This year marks the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. This novel has become a cultural icon, largely due to the figure of the creature, the strange monster cobbled together from stolen body parts and reanimated by the scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein is obsessed with creating life from non-living matter. He eventually creates a humanoid creature which resembles a human in many aspects, although it is much larger and has an unearthly appearance that marks it as clearly not-human. Frankenstein is repulsed by the creature, which escapes his laboratory. The creature, for its part, finds its own appearance hideous, and experiences rejection from the people it encounters because it looks so strange and frightening. Eventually the creature turns murderous, wanting to wreak vengeance on its creator for its lonely and disturbed existence.
The story of Frankenstein’s creature and its creator is a dark moral tale, in which Shelley vividly speculates on the ways in which humans’ ambitions to tinker with nature can go badly wrong. A central theme in this moral tale is the figure of the creature itself, in its eerie, almost-human-like appearance and sensibility. The creature has human feelings and emotions, needs and desires, but it looks too strange and monstrous to be able to be accepted by humans, and its rage and despair eventually overwhelms it.
The novel raises important ethical and ontological questions about what it means to be human, how novel technologies can disturb the definition and meaning of the human, and how scientific innovation can threaten humanity. It demonstrates the affective power of the more-than-human world, when parts of humans come together in new ways to create new forms of human – or almost-human – life.
These days, a range of speculative fiction accounts represent digital technologies as creating monstrous new formations of humanity. Thus, for example, many episodes of the dystopian television series Black Mirror centre on the ways in which people’s digitally monitored and archived data can be used to replicate, manipulate, observe, control or betray them. In the most obvious reference to Frankenstein’s monster, in ‘Be Right Back’ (series 2), a grieving woman uses a digital service that draws on the archive of her dead husband’s online interactions to first talk to a digitised version of him on the phone, then create him in the flesh. Although at first she finds it comforting to have this post-death replicant of her partner with her, she soon finds him disturbing and annoying, as he is not able to properly display the human quirks of the real man she knew and loved. In ‘Arkangel’ (series 4), a child is relentlessly monitored by her anxious mother using a digital device that reveals the girl’s perspective on the world and monitors biometrics such as her heart rate and adrenaline levels. Once the girl reaches adolescence and becomes aware of the privacy-invasion that she is subjected to, she is driven to anger and violence against her mother because of the violation she feels. In ‘Crocodile’ (series 4), a device is used to access memories, again with violent consequences when a woman feels as if she can no longer keep her secrets. In ‘Nosedive’ (series 3), people use their smart devices constantly to rank and rate each other, with the resultant data affecting their life opportunities. ‘Playtest’ (series 3) depicts a computer game-like scenario, when again people’s memories are accessed by a digital device to make the game as frightening as possible by invoking their deepest fears. ‘The Entire History of You’ (series 1), involves a man wracked by jealousy who forces his partner to ‘rewind’ her memories to prove her infidelity, which then destroys their relationship.
All of these Black Mirror episodes (and several others in the series) depict the nightmarish ways in which personal data can be used to monitor, frighten, humiliate and punish people, particularly in imagined scenarios when digital devices can be used to constantly record, preserve and ‘download’ these data. Like Frankenstein’s monster, these personal data are new forms or extensions of human life. More than data doubles or doppelgangers, these personal data have their own liveliness, their own worlds, that exist beyond the purview of the humans who created them. They are constantly changing and moving into new formations. I have elsewhere suggested that we can think of personal digital data as companion species, living with and co-evolving with us.
In their more-than-human presence, personal data assemblages have the potential to evoke the ‘uncanny valley’, or the affective responses from humans to objects they have created that are marked by feelings of eeriness, uncertainty, discomfort, and a sense that something is ‘not quite right’. Humanoid robots are often described as evoking uncanny valley responses, but they can occur in response to other digital as well as non-digital humanoid artefacts, such as masks, dolls, puppets, zombies, human prosthetics, characters in films generated by computer graphic manipulation (sometimes referred to as ‘digital actors’) and avatars in computer games.
The representations of personal data and their consequences in Black Mirror, I would argue, go some way to highlighting the uncanny and potentially uncontrolled, and in some cases, disastrous implications of generating and storing these pieces of information about people. From the ambivalence of the uncanny valley to the monstrosities of data betrayals, the near-future of personal data is imagined in unsettling scenarios.
Photo credit: Flickr image by Robert Couse-Baker, CC By 2.0