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Fearing the Wrong Monsters
Mike Treder   Oct 31, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Fear is a great motivator. Throughout history, successful leaders have known how to use fear to unite and to manipulate their followers. Usually this fear is of “the other,” a group that looks different, talks different, or worships a different god.

In modern times we’ve seen the same intensity of fear-mongering wielded by fascist dictators and also by democratic leaders. Recall the “red scare” of the 1950s, the “evil empire” of the 1980s, and the personification of all that is unholy in Saddam Hussein.

This cynical use of fear by people in leadership positions, often aided by a compliant media, sometimes can be used to accomplish worthy purposes, as in fighting the Axis during World War II. But more often it is simply a tool for accruing more power, wealth, or influence to the leader and his in-group. Note the choice of Hussein as the baddest man in the world, for example, when there were several other despots arguably doing far worse things to their people but who didn’t happen, oddly enough, to occupy land replete with valuable oil reserves.

In the long run, of course, a tremendously greater amount of damage will be done to the Earth and all its inhabitants by greedy oil barons and industrial tycoons who support phony think tanks and pay alleged “scientists” to propagate disinformation about the real dangers of climate change. Their interests, and the financial futures of the politicians they buy, are made more secure when they can distract us from the truth by building up the fear of nasty enemies.

It’s natural, mind you, for humans (and other thinking animals) to be afraid of that which is strange to them. Without this innate caution toward the unfamiliar, we’d be likely to take undue risks. Fear is a normal, healthy reaction to certain stimuli, but it also can be misused to our detriment.

While it’s not surprising that new scientific and technological developments often cause fearful reactions, it’s clearly necessary for cooler heads to prevail and allow for the spread of beneficial innovations. From the printing press and the weaving machine to the locomotive and the telegraph, from blood transfusions and vaccinations to in vitro fertilization and stem cell research, certain advances will predictably spur a negative backlash. Over the years, these advances come to be seen as less threatening and eventually are welcomed and accepted by all but a fringe minority.

In our own time, we’re seeing the bogeyman fear applied to concepts associated with transhumanism—“the world’s most dangerous idea”—but as we move further into the 21st century, new techniques in genetic engineering, robotics, human-computer interfaces, nanomedicine, and other emerging technologies also will come to be accepted as routine and generally valuable.

Earlier in the Industrial Era, fearful depictions of monsters created by human meddling were a common theme in science fiction novels and movies. Examples include Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Brave New World. (Notice all the ‘doctors’?)

Modern day characterizations of the same monstrous fears can be found in the Terminator movies, along with Blade Runner, Gattaca, The Matrix, and many others.

Strangely, a small subculture of transhumanist thinkers have created a similar fear of dangerously diabolical inhuman products of advanced technology, this time in the form of an “unfriendly AI” (artificial intelligence). The worry seems to be that:

...any highly intelligent, powerful AI whose goal system does not contain “detailed reliable inheritance from human morals and metamorals” will effectively delete us from reality.

Can you see the similarities between dire warnings about earlier Frankenstein-style monsters and these newer, shinier, computer-generated fiends? Anything that is novel, unfamiliar, and not well understood is likely, as a first reaction, to generate fear. Too often that fear gets co-opted into campaigns to ban or strictly limit the development of new technologies. From Luddites in the 1810s to modern-day bioconservatives, we find a consistent strain of anti-Enlightenment values. Better to restrict human learning and growth than to open Pandora’s Box and allow all manner of strange new creations to enter the world.

On Friday, December 4, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is presenting a seminar in Irvine, California, on the Biopolitics of Popular Culture:

Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

During this day-long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.

I hope you can join us in Southern California as we contemplate the monsters that populate our dreams and our fiction, and as we consider which of them might be real and scary, and which others are simply scary but unreal.

To wrap this up on a semi-humorous note, consider this warning about “The Danger of Celebrating Halloween”:

During this period demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities. These demons are automatically drawn to the fetishes that open doors for them to come into the lives of human beings. For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches.

I do not buy candy during the Halloween season. Curses are sent through the tricks and treats of the innocent whether they get it by going door to door or by purchasing it from the local grocery store. The demons cannot tell the difference.

Decorating buildings with Halloween scenes, dressing up for parties, going door-to-door for candy, standing around bonfires and highlighting pumpkin patches are all acts rooted in entertaining familiar spirits. All these activities are demonic and have occult roots.

The danger of Halloween is not in the scary things we see but in the secret, wicked, cruel activities that go on behind the scenes. These activities include:

  • Sex with demons
  • Orgies between animals and humans
  • Animal and human sacrifices
  • Sacrificing babies to shed innocent blood
  • Rape and molestation of adults, children and babies

Etc.—and this was published, with no apparent irony, on a highly popular, “respectable” Christian website.

Meanwhile, real monsters do lurk in the world, intent on gathering illicit power to dominate and subjugate innocent victims.

This Halloween, and beyond, let’s focus on the true monstrosities.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


Mike—phenominally fascinating read.  Very interesting to look at technology and AI, an often-invoked theme in science fiction, from a fearful standpoint.  Very well-researched and written.  I’m hoping to make the seminar in Irvine, as it sounds like it could present some excellent discussion.

Jovana Grbic

Nice one Mike, (..spits out last of Halloween candy).
You forget to mention the mysterious and all powerful “Illuminati”. Am I joking?


Interesting article Mike.

I recently posted an article called ‘Beware the Superman’ on my own blog, which explains how fear of Transhumans (combined with the general expense involved with being a cyborg) eventually led to their extinction in my Space Opera.

If anyone reading this would like to check out my blog, it’s You have to it type directly into the address bar, since it doesn’t come up with search engines yet.

It’s so hard to tell whether “Meanwhile, real monsters (eg Cheney) do lurk in the world, intent on gathering illicit power to dominate and subjugate innocent victims” is part of “To wrap this up on a semi-humorous note” or not.

> “Can you see the similarities between dire warnings about earlier Frankenstein-style monsters and these newer, shinier, computer-generated fiends?”

No, no I can’t. Equating the folks who worry about negative consequences of inherently uncontrollable technologies with luddites is unfair.  People such as Yudkowsky who warn about these existential risks are also, at the same time, the people working hard to create these technologies.  Their worries are justified by science, not irrational fears of novelty like the luddites/conservatives.  There is a big difference between being scared of the future and being scared of a scary future.

By your reasoning, the Manhattan Project scientists who warned people of the dangers of wielding atomic energy were no different then the ‘Frankenstein-hating’ luddites as well.

Haig already mentioned Eliezer Yudkowsky, so I’ll link to Michael Anissimov’s to-the-point explanation of the fears regarding AI:

There will be no “off” button for a super-human AI. If it is misdesigned, we’re toast.

Just because technology doesn’t usually create monsters doesn’t mean that we should deliberately go out and make monsters.

There’s a well-known saying: “Computers are incredibly stupid; they do exactly what you tell them to do.” Even if it’s sending that love letter to the whole office rather than to your significant other. The relevant analogy is not Frankenstein’s Monster or the Terminator movie series, but rather the Literal Genie - the one that gives you exactly what you asked for, which turns out to be something that you didn’t actually want.

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