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200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

A teenage girl grieving the death of her infant daughter is sitting on the almost unbearably beautiful shore of a Swiss mountain lake. Her own mother, a pioneering feminist and political philosopher, has died of complications from childbirth exactly a month after bringing her into the world. Her philosopher father has cut her off for eloping to Europe with her lover — a struggling poet, whom she would marry six months later, after the suicide of his estranged first wife.

Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) is just shy of her nineteenth birthday. She and her lover — Percy Bysshe Shelley — are spending the summer with Percy’s best friend, the poet Lord Byron, whose wife has just left him and taken custody of their infant daughter, Ada Lovelace. One June evening, Lord Byron proposes that the downtrodden party amuse themselves by each coming up with a ghost story. What Mary dreams up would go on to become one of the world’s most visionary works of literature, strewn with abiding philosophical questions about creativity and responsibility, the limits and liabilities of science, and the moral dimensions of technological progress.

Mary Shelley

The year is 1816. Decades stand between her and the first working incandescent light bulb. It would be more than a century before the Milky Way is revealed as not the whole of the universe but one of innumerable galaxies in it. Photography is yet to be invented; the atom yet to be split; Neptune, penicillin, and DNA yet to be discovered; relativity theory and quantum mechanics yet to be conceived of. The very word scientist is yet to be coined (for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville).

Against this backdrop and its narrow parameters of knowledge barely imaginable to today’s vista of scientific understanding, Mary Shelley unleashed her imagination on Lord Byron’s challenge and began gestating what would be published eighteen months later, on the first day of 1818, as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Its message is as cautionary as it is irrepressibly optimistic. “The labours of men of genius,” this woman of genius writes, “however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Two hundred years later, Arizona State University launched The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project — a cross-disciplinary, multimedia endeavor to engage the people of today with the timeless issues of science, technology, and creative responsibility posed by Shelley’s searching intellect and imagination. As part of the celebration, MIT Press published Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (public library) — Shelley’s original 1818 manuscript, line-edited by the world’s leading expert on the text and accompanied by annotations and essays by prominent contemporary thinkers across science, technology, philosophy, ethics, feminism, and speculative fiction. What emerges is the most thrilling science-lensed reading of a literary classic since Lord Byron’s Don Juan annotated by Isaac Asimov.

Editors David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, who consider Shelley’s masterwork “a book that can encourage us to be both thoughtful and hopeful” and describe their edition as one intended “to enhance our collective understandings and to invent — intentionally — a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive,” write in the preface:

No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s remarkably enduring tale of creation and responsibility… In writing Frankenstein, Mary produced both in the creature and in its creator tropes that continue to resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Moreover, these tropes and the imaginations they engender actually influence the way we confront emerging science and technology, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of scientific research against its anticipated and unforeseen pitfalls.

It is almost impossible to imagine what the world, the everyday world, was like two centuries ago — a difference so profound it seeps into language itself. With this in mind, the editors offer a thoughtful note on their choice of referring to Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as “the creature” (rather than daemon, which Shelley herself uses, or monster, as posthumous criticism often does). In consonance with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight into how naming confers dignity upon life, they write:

It is worth pointing out that the way we now use the word creature ignores a richer etymology. Today, we refer to birds and bees as creatures. Living things are creatures by virtue of their living-ness. When we call something a creature today, we rarely think in terms of something that has been created, and thus we erase the idea of a creator behind the creature. We have likewise lost the social connotation of the term creature, for creatures are made not just biologically (or magically) but also socially.

This nexus of the scientific and the social at the heart of Shelley’s novel comes alive in a lovely companion to the annotated edition: Reanimation! — a seven-part series of animated conversations with scientists by science communication powerhouse Massive, exploring the prescient questions embedded in Shelley’s novel — questions touching on the nature of consciousness, the evolution and definition of life, the ethics of genetic engineering, the future of the human body and artificial intelligence.

In the first film — which calls to mind Freeman Dyson’s assertion that “a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet” — BBC science communicator Britt Wray and ecologist and biologist Ben Novak echo poet Denise Levertov’s lament about our tendency to see ourselves as separate from nature through the lens of genetic engineering and synthetic biology:

I’m really hoping that synthetic biology as a whole can drive a different appreciation — a different definition and relationship — of what we see to be nature. For years, we have peddled this notion that humans are separate entities from nature — there’s the arrogance that humans are somehow divinely above nature and we’re the caretakers of the world and we can do whatever we want with it. But there really hasn’t been a universal realization that we are nature.

Perhaps the central animating question of Shelley’s novel is what she termed “the nature of the principle of life” — that curious island of being amid the vast cosmic ocean of nonbeing. This is what theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker and exoplanetary scientist and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf consider in the second film, exploring the nature and definition of life on Earth and beyond, and what we mean by intelligence when we speak of intelligent life:

We’ve really thought about life as being a binary phenomenon — something is alive or it’s not… In the context of origins of life, that’s really critical, because you want to talk about the transition between nonliving things and living things… [But] life in general is actually a process that occurs across multiple scales, and you can talk about a cell in my body being alive or you can talk about me being alive and you can also… go up in scale and maybe think about societies as being alive. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about life… it has this kind of hierarchical structure where you have many layers of organization.

