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Vanity Fair, Elon Musk, AI, and Frankenstein’s (unexpected) Monster

Vanity Fair magazine recently ran a profile of Elon Musk that focused on the ways that Musk is at odds with other tech gurus about the relative merits of artificial intelligence (AI). Musk, who thinks that A.I. is humanity’s biggest threat, is quoted as saying “sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.”  Musk doesn’t reference it directly, but his fears about a scientist who gets carried away with his work, with disastrous results, perfectly describe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to “penetrate the recesses of nature” leads him to create a human being, which he thinks will become a new species that will “bless him” as the creator. Victor’s creature, as we all know, does not turn out the way Victor expects, and when the creature comes to life one November evening, Victor flees in horror, leaving his creature defenseless and alone—and outside of Victor’s control. Eventually, after the creature learns to read and think, he confronts Victor and demands that Victor make him a female companion. The creature plans to flee with the female to South America, where they will live on nuts and berries and exist in complete harmony with nature. Victor initially agrees to this plan and then changes his mind, fearful that the female creature “might refuse to comply” with the plan. He destroys the female creature, which sends his first creation into a vengeful rage. The final chapters of the novel focus on the battle between man and creation, each trying to destroy the other.

The novel is about the dangers of ambition, yes, and about not realizing the full ramifications of your actions, but ultimately, “Frankenstein’s monster” is not the problem.

At the heart of the novel is what happens when women are neglected and their experiences denied by male ambition. Frankenstein wants to create life all by himself, without women; he cannot bear the thought that the female creature might not “comply” with what men want her to do; and when the creature kills Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night, it’s because Frankenstein never thought that the monster would bother with anyone else other than him.

Maureen Dowd, who wrote this article, also interviewed a number of other players in the tech world as a way to map the spectrum of attitudes about AI developments.

Here is the infographic that accompanied the article:

 

Notice anything? It’s like Frankenstein talking to himself: apparently only men have opinions about AI, which I guess explains why Dowd’s article only contains interviews with men. Musk talks about other male entrepreneurs, who then talk about Musk, themselves, and each other. It’s a giant reflecting mirror of men talking about their accomplishments—past, present, and future.

And yet, as Heather Roff pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, as developments in AI continue, no one seems to be asking key questions: “Are there abuses of power? What is the value happening here? Why are we doing this? Who is subordinate? And who is in charge?” Questions like these are embedded in feminist theories but I’m going to bet that none of the guys on that infographic are very well versed in the writings of Donna Haraway or bell hooks.

The men in Dowd’s article are terrifically accomplished, there’s no doubt, but they (and we) should take a lesson from Mary Shelley and her nineteenth-century nightmare: when you leave women out of the equation(s), the results are disastrous.

 

 

 

Infographic credit

 

Continue Reading · 0 on April 28, 2017 in Children, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics, tech life

Melania Shares Our Pain

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Poor Melania Trump. All she wanted was to marry a millionaire and settle down to an untroubled existence in a gold-leafed penthouse. Once she’d produced the requisite heir—the double-barreled Barron, whose exhaustion on election night mirrored the country’s—she’d fulfilled her part of the marital contract.  Post-Barron, Melania’s sole task was organizing the occasional party at Mar-A-Lago and getting into the society pages with enough frequency to assuage her husband’s ego. Life was supposed to be easy, a couture bubble that insulated her from all unpleasantness: a reward of sorts for posing artfully nude in “fashion” photos that still circulate on the internet. Inconvenient thing, the internet, as Mel’s husband has discovered. His tweets from four years ago urged people to protest the Obama re-election as a “travesty.”  The current protests, against his own victory, he tweets as “unfair.” Remember, Melania, nothing ever dies on the internet.

Dear Melania, when you visited the White House last week, did you mean to wear an outfit that seemed so funereal? It is truly a gracious first-lady-in-waiting who chooses her ensemble to reflect the mood of more than half the country; I thank you on their behalf. Or perhaps you’re mourning the loss of your wealthy anonymity, those halcyon days when you could zip off to fashion shows or long lunches or – well, I am not exactly sure what you’ve been doing for the last eleven years, but whatever it was, I’m afraid those days are over.

