Reflections for the New Year: Thank you Dr. Frankenstein

28 Dec, 2018
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2018 has been a year of anniversaries – particularly the devastating “Spanish” influenza pandemic, which peaked in 1918, and the armistice ending the First World War. But it also marked 200 years since the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”. This is a riveting tale of hubris, of fascination to know more and more, and of man playing God, creating a monster and then abandoning him, leaving to find his own way.

Having neglected his creation, and faced with unanticipated revenge by his own invention, Frankenstein bemoans his regret at ignoring “the duties of a creator towards his creature”.

Shelley’s novel was one of the earliest, if not the first, science fiction novel, with insights into the human condition, and man’s struggle with desire to know more and more, yet unprepared to deal with the consequence. She was writing at the dawn of a new era of electricity, of power, of science and possibility – an era not unlike our own.

Frankenstein offers us a lesson in anticipating the implications of our scientific discovery and innovation, of being too focused on technology and its inherent power, of being perhaps obsessed with the notion of “disruption” as progress, while giving little consideration to its accidentally negative, or even malevolent, consequences.

The bicentenary of Frankenstein struck me as an apt anniversary to reflect and conclude the year on, as we are increasingly confronted with the risks and consequences of social media and global connectivity. The algorithms that live behind the screen, as well as human intentions behind them, are manipulating and polarizing public emotions, fears and perceived truths. Anonymous or constructed identities are misleading individuals, with bots and trolls embedding the vaccine debates, not just to undermine vaccines, but as a platform – a Trojan Horse – to further destabilize democracy and foster discontent.  In other instances, the spotlight has been on companies – driven by growth – using and abusing personal data generated through social media, for furthering their own profits.

It is no wonder public trust is waning.

It is time to re-tame the valuable creation that has become, in many ways, our own worst enemy. In Chapter Three, Dr. Frankenstein shared his ambition to ”pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” But, what he actually unfolded were some of the deepest human emotions, amplified through his invention, not unlike the current social media landscape.

This is not a call to abandon such valuable innovations, but to consider their implications and risks.

The internet and social media platforms have brought unprecedented global connectivity, allowing long-lost friends to reunite, helping refugees find family members, and giving scientists in the poorest countries access to the latest research at the stroke of a key allowing collaboration with global peers. They have also enabled telemedicine, allowing people in remote areas to consult with previously physically unreachable doctors.

For 2019, while embracing the values and positive human connections that new technology brings, I urge a new era of reflective, critical reading of the sea of information, misinformation, and manipulated information surrounding us.  It is a call to situate technologies in a bigger world and recognize the political, social and cultural forces that surround, and sometimes define them.

As my father told me as I walked out the door to my first day of school, “Don’t believe everything you read. It’s people like you and me who wrote those books, and they have their views. We might write a different book.”

This entry was posted on Friday, December 28th, 2018 at 11:56 am and is filed under Blog.

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Evans DR, et at. 2019 VACCINE Vol 37(40):6008-6015
Rozbroj, et al. 2019 Vaccine Vol 37(40):5986-5993
Justwan F, et al 2019 PLoS ONE 14(8): e0220658
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