Tag Archives: Susan Tyler Hitchcock

Frankenstein and Switzerland in 2016

The Frankenstein Bicentennial celebration is in process as various events and projects are now being launched. In a Nov. 12, 2015 posting I made mention of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018 at Arizona State University (ASU; scroll down about 15% of the way),

… the Transmedia Museum (Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018).  This project is being hosted by Arizona State University. From the project homepage,

No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes—such as the complex dynamic between creator and creation—continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Frankenstein continues to influence the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project will infuse science and engineering endeavors with considerations of ethics. It will use the power of storytelling and art to shape processes of innovation and empower public appraisal of techno-scientific research and creation. It will offer humanists and artists a new set of concerns around research, public policy, and the ramifications of exploration and invention. And it will inspire new scientific and technological advances inspired by Shelley’s exploration of our inspiring and terrifying ability to bring new life into the world. Frankenstein represents a landmark fusion of science, ethics, and literary expression.

The bicentennial provides an opportunity for vivid reflection on how science is culturally framed and understood by the public, as well as our ethical limitations and responsibility for nurturing the products of our creativity. It is also a moment to unveil new scientific and technological marvels, especially in the areas of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Engaging with Frankenstein allows scholars and educators, artists and writers, and the public at large to consider the history of scientific invention, reflect on contemporary research, and question the future of our technological society. Acting as a network hub for the bicentennial celebration, ASU will encourage and coordinate collaboration across institutions and among diverse groups worldwide.

2016 Frankenstein events

Now, there’s an exhibition in Switzerland where Frankenstein was ‘born’ according to a May 12, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who brings to life a cadaver and causes his own downfall, has for two centuries given voice to anxiety surrounding the unrelenting advance of science.

To mark the 200 years since England’s Mary Shelley first imagined the ultimate horror story during a visit to a frigid, rain-drenched Switzerland, an exhibit opens in Geneva Friday called “Frankenstein, Creation of Darkness”.

In the dimly-lit, expansive basement at the Martin Bodmer Foundation, a long row of glass cases holds 15 hand-written, yellowed pages from a notebook where Shelley in 1816 wrote the first version of what is considered a masterpiece of romantic literature.

The idea for her “miserable monster” came when at just 18 she and her future husband, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, went to a summer home—the Villa Diodati—rented by literary great Lord Byron on the outskirts of Geneva.

The current private owners of the picturesque manor overlooking Lake Geneva will also open their lush gardens to guided tours during the nearby exhibit which runs to October 9 [May 13 – Oct. 9, 2016].

While the spot today is lovely, with pink and purple lilacs spilling from the terraces and gravel walkways winding through rose-covered arches, in the summer of 1816 the atmosphere was more somber.

A massive eruption from the Tambora volcano in Indonesia wreaked havoc with the global climate that year, and a weather report for Geneva in June on display at the exhibit mentions “not a single leaf” had yet appeared on the oak trees.

To pass the time, poet Lord Byron challenged the band of literary bohemians gathered at the villa to each invent a ghost story, resulting in several famous pieces of writing.

English doctor and author John Polidori came up with the idea for “The Vampyre”, which was published three years later and is considered to have pioneered the romantic vampyre genre, including works like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

That book figures among a multitude of first editions at the Geneva exhibit, including three of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”—the most famous story to emerge from the competition.

Here’s a description of the exhibit, from the Martin Bodmer Foundation’s Frankenstein webpage,

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of this historically influential work of literature, the Martin Bodmer Foundation presents a major exhibition on the origins of Frankenstein, the perspectives it opens and the questions it raises.

A best seller since its first publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel continues to demand attention. The questions it raises remain at the heart of literary and philosophical concerns: the ethics of science, climate change, the technologisation of the human body, the unconscious, human otherness, the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed.

The exposition Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness recreates the beginnings of the novel in its first manuscript and printed forms, along with paintings and engravings that evoke the world of 1816. A variety of literary and scientific works are presented as sources of the novel’s ideas. While exploring the novel’s origins, the exhibition also evokes the social and scientific themes of the novel that remain important in our own day.

