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Marx, Shelley and Alienation
October 18, 2014
by J.A. Young
Albert Einstein once remarked, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”   This observation concerning the delicate relationship exists between human societies and our material creations is representative of a problem that has also been pondered by authors such as Mary Shelley and Karl Marx.  Both the preeminent Frankenstein, as well as the more pragmatic writings of Marx, shed light upon the highly complex role that technology has come to play in our world.  It is through looking at these works that we can see how Marx and Shelley would reflect upon truly “modern” examples of technology with the same cynicism and caution exemplified by Einstein’s statement.

With no way to definitively know what authors like Shelley and Marx would have thought about modern technological and scientific advances, the only course of action is to apply their interpretations of technology to the roles that it has assumed in modern day society.  Understanding the perspectives held by these authors is the first and most crucial step that must be taken in attempting to draw conclusions about present day.  One model that is used by both Shelley and Marx throughout their works is the idea that alienation from society is often a by-product of technological achievement.  This idea has persisted into the modern age, and is indeed one of the largest concerns associated with the progression of technology.

Throughout his work Marx states  his belief that private property exists, in essence, as an arbitrary means of distinction between people.  In Chapter 2 of The Communist Manifesto he argues for alienation by property, which is based upon his overarching view of all material possessions. (1) The logic of his argument is based upon the premises that there are limited amounts of material possessions, all of which are engrained with intrinsic social value; so materialistic societies have a binary relationship that produce a struggle of classes.  Marx believed that possessions functioned as barriers between the bourgeois and the proletariat, and did not serve a role in social progress, as we all are so accustom to believing. (1) This belief is foundational to the Marxist view of personal property, which includes the idea that technology functions as a way of dividing humanity, not to be viewed as a source of beneficial progress. (3)  Two of the most unfortunate truths of humanity are, in Marxist terms, the value placed upon material possessions as well as the inevitable isolation of those goods in the hands of the controlling elite. Shelley's work, specifically Frankenstein, offers us some more literary and allegorical reflection on the negative impacts of technology.

Shelley’s view of technology’s potential for human alienation, while much different, is no less important than that of Marx.  We see throughout the course of Frankenstein, the alienation that plagues both the creator Victor as well as his Creature.  Victor let's the audience know on page 38, “Learn from me… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow”. (2)  Victor is alienated from society both in his pursuit of technological achievement, as well as after the creation of his monster and the chaos that ensues.  During his production of the Creature, Victor withdraws from society and his family, finding  comfort only in his pursuit of technological achievement.  Not surprisingly, Victor’s ill-fated creation also becomes victim to alienation and hatred from society. When he raises the problem of not having a mate, Creature’s isolation is acknowledged clearly on page 128, “I am alone, and miserable, man will not associate with me”. (2)  One clear distinction that Shelley makes throughout her work is the fact that intention aside; technology does have the power to do evil.  Victor sets out with noble aspirations, but succeeds only in his shortsighted creation of the very problem that plagues him.

Having established the fact that both Shelley and Marx acknowledged the alienating potential of technology, let us turn to our analysis of modern technologies.  One example of modern technology that has profound implications for this specific issue the development of augmented reality (AR) applications on cell phones.  According to MIT’s Technology Review, a team at Georgia Tech University is working on developing the feasibility of AR interfaces on smart-phones. (3)  What this means is that users will be able to interact with data concerning nearly everything in their surrounding environment in real time based upon their own preferences. (3)  So instead of being in a new environment and physically interacting with it in order to gain information, the hope is that the information will be predetermined and readily available, essentially isolating individual users from their surroundings.  The convenient implications for technology such as this may seem to be  beneficial and progressive, but upon further analysis we are reminded of the perspective expressed by Marx and Shelley. 

This technology was created so that people can be more intensely involved with their “augmented reality” than with objective reality.  Interacting with data that is interfaced into this “augmented reality” is no doubt effective in at least inadvertently, if not intentionally, dissociating people from regular social interaction.  This example of the progress that modern technology has taken is precisely a manifestation of the problems that are acknowledged by Marx and Shelley.  Had they lived to see this advanced level of technological isolation, there is no doubt that they would be as equally disturbed as they would be astounded.  While using AR may be a convenient and modernized method of interacting with their surroundings, there is no doubting the potential for alienation of its users.

Another example of modern technology that raises questions regarding the prospect of alienation is the continual development of Facebook.  Recent development within the social networking site has occurred via a new application that is intended to more easily consolidate one’s online “friends” into groups.  A program called “SocialFlow” is designed to compile information from the individuals on a user’s friends list, and to produce a more effectively distributed grouping of them based upon said data. (4)  In essence this program was created with the intention of deliberately alienating certain people based upon data that is considered relevant.  This is in many ways an example of exactly what Marx warned was possible.  Instead of material possessions functioning as the source of alienation, we now have programs that are designed  to arbitrarily distinguishing between members of society.  I doubt that even someone with the foresight of Marx or Shelley would have been able to predict the creation of technology for the sole purpose of replacing an understanding of our social relationships.  This being said, both Marx and Shelley would most likely respond to this example of technology with a warning. The fact that technology now dictates such a fundamental role in the social organization of the world is something that would no doubt sadden the authors who believed that humanity should be the most pressing concern for society.

It is a difficult prospect to attempt to analyze what some of the great minds of history would say about our modernized society if given the possibility. Our society is still in its infancy of acknowledging the inherent agency and power that we impart to our material culture.  What were once just hopes and dreams of inventors have become willed into reality by the perseverance of humanity, a process that in many ways is as inadvertently subversive as it is beneficial.  We often fail to realize the somewhat vapid progression of technology, losing perspective on the persistent monumental steps taken in the arena of applied science.  Both the Marxist lens, as well as the viewpoint of Shelley, adhere to the concept that technology has a profoundly destructive capability, regardless of intention.

(1) Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1948). Manifesto of the Communist party. 1st ed. New York: International Publishers.
(2) Shelley, M. (1996). Frankenstein. 1st ed. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library.

(2) Jessop, Bob and Russell Wheatley.  Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought.  Routledge Publishing, London.  1999.  Pages 420-425.

(3) Mims, Christopher.  (7 March 2011).  Turning Augmented Reality into an Open Standard.  MIT Technology Review.  Retrieved from on 20 March 2011.

(4) Simonite, Tom. (18 February 2011).  Facebook App Reveals Your Social Cliques.  MIT Technology Review.  Retrieved From on 21 March 2011.

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