“What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” -Walton, speaking in Mary Shelley‘s ‘Frankenstein’.
1~ The Computer Cycle
Most critics agree that Mary Shelley wrote her novel as a rebuff to the then current Industrial Revolution taking place in England during the late 19th Century. In a world where technology and the new discoveries of Science seemed to know no bounds, Mary Shelley sounded a warning to her world. Be careful. Be careful what you create. It could destroy you.
I have taken her monster for the title of these articles because I believe we of the 21st century are running a very similar risk. If I were to resort to rhetoric I would put my argument as:
The modern world is teetering on the brink of collapse.
Having thrown that into the paper basket in the hope of a more balanced discussion I might put the statement another way:
“It really wouldn’t surprise me if most of the systems and devices that we have come to rely upon in the world suddenly cease to function or produce effects that put the future of our world into danger.”
What’s the basic premise for my rather audacious statement? It’s quite simple really. We are surrounded by a whole host of technological ‘advances’ – gadgets, devices, platforms and so on. By all accounts we have built, and no doubt will go on to build, increasing amounts of our personal safety, our interpersonal relationships and essential daily lives upon this new technology.
But the technology doesn’t work. The technology isn’t reliable. The technology is friable, unpredictable and, worst of all, most of us have absolutely no idea about how to fix it when it goes wrong. In essence, we are not in control of our futures.
Before going on to consider some of the more tricky nuggets hidden away in that assertion, let me draw some further parallels’ – and some distance – between the world of Mary Shelley and that of Seex Dyer.
The Shelley’s generation were bombarded with the promise of a bright new future, of possibility unbounded thanks to the new devices and methods being employed in the Industrial Revolution.
We too are constantly being told that our future, at least in the tech-savvy wealthy West, is bright and unbridled. Everything will be faster, smaller, smarter, more personal, more efficient and … more reliable.
From the late 1800’s Labour saving devices were to become the mainstay of every home. Science was heralding a new era of personal health and prosperity. Is this any different today?
Well, perhaps there are important differences. At the risk of resorting to flippancy, let me compare the computer I am writing this on with the bicycle sitting outside in my shed.
We Cannot Control What We Do Not Understand
Ah, what a device! Any self-respecting Edwardian would be proud to own such a fine piece of British engineering. (Yes, I’m talking about the bicycle.)
The Industrial Revolution brought about huge social and societal changes (not unlike the internet, perhaps) but it also fundamentally improved the quality of goods available to the emerging middle classes. And those breakthroughs in design and manufacture are still present in the locomotive device sat in my shed.
Likewise the dawn of the computer age has also improved the availability of a whole range of experiences and possibilities for the buying public. As one who was born in the age when computers were the works of science fiction I can hand on heart assert that I do not take the computing power of the little netbook I am writing this on for granted in any way.
But therein lays at least one part of my theory. I cannot actually take my netbook for granted because I don’t understand it. And if I don’t understand it, it is not really in my control. That is, I don’t understand exactly how it works. Not really. If the interface system crashes I’m lost. Whereas the bicycle…
Ok, so any readers of my blog may remember my encounters with bicycle repairs, spanners and locked nuts with a wry smile. (See articles here.) I do not pretend to be able to repair everything on my bike, any more than I can write binary code. But I do basically understand how it works.
I can check all the moving parts are in order before setting off. Simple maintenance such as oiling and tightening I am aware of and can perform myself. And if I leave it alone in the shed it will be pretty much in the same state when I return. There is the strong sense of control in my relationship with the bike.
If something goes wrong, I will almost certainly be able to tell you what it is, and, most importantly say why this or that has taken place. I can then take it confidently to be repaired, knowing that I can tell the difference afterwards.
The computer? I achieve basic maintenance when I keep it dry and charge up the battery. Beyond that I have no control. Yes, it mostly follows procedure. And there is the sense that I am in charge because I give the software commands. But let’s be honest. How many times does your (and my) computer do things that we didn’t ask it to? Saving files in temporary folders, updating programs, saving cookies, filling in fields and …crashing. And when they crash we are all, it seems, even those of us who work in ‘support centres’ reduced to uttering the words, “Turn it off, count to ten and turn it on again.”
Knowledge is control. Knowledge is power. I don’t think I am very different from many in my generation when I say that I don’t understand how computers work. I have some bits of vocabulary, some concept of ‘memory’ and ‘programs’ for example. But I am not in control when they stop working. I have no idea what to do and no way of knowing why they have stopped (aside from being dropped in a bucket of water.)
So in a very real sense I have no control over my computer. Put another way, I am powerless when it stops working or does things I do not want it to.
But can I do without the benefits that it brings? Is there a way to put us back into control when it comes to digital technology? Is it worth losing some control to gain access to a ‘Country of eternal light’?
Next time I will dig a little deeper and look at the way we are all embroiled in what I can only describe as a ‘Stupidity Conspiracy’ and why this has brought us closer and closer to disaster.
The element of control is at the heart of Mary Shelley’s novel. Her imagining of Professor Frankenstein’s achievements is not aimed at halting research or of curbing human ingenuity.
Therefore I doubt Mary Shelley would have a problem with my bicycle. (Apart from getting onto it, of course.) The improved design and the precision of the engineering would rate alongside it’s improved reliability and usefulness I think. But it was not the designing of a Monster that worried Mary Shelley.
- Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (apsummerreading.wordpress.com)
- Mary Shelley (klowenwirth1.wordpress.com)