For what it’s worth, I have come across analyses which suggest science and technology may not have been the primary concern at the time. There are interpretations which suggest issues around childbirth (very dangerous until modern times) and fear of disfigurement and disfigured individuals. What makes Frankenstein and the book so fascinating is how flexible interpretations can be. (For more about Frankenstein and flexibility, read Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s 2009 book, Frankenstein: a cultural history.)

There’s one more upcoming Frankenstein event, from The Frankenstein Bicentennial announcement webpage,

On June 14 and 15, 2016, the Brocher Foundation, Arizona State University, Duke University, and the University of Lausanne will host “Frankenstein’s Shadow,” a symposium in Geneva, Switzerland to commemorate the origin of Frankenstein and assess its influence in different times and cultures, particularly its resonance in debates about public policy governing biotechnology and medicine. These dates place the symposium almost exactly 200 years after Mary Shelley initially conceived the idea for Frankenstein on June 16, 1816, and in almost exactly the same geographical location on the shores of Lake Geneva.

If you’re interested in details such as the programme schedule, there’s this PDF,



Synthetic biology: commercialization, Canadian farmers, and public discourse

You may see synthetic biology (or more properly a synthetic organism) referred to as ‘Synthia’. The term was coined (or, for some word play, created) by the ETC Group as they note in their May 20, 2010 news release about J. Craig Venter’s latest accomplishment (noted on this blog here and here),

The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

Clearly the ETC Group, which is based in Canada, has been gearing up for a campaign. It’ll be interesting to note whether or not they are successful at making ‘Synthia’ stick. I gather the group was able to capitalize on ‘frankenfoods’ for the campaign on genetically modified foods but someone else coined that phrase for them. (You can read about who coined the phrase in Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book, Frankenstein; a cultural history.)

The advantage with ‘frankenfoods’ is the reference to an internationally recognized cultural icon, Frankenstein, and all of the associations that naturally follow. With ‘Synthia’, the ETC Group will have to build (link? graft?) the references to/onto the term.

I shouldn’t forget that the ETC Group does make an important point with this,

The team behind today’s announcement, led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents related to Synthia’s technology.

In a possibly related (to the ETC Group) statement, the National Farmers Union (NFU) had this to say (from the May 22, 2010 news item on CBC News),

The National Farmers Union says the development of a synthetic cell could lead to worrisome, long-term consequences.

“This new technology raises serious concerns about who controls it, what it will be used for, and its potential impact,” [Terry] Boehm [president, NFU] said.

There are two things I want to note. First, the concerns raised by the ETC Group, the NFU, and others in Canada and across the globe are important and require discussion. Second, all of the parties involved business interests, civil society groups, scientists, government agencies, etc. work independently and together (formally and informally) to promote their interests.

In a related note: In a May 23, 2010 CBC news item (published on Sunday during a long weekend),

The government is looking for ways to monitor online chatter about political issues and correct what it perceives as misinformation.

The move started recently with a pilot project on the East Coast seal hunt. A Toronto-based company called Social Media Group has been hired to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has paid the firm $75,000 “to monitor social activity and help identify … areas where misinformation is being presented and repeated as fact,” Simone MacAndrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email.

The firm alerts the government to questionable online comments and then employees in Foreign Affairs or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have recently been trained in online posting, point the authors to information the government considers more accurate.

It appears to be just the beginning. [emphases mine]

(Digression alert! Does this mean I’ll be able to easily get more information about nanotechnology research in Canada, about the national institute, about nanomaterials, about proposed regulatory frameworks, etc.?)

I have to admit to being suspicious about this ‘information initiative’ when the announcement appears to have been made in an email during a holiday weekend. As well, it seems a bit schizoid given the government’s ban (I’ve commented about that here) on direct communication between journalists and scientists working for Environment Canada. So, the government will contact us if they think we have it wrong but a journalist can’t directly approach one of their scientists to ask a question.

