Have you heard about Elon Musk’s telepathy project, Neuralink? It’s not exactly breaking news. Announced last summer, it’s been described by Musk as “sort of like if your phone went in your brain,” or “kind of like a Fitbit in your skull.” The main idea is that he wants to implant as many brains as possible with tiny computers. And, of course, he wants you to pay for the ostensibly bloodless brain surgery. Though it may sound hyperbolic, Musk’s ultimate goal is more grandiose: to create a new species of transhuman cyborgs. “On a species level,” he said during a livestream from, where else?, Woke Studio, “it’s important to figure out how we coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis.”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear about one of the richest men on the planet working on creating a new life form I can’t help but think of Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel Frankenstein.
The name Frankenstein, of course, is used these days to designate both the scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, as well as the monster he creates. But perhaps this reflects something more than a mere mistake, for both creator and creation are monstrous (a word that literally means warning).
Not a mere scientist, the man who created the monster was a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity, with power, and using this electrical power to create a ‘life form,’ to control life, Frankenstein directed his wealth and scientific knowledge into succeeding in this endeavor. To be sure, he did so at the very same time that new and horrible forms, or ways, of life were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and imperialism – and these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working class people were indeed monstrous.
Relatedly, the novel Frankenstein’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus. And Prometheus, readers may recall, was the Greek titan who, transgressing the rules of the gods, gave fire in particular, and technology in general, to humanity (mythopoetically representing a moment in human history rivaled in significance only by, among few others, the Industrial Revolution itself). The punishment of this theft and gift was double: Prometheus was chained to a mountain and tortured by Zeus. In addition, Zeus created Pandora, from whose jar not only disease, but work (a species of dis-ease), was introduced to the world. That is, prior to Prometheus’s theft, according to the myth, human beings did not experience disease or need to work. Likewise, throughout the world that industrial imperialism/global capitalism was subjugating during the period of Frankenstein’s creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity.
For example, in the classic The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi describes how European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. When natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely, the response of the colonizers was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency, compelling the conquered people to work – creating work and disease, the gift of Prometheus.
It is primarily this technological imperialism, yielding its monstrous electrical, economic, and political power, that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein. This power, like fire, and capitalism itself, requires the perpetual consumption of human and natural resources (like lithium, which Elon Musk needs for his battery-powered cars) or it will expire; and, so, it transforms the world — in the process of consuming it.
In this light, we can see Dr. Frankenstein as a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the empires of Europe, and their lands plundered into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this period, and being subjected to monstrous working and living conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of industry and empire, we can see Frankenstein’s monster as a symbol of the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires – the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster can also be regarded as the natural environment subjugated to this mastery. With the lethal heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, floods and other ‘extreme weather events’ that have become the norm over the past decade, not to mention the pandemics accompanying today’s polluting, world-wrecking Prometheus, Capitalism, much of the natural world today has been monstrosified.
In addition to the horrors of concentrated violence, manifesting in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein’s monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are nevertheless distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result not of anatomical, but genetic engineering, as well as epigenetic engineering — an issue that brings us back to Elon Franken-Musk’s transhuman project.
Is there any escape? Who knows. At the end of Shelley’s novel the monster does manage to escape, exiling himself to the Arctic. As rising global temperatures melt this redoubt, however, such an option is not available to us.
At the end of the day, Musk’s Neuralink may be as doomed as Miami, and other coastal cities. But what is remarkable is that today, in lieu of de jure social planning, and public funding of socio-political projects (forget public education, even public infrastructure is no longer tenable), we have de facto social planning via private (and military) investment. And today’s investor class (the real Dr. Frankenstein?) thinks projects like Musk’s, which involve transforming humanity into so many robots, are worth investing in. So, the next time you’re tempted to stick your phone in your skull, don’t forget: the word robot comes from the Czech word robotnik, which means forced worker.