[…]

We might be able to understand more universal properties of life based on organizational principles — [not] just focusing on the things life is made of, but how it is organized. That’s [why] reductionism has been hard in biology — because we always try to separate out these scales and treat them separately. But [in reality] you have ordered processes and dynamics across multiple scales — that really is the intrinsic indicative process of life.

In the third film, philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers and comparative neuroscientist Danbee Kim examine the nature of consciousness — a philosophical inquiry that occupied Plato, entered the realm of science through William James’s pioneering writings, and has been the subject of another lovely animation by Massive:

Trying to go directly from the cells to behavior is not going to be possible. Why? Because there are actually several levels of organization in between them. If you start with the cell, then the next level of organization would be a circuit. And how does the nervous system as an organ interact with other organs in the body? And then, after that, is the organism and all the movements produced by an organism.

But that still isn’t behavior, because behavior is something that arises when you have goals for your movements and the only way for you to really pick or even decide a goal is not in a vacuum — it has to be within your environment: What other creatures, what other organisms, do you have to coordinate with in order to exist in your immediate local physical space?

[…]

It’s this interplay between brains, bodies, and the world that, in the end, allows us to develop these goals… and the development of those goals is what I would call cognition.

In the fourth film, molecular biologist Kate Krueger and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar consider the common human impulse for transformation, which undergirds both our most primitive Stone Age tools and our most advanced gene editing technologies:

Once we see the development of culture and social interactions, we actually see for the first time our species being able to step outside of and above biological evolution.

[…]

It’s very rare that humans like to sit still and do nothing and maintain stasis. While we love what we know and we do want to maintain it, I think all of us would love to make the world a more interesting place and a more useful place, and be able to do more things and climb higher and move faster. This is also part of our nature — the desire to create and to grow and to change.

In the fifth film, engineer and ethicist Braden Allenby and biomedical engineer Conor Walsh contemplate the widening gap between our technological capabilities and our wisdom, and consider how the abiding philosophical question of what it means to be human is changing in the era of CRISPR and wearable robotics:

When you start to get a much more rapid change in technology, particularly technology that affects the human… you begin to get human as a process. The idea of human that we have is already changing much more rapidly than we know, but the process of human has simply accelerated. It continues, and we remain human.

In the sixth film, historian and philosopher of science Margaret Wertheim, neuroscientist and AI researcher Daniel Baer, and engineer and ethicist Branden Allenby reflect on our perpetually evolving definition of and ethical parameters around what constitutes intelligence and what makes an intelligence “artificial”:

I suspect that we are not going to think we see a conscious machine even when they are running the planet… We have an extraordinary ability as humans — as soon as we offload something to machines that has to do with our cognition, we call it simple and it’s obviously not part of intelligence. [For example], the first people who were called computers were in fact very highly trained mathematicians, many of them women, who did systemic mathematical solutions for very complex equations for things like ballistics… and they were regarded as extremely intelligent. That lasted until TI came up with the first calculator and then, suddenly, we decided that mathematical calculations weren’t part of being intelligent. So my suspicion is that we already have machines that, to at least first degree, are AI.

In the seventh and final film, BBC science communicator Britt Wray, theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker, and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar examine what may be the overarching philosophical concern of Shelley’s masterwork — the God complex with which we wield our tools and regard their creations, and the interplay between fear and curiosity indelible to all innovation and to every leap of science:

What makes Homo sapiens special and different is their ability to innovate on the fly, come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, [and] learn from the mistake of others and communicate rapidly… to build upon the mistakes of the past.

Complement Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds with philosopher Joanna Bourke’s synthesis of three centuries of ideas about what it means to be human and Maya Angelou’s arresting message to humanity in the golden age of twentieth-century scientific breakthrough, then visit Massive for more animated conversations with leading scientists about some of the most exciting frontiers of science and the most morally complex questions of our time.

BP

The Lady and Her Monsters: Real-Life Frankensteins and How Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece Came to Life

The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.

Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.

Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:

[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.

Mary Godwin — later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein — may also have been born at the moment of lightning, but her mother’s life ended nearly a week later from birthing complications. Young Mary was born into an age of Galvanism, when experiments in electricity had just begun to interest the scientists of the Royal Society. In The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (public library), Roseanne Montillo brilliantly joins the live wires of Mary Shelley’s life and work with those of cutting-edge dissections and electrical experiments.

Mary Shelley, c. 1840, by Richard Rothwell
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.

Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:

an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.

If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.

‘A Galvanized Corpse,’ a political cartoon from 1836 by Henry R. Robinson
Image courtesy Library of Contress

That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.

The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:

No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

BP

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“These emotions … appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea.”

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue,” philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) wrote in her 1792 proto-feminist masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.” Independence became the animating force of Wollstonecraft’s life, and there was no form of it she valued more highly than the independence of the imagination — something her second daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, would come to inherit.

