It is a popular misconception that any technology manipulating the “natural” cycle of birth and death is dangerous. The masses fear that, like Frankenstein’s abhorred monster, the invention will assume a life of its own and destroy the lives of humans. But on what precedent are we basing this? When has an advancement made to create, improve or prolong life unintentionally destroyed it? Yes, there was the atomic bomb, but though its destructive force was not foreseen, it was designed for destruction. Sure, computers may have become a tool for keeping people’s eyes fixated on an brainwashing screen rather than examining the world around them, but haven’t people long been manipulated, even created, by the media, by language, by culture?
In fact, let me posit a theory: anxiety over technologies that interfere with life’s “natural” state of affairs arises from fear of admitting that such a nature is already absent, never existed. The notion of a biological destiny in opposition to technological advances is a vestige of the antiquated, theological concept of destiny. Life prolongation, reproduction, and information technologies are not interfering with how the life cycle was meant to be; nothing was ever meant to be.
A corollary to this theory: We are not afraid technologies will overpower us; we are afraid they are us. Frankenstein’s monster does not represent what we encounter; he represents what we are: amalgamations of matter we did not choose, assigned identities by a society in whose history we have no say. In other words, machines epitomize determinism devoid of teleology and metaphysics. Fear of manmade creatures is fear of what we are: elaborate machines.
I find it significant to invoke a passage from the Neil LaBute play The Shape of Things. The protagonist, Adam, believes he is acting on his own desires for self-improvement when engaging in an obsessive drive toward physical perfection. In fact, his “girlfriend,” who is actually an artist using him for an experimental project, is manipulating him into thinking he wants this; she is sculpting him. This theme informs the last line of Volume I of Frankenstein, calling Frankenstein’s scientific endeavors “unhallowed arts.” Like Adam, Frankenstein’s monster has questionable free will: He is the work of an artist who (however unwittingly, in Frankenstein’s case) programmed him to have certain desires. For ordinary people, this artist can take the form of the people who raise us, the media, or chemical reactions in the brain. Either way, technological anxiety stems from the nagging suspicion that we are technologies ourselves, put to use while we pose as mere users.