Each year, the Santa Barbara Public Library hosts Santa Barbara Reads, a community offshoot of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read in which one book is selected, thousands of free copies are given out, and events and reading and discussion groups are formed so people can talk about what they’ve read. This year’s S.B. Reads selection was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
In an effort to engage the community even further, the Santa Barbara Independent teamed up with the library and held an essay contest. After culling through myriad entries, Kelly Grogan and Miguel Hernandez were chosen as the winners. Grogan wrote a fictional piece inspired by a theme in Frankenstein, while Hernandez went the nonfiction route, pondering the ethical issues surrounding modern science and technology in regard to human enhancement. Here are the winning essays. —Michelle Drown
It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.
—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
At the crease of her wrist, Ana’s slender left hand and its 27 bones elongate and fuse into glass — a thin, blue-lit screen. You could read her palm and find the story of the whole world there. Her face is bathed in the perpetual moonglow of electricity. Colors flicker through her eyes while she watches the entire human population posting their best lives, two inches wide and six and a half inches tall.
We haven’t heard from you in 79 minutes. Would you like to share something?
Her arm hums as the prompt flashes across her screen. What would she like to share? Break it. She hears Ian’s voice clearly, a whisper that travels through circuits and wires and straight into her inner ear. Break it. When they carried Ian away, wires dangled alongside muscle and sparks poured down from his left arm. Bleeding light: That was how she would remember him.
We haven’t heard from you in 80 minutes. Would you like to share something?
She wishes she could share his picture, just to see him again, but the rules would not allow it. They had labeled him an error, a glitch. The developers said he was broken. They kept the truth secret: He’d gotten a virus. She had it too. A virus that made him want to shut down altogether. The creator of the virus called it Monster.
We haven’t heard from you in 81 minutes. Would you like to share something?
She remembered the words he’d whispered, just before smashing his hand into the wall behind their bed. We are the monsters, he said. It was never meant to be like this. But now she couldn’t share his picture and she’d forgotten the color of his eyes. In her mind, they were always lit blue and green, half-moons peering over his hand at her.
We haven’t heard from you in 82 minutes. Would you like to share something?
We’re not monsters, she’d said, unsure if she meant it. They were more than human, but less, too. Sometimes she felt like a black hole, like her eyes were a vacuum absorbing the universe and keeping light a secret. He touched her face with his real hand, and for a moment she almost forgot what they were, or what they could be, or if they were monsters.
We haven’t heard from you in 83 minutes. Would you like to share something?
What could she share? The same thing, everyone said the same thing: I am here. I am here. I am here. The black hole swallowed it all. They had to account for each minute, before it was gone forever. She lifts her hand into the air.
We haven’t heard from you in 84 minutes. Would you like to share something?
Light rains down from her fingers.
In the form of fire, Prometheus provided humankind with knowledge and enlightenment. Subsequently, he was punished for all eternity for the sin of relieving the plight of humanity. His crime was promoting the acceleration of humanity reaching its ultimate potential.
Our modern Prometheus is the internet. The internet, for the most part, is an unfiltered look in the mirror for our society as a whole. It allows us a close look at ourselves. Every wrinkle, every blemish, visible up close, in high definition.
As a first-world society, we perpetually seek a balance between decelerating technological advancement to avoid swinging the pendulum toward immorality and speeding up the rate of technological advancement so that we may work toward diminishing suffering. Most worthwhile technological advancements require us to cross a line that makes us uncomfortable, but at what cost?
Like Frankenstein’s creature, today’s internet is an unexpected result, with unlimited potential, that arose out of curiosity and has become more powerful than its creators could have ever imagined. Some, carrying the figurative pitchfork, blame society’s ills on it. Our kids lack attention spans; their “friends” are only avatars who chat with them from the other side of the world; every YouTube video has abrasive commenters just a scroll away. Others look past the ugliness of comment sections and see that underneath the rough exterior of this beast is a world where amateur internet sleuths solve cold cases, DNA websites connect long-lost siblings, underprivileged children gain access to educational materials, and parents whose children share a rare disease utilize chat rooms to share tips on how to elevate the moods of their sick kids.
In future decades, the pendulum between slowing and accelerating technology will test our restraint. Will we see virtual reality goggles as an educational tool that can allow a paralyzed man to take a realistic walk through the park, or will we attribute society’s inadequacies to a disconnect from reality?
The question is not whether we will make the right choice. We can extol the features of our new iPhone while condemning those who spend too much time on their phone. Contradiction has always been one of society’s favorite masks. Rather, the question is, Will the next phase of the internet — virtual reality — further reveal our inability to avoid mixing our need for ingenuity with our penchant for spreading negativity?
If the internet could speak to us, it might quote Frankenstein’s creature by asking, “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” And further, it might comment, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.”