American Culture

My god – it's full of stars: 2001, Frankenstein and autonomous technology

I used to work with a HAL 9000. Back when I was at US West in the late ’90s we had a voice system into which we would record the day’s company news so that employees without Internet access could dial in and keep up with the latest events. As with any such system there was a dial-in sequence, buttons that had to be pressed in a certain order, etc.

One day, as I was working through the first stage of the sequence, our phone system apparently achieved sentience. For reasons that I still can’t explain, a decade later, and that nobody at the time had any clue about, the machine sort of … intuited what I was about to do. It performed an action or two that, put simply, it could not do. My assistant was standing beside me – we were working on speaker at this point – and all of a sudden the voice system began acting on its own. Not glitching, mind you – it wasn’t malfunctioning. It was moving merrily ahead without us.

My assistant and I simultaneously stepped back, away from the newly self-aware machine. We looked at each other with expressions about halfway between “what the fuck was that?” and “RUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”

I slammed the receiver down, waited a few minutes, and when we worked up the nerve to try again HAL was acting more or less normally. Perhaps it realized it had scared us. But why am I telling you all this?

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that dragged our collective Frankenstein Complex out of the closet and updated it for a new generation of popular culture consumers. 2001 is listed in IMDB’s top 100 films of all time and is regarded as perhaps the greatest film ever in its genre.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a landmark, science fiction classic – and probably the best science-fiction film of all time about exploration of the unknown. It was released, coincidentally, at the height of the space race between the USSR and the US. It appeared at the same time as NASA’s exploratory Apollo Project with manned Earth orbiting missions – a prelude to orbiting and landing on the Moon with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. And it prophetically showed the enduring influence that computers would have in our daily lives.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s work is a profound, visionary and astounding film (a mysterious Rorschach film-blot) and a tremendous visual experience. This epic film contained more spectacular imagery (about what space looked like) and special effects than verbal dialogue. Viewers are left to experience the non-verbal, mystical vastness of the film, and to subjectively reach into their own subconscious and into the film’s pure imagery to speculate about its meaning. Many consider the masterpiece bewildering, boring, slow-moving or annoying, but are still inspired by its story of how man is dwarfed by technology and space.

In the film, for those who haven’t seen it yet (and if this is you, *SPOILER ALERT*), a powerful artificial intelligence-driven computer, the aforementioned HAL 9000, runs amok and kills most of the crew. It’s a complex story, of course, and there’s a great deal more going on than we’ve seen in other homocidal/megalomaniacal AI stories through the years, but there’s nonetheless something quite disconcerting about machine mutiny, where our technologies indulge their own judgment to the detriment of their human creators and masters.

In honor of Stanley Kubrick’s (and Arthur C. Clarke’s) epic achievement, ArtSunday today examines our tradition of autonomous technology in narrative.

Autonomous technology and Frankenstein

The West has some long-standing and deep-seated issues with what Langdon Winner has called “autonomous technology” – technology that is no longer within the purview of human agency.

One symptom of a profound stress that affects modern thought is the prevalence of the idea of autonomous technology – the belief that somehow technology has gotten out of control and follows its own course, independent of human direction (Winner Autonomous Technology 13)

The greatest of all autonomous technology fables – a story that’s still being told and re-told, in everything from Tron to Blade Runner to Terminator to the Jurassic Park series, by the way – is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a work that perhaps defines the Romantic Period as surely as the poetry of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

There’s no indication that Shelley intended to found a new literary genre, but she is nonetheless credited with having written the first science fiction story (Alkon). The significance of this particular moment in literary history cannot be overstated, because in Frankenstein Mary Shelley helped establish one of the most important ideological safe harbors in Western cultural history. At the date of the novel’s publication England was a mere six years removed from the violent put-down of the Luddite uprising, and the wounds were far from healed and the government was clearly in no mood to argue the future of technological development.

Fiction, though, represented a safe outlet for the expression of technological critiques – while the state wouldn’t tolerate the breaking of looms, it wasn’t likely to mobilize troops against a horror story, even if it did detect a subversive thematic bent.

The timing of these events is impossible to ignore – SF was born in the midst of Luddite unrest, and fulfilled a desperate cultural need to express, even if covertly, a profound theme of resistance. The essential role of literature in the larger societal debate reflects its power to intuit and represent the cultural mood and to exercise a certain degree of influence over the drift of that mood.

What Shelley was intent on was inducing horror, albeit in a way distinct from the “mere ghost stories” of the Gothic tradition. One of Frankenstein‘s most notable achievements was its success in conjuring the “pleasing terror” of the sublime without resorting to the unreality of the supernatural (Alkon 1-2). She accomplishes the effect through a clever juxtaposition of the cold, single-minded (and secular) pursuit of knowledge with the established pastoral and transcendent motifs of Romanticism.

Shelley first determines to build the tale on as firm a scientific foundation as can be managed.

Mary Shelley based her novel on what she believed to be the most up-to-date scientific theories. To the extent that her narrative is consistent with, and a logical extension of, existing scientific cognition, it is an example of science fiction in the most rigorous sense of the word (Ziolkowski 38).

