MEMBERS ONLY: Mary Shelley Warned Us About Mark Zuckerberg

by Jeremy Fassler

A few months ago, Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh on Silicon Valley, wrote a lengthy thread on Twitter about doing tech research for the show:

“We’ll see tech that is scary…and we’ll bring up our concerns to them. We are realizing that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech. They don’t even have a pat rehearsed answer. They are shocked at being asked. Which means nobody is asking those questions…Tech has the capacity to destroy us…[and] no ethical considerations are going into the dev[elopement] of tech.”

Societies have long known that when inventors don’t ask hard questions of themselves, the results can be catastrophic. Mark Zuckerberg learned this the hard way this week when he testified before Congress over two consecutive days concerning Cambridge Analytica’s breach of Facebook data in the 2016 election. But it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to know that male ego can lead to an astonishing lack of introspection: while holed up during a rainy vacation in Switzerland, an 18-year-old writer named Mary Shelley decided to tackle this subject in her first novel, a book which would become Frankenstein.

Now celebrating its 200th anniversary, Frankenstein, the story of a mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who sews together dead tissue to bring a deformed Creature to life and witness it wreak havoc on his community and his loved ones, has been dramatized hundreds of times. It has endured multiple interpretations, from the gothic Universal films, to Mel Brooks’s parody film Young Frankenstein, and to Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage production with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. Going back to read the novel is a strange experience, given how many of adaptations take the basic concept and run it in different directions. Nonetheless, all seek to answer the same question: why does Victor Frankenstein feel compelled to make the Creature?

Not every answer to this question is satisfactory. It could be said that Victor wants to play God, but Shelley’s personal atheism muddies that hypothesis. Another explanation is that Shelley wrote about man’s inability to give birth to a child, but given that her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died after giving birth to her and that Shelley herself survived some harrowing experiences in childbirth, that explanation seems unlikely too.

One of the most agreed-upon interpretations is that Shelley wrote the novel to warn humanity about what happens when inventors lose control of their work. This is reflected by the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, with its allusion to the Titan who was punished by the Gods for giving fire to humans. Whether it is the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence, or social networks like Facebook, it’s tempting to associate Zuckerberg’s public fall from grace with Shelley’s Frankenstein, but even that is too shallow. To understand why the novel will never be outdated, we must analyze its synchronic relationship between dilation (meaning “to delay”) and illumination, and how that relationship bears terrifying results.

Young Victor Frankenstein grows up with this pattern embedded into his thoughts, never questioning whether it’s right or wrong, one which manifests itself most profoundly in the chapters where he builds the Creature and beholds the consequences of his decisions. When he recalls how the idea came upon him, he says:

“From the midst of all this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquires towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.”

Shelley repeats the word “light” more than 50 times throughout the novel, often relating to Victor’s bursts of sudden illumination. Victor has another illumination when the Creature first comes to life, terrifying him with “His yellow skin scarcely cover[ing] the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Petrified by his creation, Victor runs away from it, only to suffer a nervous breakdown and spend nearly a year convalescing.

When Victor receives a letter informing him that his brother William has died, he makes another spontaneous decision to immediately return home to his family in Switzerland. However, he keeps delaying the inevitable homecoming, traveling slower and slower the closer he gets. By the time he finally arrives at his village, it is so late at night that he checks into an inn to spend the night before greeting his loved ones in the morning. From his window, he sees a horrifying vision:

“A flash of lightning illuminated the object…its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life. What did he there? Could he be…the murderer of my brother? No sooner did that idea cross my imagnation, that I became convinced of its truth.”

This is the most important moment in the novel – this moment of sudden illumination has only happened because of Victor’s delay in getting to his family home. The Creature reveals to Victor that he did in fact murder William, but when Victor learns that the family maid, Justine, has been accused of the crime, his confidence in her innocence prevents him from revealing the truth. Justine is found guilty and executed.

Throughout the book, Victor’s thought pattern of dilation and illumination results in the deaths of more women. It indirectly takes his mother’s life, destroys Justine the maid, forces him to abandon his promise to the Creature to build a female companion for him, and culminates in the murder of his fiancé Elizabeth. He does all this without ever considering that his ideas might be wrong, that he should not build the Creature. Shelley, who lived much of her life around highly confident men, underlay her novel with the deeply feminist idea that when men are so sure of their beliefs that they leave no room for error, women are always the first to suffer.

When no ethical considerations go into the development of technology, we get Facebook, a company which from its outset has always asked “how” they can do something, but never whether they “should”. FaceMash, the original site Mark Zuckerberg created from his Harvard dorm room, humiliated young twenty-something girls by subjecting them to a “hot or not” algorithm. Since then, he has spent fourteen years issuing apologies for his company every time it has done wrong by its users, harvested their information without their consent, or most scandalously, sold it to the Russians for micro-targeting in the 2016 election.

Like Victor Frankenstein and the techies Nanjiani describes, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t ever ask whether or not he should do any these things. In Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Kamala Harris questioned him about when his company decided not to inform their users that Cambridge Analytica had their information. Zuckerberg sheepishly claimed not to have had knowledge of what conversations took place and when, until Harris backed him into a corner, asking, “Are you aware of anyone in leadership at Facebook who was in a conversation where a decision was made not to inform your users, or do you believe no such conversation ever took place?” Eventually, he admitted that he didn’t know when this decision was made.

Harris did not quite realize what she had accomplished with this line of questioning. She got Mark Zuckerberg to reveal that he too is bound by the relationship between illumination and dilation. The Facebook creator never asked the right questions about his company until it was too late, and is now helpless in righting the wrongs they have done. Facebook is not the only deformed Creature our male dominated society has given birth to. The Creature has also manifested itself in our current president, and Zuckerberg’s inaction helped smear the only woman who could have prevented it.

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