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This Was Not The Plan

Riddle me this. When do science, AI, Republican politics, the Internet, and Frankenstein’s monster cross the line from fascinating to fearsome, daring to dangerous, experimental to egomaniacal, compelling to cautionary?

Knitting together a number of seemingly random threads, sometimes results in a sweater — although often it’s just a mis-sized sock with a bunched up toe. And mostly it just takes me down a rabbit hole that, while each side tunnel seems pretty promising at the time. . . So I just hold my Alice and jump into Wonderland.

I finished reading Our Hideous Progeny, a well-spun modern novel set in Victorian England some three decades after the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Predicated on the ‘truth’ of Shelley’s tale, it traces another ill-conceived attempt to ‘animate from the inanimate’ couched in the decidedly less tragic but equally misguided effort that ends (spoiler alert) with the bad guy getting his comeuppance, the ineffectual male fading into the woodwork, and the heroine / narrator finding lots of common ground with feminist scientists of the day. In short, a happy-ish ending with the ‘monster’ wending its way north where it presumably will reside contentedly thereafter.

Well, Alice, that’s leaving me pretty much hanging fire. Unfinished business being what it is, I am transported six decades in the rear view to the two-foot high stack of novels beside my college dorm shelf (that serves as a desk) and constituting the reading list for a second year novels course. These are arranged, more or less in the order in which they will likely be ‘read’ (aka, thinest on top, thickest on the bottom, anchored by Don Quixote). Weighing in at a mere 258 pages, Frankenstein beckons — but evidently not sufficient to actually make the cut. For, on any number of shelves it subsequently sat, uncracked. . . til now.

Shelley’s cautionary tale, prophetically subtitled A Modern Prometheus, chronicles (as all, who were less distracted by beer and bridge in earlier times, will know) the high cost of hubris — not to mention the fate of those who would (not to put too fine a point on it) f____ with Mother Nature or Father Zeus. Ever the trickster, old Prom is also credited with being science’s patriarch. (We may be inching our way toward the riddle’s solution!)

Our less than loveable monster was not ever thus (i.e., unloveable). Before his rather abrupt disillusionment, the demon was hot into self-improvement, courtesy of his extended (and frankly voyeuristic) observational phase. But the penny was beginning to drop:

Was man at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?

Sadly, once the switch is flipped (‘polarities’, actual and metaphoric being what they are), there is no middle ground — all virtue and good intention morph precipitously into evil and that, as they say, is that.

Which brings us to politics, AI, science, et al. The conundrum facing young Victor was, being a bit reductionist about it, ‘what do we do with a problem like a monster?’ (The Hills, after all, were the Swiss Alps,!) Dr. F had, in his youthful zeal not fully factored in the morality of his obsession. All well and good to build it. Now what, as the ‘creation’ by times, self-educates, becomes lonely, then gets a little pissed at being beaten and misunderstood — ultimately transforming into the consummate killing machine.

AI, for its part, has been hailed with equal parts worship and, increasingly, worry. Chatbots write great poetry, reproduce literature, make art, and, and, and. They also cheat on essay assignments, foster gender-bias, foment social media based hatred and misinformation, and, and, and. Delphi, a theoretically ‘ethical’ chatbot, when queried about the acceptability of smothering a baby with a pillow, responded that acting ‘sweetly and gently’ is acceptable (albeit condemning the actual, ‘unqualified’ act). Hmm.

The GOP’s current challenges present a similar dilemma. ‘Soooo… we built this monster in 2016. And now the f____er just won’t go away. Going about killing our base and now has his crosshairs set on wiping out small ‘d’ democracy. This was not the plan!’ Orange Jesus, indeed. Perhaps the more apt moniker: Orange Lazarus. Where’s a good ice floe when you need one?

Ah yes, the riddle. The short answer would seem to be ‘when there’s no moral core’. Truth be told, this was never a big ticket concern for most politicians. As with our Victor, ‘doing it’ was not the root issue. Living with it, the potential for misuse and ultimately abuse, is the issue. The Promethean legacy has apparently very popular ‘sequels’ — be it the dude who serves up his renewed liver on a regular basis, Shelley’s monster, Oppenheimer (next up on the reading list, gulp, is the American Prometheus), or OJ (that would be Orangeman!). No heart, no morality, no problem. . . until there is.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, an iconic figure of the 20th century, was a brilliant physicist who led efforts to build an atomic bomb but later confronted the moral consequences of scientific progress… (from a publisher’s summary).

(And, after that Rachel Maddow’s Prequel.)

The Journey Reconsidered

“How many more miles, daddy?” 

The 1954 Pontiac was well-equipped for a car of its day. Which is to say four wheels (and a full sized spare, usually inflated), bench seats (unheated, and one small step away from ironing board rigidity), ash trays (my father still smoked cigarettes, purchased by the carton, ‘over the river’ and spirited home in the generous sleeves of my mother’s Persian lamb coat, all times of the year), and a reliable, six cylinder engine that burned fossil fuels at a modest rate. 

Our family’s first ‘automatic’ had posed a bit of a steep learning curve, prompting a call to the dealership shortly after delivery with a complaint from my father that ‘it won’t start’ — reference the car’s mute response to a turn of the key on its second day. A driver, well-schooled in the wisdom of ‘leaving a car in gear’ to minimize the risk of its rolling down the nearest hill when left to its own devices, my father had dutifully and reflexively placed the transmission in ‘D’ (just to be safe) for its first overnight in our driveway. 