I’m sure you’re going to do fine as First Lady, Melania. The whirling panic that many of us saw in your eyes on election night and then when you visited Michelle Obama in the White House was probably just a momentary thing. I know that people are pressing you with questions about “issues” and “security” and “decisions,” but surely you will appoint people whose job it is to wrangle with such things, while you determine the right outfits for the Inauguration. Two small pieces of advice, if I may: I’d avoid a pussy-bow blouse for the inauguration ceremony. And you might want to practice a slightly different photo-op look. I’m not sure that “smoldering cat-eye pout” is quite what people expect for FLOTUS face. But hey, you can work that out with your transition team.

I know it’s been a rough ride, Mel, from that first escalator descent to lobby of the Trump Tower Mall, where The Donald declared himself a candidate for the Presidency.  That’s why you’ve insisted that you and Donny are just plain folks, never mind that 125-room residence in Florida or the triplex apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. You keep telling us you’re just a regular gal, content to be a full-time mother to The Bar(r)on.

Yes, there are some women who complain that they’d like to follow in your Laboutin footsteps and be stay-at-home-moms, but they can’t afford not to work. They shouldn’t worry, right? I know that you and Donny feel their pain. You’re going to fix that situation straightaway with a really big plan, a super plan. Any day now, a huge plan is going to be announced. Laboutins for everyone, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, maybe Melania doesn’t need our compassion. As she told Anderson Cooper last month on CNN, she’s tough. She doesn’t care that people might compare her to the outgoing First Lady, who did things like graduate from Harvard Law School and then juggle a full-time career with full-time parenting, without a single pair of Laboutins to her name. Melania is just fine with her unfinished university degree and her work as a catalog model, and her desire to stop cyberbullying.

In fact, the cyberbullying and the pussy-bow makes me wonder if this FLOTUS reluctantus doesn’t have a sneaky little sense of humor, a Chanel-scented sense of irony: both bow and bullying highlight some egregious mistakes made by The Donald.

Good luck, Melania. FLOTUS is a tough job, and frequently a thankless one. Look at it this way: no matter how bad it gets, you can plan on returning to your Manhattan penthouse in about four years.

 

photo credit

 

 

 

 

Continue Reading · on November 18, 2016 in Feminism, Gender, Politics

The Color Purple

I read Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple when I was about fourteen, probably too young to understand its full complexity. All I understood was that the world conspired against Celie–and at fourteen, that’s sort of how the world felt to me, too.

With each re-reading of the novel, I saw more: the way that the form–an epistolary novel–drew on centuries of (white, European) literary tradition and challenged it at the same time; the fact that love between women challenged (and eventually dismantled) structures of male power; the joy and power that comes from finding work that matters, whether that work is singing jazz or making pants that fit women.

I’ve taught this novel a few times, and I love listening to students talk about what they discover in the novel, which still resonates, even now, more than thirty years after it was first published.

I was reminded about the novel’s power today, when I watched Jennifer Hudson and the cast of “The Color Purple” pay tribute to Prince, whose album “Purple Rain” came out two years after Walker’s novel.

I’m not alone–I’m one of millions, I suppose–when I say that Prince’s songs were the soundtrack of my youth. At the time, of course, I thought I was very, very adult, singing along to “I Would Die 4U,” or “Raspberry Beret…”  There was childlike joy in the music–the sheer ecstatic pleasure of making something–married to the very adult pleasures of the flesh.

His music floated out of dorm rooms and dance parties when I was at college in the early 1980s. College, for me, was a small women’s college outside of Boston, where The Color Purple was on lots of reading lists: all that female empowerment! On the weekends, the school held “mixers” — ghastly dances that drew men from surrounding colleges. Sometimes men from specific schools would be invited, sometimes men just showed up, but all of the men (okay, most) seemed certain that as inhabitants of a female-only world, we must be starving–nay, near unto death–for the lack of male company.  The standard conversation at a mixer often went something like “hey, how are you, my name is Jeff/Pete/Charlie/Biff…” and then after a few pleasantries, the question: “Is your roommate home?”  And that meant: would you please take me to your dorm room and let me see your little red love machine?

