A Frankenstein Approach to Self-Definition
There are several direct commands God gives to humanity in the first chapter of Genesis that form the foundation of our understanding of the role and authority of humanity on earth. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We also know from Genesis that people are made in the image of God, a fact that has numerous implications for how we live and think about a range of issues from work to ethnic harmony.
About other aspects of humanity’s role and authority, however, there is much ambiguity. Amidst the rapid progress of artificial intelligence and health care, questions pertaining to our right to take, give, and create life are a source of constant controversy. Though seemingly less controversial, another area of uncertainty about the role and authority of the pinnacle of God’s creation is the right of self-definition. The issue of self-definition is imbued with much importance if for no other reason than the fact that every single one of us faces it every single day. Some might argue that this is a non-issue—who better to define a person than himself or herself?—but quickness to rationalize this concept as trivial or uncontestedly decided would be a mistake and might be an indicator that we are only fooling ourselves.We tinker and work slavishly as Dr. Frankenstein did, assembling our online creations with the parts we gather from various sources.
We have a Creator we are answerable to, who, when he created us, did so with a particular vision of our role and authority in mind. Furthermore, after the fall we were bought back with the high price of Christ’s blood (1 Corinthians 6:20). The final say on who we are, the ultimate right and authority of self-definition, might not be ours alone. Yet every day we do just that, crafting carefully curated online versions of ourselves on various social media platforms, broadcasting who we are and what we are about on our terms. We define ourselves apart from a relationship with our Maker and those he puts in our lives. A culture of hyper-individualism makes this trend appear normal and reasonable. But is it?
In some ways our self-defining social media tendencies are similar in scope to Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. This idea might seem surprising at first, as we have taken the monster from Frankenstein and turned him into a green, drooling goon who can barely walk. What can such a villain have to do with our social media habits? But at a deeper level, the book isn’t really about a monster at all, it’s about the negative, unintended consequences of unfettered ambition consumated. In that way we all have our own Frankensteins.
When Shelley released her novel in 1818, the public was outraged at the prospect of a mere man usurping God’s power of creation. In her foreword to the Penguin Classic version of Frankenstein, Charlotte Gordon emphasizes this point, “Critics believed the novel was hostile to religion, as it depicted a human being attempting to appropriate the role of God.”
We might do well to take up this mantle of criticism, not for others or for some fictional character, but for ourselves who have begun to resemble Dr. Victor Frankenstein in more ways than one.
Every day we meticulously craft our profiles on various social media platforms. We tinker and work slavishly as Dr. Frankenstein did, assembling our online creations with the parts we gather from various sources. For brains, we tweet a random C. S. Lewis quote taken out of context. A cropped and filtered selfie in front of an iconic building or monument serves as our online “monster’s” face. For the heart, we note our religious affiliation and perhaps a Bible verse and a good deed or two to make it more life-like.
Early on in Frankenstein, it is revealed that the driving force behind the Doctor’s quest to create life is his desire for glory. “Wealth was an inferior object,” narrates Frankenstein to the character Robert Walton, “but what glory would attend the discovery.”
What drives our social media addiction if not the tantalizing prospect of glory? Though many of us use social media as a way to stay in touch with family and friends, for others, social media has increasingly become the laboratory where ambition is pursued. By design, social media is a way to trumpet our successes and appear to others as if we have it all figured out. Likes, followers, and re-tweets not only now carry real monetary value, they can become the metrics by which we are recognized as worthy by others.
In Frankenstein, as Victor inches closer to his goal, he plunges into isolation forsaking the company of others, “and the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time.”
Unfortunately, heavy social media users know this isolation, at least the feeling of it, all too well. According to a study on social media use and perceived isolation that appeared in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “people who reported spending the most time on social media—more than two hours a day—had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites” (NPR). In our efforts to win social media, or at least win glory on social media, we isolate ourselves from others. A not altogether unfamiliar scene is groups of people, friends or family, maybe at a restaurant, sitting by each other spatially, staring at their phones; their eyes, hearts, and ambitions elsewhere.
Upon consummation of his ambition and toil, the creation of his monster, Dr. Frankenstein, rather than take immense joy in his accomplishment, feels nothing but immediate remorse: “Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
History is replete with examples of scientists, inventors, and even entrepreneurs who have suffered from similar cases of creator’s remorse. When the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Albert Einstein famously uttered the words, “Woe is me.” Before his death, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, reportedly wrote a letter to the Russian Orthodox church expressing his regret at the damage his invention had caused. And Alfred Nobel started the famous award that bears his name as a way to recognize promoters of peace… after he invented dynamite.
More recently, a rash of creator’s remorse has spread in Silicon Valley. In an article in the April 2018 issue of New York Magazine, writer Noah Kulwin explains how some of the internet’s and social media’s architects and former power brokers have begun to criticize their creations. Kulwin writes, “The man who oversaw the creation of the original iPhone believes the device he helped build is too addictive.” The inventor of the World Wide Web fears his creation is being “weaponized.” He also quotes Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, in reference to social media: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And perhaps the person that feels the most scorn for his help in creating the uncontrollable monster of our modern day technological situation is Jaron Lanier. Lanier has written two books, You Are Not a Gadget and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, both of which chronicle his loathing of the system he helped create.
Though your average Joe Social Media User isn’t likely to suffer from the same version of creator’s remorse above, many of us have become little creators of our own online personalities. The official urban dictionary definition of Twitter’s Remorse is: “The regret you feel, wishing you could improve, or say something better or funnier only after you have hit the update button while using Twitter.” How many of us, after our great attempts to say something clever, have suffered from Twitter’s Remorse? Of course the feeling Victor Frankenstein felt wasn’t exactly the same as Twitter’s Remorse, as if he wished he had only created his monster better. But the remorse we feel for our doings on social media are an echo of Frankenstein’s creator’s remorse for bringing his monster into the world. And perhaps his remorse and our own are a premonition of what is to come.
