The Humanities Scholar in the Scientists' Den

by Kasyoka Mwanzia — Khartoum


Everyday we read in the news about more entanglements of all those things that were once imagined to be separable -- science, morality, religion, law, art, technology, finance, culture, and politics. But these things are now tangled up together everywhere.

During the news cycle at the of end of November we saw a huge blow dealt to the reputation of biomedical research. A Chinese scientist brewed a gigantic storm over what he claimed were the world’s first genetically edited babies. One of the hats I currently wear finds me as a commentator trying to translate the stories of genomics into something less like science. Understandably, any discussion about genomics lately has stood on its head.

That same week we saw a 3-page spread in Newsweek magazine reminding us that automation and AI will displace us and take away pretty much all of our jobs. Ok maybe not in our lifetime, but perhaps within your grandchildren’s lifetime.

But as many news stories go, they can give us pause for thought.

Let me remind you of another story we all know very well. In 1816, a young British woman named Mary Godwin spent a summer in Switzerland with friends. After reading a book of German ghost stories, somebody suggested they each write their own. This young woman’s story came to her in a dream and was published under the title Frankenstein.

Now, we all know Frankenstein -- he is the cautionary tale against technology. We use the monster as an all-purpose modifier to denote technological crimes against nature. When we fear genetically modified foods we call them "frankenfoods" and "frankenfish." What is telling about these is that we confuse the monster with the creator. We now mostly refer to Dr. Frankenstein's monster as Frankenstein. And just as we have forgotten that Frankenstein was the man, not the monster, we have also forgotten Dr. Frankenstein's real crime.

Be it in new media or science, Mary [Godwin] Shelley’s and our transgression is not that we created technologies, but that we fail to love and care for them. We are living in a time when “we, our technologies, and nature can no more be disentangled than we can remember the distinction between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster” (Bruno Latour: French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist).

I am an optimist. I think knowledge is a blessing, not a curse. My ancestors were afraid that the sky would fall on their heads, and yet today I can sit in a chair at 30,000ft. The huge promise of genomics work is in understanding disease so we can prevent and treat it, improving food systems and with that nutrition and livelihoods; that of AIs in setting us free to do less dangerous and more challenging work.

Our fear and caution should not be to restrict or cautiously regulate innovation, creativity, invention – rather to be sure to let Dr. Frankenstein’s story be our modern-day parable. Technology, science, morality, religion, law, art, finance, culture, politics is entangled and messy –- it’s our monster and we must care for it.