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Bad Horse


A lack of hubris is a tragic flaw.

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Mar
26th
2020

Frankenstein vs. Today's Newspaper · 7:43pm March 26th

I'm listening to "Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind", a 2007 lecture series by Eric Rabkin about fantasy and science fiction.  In lecture 14, "Frankenstein", he said the story is a warning against "science in the hands of an egotist, alienated from the restraining wisdom of community".  He closed the lecture by saying, "To test the relevance of this admonition, I invite you to read today's newspaper."

It so happens I have a copy of today's newspaper with me.  Let's test the relevance of this admonition. Below are summaries of all the articles in today's Wall Street Journal on science, all on page B4, "Technology":

"Make the Best of Video Chat": A San Francisco resident has been using video chat to attend virtual lunches, virtual visits, even virtual yoga classes.

"Tech Innovators Put Their Minds To Fighting Virus": "Thousands of volunteers from the tech world have begun pitching in on hundreds of hastily assembled projects over the past two weeks".  This includes quite a few egotists. None of them appear to be under the restraining wisdom of community.

"Small Firm Offers Ventilator Alternative": A small company makes a hyperbaric portable "oxygen chamber" for the head that can substitute for a ventilator (a device to get more oxygen into someone's lungs).  But they can't make nearly as many as people want. The restraining wisdom of community says it would be unfair to raise the price to deter people from ordering one who don't really need it, so instead, they're keeping the price the same as before, and limiting the number of them that anyone can order.  Hence Massachusetts General Hospital got only 5 of the 20 that they wanted.

Relevance tested, though no statistical significance is possible with a sample of 3.  I invite you to conduct your own tests. Make sure to take a random sample, like all the articles in today's newspaper, or the first 10 google hits on "technology" that were posted today, and report how you sampled and the sample size.

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Comments ( 16 )

keep in mind this was back in 2007. There were a lot more rogue replicants loose on the streets of Los Angeles back then.

Jurassic Park had basically the same lesson, just with dinosaurs and therefore more awesomely.

5229210
Yeah, checking newspapers circa 2007 would probably be wise, if only to see if you can figure out the specific examples he had in mind.

It's one of those passages that's supposed to make one sound terribly witty despite not being particularly witty. Kinda like those "apple" fritters you get at Renaissance festivals.

more serious comment:

was reminded of this article on robots that I read a few months back, which even brings up the whole Frankenstein story and its ethics. the tldr version is that the Frankenstein metaphor of creating life is only a cultural taboo in the western world. so "the restraining wisdom of the community" should be taken with a grain of salt.

I can think of some criticisms of science, but using Frankenstein always seemed weirdly arbitrary to me. Didn't enjoy the book much anyway.

5229368
Also, in the book, didn't the creature turn out bad because people treated it badly, and not because of anything innate?

5229426 In the book, the monster decided to take revenge on Victor Frankenstein (no doctorate) for treating him badly. In the 1931 Boris Karloff movie (which I like better than the book), the monster was a nice guy but did, I think, accidentally kill someone.

(And In the Gene Wilder version, it was because of a bunch of stupid reporters at the monster's broadway revue.)

5229368
From the article:
“Dr Frankenstein creates another life in the monster. It’s like humans eating from the tree of knowledge in Eden. That’s the original sin; as a result, we get punished,” he says. At the tragic end of the story, with Dr Frankenstein and his monster both dead, the lesson is clear, says Simons: “Be careful, human beings. Don’t take on the role of God.”

Eh, the moral I got from Frankenstein was always 'be careful playing god and treat your creations right', not 'don't play god'. The first is a pretty good moral, the second less so.

5229496
The movie is arguably better than the book. I think the monster killed two people in it. The little girl by accident and Fritz because he was an abusive asshole, so there's the murdering people who mistreat it angle from the book.

5229496
So, Gene Wilder version is surprsingly the more actual and relevant one ?

Wow.

5229625
Maybe, but I think that's spinning it too optimistically for a tragedy ("The Modern Prometheus"), compared to something like Isaac Asimov writing about coexisting with robots. To give the book credit, it only works as a romanticist critique of human nature, saying that it's inevitable that humanity will mistreat the creation just because of its appearance (not just the doctor, but the blind man's family too). And I don't think Shelley gives the creature too much credit by portraying it as a serial killer who must be pacified.... because it's isolated and wants a mate. :twilightoops:

Or at best, the book is saying only the humans that desire to play god are the assholes, ruining everything for the rest of us. So we get right back to the popular view of egoist scientists like in the OP.

Though to be fair, I think it's also just as true that's the moral people take away from Frankenstein, and its imitators, since it's so common to hear people say (or joke) "we have to be nice to the robots/AI so they don't overthrow us". Though I find the assumption that 'they want to overthrow us' to be flawed to begin with. Either way, it's still this odd cultural taboo that sticks around.

The newspapers these days seem to warn more of egotists who ignore science.

5229670 5229625

("The Modern Prometheus")

Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and was chain chained to a rock forever to have his liver torn out every day by a giant bird. So the "defy the gods, or use their things, and suffer the consequence" message is already there in the subtitle.

Well science is an amoral process of reasoning and experimentation. Of course in "the wrong hands" it can be used for harm. The same goes for a stick. Or a rock.

If we're talking technology specifically, that certainly has lots of negative consequences. It has lots of good ones too.

5230030
But, interestingly, Prometheus also unequivocally advanced the human condition.

Even if things ended badly for him, personally, society benefited immensely.

What happens when the community is also guided by egoists?

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