Frankenstein’s remorse and regret lead him to abandon his creation. His monster, however, does not leave him. As time passes Frankenstein’s monster takes on a life of its own, outside of Frankenstein’s control. The monster inflicts unthinkable pain on Frankenstein, killing loved one after loved one, until Frankenstein alone is left, completely broken. His future and fate are inexplicably tied to his creation. In a sense he is trapped, trapped by what he has created.
Every time we press “share,” or “post,” or “like,” we release into the digital world another micro-creation, one we think we have control over. But if one of the main goals of social media is glory, then going viral is the best way to get there. Once that has happened we have lost control of our creation, just as Victor lost control of his.God didn’t withhold the power of self-definition from us because he is a curmudgeon, but because he knew that our feeble attempts to define ourselves apart from him could never lead to our happiness.
Many of us remember the unfortunate case of Jason Russell and his viral video, Kony 2012. As the video climbed past 100 million views and the pressure and criticism began to mount, Russell began to crack, culminating in a mental breakdown or “brief reactive psychosis,” and another, in this case, infamous, video. The results of Kony 2012, Russell’s uncontrollable “monster,” wreaked havoc on himself and his family.
Most of us will never go viral. But we might not have to in order for our online “Frankensteins” to inflict pain on those we love. Any wayward tweet or unseemly picture could surely do just as much damage to our family and friends. And with “toxic outrage” being the unofficial language spoken on social media, there are plenty of ways we can hurt or ostracize our loved ones without even trying. Even if our online “creations” themselves don’t inflict pain, our dogged devotion to social media, the hours we spend in the chase for social media glory, can be like the slow drip of neglect.
If all of that isn’t bad enough, we need to keep in mind that one—Frankenstein—is fictional, and the other—our social media lives—are real. And on a deeper level, our social media tendencies, our quest for glory, reflect Dr. Frankenstein; but our online selves reflect his creation. In a sense we have become both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
Tony Rienke in his book Competing Spectacles references this dual-natured aspect of social media, though in slightly different terms. Rienke writes, “Social media is where we craft the spectacle of ourselves.” Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita too (who Reinke quotes at length), remarks on the dual role of social media, calling users both spectator and star. If that is true, if we are both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, then by engaging in social media we are actually working against ourselves, just as Frankenstein’s monster so fervently opposed and worked against him. In the same way, when we hurt ourselves or others with our social media use, we are doubly to blame.
But there is good news and a solution to this bleak reality. It’s the same solution that we see in both Genesis and Frankenstein: real, authentic relationship.
In Genesis 2, shortly after creating Adam, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone.” After that, God causes Adam to fall asleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. Of course this passage is usually thought of in reference to the unique relationship in marriage between man and woman. But it also speaks to our need for relationships in general. It really is not good for us to be alone. WebMD puts it this way, “Humans are wired for connection, and when we cultivate good relationships, the rewards are immense.” In order to mitigate the isolating effects of social media we need to double down on and engage in real, authentic relationships. These relationships might be romantic but they could be friendships, parent-child relationships, or relationships with neighbors or co-workers.
It was exactly this kind of authentic friendship that provided relief to both the character Robert Walton and Dr. Frankenstein. The importance of friendship, of relationship, could be said to be a theme of Frankenstein, and Shelly makes clear from the beginning that the ultra-ambitious and isolated characters in her story long for it. In a letter to his sister Margaret, Robert Walton writes in Letter II, “But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend.” Only when Dr. Frankenstein comes aboard Walton’s ship and begins telling his harrowing tale does he find friendship.
Frankenstein too draws some measure of strength from this friendship. And when he abandoned his monster shortly after creating it, he took solace and comfort in the friendship of Henry Clerval. Frankenstein says, “Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval, his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollections.… I felt suddenly and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy.”
Real, authentic relationship is exactly what we need too when it comes to our social media self-defining ways. In the context of relationship we cede the power of ultimate self-definition and invite the other person to participate with us in defining who we are, and reciprocally we do the same. Not in a “put-us-in-a-box” kind of way—though that is one danger in unhealthy relationships and what makes us potentially vulnerable—but in the “reminding-us-who-we-really are-and-what-we-were-made-for” sort of way.
And the who we really are and what we were made for signifies the other relationship that is crucial. The relationship with our heavenly Father.
With our social media use, not only do we usurp God’s power of defining who we are, we grow more distant from him as we “in the little cracks of time in [our] day… [are] more prone to check or feed social media than [we are] to pray” (Reinke, Competing Spectacles). In order to reverse that trend, and abide in authentic relationship with our Father, Friend, and Savior, we need to commit those “little cracks” in our day and longer periods of time as well, to a form of communication far more life-giving than social media: prayer.
God didn’t withhold the power of self-definition from us because he is a curmudgeon, but because he knew that our feeble attempts to define ourselves apart from him could never lead to our happiness. We are far too prone to settle for cheap substitutes. Instead, God offers us the ultimate identity in Christ of sons and daughters. When we reject the false promises and self-defining power of social media, and instead seek to abide in real, authentic relationships with God and the people he has placed in our lives, we avoid the kind of tragedy that destroyed Victor Frankenstein. If we can learn this lesson from a 200-year-old novel about a green drooling monster, we will better understand who we are and what we were made for.
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A minor point: Frankenstein was not a doctor. He was a college drop out. In many of the films, however, he *is* a doctor.
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