I’ve been re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a ground-breaking work of fiction that she completed in 1817 at the age of 20. The book is quite different from the movie, in part because the creature that Victor Frankenstein creates is quite thoughtful and articulate. And, of course, his name is not Frankenstein.
Here’s the thing, though. Frankenstein doesn’t create his creature because doing so is good or right. He creates it because he can. And he spends the rest of his life trying—unsuccessfully—to undo what he did, because it turns out that the consequences of his experiment were rather foul.
The Frankenstein story is thus an apt metaphor for our present-day economy. We create what we create just because we can, not because we’ve thoughtfully considered the consequences of that creation. As a result of this carelessness, we’re likely to expend what’s left of our productive energies undoing much of what we’ve done—because what we’ve unleashed upon the world is multiple orders of magnitude more monstrous than anything Frankenstein ever did.
Why capitalists create
Let’s not kid ourselves. Sure, for PR and marketing purposes we couch our product development in terms of “meeting a need.” But the empirical evidence indicates otherwise. Sure, we may imagine a market “need” for our creations—but the real question in any business plan is profitability, not need.
In fact, if our concern were really need, we’d work in cooperatively to meet that need. But we don’t. Instead, we try to beat others to market. We keep secrets from them. We put out propaganda about how their creation is worse than ours—even when we know it’s actually damn good.
Besides, the big money isn’t in meeting needs. It’s in creating something no one needs and then convincing them they need it. We call this “making a market”—and it’s how real fortunes come about. No one needed Amazon or Facebook. But once they became available, they became desirable. And that desirability eventually feels like a need. It’s just like heroin and crack. No one needs them. But oh boy. Once you use them, it’s hard to stop.
Our “disruption” and “innovation,” in other words, is fully Frankensteinian. We create what we can just because we can. It’s only after we create it that we try to convince anyone that it’s something they need.
What capitalists create
Now that we’ve considered why we create, let’s look at what we create.
We create apps, services around apps, and tools to get apps to market. Again, we may call this “innovation” and “disruption”—but it is anything but. Just like Frankenstein, we cobble together pieces of code and process ganked from here and there. Then we claim that we are “innovative” because no one has ever created any monster exactly like ours.
I’m not saying we never improve a design or streamline a process. But let’s get over ourselves. A mortgage is still a mortgage. An e-tailer is still a retailer. A car is still a car. Nobody is financing genuine innovation. They’re financing incremental improvement and fast follows. Can you even name the last true innovation? I’d be interested in your answer.
Also, almost none of it works. What we create is enormously defective. It’s just that we’ve developed a tolerance for defect that could probably be classified as a cognitive pathology. Can you imagine having to reboot your car while you’re driving on I-95? Or having to pay for new stations on your radio until you’ve got 22 monthly charges hiding in 12 different invoices?
Our creations are such ugly monsters that we cannot secure our data, ensure uptime, or predictably control our operational costs. But, again, we accept this because—unlike the monster Frankenstein created—ours deliver food to your door and provide your niece with an entry-level job creating something called “content.” Plus, because everything is hidden behind a screen, few of us have ever seen how truly ugly our monsters are.
The result of our creation
The final proof of our economy’s Frankensteinian nature is empirically revealed is its results. If we were doing anything to build a better world, we would have seen some improvement by now. After all, we’ve been at this for almost half a century.
But our results are horrendous. Our single most existential issue, for example, is the climate crisis. Have our creations helped us in that regard? Not a whit. In fact, we even created a monster called “Bitcoin” that has the same carbon footprint as Argentina. And that’s just one tiny piece of the global carbon footprint our monsters generate.
How about income disparity—which is not only inhumane, but also a primary contributing factor to social unrest? Are our creations helping us there? Just the opposite. We’re actually exacerbating the problem of capital aggregation by disproportionately rewarding VCs and private equity while extracting more value from the working poor than ever.
The monstrosity of our creations is further revealed in the way we keep externalizing the consequences of our build-it-because-we-can mentality. Distributed computing becomes unwieldy so we offload to the cloud. The cloud then becomes totally unmanageable, so we create a new set of monsters to get control of the previous ones. And so on.
So keep patting yourselves on the back, my Dr. Frankensteins. But know this. History will judge this generation as a total failure because we didn’t actually succeed at anything. We are self-obsessed infants who will leave nothing to the future but the destruction of the planet, pathological cognitive overload, and no coherent spiritual belief beyond the AI fantasies of STEM-addled know-nothings.
“But Lieberman!” you protest. “Look at GDP! Look at the market! We’re doing amazing!!!”
No, we’re not. Just as Frankenstein’s monster was animated by external energy, so is our Frankenstein economy propped up by low interest rates, quantitative easing, insane tax legislation, and tax avoidance on a cosmic scale. If you think your buggy code is what’s propping up the market, then our Dunning-Kruger epidemic is even worse than I imagined.
Our economy is monstrous. Our business culture is monstrous. Our society is monstrous. And it is we who made them that way.
Do I have a constructive suggestion to offer in this scenario? Of course I do. But you may not want to hear it. It’s the same suggestion Shelley offered in her novel—and the same one declared by prophets for generations. Repent. We are not on the right path. Let’s stop building monsters for no other reason than that we can—and start addressing the real issues facing humanity in 2021. Feed the poor. Save the Earth. Do justice. Show mercy.
Every time we try to create a unicorn, we wind up creating yet another gotdam monster. So let’s stop it already. We’re not innovating. We’re just imitating. The real innovation isn’t making a buck. It’s re-making our world for the greatest good.