Wollstonecraft saw the imagination as the gateway to liberation, the most vitalizing nectar for the mind, and the most seductive aphrodisiac; she saw love as the domain in which “the imagination mingles its bewitching colouring” — for better or for worse, to enchant into rapture as well as to delude into despair. (A quarter millennium later, philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to write brilliantly about the imperfect union of the two.)

Wollstonecraft found herself afflicted with “the reveries of a disordered imagination,” which frequently caused her embarrassment and dejection — nowhere more so than in the passions of the heart, which coexisted with equal vigor alongside her formidable intellect.

“The pictures that the imagination draws are so very delightful that we willing[ly] let it predominate over reason till experience forces us to see the truth,” she wrote to her sister in a letter found in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library). But a pure love, she believed, was a region “where sincerity and truth will flourish — and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions.”

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan, 1787

In December of 1792, shortly after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a month before the execution of Louis XVI furnished a cornerstone of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left London for Paris. There, she met and became besotted with the American diplomat, businessman, and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Although in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she had renounced sexual passion as complicit in women’s oppression, Imlay awakened in her a magnitude of desire both dissonant with her political views and personally disorienting in far exceeding what she had previously thought herself capable of experiencing.

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter in the spring of 1794, just as Britain was preparing to declare war on France. Imlay had made clear his disinterest in marriage and domesticity but, alarmed by the political turmoil and the danger in which it placed British subjects in Paris, he registered Wollstonecraft as his wife in order to protect her and the baby, even though no legal marriage took place. It was an act more necessary than noble — many of Wollstonecraft’s compatriots in Paris had no such protection and were either arrested or guillotined — but it was also the beginning of the end of their romance. A slow-seething commitment panic began bedeviling Imlay, who eventually left Wollstonecraft heartbroken and alone with an infant amid a raging revolution.

But even in their parting letters, as it becomes clear to Wollstonecraft that her lover wouldn’t return, her beseeching despair is laced with a lucid sense of her unassailable independence. Radiating from them is an awareness of how she had grown infatuated with the fantasy of a man whose reality of character was wholly unworthy of her love. Where her imagination had been the aphrodisiac responsible for her passionate infatuation — a state Julian Fellowes has called “a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers” — Imlay’s lack of imagination became the agent of disillusionment.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

In a letter to Imlay from September of 1794, she makes no apologies about calling out his fatal flaw:

Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination — I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions — animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.

In a letter to Imlay from the following June, as his protracted abandonment drags on, she returns to the subject of the imagination and its role in human relationships. With an eye to the perennial question of telling love from lust — a question to which young E.B. White and James Thurber would provide a most delightful answer a century and a half later — and to the role the imagination plays in it, Wollstonecraft writes:

The common run of men, I know, with strong health and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason. — Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions, over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant; but they do not exist without self-denial.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

And yet for all the personal pain that her intense imagination caused her, it was also the wellspring of her creative and intellectual genius — the very thing that rendered her one of the most influential minds of her era. In a sentiment that echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Wollstonecraft adds:

These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea… I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.

The English political philosopher William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married after recovering from the heartbreak with Imlay and who fathered Mary Shelley, would later edit her posthumous works and laud these very letters as having “superiority over the fiction of Goethe” and being “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe” — perhaps supreme proof the kind of sincere love Wollstonecraft imagined possible, for Godwin transcended the jealous ego’s knowledge that these letters were written to a former lover and instead celebrated Wollstonecraft for the faculty she valued above all else: her imagination.

Complement this particular portion of The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library) with Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace, whose own ascent as a woman of intellectual accomplishment was shaped by Wollstonecraft’s legacy, on the imagination’s three core faculties.

BP

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?

Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Weiner

Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)

In a complement to Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, Wiener explains why, under this model of information systems, communication and control are inexorably linked:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A pillar of Weiner’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Weiner examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:

If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.

When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.

Art by Ralph Steadman from an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci

In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

[…]

In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.

In consonance with Neil Gaiman’s conception of stories as “genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance,” Wiener considers how living organisms resemble and are aided by information systems:

Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.

[…]

We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.

He adds:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.

Weiner illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:

Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

[…]

The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.

From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:

The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.

[…]

Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:

We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.

[…]

Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, found in Cosmigraphics.

Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:

Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.

With this, Weiner turns to the most gaping void in the narrative of progress — a recognition of the interconnectedness of existence across scales and species, which the pioneering naturalist John Muir so memorably captured a century earlier in his assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A decade before Rachel Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience, Wiener considers the larger planetary costs of humanity’s “progress”:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

[…]

The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Weiner’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”

Man as Industrial Palace (1926) by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn

More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Weiner offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:

The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.

[…]

The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.

At the heart of Weiner’s decades-old book is a point of great timelessness and great urgency, which ought to be inscribed on the mental motherboard of every coder, technologist, and entrepreneur. Eight years after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered how the questions we ask shape the answers we give and the world we build, he writes:

When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.

Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Weiner writes:

It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

Nearly a century later, The Human Use of Human Beings remains an immensely insightful and increasingly relevant read. Complement it with the great cellist Pablo Casals on making our world worthy of its children, then revisit Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and the difficult art of civilizational self-awareness.

BP

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