tambora 1815: Just How Big Was The Eruption?” Wired, Conde Nast, 10 Apr. 2015, www.wired.com/2015/04/tambora-1815-just-big-eruption/.

[3] Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. “The Volcano That Shrouded the Earth and Gave Birth to a Monster — Issue 31: Stress.” Nautilus, 31 Dec. 2015, nautil.us/issue/31/stress/the-volcano-that-shrouded-the-earth-and-gave-birth-to-a-monster.

[4] Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797–1851. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus : the 1818 Text. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 1998.

[5] “What Are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9? — Genetics Home Reference — NIH.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/genomeediting.

[6] Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. [Toronto, Ontario]: Signal, 2015.

[7]

[8] “Facebook Unveils Facebook Ads.” About Facebook, 7 Nov. 2019, about.fb.com/news/2007/11/facebook-unveils-facebook-ads/.

[9] Pichai, Sundar. “AI at Google: Our Principles.” Google, Google, 7 June 2018, www.blog.google/technology/ai/ai-principles/.

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com