Joshua Black reviews Richard King, Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity? (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2023).
“I don’t know how to rearrange society to make it just and sustainable” says author, critic and poet Richard King in the final chapter of his new philosophical treatise Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity? (p. 216). As a literary crescendo, it is anti-climactic. But as one of the culminating sentences in a rich discussion of technoscientific capitalism and its impacts on our humanity in the modern age, it is refreshingly humble. It is the hallmark of a book full of big ideas, big questions and big problems that defy glib or simplistic solutions.
Here Be Monsters compels us to see in critical terms the place of technology in our daily social and cultural lives, cataloguing its effects on or long-term risks to our essential identity, sociability, agency and sense of purpose. King’s concern is not the cliché of old (robots will take our jobs and overrun the world) but rather that humans will themselves become little more than “fleshy automata, subject to endless modification” (p. 23). That is to say, we are on the road to becoming uncanny versions of ourselves, something resembling a literal and figurative monster.
The treatise examines several exemplary problems. The first, and most cohesive, section of the book discusses social media. His point is not that social media is inherently good or bad, but rather that its excesses have betrayed Silicon Valley’s initial promise of global connectivity and sociability in favour of greater social alienation and the quantification of human worth (in the form of ‘likes’). “Small coincidence that both social media companies and drug dealers describe their clients as ‘users’”, he says in one acerbic parenthesis (p. 35).
In the second section, King dismantles the bioengineering industry for the harmful attitudes it has produced in relation to the human body. He argues that innovations such as surgical bodily modification, genome editing, moral bioenhancement (literally taking a pill to enhance your moral capacities in line with official expectations) and anti-depressant medications are more consequential than we are sometimes prepared to realise. Though careful to celebrate the positive ways such technology can be used—not least in liberating someone whose sexual identity and body are congruent, or alleviating the symptoms of endogenous depression and anxiety—he argues that we ought not to be so cavalier about altering the human body, for we are necessarily altering that which makes us human in doing so. “The body is not an extension of the self; it is the self, and the self is it,” he argues. “To consistently treat it as something expendable, or infinitely malleable, is an enterprise no less dangerous in the hands of the Promethean left than it is in the hands of the info-tech wizards” (p. 158).
The final section considers the detrimental effect of technoscience on human agency. “Ours is, increasingly, a black-box society”, he writes: “a society in which we have exchanged our agency for a thin idea of autonomy based on consumerism and ‘convenience’” (p. 194). Machines and algorithmic technologies have become virtually indistinguishable from magic, and geoengineering solutions to the climate crisis, for example, offer the prospect of treating symptoms while eliding the root cause, namely a worldview dominated by the totemic ideal of economic growth that “brought us to this calamitous point” (p. 214).
The task King sets for himself is formidable, the end product highly admirable. Here Be Monsters is a highly engaging work informed by an impressive historical literacy. In concise paragraphs, he is able to offer serious snapshots of processes as complex as the effects of the Gutenberg printing press on European societies, the history of capitalism and latterly neoliberalism, the shifting social perceptions of industrialisation, the fragility of the environment and more. He even wades into the cultural debate surrounding Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (King is politely critical of the grand narrative of progress that seems to inform it) and reserves a few sharp remarks for David Christian and Yuval Noah Harari, those purveyors of Big History who are so popular among Silicon Valley tycoons (this criticism is perhaps overdone).
It is an economically acute work, too; the author never allows his readers to forget that capitalism, specifically technoscientific capitalism (a version of capitalism in which “new technologies of transformation” are presented in a narrative of progress and rendered value-neutral [p. 14]), is at the root of so many of the social ills and injustices facing our world. In a world dominated by technologies of distance and absence, the “neoliberal principles of financialisation and globalisation […] helped capitalism break the bonds of post-war social democracy” (pp. 41-42). Alluding to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), King says, “[t]he part of Victor is taken by a composite of corporations, governments, the military and the modern university, now largely denuded of its humanistic ethos” (p. 21). These are the agents of our own incipient monstrosity.
The book is repetitive in parts, it has to be said. There is some merit in this; the problem that underscores the writing is foundational, and its ramifications almost impossible to demarcate. No doubt the author and editors alike felt it prudent to ensure that the central proposition – the effects of technology on human beings’ sociability, agency, authenticity and creativity – was not lost among intellectual paraphernalia like ‘technological somnambulance’, ‘authoritarian technics’, and ‘technoscientific capitalism’. Nonetheless, the questions did not need to be articulated with the same painstaking qualifications so often as they were.
The pleasure of King’s writing is in its powerful use of cultural allusions. The book opens with reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (both 1968), and the chapters treat landmark novels, films and television series as their cultural touchstones (everything from the Harry Potter films to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). There is a highly engaging discussion of the famous ‘Trolley problem’ in moral philosophy, which alludes to the popular Netflix program The Good Place for good measure. These illusions are deployed to make serious points, but they also bring comic relief in parts. In a critique of the idea that social media addiction could be explained in neurochemical terms alone, King quips, “I don’t imagine for a second that a decisive answer will be found on a brain scan, any more than a meaningful take on Guernica will be found on a Taubmans colour chart” (p. 37).
Though he doesn’t nominate specific solutions to the problems he dissects, King does suggest ways we might begin to create the cultural space for meaningfully discussing the problems. Radical humanist prescriptions for our public sphere, he says, could include: establishing social “rules around the use of technology” especially for the young; resisting the “surrender to screen technologies in education”; the elevation of tuition in “practical skills, including problem-solving”; and potentially the social or national ownership of “many privately owned technologies” (pp. 217-19). These measures alone are hardly likely to prevent us from succumbing to the dehumanising impulses emanating from Silicon Valley. I think they are an excellent position from which to begin. The problem, of course, will be encouraging those who most need this book (policymakers, journalists, educators, and arguably students) to forfeit enough screen time to read it.