Much to the chagrin of Biff, Charlie, and Pete, we were frequently quite fine, thanks, without the pleasure of their company. Which is not to say that sometimes we didn’t make like darling Nikki and get ourselves a lil’bit of fun, but just as frequently–and often jump-started by Prince–my friends and I would dance towards each other, ignoring Biff’s entreaties. We danced, god did we dance; the boys couldn’t keep up and we didn’t want them to. Prince gave us permission to dance without worrying about what we looked like or who was watching; he gave us permission to move for the sweet pleasure of moving.

I haven’t remembered those dances in a long time. It took Prince’s death to remind me of the freedom we felt as we danced; the music made me feel like I could do anything.

Somewhere in The Color Purple, Celie writes “Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.” Maybe that’s what Prince wanted to do in his music–be loved–but maybe, and more likely, I think he wanted us to remember to love each other–whenever, whomever, and however we wanted, in whatever fleshly and passionate fashion we could find.

Celie also tells us “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”  We couldn’t not notice Prince–not just his purple, of course, but the marvel of the creativity that streamed out of him, an amazing gift that I, at least, thought might never end.

Goodnight, sweet Prince. Nothing compares 2U.

 

Continue Reading · on April 22, 2016 in aging, Feminism, pop culture, sex

Elizabeth Warren, Planned Parenthood, and Me…Redux

Six years ago, I wrote a post about Dr George Tiller, who was murdered by someone who called himself “pro-life.”

I’ll leave you a minute to savor the horrific ironies in that statement.

And now, six years later, it’s not only the body of a doctor that is on the line but all of Planned Parenthood, as the wackadoodles in the US Senate attempt to defund the entire organization.

Elizabeth Warren, bless her, gave a fiery speech on the Senate floor in which she asked the Republican Senators “Did you fall down, hit your head and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor?”

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By this point, I have to say that those don’t seem like rhetorical questions. It seems as if yes, in fact, a large segment of this country is living–or would like to live– in some putative golden age when the only people in the United States with rights are white people who can’t get pregnant, ever.

Welcome to the age of Not Mattering. Non-white bodies don’t seem to matter that much; bodies of people who can get pregnant don’t seem to matter that much; bodies of anyone outside a very narrow demographic swath don’t seem to matter that much.

When my friends and I joined marches for reproductive rights decades ago–decades–we never imagined that now, well into middle age (dear god, how did we get to middle age?),  we would be fighting the same fight, helping our (much wanted) sons and daughters fight the same fight, wondering why on earth people are still so afraid of women controlling their own reproductive choices.

The marvelous Katha Pollitt writes “the whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary,” and she’s right.

Six years ago, watching the vigil for Dr Tiller, I thought “surely things can’t get any worse.” And while for the Tiller family, that’s probably the truth, I’m wondering how much worse things are going to get for the rest of us.

 

 

 

My column about Dr. Tiller was collected in a volume edited by the marvelous Joanne Bamberger, called Mothers of Intention

Continue Reading · on August 6, 2015 in Children, family, Feminism, Gender, Kids, Parenting, Politics, ranting

Whose Family Values Are They, Anyway? Happy Adoption Day!

I wrote this post almost four years ago. In that four-year time, gay marriage has become law in almost half the states in the Union and yesterday Tylenol ran a new ad that celebrated all the different types of families you can imagine — including some that look like mine.  To celebrate #HowWeFamily, here’s this post again…

My extended family will officially, legally, extend by one more person today, August 29.

My brother is going to become a father.

It’s very exciting and my mom has gone out west to join him for the big day.  They’ll meet at the courthouse where the papers will be finalized and then they’ll go out to lunch: my brother, my mom, my now-official nephew, his mother, and a few assorted other relatives.

It’s an event that would make Michelle Bachmann’s well-groomed toes curl in horror and make all of Rick Perry’s hair stand up straight (Michelle’s would stand up straight, too, except she uses too much hairspray. Come to think of it, maybe Rick does too).  In fact, my brother is pissing off the entire cohort of the Far Right today, with one simple action.

My single gay brother is legally adopting his biological offspring, the result of a single woman’s trip to a sperm bank some fifteen years ago. Continue Reading →

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Continue Reading · on June 23, 2015 in birth, Children, family, Feminism, Gender, Politics

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