She does not intend scientific theory to be taken for medical reality, but the genre of SF has assumed, since Shelley, that scientifically grounded thinking is the appropriate jumping off point for credible fictive speculation (Alkon 5). Shelley herself

recounts listening to a conversation about Erasmus Darwin’s biological experiments, about galvanism, and about possible ways of creating life by reanimating a corpse or else manufacturing “component parts of a creature” that might somehow be endowed with vitality (Alkon 4).

Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, reflected her desire to depict not only scientific plausibility, but also scientific rigor:

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in the highest sense, the physical secrets of the world (Frankenstein 36).

The scientists he encounters upon arriving at the university “have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens…. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows” (46).

The monster is an archetypal expression of the Romantic ideal (when left to his best instincts, that is). His appearance may be disgusting to the humans he meets, but his body is powerful and his mind keen. He’s an intellectual, having been nurtured by the writings of Milton, Göethe, and Plutarch, and his every intention regarding society is noble and beneficent. Aside from his physical appearance he is in every way the model Romantic man. His soul is enchanted by the pastoral, and at times we’d be hard-put to distinguish his words from those of Wordsworth or Percy Shelley.

The pleasant showers and genial warmth of spring greatly altered the aspect of the earth. Men, who before this change seemed to have been hid in caves, dispersed themselves and were employed in various arts of cultivation. The birds sang in more cheerful notes, and the leaves began to bud forth on the trees. Happy, happy earth! fit habitation for gods, which, so short a time before, was bleak, damp, and unwholesome. My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy (112).

The importance of technical plausibility to the effect ultimately serves a cultural, not scientific, purpose. Alkon argues that “futuristic fiction” is distinct from other forms, in that it alone “can appeal to our hunger for the marvelous while also remaining within the bounds of verisimilitude in a scientific age, thereby providing an artistically satisfying vehicle for rational speculation.” Shelley’s attention to theory in Frankenstein illustrates the point: the novel isn’t intended as a treatise on the science of resurrection, reanimation, and the creation of life. Instead, it affords a novel perspective on the consideration of the human condition in an increasingly technicized society (Alkon 3-5).

Aside from its entertainment value, then, SF should be understood as serving at least one very important ideological function in Western society: it provides a space where speculation about technological development can be carried out free of the threat of retribution by the technocratic majority.

It’s perhaps too easy to see the message of Frankenstein as being anti-technological, in much the same way it has become too easy to dismiss Luddites as simply hating progress. Just as the Luddites weren’t anti-technology per se, neither was Shelley – her novel comprises a complex, yet clearly articulated set of cultural concerns relating to scientific responsibility. Victor Frankenstein’s monster does not signify that science is automatically bad – rather, science is corrupted when divorced from society’s moral context. The monster’s abandonment symbolizes moral decontextualization, a step out of Neil Postman’s tool-using paradigm (from Technopoly) and into the technocratic. Scientific creation is possessed with the predisposition for good until corrupted by society (Ziolkowski 42), but its potential goodness depends on its harmonious integration within the ethical framework of the culture.

The blame for science run amok falls on society generally, but the bulk of the fault, Shelley suggests, lies directly with the scientist himself. Driven by the same dynamic that Arnold Pacey describes as the “mainspring of technological misdirection,” – the “impulse to go on inventing, developing and producing regardless of society’s needs” (Culture of Technology 171-172) – Victor never reflects during the process of planning and researching his grand experiment as to whether he ought to carry on. The thing should be done if it can be done.

When he finally beholds the horror of his creation, his mind recoils. Victor’s blind pursuit of scientific achievement had led him to consider (and prepare for) only two possible outcomes – technical success, which would mark him as the greatest scientist of his time, or technical failure, which would presumably send him back to the drawing board. The possibility that technical success could result in a moral failure never occurred to him, despite Shelley’s matter-of-fact belief, expressed in her introduction to the novel, that “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” His rejection of the monster is instantaneous, instinctive, and irrevocable. Moral abdication leads Victor to loose his monster upon an uncomprehending world, and is the direct cause of all the terror which then ensues.

If Victor Frankenstein had not been overcome by his initial disgust, if he had responded to his creature with love and understanding, it might have become an instrument of good rather than evil.

It would be inconsistent with everything we know about European romanticism to think that Mary Shelley meant her novel as a blanket indictment of the pursuit of knowledge per se. Instead it is a cautionary tale against science divorced from ethical responsibility (Ziolkowski 43-44).

Kranzler and Ziolkowski rightly see Frankenstein as an attempt to rationally situate the quest for scientific knowledge within the moral context of an industrial society in turmoil. Kranzler, noting the text’s proximity to the Luddite uprisings, says the novel “is a direct warning in reference to these riots, and seems particularly proleptic in the modern world” (Kranzler 48).

It was one of the principal achievements of romanticism, and especially of the great reforms that established in early nineteenth-century Germany the first modern universities, to insist upon the right of scholarship in general and science in particular to pursue its free inquiry, uninhibited by any authority, spiritual or secular. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein expresses society’s concern at what it perceived to be the mindless pursuit of knowledge with no thought for its political implications (Ziolkowski 40).