Returning to my main focus, the impact that all these groups with their interests, by turns competitive and collegial, will have on the synthetic biology debate is impossible to evaluate at this time. It does seem that much of the framing for the discussion has been predetermined by various interest groups while the rest of us have remained in relative ignorance. I think the ‘pre-framing’ is inevitable given that most of us would not be interested in engaging in a discussion about developments which were largely theoretical, until recently.

For those who are interested in learning about the science and the debates, check out the Oscillator here. She notes that we’ve had some parts of this discussion as early as the 19th century,

My ScienceBlogs colleague PZ Myers compares the synthetic genome to Wöhler’s chemical synthesis of urea in 1828. In the 19th century, scientists debated whether or not the chemicals that make up living cells–organic chemistry–had to be made by a cell possessing a “vital spark” or could be made by humans in a test tube. By synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate, Wöhler broke down some of the mysticism associated with living cells. From that point on, organic chemistry stopped being magic and became a science.

Does the Venter Institute’s achievement show that life is just chemicals? I don’t think so …

New media (the social kind) at the Vancouver Olympics, is it cohesive or isolating?

There is a passage in The Diamond Age Or, A Young lady’s Illustrated Primer a 1995 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson that states this,

Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it. One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’. (p. 37, Bantam Books, trade paperback, Sept. 2000 reissue)

It’s haunted me since I first read it about three years ago while preparing to write an academic paper I titled Writing Nanotechnology; first investigation where I was linking my nanotechnology interests to my writing and new media interests.

As I followed these interests, I discovered that the period of the Industrial Revolution was, in addition to being a period of tremendous interest and discovery in science and technology, a period of great upheaval amongst purveyors of the written word. For example, Sir Walter Scott, known today as a writer of historical novels such as Ivanhoe, was too embarrassed to have his name published in his first books. At the time, Scott was known foremost as a poet and writing novels was considered beneath a poet’s dignity. From Frankenstein; A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock,

Meanwhile Walter Scott, already revered for poems that sang of his native Scotland was suspected of being the author of Waverley. What a shock if it were true—that a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form. (p. 24, 2007, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, NY & London)

There are some striking parallels between the 19th century, during which much of the Industrial Revolution played itself out and which is also known as the Victorian period, and our own time. We too are obsessed with science and finding new ways to tell stories. Both of which occurred to me during Andy Miah’s session at the Fresh Media Olympics Conference I attended on Feb. 22, 2010 in Vancouver at W2 Culture + Media House.

During the discussion about the impact that social media (part & parcel of what is sometimes called new media) is having on the games and the discussion about the games themselves. I’d estimate 40 – 50 people were there, most of them part of the social media/citizen journalist community and/or academics.

Apparently the Vancouver games are becoming known as the Twitter Olympics. Andy Miah, an academic, who has been following and researching the Olympic games since the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia) asked (paraphrased)  if we thought that the social media we use creates ‘silos’. (For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, the word silo in this context means isolated group.  e.g. a business where the engineers exist in their silo and the sales team in their silo with virtually no communication between the two)

I found it to be a thought-provoking question which returned me to the The Diamond Age passage I quoted previously  and that led me to reframe the question this way, Is social media going to be a cohesive force or an isolating force? At this point, I can make a case for both using the information and comments shared at the conference.

Earlier in the conference Andy suggested (paraphrased) that the friction provided by the official games story and the reporters and IOC (International Olympic Committee) structures is useful and necessary for the unofficial games stories and social media as promoted by activists. In this case, social media provides cohesion for the activists and a means of distribution.

Social media can also be isolating. As one participant noted (in another context not meant to support the case I’m building), it is your responsibility to find and develop your networks for information (as opposed to turning on the television or radio at the right time). It seems to me that this responsibility could be a problem when you need to extend past your natural networks.

In real life, extending beyond your personal network can be very difficult. Yes, there are times when it’s easier, i.e., going to a new school, starting a new job, moving to a new place are all situations where this happens naturally or you’re forced to do it. But in the general way once your networks are established there’s not much need to extend past them and it’s not easy to do. Academics tend to know other academics; scientists know other scientists, business owners know other business owners.You may have multiple networks (work, neighbourhood, friends from high school, etc.) but they don’t intersect. These kinds of silos exist in social media too. For example, there’s a Linked In network, a Facebook network, a Twitter network and these all breakdown into every smaller networks within networks. Plus there’s the assumption that you know it exists. How do you connect to network if you don’t know it exists? Or, you suspect there’s something out there but you don’t know how to find it.

