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The book corner: Here Be Monsters

  • 02 June 2023
Richard King, Here Be Monsters, Monash University Publishing Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity? is a suggestive title. It is also a must-read. In it, Richard King warns of the threats posed by the exploitation of contemporary technologies in an insouciant culture. It also bows to a rich literary and cultural tradition. On early maps ‘Here Be Monsters’ marked the unexplored lands and seas that lay at the edges of the maps. In my first reading of this challenging book the title anticipated the uncanny discovery of the familiar. It was as if the halts that I had recently chanced on along disused railway lines of thought were here set within a comprehensive map of the cultural network. Such disparate markers of culture as Socrates’ critique of written culture, the Luddite Rebellion of the Nineteenth Century, Frankenstein and the Eugenics movement of the first half of the twentieth century were woven into a coherent narrative.

King’s’ book is simple in its argument but complex in its development. He claims that the combination of developments in technology and in Western cultural assumptions threatens human qualities that have developed over millennia. Whereas the threat embodied in the monsters of popular culture is seen to lie in their alien character, the real threat lies in our welcoming new technologies within unreflectively, with unforeseeable results.

King’s argument rests on an understanding of the qualities that make us human. Although he acknowledges the variety of human customs and beliefs, he asserts that over millions of years of evolution from the use of tools to the discovery of fire and the expansion of brains human beings have displayed certain unchanging characteristics. They have been sociable, depending on one another for their development and fulfilment. Their sociality, too, has been physical, expressed in touch and in social rituals like meals. They have also been agents in their lives, making tools and plans for themselves and for their society. This making of plans both personally and communally involves a distinctive reflectiveness and affectivity that cannot be reduced to or replicated by mechanical processes.

These human qualities and the institutions in which they are embodied have taken millions of years to develop. In that sense they are a gift.  They are, however, threatened by the tools that human beings as natural tool-makers, have developed to enhance their knowledge and power. Those tools embodied in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology are now