Victor Frankenstein’s monster stands at the crossroads of the West’s increasingly pressing technological question. He brilliantly reflects the subtleties of the Luddite reaction, condemning not technology itself but technology engendered without moral counsel; he embodies the complexities of Romanticism, at once natural, divine, intellectual, and innately prone to transcendence; and he marks the founding of a literary genre which has made possible a widespread consideration of technical development in the popular mind. In these ways Shelley’s singular literary accomplishment insisted on asking of science the ethical question that, in its rage for secularization, it all too often did not want to hear. That question, of course, is the same one critics like Pacey and Hans Jonas (and Clifford Stoll and Mark Slouka, etc.) are still asking today.

To what can we possibly appeal, though, as we seek the ethics intimated by Shelley and expanded by the several critics noted here? For society’s long term well-being, Jonas stresses the need for a renewed sense of the sacred, which will be necessary for the ordering of a truly ethical and responsible administration of technological might. In the short term, though, he argues for the power of fear – a position we might call “Frankenstein’s-Monster-as-Ethicist-pro-tempore.”

It is moot whether, without restoring the category of the sacred, the category most thoroughly destroyed by the scientific enlightenment, we can have an ethics able to cope with the extreme powers which we possess today and constantly increase and almost compelled to wield. Regarding those consequences that are imminent enough still to hit ourselves, fear can do the job – fear which is so often the best substitute for genuine virtue or wisdom (Jonas 23).

Jonas’ call for a new morally-informed ethics finds its genesis in Shelley, where scientific hubris is contrasted with a sense of the sacred, of a divine order where humanity is best served by understanding and accepting that its rightful place lies within creation, not over it. God is present in the narrative, as Victor routinely invokes divinity in lamenting his misdeeds and resulting ill fortune, and Shelley’s own comments make clear that creation is the exclusive province of divinity. But God was nowhere present during the young scientist’s studies at Ingolstadt or during his creation of the monster, and when the narrator inquires after some of Frankenstein’s knowledge he is rebuked for desiring to know how to create “ a daemoniacal enemy” (204). In this characterization Victor situates the scientific pursuit of creation within an explicitly theological context.

Jonas point is well-taken, if cynical, but in the end still fails to answer some of the concerns raised earlier in the discussion. To wit, if it remains the perception in the public mind that technology is neutral, which seems a given for the time being, then fear – the “monster-ethicist” – will not arouse a reformulation of public policies toward technological development itself, but will merely target the presumably independent human factor. To a degree this will be a positive development – less human error would have been most desirable at Chernobyl in all stages of the plant’s conception, construction, and operation.

In the end, the focus on human fallibility leaves us ultimately committed to breeding and domesticating ever larger and more intractable monsters, without once asking the Luddite/Romantic/techno-dystopian question: On the whole, mightn’t we be better off if we stopped breeding monsters altogether?


Alkon, P. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Carey, James W., and John J. Quirk. “The History of the Future.” Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. Ed. James W. Carey. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 173-200.

Carey, James W. “A Cultural Approach to Communication.” Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. Ed. James W. Carey. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 13-35.

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Harper’s Forum. “What are We Doing On-line?” Harper’s August 1995: 35-46.

Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: in Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Trans. H. Jonas & D. Herr. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Kranzler, Laura. “Frankenstein and the Technological Future.” Foundation 44.Winter (1988-89): 42-49.

Ludd, Eliza & Ned. “New Luddite: Challenging the Legitimacy of Science and Technology.” November 1995. World Wide Web. Available: February 4 1999.

Pacey, Arnold. The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976.

Pacey, Arnold. The Culture of Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1983.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1932.

Slouka, Mark. War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Stoll, Clifford. Silicon Snake Oil. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1977.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Science, Frankenstein, and Myth.” Sewanee Review 89.1 (1981): 34-56.

6 replies »

  1. Like you, I’ve always been interested in the idea of autonomous technology. Much of sci-fi, however, seems to dwell on the notion of self-awareness.

    I’d rather see technology in this light: Much of it changes patterns of human behavior that we sometimes do not notice. Often that changed behavior is socially or culturally to our detriment. (Not all, though.)

    Examine the role of television on human behavior. For better or worse (rates of obesity, anyone?), we have behaved differently since it became a household staple. Computers, too. The cell phone. The iPod.

    Often I think that machines do not need self-awareness to undo the core of what it means to be human. Rather, I see too many people being blissfully unaware of their own changed behaviors and their attendant consequences.

  2. Denny: I didn’t want to get too deep into the academic muck here, but yes, tech has an autonomous character that doesn’t require actual sentience or self-awareness. I guess you can argue that this isn’t about tech at all, it’s about how people choose to use it, but that’s a perspective that lacks depth and nuance. I think there’s an argument to be made that technology, writ large, is (or at least acts exactly like) a life form. A-Life, if you will, co-evolving in symbiosis with its human host.

    And I can REALLY make your head hurt if you want to wander down that path… 🙂

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