Now, I want to add another element to the mix. One of the participants discussed how she uses Twitter and used as an example (as best I can remember) a fire near where she lived. She saw the fire, tweeted the info. and within minutes her followers sent pictures and shared stories about the building that were burning and the people who lived there. The next day, the local paper accorded the incident a single paragraph. What struck me about her story wasn’t difference in what she valued as news as opposed to a traditional outlet valued but rather how individual her experience was and how dependent it was on her network.  Another person with different followers would have had a different news experience and that may or may not be a good thing as suggested in The Diamond Age.

Finally, a comment I registered (but didn’t immediately place in the context of media,  social cohesion and isolation) was made by someone discussing the reasons for why the activist communities in Vancouver have not been more effective at working together (a situation I was unaware of). If the activist groups have not been as effective as they could have been, I wonder whether or not part of the issue (in addition to the suggestions the participant made)  might be the social media used to organize those networks.

I suspect social media  is both cohesive and isolating to a greater degree than the older broadcast media. In some odd way (I am being poetical here), I don’t believe it’s an accident that we are refining our understanding of matter at ever more infinitesimal scales (e.g. micro, nano, femto, and atto scales) and that we seem to be experiencing increasing fragmentation (e.g. tweets are called micro-blogging).

Enough now, I’m off to do some more thinking.

Tomorrow: NSERC gives SFU (Simon Fraser University) some money.

The availability heuristic and the perception of risk

It’s taking a lot longer to go through the Risk Management Principles for Nanotechnology article than I expected. But, let’s move onwards. “Availability” is the other main heuristic used when trying to understand how people perceive risk. This one is about how we assess the likelihood of one or more risks.

According to researchers, individuals who can easily recall a memory specific to a given harm are predisposed to overestimating the probability of its recurrence, compared to to other more likely harms to which no memory is attached. p. 49 in Nanoethics, 2008, vol. 2

This memory extends beyond your personal experience (although it remains the most powerful) all the way to reading or hearing about an incident.  The effect can also be exacerbated by imagery and social reinforcement. Probably the most powerful, recent example would be ‘frankenfoods’. We read about the cloning of Dolly the sheep who died soon after her ‘brith’, there was the ‘stem cell debate, and ‘mad cow disease’ which somehow got mixed together in a debate on genetically modified food evolving into a discussion about biotechnology in general. The whole thing was summed as ‘frankenfood’ a term which fused a very popular icon of science gone mad, Frankenstein, with the food we put in our mouths. (Note: It is a little more complicated than that but I’m not in the mood to write a long paper or dissertation where every nuance and development is discussed.) It was propelled by the media and activists had one of their most successful campaigns.

Getting back to ‘availability’ it is a very powerful heuristic to use when trying to understand how people perceive risk.

The thing with ‘frankenfoods’ is that wasn’t planned. Susan Tyler Hitchcock in her book, ‘Frankensein; a cultural history’ (2007), traces the birth of the term in a 1992 letter written by Paul Lewis to the New York Times through to its use as a clarion cry for activists, the media, and a newly worried public. Lewis coined the phrase and one infers from the book that it was done casually. The phrase was picked up by other media outlets and other activists (Lewis is both a professor and an activist). For the full story, check out Tyler’s book pp. 288-294.

I have heard the ETC Group as being credited with the ‘frankenfoods’ debate and pushing the activist agenda. While they may have been active in the debate, I have not been able to find any documentation to support the contention that the ETC Group made it happen. (Please let me know if you have found something.)

The authors (Marchant, Sylvester, and Abbott) of this risk management paper feel that nanotechnology is vulnerable to the same sort of cascading effects that the ‘availability’ heuristic provides a framework for understanding. Coming next, a ‘new’ risk management model.