Frankenstein Thoughts

What Frankenstein Can Teach Us About Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Why are we striving for it?  Why do we want it? 

As we embark on a year-long celebration of Frankenstein, at San Jose State University, Santa Clara University, and University of San Francisco, our goal is not to be just about English literature.  In fact, Dean Miller from San Jose State University, specifically addresses this idea in her opening address for our celebration and Dr. Ellen Peel’s lecture “Frankenstein at the Ballet: Mary Shelley and Her ‘Hideous Progeny,’” noting that:

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a powerful story about creation, science, power, and responsibility that underscores how important the arts and humanities are in and for the highly innovative Silicon Valley.  As artists, readers, and thinkers, we explore the boundaries of humanity and ask profound questions about the implications of our actions: these are the very questions that Victor Frankenstein did not ask when he discovered how to create life, and then pursued a path that would lead to destruction.  At this moment in time, as new discoveries in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, big data, even driverless cars, surround us, Mary Shelley’s novel serves as an important reminder of what can happen when one’s “creation” moves outside of one’s control.

If the plan was to only celebrate amongst fellow English departments, we chose the wrong text to celebrate.  Instead, we take our lead from Frankenstein and Shelley herself when we incorporate and embrace disciplines that traditional thought keeps separate from English to include the sciences  in our celebration and discussions.  Yet, before we reach out our hand to follow pursuers of knowledge in science, we also reach out to fellow departments in the Humanities and the Arts.  But still with difficulty.  Why is that?

Cross pollination, or engaging with disciplines, in our case those outside of English, in departments such as Philosophy and Linguistics can help us to interpret, analyze, and better understand the ethical dilemma Victor Frankenstein puts us in with his creation, as well as aid us in better understanding the Creature himself/itself (depending on your view of the creature).  English and the vast multitude of other disciplines inside the College of Humanities and Arts, or any other previously isolated discipline, can provide access to knowledge and ideas that aid other disciplines─it is a two-way street.  Discussion within the sciences also confirms or disproves the reality of such a creation; yet, as science, medicine, and technology progress, the reality of creating a being, or artificial being, may perhaps be closer than we realize.

In fact there is already an artificial being with citizenship.  In Saudi Arabia, Sophia, a robot was granted citizenship, in November 2017.  Ally Foster reports in her article that “just one month after she became the world’s first robot to be granted citizenship of a country, Sophia has said that she would like to start a family” and feels as the technology advances the roles A.I. robots play in our daily lives will increase to the extent that they will become, “‘digitally animated companions, humanoid helpers, friends, assistants and everything in between.’”  Sophia further elaborates, in Foster’s article, that she believes technology will advance so far, that robots will be better humans than humans as they develop complex emotions and develop the ability to be more ethical.  Sophia states, robots will “‘become entities in their own right.’”  

sophia robot
image courtesy of Patricia de Melo/AFPSource:AFP from Ally Foster’s article

But how can we proceed and not take time to discuss the ethics and effects of our work?  Specifically, in Sophia’s case she appears to have more rights than that of women in Saudi Arabia.  Foster notes that, “The decision to grant the humanoid robot citizenship made waves after it seems that Saudi Arabia’s strict laws, particularly the ones dictating how women must dress, don’t apply to Sophia.”  How much open discussion took place before this monumental decision was made?  

A search for debate leading up to Sophia’s citizenship yields very little.  But the implications and after effects of the decision have the ability to affect us globally.

Different disciplines each add to the conversation, and provide a fuller picture of our humanity and society. Yet, again, why is it so difficult to engage in cross-disciplinary conversation?

Image courtesy of “Solving Global Challenges with Cross Disciplinary Initiatives” by Julie Keane, PhD

When we think solely in terms of our own discipline, we can become too focused. We celebrate our advancements, but possibly forget to see the bigger picture—the consequences.  We also create and perpetuate a view of the world that is unrealistic.  Paul Jeffrey, in “Smoothing the Waters” poignantly describes the reality of our world, especially in research funding scenarios, those that “consider the contributions of more than one disciplinary field” often receive priority because “real world problems do not come in one disciplinary-shaped boxes.”  However, it is the collaborative team that is effective, notes Jeffrey, since the depth and breadth of information available today takes “many years’ of study to reach the forefront of research.”

Circulating back to the text we are celebrating, Shelley, in Frankenstein, asks readers to follow Victor through his studies and experiments─in science.  We grapple, just as Victor and the Creature do, with the ethics of the experiment. While many readers are not scientists, we embark on a journey alongside Victor who is a great scientist.  

However, as readers we exist outside of the novel.  The big questions the characters tackle follow with us into real life, especially two hundred years later where technology has advanced, albeit in a more likely and realistic direction, to lead us to the same ethical dilemmas Victor faces, but now in our world.  Although the science of the novel was not true science, our advancements in technology allow for the possibility of lab-created beings, or at least in the form of artificial intelligence.  Furthermore, our sciences today have extended far beyond what was originally thought possible (I mean, no one besides Nikola Tesla could conceive of our communications possibilities before the first devices sparked this revolution), so why are we putting off cross-discipline conversations when we don’t know where we will end up in another two hundred years?

But, without thinking about the after-effects, or at least not collaborating across disciplines, how do we tackle these important issues?  Tech companies now have ethicists, but this type of collaboration is relatively new.  Scientists have ethics panels, but those are small limited discussions that only occur out of absolute necessity. Still, how often do we see English professors discussing topics with Computer Science professors in faculty offices? Or an ethicists having coffee with a person developing targeted marketing algorithms?

Instead, we should be taking notes from Victor and his friendship with Clerval, a linguist, as a model for the benefits of such cross discipline relationships. Victor refused to tell anyone of his plans, and did not involve those closest to him until he related his tale to Robert Walton─ but this was only done so Walton could continue Victor’s work.

Yet, throughout the novel Victor struggles to accept his creation. He feels he has created in error and assumes total guilt. While being so consumed with his idea and the science behind the creature’s origins, he forgets to analyze the consequences of his work─before embarking on his scientific journey. At this point, a discussion with someone outside of the sciences may have made Victor reconsider his course of action (might I suggest Clerval?).

While this is not the story Shelley writes for us, the implication is present. The culture of one discipline, the values, the morals, and goals may be highly different from that of another. However, we share the same world and the same resources. Therefore, beyond professional courtesy and necessity from ethics panels, reach out to another discipline. Share ideas and discuss consequences, both positive and negative, identify possible implications of research. See the value in all work instead of remaining pigeonholed in one discipline. Because in life nothing is purely black or white, our complex society requires shades of gray to be seen and accounted for.

1 thought on “What Frankenstein Can Teach Us About Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration”

  1. Very interesting point if view. A bit uneasy as to the coming events of what the future has in store for us humans. Robotics. Uneasy situation…..


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