Guidance was still managed via a collection of paper maps, prepared at source by experts in origami (and never able to be quite replicated)  and stored in the glove compartment — the maps, not the expert — (although I don’t recall ever seeing so much as a mitten therein — the glove compartment, not the map nor the expert). Windows ascended and descended with turns of a crank. Devices to amuse the back seat occupant (aka, me) were comic ‘books’ (with the clear instruction not to risk motion sickness by reading with the car moving). And, for longer trips, a small stash of my mother’s (amazing) chocolate chip cookies, carefully loaded into a repurposed Christmas cake tin and typically sufficiently tightly sealed that the back seat occupant could not prise it open without alerting the front seat passenger. Audio entertainment was limited to an AM radio, connected to the outside world via an antenna, generally telescoped into its fender cavity — to prevent it being savaged in parking lots — and, hence able to ‘tune in’ nothing. This seemed to well suit my father, grateful for the solitude and respite from the hurly burly.

And so travel became about the journey. 

A toss-in paragraph in a novel I’ve just finished reading, set in immediate, post-WWI England, made brief mention of a minor character’s celebration of train travel. Nothing about the urgency and barely concealed irritation or intrusive behaviours of fellow passengers. No toe-tapping or watch-checking to ensure ‘things are running on time’. Instead, the trip became a kind of time-suspended interlude that would take as long as it took. The ‘world’ one entered was equipped (bearing in mind this was mid-1920’s) to meet one’s immediate needs (good seating or even a closed compartment, ‘dining car’ amenities perhaps). It became an occasion to introspect with points of departure and destination removed from consciousness — at least for a time — leaving the opportunity to essentially ‘just be’. 

From the mid-50’s rolling along in that cream coloured pod of my parents — with little else to do but gaze at the passing landscape — to any number of modern echos. Trains in particular have been host to that state, wherein the pressures and demands of our normally purposeful and directed activity are simply moth-balled; and we’re held completely captive to the surrounds of this moment, in most cases, these hours — with naught to do but engage it (or them). 

High speed ‘bullets’ are a favourite. Traversing the breadth of France from Aix to Paris was a first experience. Travelling in this quiet ‘seam’ between the early morning launch from the country’s southeast corner — but before being dropped back into it, Gare de Lyon, then navigating the Métro at rush hour — gifted 3 hours of suspended bliss. 600 or so kilometres, moving in the upper 200’s, rekindled early memories. The odd paradox of moving through space, but removed from it, free to look and appreciate, but absent any of the compulsive, purposeful participation that occupies so much of our  time. 

Giving oneself up to the space and time, to reflective moments, is a rarity it seems. Distractions, intrusions, the imperative pull ‘to do’, and to schedule our days is typically consuming — leaving precious few ‘remnants’ to spare. Leisure itself is often fully ‘booked’, slotted in along with all the other diarized entries. Discovering venues where this is not the case, finding those surreal gaps, wormholes connecting one obligation to the next with ‘nothing to do’ serve as reminders to distance from not only multi-tasking, but from tasking itself. A 30’ sit, an ‘aimless’ jaunt on the bike. . . or a train ride are the quiet presents we can give ourselves. Restorative, grounding, ‘pointless’ — but increasingly necessary.

My father’s gentle response to my backseat query: ‘Not sure. . . but we’ll get there when we get there’.

EDI Goes Rogue

So perhaps it’s time to make trigger warnings a bit more inclusive. By definition, in the shoal-ridden and unpredictable waters of academe, said forewarnings are ‘explicit alerts that the material (a student) is about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder’ (NY Times, 2014). There is considerable controversy as to whether these well-intentioned, ‘protective’ efforts achieve the desired end of insulating students from being re-traumatized — or in fact, do the reverse: sensitize. More or less the equivalent of the B-movie scenario where we know the psycho is going to jump out of the closet. . . we just don’t know when or which closet. Perfect recipe for anticipatory anxiety.

Evidently, the Halton District School Board has found its own creative solution: simply don’t watch the movie. In case it got overlooked on your Twitter feed, a high school in Oakville is reputed to house a, well, we’re not exactly sure a what. According to hastily cobbled together defences from Board trustees, it’s neither student, nor employee. They (the trustees) are adamant that it’s not the teacher named in the ‘misinformed information in media, conventional or social’. Whatever it is (or isn’t), it’s gone viral — perhaps one of those rare circumstances where both the content and the speed of transmission is entirely aptly so described. In short, heads buried in sand followed hard on (as it were) by denial — and ultimately shelter taken behind that one-size-fits-all shield of freedom of personal expression, and insulated by the angst accompanying any trans(gression) of diversity and inclusiveness — seems to have been the prevailing Board wisdom. And in the unlikely event that none of the above succeeds, resort to corporate double-speak to further obscure:

While we cannot confirm the identity of the individual in the photos/videos/radio segments, we can confirm that the individual is not ________ ________. ________ ________ is a staff member of the Halton District School Board who is an entirely separate individual and is completely unrelated to this matter. (HDSB release, Sept. 20, 2022).

And so, in a world where institutions are regularly being taken to task for failing to give the heads up to unsuspecting students that the psychology video they’re about to shown may contain highly disturbing content (rats trapped in cages, forced to press bars to stave off starvation) or the text they’re about to open may reference animal abuse (‘beating a dead horse’), it may be time for the HDSB trustees to step up their game. Perhaps a word of forewarning that the shop teacher may not be entirely what was expected. Or perhaps they (the trustees) are just concerned about creating a generation of power tool phobics riddled with post trauma. How thoughtful of them!