Tools Are Us: aka “The Frankenstein Chronicles”

Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of Modernist architecture, is attributed to be the originator of the phrase “Form follows function”, although the principle itself is quite ancient. Just like Architecture, and Industrial Design, “world wide web” has gone through waves of design philosophies, and thanks to Google’s groundbreaking clean design when it landed on the scene, that seemed to be following the modernist adage to the letter, look and feel of web-pages saw a major shift to more utilitarian design rather than (most of the times) one based on gaudy aesthetics (or anesthetics, really) that the early visual web (anyone remembers the grotesque Altavista and clone pages?) epitomized. But forgive me if I’m erring on (or overly simplifying) the web design history, as I’m sure I am, given that I’m no expert there (or anywhere). The point is, from Yahoo/Altavista to Google, and ironically from Google’s own (although acquired, not created) Blogger to WordPress (ha, couldn’t resist that!), and so on, blogs/webpages have been moving to a cleaner, efficient, functional designs.

Yes, there is a point that I’m actually driving at. We’ll come to that. Recently, Atul Sabnis at Gaizabonts, who has been responsible for many posts on this blog — by providing subject matter directly/indirectly — wrote a post (yes, Atul, I’ve been very careful with blog and post differentiation lately) which I read on my phone. Then, in the usual blogger’s spirit (a, no doubt, vanishing trait, for better or for worse), I wanted to comment on the post. Now, remember this: I’m actually quite used to browsing, even reading short-to-medium length pieces on my phone. And still, I found it not very easy to find a way to comment on this post. Also remember this: Atul isn’t exactly a “form over function” kind of guy, rather the opposite, and is much more likely than the average Joe (including yours truly) to choose templates with a consideration for things like “ease of doing comments” (ha! couldn’t resist that, either.) So I don’t think it’s a problem with that one template problem. Yes, I went and checked my own blog and a few others, just to be sure. Yes, it’s not very difficult to do, but the thing is comments section isn’t in the prime real estate of the posts anymore. They have been relegated to the afterthoughts section.

Sign of times, yes. The fact is, these days, most people do not read blog-posts on original blogs, but are led there from twitter/FB/. Which means that, a lot of time people comment right there, if they do comment that is — because not many have time to write comments these days (except for those who we wish rather didn’t have the time for that: a human derivative species identified with a mythical animal that has brain the sign of peanut and body the size of gorilla, whose name starts with a T). So much better to RT/forward, press the like/love button. Yes, I’m a bit of an old-fashioned guy in these matters. While FB comments are good to have, if the alternative is no comments,  the problem with them is that they are for a subset of blog readers. Yes, point could be made that it’s thanks to FB/SM that those comments are even made and/or visible to more people than would be possible in the pre-SM era of blogs. Fair enough. Still, I prefer those comments on the blog, where there is a common audience, possibly interested in those comments. But maybe that’s just me.

***

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Our relationship with technology is interesting, to say the least. We crave for the fruits, however forbidden, but are always afraid that they may come with a hidden price-tag (or snake, to use well understood imagery). Scientists, especially those in love with gizmos are rarely presented as dependable, responsible, members of society. They are, at best mostly harmless geeks, and at worst blind-to-anything-but-the-possibility-of-innovation mad scientists who are tools at the hands of someone who wants to destroy something, or rule everything. Basically, unwitting, or uncaring agents of the power hungry. This, of course, gets worse if the object of their creation is capable of wielding power by itself (himself? herself? do anthropomorphic machines have gender?) and not through human proxies. That explains the obsession with the concept of Frankenstein, that has been portrayed in various incarnations, in popular literature (and even cultish, dystopian science fiction) and movies. We live in the dread of the Frankenstein. Even a more benign one, that may just take away our jobs, not necessarily our lives.

***

Still, we love tools that these inventors, technologists, mad-scientists invent. We adore them. We need them. But tools use us just as we are using them. They change us. Tools are like memes. They need to change us for their survival.

How we think, how we write, how we speak, how we express, this all is shaped by the tools we use. Even how we read, how we consume, how we listen. Between the stimulus and response is you, say some of the self help gurus. I agree. But sometimes between you and the world there are tools. And they change your response. They can even change the stimulus, in route, to get a different response.

Our fear of Frankenstein is both paranoid-ly unreal, and almost instinctively right. Frankenstein isn’t one machine turned rogue. Frankenstein is every tool/machine that changes us, by bits and pieces, even imperceptibly. It’s through us that tools rule us. By making us constantly aware of the here and now, social platforms are making us turn away from the sublime, and the timeless. By making us aware of the power of likes from complete strangers, social platforms are making us conform to the standards of faceless strangers. By making it easy to like a post, and harder to comment, blogging platforms are changing us into hit-and-run readers.

The lunatic is in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

— Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (Brain Damage)

The Frankenstein is here, and now. And it’s us, not the tools and machines we invented.

***

The origin of the “Frankenstein” is curious. The first novel, by Mary Shelly, has Frankenstein as the creator of a “monster”, not the monster itself that it later started to be associated with – to the extend that Cambridge Dictionary has this entry:

Frankensteinnoun 

something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it:

Example: “In arming the dictator, the US was creating a Frankenstein.” 

Wikipedia entry from Frankenstein (novel) has this interesting tidbit:

Part of Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which causes a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”. When Frankenstein converses with the creature in Chapter 10, he addresses it as “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “fiend”, “wretched devil”, and “abhorred devil”.

And so the nameless creature,  has actually managed to steal the identity of its creator, and in all probability will outlive its creator — who has become nameless, identity less. Because now the creator is any man, while the creation is Frankenstein.


PS: This curious inversion, is an apt parallel to what I said up there: “[Frankenstein] is us, not the tools and machines we invented”. Till I looked on Wikipedia for origins of Frankenstein, after I wrote those words, I was blissfully unaware of this inversion — I assumed that Frankenstein is actually a fictional monster, not its creator!

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One thought on “Tools Are Us: aka “The Frankenstein Chronicles”

  1. 3tak14qdlady04e7kj6hh1atn says:

    Since you read the wikipedia entry, what did you make of the subtitle to the work, The Modern Prometheus? This further marks out the distrust of modernity that marks Frankenstein, but whereas Prometheus is punished for bringing fire to humanity by an outside force (Zeus), the modern Prometheus is brought to torment by his own creation. I think this is what makes it modern, in that it is man alone with his creations, removed from any external intervening power. It is a cautionary tale in that not only can our ambitious endeavors subvert our hopes and intentions, but that we cannot look elsewhere for succor from the terrors we create.

    While I find the story to be a clear modern masterpiece, as social commentary I find it lacking. It is part of that reactionary element of human psyche (and cultural morality) that recoils from modernity while idealizing older norms and methods. It offers no concrete argument beyond fear and no vision other than longing glances to a past that is no longer possible. And thus we see each generation give birth those who would turn back the clock to that point before everything “went awry”, never realizing that their idealized moment in time was decried by the previous generation. And so it will continue, for their voices can never contribute to the future, and the future is inevitable.

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