The Sick Rose
BY William Blake
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Social media, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are popular technologies that promise enormous benefits. As with any new technology there are dangers. Nuclear science has proven useful in medicine, space exploration, agriculture, energy and many other applications. It also led to nuclear weapons and detrimental radiation. The dangers are usually not known in advance. They are often ignored until bad things happen.
Recently the U.S. Senate held a hearing in which the Senators took the social media CEOs to task for the damage these companies cause individuals, particularly children. Where there is money to be made the social costs of private profits usually take a back seat. The Senators excoriated Big Tech. They received their fifteen minutes of fame on live TV. Unfortunately they aren’t any better than the CEOs at crafting rules to actually make things better. Parents also have a difficult time. If they impose rules and restrictions on their own children, those children are ridiculed and ostracized by friends.
Society is in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We make amazing technology but we don’t seem able to control it or align it with our values.
We have a love hate relationship with technology. At the beginning we find it too hard to use. Then we find it too easy. If we become self-absorbed we can come away with “a lonely, dystopian flavor” says Jaron Lanier in his excellent piece in The New Yorker “Where Will Virtual Reality Take Us.”
While it may not be easy for Congress to design laws that hold technology companies accountable for the damage they cause, it’s reasonable to ask them to try. As Lanier says “we need to start worrying about deception and abuse because reality can be so easily altered as it’s virtualized.” This is front and center today in the Taylor Swift-Elon Musk kerfuffle.
Lanier says “The attention-maximizing business model that drives current social media naturally gravitates toward alarming content that activates primal fight-or-flight responses … V.R. could agitate and depress people even more than the little screens on smartphones.”
While Lanier points to several negatives associated with new technology, he is a self-described “newness junkie” so as one would expect he ultimately comes down on the positive side. He believes technology can be humanized, that it can aid the imagination when viewed as an art form. We should all hope he is right.
C. M. Kornbluth’s science fiction classic The Mindworm and William Blake’s poem The Sick Rose came to mind while pondering the goods and bads of technology. Kornbluth shows us what happens when we ignore the bad side and are forced to take drastic action for self-preservation. Blake reminds us that “without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
The opening lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence eerily foreshadow our modern technology.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
It’s clear that Blake had the deeper and more interesting cure for technology run amuck.
Kornbluth wrote his science fiction story,The Mindworm, in response to the atomic bomb and its aftermath. He was worried about the bomb in a similar way we are worried about the negative impacts of todays modern technology. And, he was concerned about the pathologies of consumerism, government surveillance, suppression of dissent and authoritarianism—all equally worrisome today.
The Mindworm character was a mutant, contaminated at birth by nuclear radiation. The result was a vampire who preyed on the weak by exploiting their dreams and desires. He became a murderer and had to be murdered himself to save society. A solution but not one completely satisfactory.
William Blake’s Sick Rose is a short poem that can have many interpretations. The sexual connotations are fairly obvious. The similarities to the The Garden of Eden story are equally clear. It is applicable today as an image of beauty (the rose, the natural world) corrupted by some outside agent (the worm, technology companies).
The Sick Rose is in Blake’s Songs of Experience, one of two contrary states of the human soul associated with evil and sadness. This was contrasted with his Songs of Innocence associated with love and hope and joy. Blake had a companion poem called The Blossom.
By William Blake
Merry, merry sparrow!
Under leaves so green
A happy blossom
Sees you, swift as arrow,
Seek your cradle narrow,
Near my bosom.
Pretty, pretty robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, pretty robin,
Near my bosom.
Kornbluth’s The Mindworm is a fine analogy for what can go wrong if we ignore technologies downside. It is a warning to those Senators who need a little coaxing to negotiate some legislation to protect us from the industry and the industry from itself.
Blake’s two poems are a reminder that anything of worth has two sides that must be blended together to be ultimately beneficial.
Something like that anyway is what I’ve been thinking.