The iPhone 4s’ Siri is a sweet little helper. She understands a lot of what we ask her and returns information in often uncanny, lifelike responses. Siri is so much an entity that we hardly think twice about assigning gender to her and ascribing her idiosyncrasies as indicators of a personality.
Is Siri alive?
A loaded question to be sure, but a valid one. Exactly what defines life has changed over the centuries, and, as we learn more about the processes involve in all living things, the definition continues to evolve.
One of the several Webster’s Dictionary definitions of life is ”an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.”
The processors and systems that support Siri can be said to use metabolistic processes to keep her available. She certainly reacts to stimuli. And any bar or pub would be happy to host a debate as to whether reproduction is required to be considered alive. That leaves us with growth.
Siri learns from her mistakes, learns to recognize your peculiar speech patterns, and expands her vocabulary. So she grows mentally. Her data center handlers tend her as any natural symbiotic relationship might; it’s through that relationship Siri physically grows.
Is Siri organic? Not in the purest sense, but that prerequesite is being challenged almost daily as we discover radically different forms of life right here on earth.
So, by my loose definition, Siri may be considered to be alive. She may not be sentient (yet), but we can reasonably argue that the entity that offers you directions to the nearest pizza parlor is as alive as you and me.
But is she, really? And if she is, what rights does she have? She was created, so does that make her a property of her creators? If so, when does she stop being property?
None of these questions can be easily answered. They fall in to a philosophical grey area where nothing is concrete.
It was these questions and so many others that Mary Shelley tackled in her timeless book, “Frankenstein.”
We all know the story, or think we do, it’s been retold countless times, and each time the story highlight a different philosophical question.
Because man can do something, should he?
What defines a man and what defines a monster?
What is life and is it ours to bestow? If so, does that make us gods?
Can man look into the face of the unknown and not be afraid?
But at its very root is the story of Prometheus, the titan who created man and gave him the intelligence to consider his own place in the universe.
It’s little wonder then that Mary Shelley’s novel remains as relevant today as it was when it was written. It is also of no surprise then that the New York Public Library (NYPL) chose Ms. Shelley’s book to be the focus of their second Biblion offering.
Just as with their previous Biblion application, The 1939 New York World’s Fair, NYPL has crafted a masterwork, an application so full of information and rich with detail that you could literally take weeks to review everything. What continues to amaze me is that this app, as was its predecessor, is absolutely free.
Biblion: Frankenstein is divided into two major areas: Frankenstein: The Afterlife of Shelley’s Circle, and the novel itself.
Afterlife is further divided into four major themes relevant to Frankenstein and they include Creation & Remix - a look at how the basic theme of Frankenstein, the act of creation, influences us, Frankenstein - an examination of the many instantiations of Shelley’s story in modern culture, Shelley’s Ghosts - an exposition of Shelley, her life, and those closest to her, and Outsiders - a review of a major theme in Shelley’s novel: What makes a monster?
You read the Afterlife portion by keeping your iPad in portrait orientation. Turn it to landscape and you enter Shelley’s handwritten first draft of Frankenstein, complete with transcriptions of each page taken from the 1831 edition. Again, the level of detail NYPL includes is staggering. Each handwritten page has been scanned and you can examine each word, each edit, and each note in the margins up close, exactly as Ms. Shelley wrote them in 1818.
You’ll also find the prologue to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, a collection of poems by Mary and and her husband, Percy Shelley, and various correspondences and other items of interest related to Shelley and her book.
There are photos, essays, reproductions of drawings, interviews and so much more that it would take far more time than I have to tell you about it all. You’ll just have to download it yourself and see.
The user interface is unique, but friendly. Even so, here’s a hint: to get to help or to change settings while in portrait mode first go into any essay in any of the four sections, then tap the screen. The familiar gear icon will appear in the upper left of the screen and allow you to adjust font size, rate the app and more.
In landscape mode you can easily move between documents by tapping the green bars at the bottom of the screen.
The NYPL also includes a social option where you can post questions and get answers, and comment on anything in the application. Comments appear in the app whenever there’s an Internet connection available. In this way the app becomes even more immersive.
I could go on. Suffice it to say that if you own any iPad model running iOS version 5 you owe it to yourself to download Biblion: Frankenstein. It is an amazing application that justifies owning an iPad.
So, is Siri a modern Frankenstein’s monster? Is she a benign helper or the embryonic doom of mankind? Should she even exist? Ask her and see what she says.
That’s a wrap for this week. Below is a direct link to NYPL’s other Biblion offering, The New York World’s Fair. If you haven’t already, grab it too.