Trying to decipher the ‘mark of the beast’

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 14, 2017.

Three recent articles brought Frankenstein and Revelation to mind. Not the crazy monster movie stuff but the Romantic Mary Shelley 1818 novel about the tragedy that comes from playing God, and the fiery end the Bible prophesies for those who turn away from God.

Of course, modern medicine has been replacing lost or worn-out body parts and generally delaying the Grim Reaper on his rounds for some time now. So, is therapeutic gene editing really fundamentally different?

On Aug. 2, The New York Times reported that scientists have successfully edited genes in human embryos to protect from disease-causing mutations. Good news, I suppose, but, a la Shelley, The Times warns about the moral risks of a technology that can be used to design smarter, stronger or, perhaps, prettier people.

A couple days later, USA Today told of 40 employees of a Wisconsin company who volunteered to have microchips implanted in their hands. The chip facilitates security and computer access. The first thing I thought about was the wisdom of surrendering privacy and, consequently, personal freedom to a technology that continuously shackles us to its seeming miracles. But, the article doesn’t really say much about that, focusing instead on “the mark of the beast” described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

That “mark” is the number 666, the number 6 being a symbol of imperfection (one short of 7, the Days of Creation in Genesis) repeated three times. Thus, 666 signifies human imperfection — magnified three-fold. It symbolizes what we become when we place ourselves outside creation, beyond the word of God. The number 666 concerns the buying and selling of things (“no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark”), in a utilitarian, materialistic world. In the story, after a time, God finally lets loose seven avenging angels who pour seven bowls of his wrath into the earth, and those who took the mark are cast into fire.

The Kansas City Star on Aug. 6 joined the party with a headline, “Bionic age: Body hackers get chips under their Skin.” It reports that one guy gladly accepted an implant so in the future he won’t need train tickets. Another said with these chips he’ll be able to throw away his wallet. Yet another said he’s got five implants, “mostly for functional reasons but one just for fun.” The article concludes by citing “high-profile proponents of implants including Tesla and SpaceX owner Elon Musk” as saying “that humans must reach greater symbiosis with computers in order to stay relevant in a world of artificial intelligence.”

Symbiosis means “interaction between two organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” So, taking Musk at his word, machines are a competing organism with which we must necessarily merge in order to survive. We chip our pets to help us find them, but if we chip ourselves we leave a trail of information that can be tracked for commercial purposes or worse, just like with smart-anything technology. But unlike your credit card or cellphone, the chip never leaves your person.

Shelley’s story is Romantic, an organic warning against the arrogance of human reason. She was saying we are just a part of this world, can never step outside of it, and must remain humble in the presence of the power we can achieve through science and reason. There are more ancient codes that must be considered, more ancient warnings against human pride. Exegesis is the analytical explanation or interpretation of a text, such as the Bible, to unbundle its meaning. If we unbundle the meaning of Revelation, as a human story, we find a story with consequences strikingly similar to Frankenstein.

Musk is saying that to avoid obsolescence we must merge ourselves into the machines we’ve created, genetically redesigning ourselves to fit utilitarian needs, implanting features to make our interface with our machines more functional. Merely an implant, or the mark of the beast? While we transform ourselves into the monsters Shelley feared and the God of Revelation abhors. Can a thing we’ve designed and created be a being? If so, is it a human being? If we alter ourselves, and design our children, then the outcome, our future, must be equally self-limiting. If ever we dare to step through the looking glass and enter that world, unlike Alice, we’ll never find our way back out.