March 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
“Everything has a price.” This phrase in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not new, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of her novel (139). In today’s world, corporations dominate in every sphere from the economy to religion and politics. While Atwood’s world in which corporations have absolute control is unsettling, her ideas are merely an extrapolation of current times to the future. However, as Atwood shows, commercialism and commodification come at a high price to society and the humans that are a part of it.
Early on in the novel we learn that Jimmy (or later Snowman) lived on a company compound called OrganInc. The corporation controls everything in Jimmy’s life including his school and the rules he has to abide by, enforced through the CorpSeCorps. Later on, we learn that Jimmy and Crake attend what are similar to universities. These “universities,” particularly Crake’s Watson-Crick Institute, aim to generate profits as well, encouraging the very bright students to innovate and develop new technology, carefully securing their facilities, and minimizing interaction with the outside world. In Jimmy’s world, corporations control everything, and their motives clearly dominate.
The corporation-developed compounds seem absurd; however, in reality, they already exist. Massive companies like Amazon and Google have “campuses” that contain everything one needs to live off of. They include restaurants, gyms, childcare facilities, and even sleeping pods – all designed to keep you inside and focused on doing everything possible for the company. Beyond company campuses, universities today mimic those in Atwood’s story. As Vandy students, we even say that we live in a “Vandy Bubble.” Our lives all exist within the confines of our campus as we strive to learn and make new developments in all fields. We are not far off from the fictitious world that Atwood describes.
Images are renderings of future campuses for Google, Amazon, and Apple (from left to right).
Why does it matter that corporations and technological research centers have such a wide sphere of influence? In a world where profit governs, everything becomes a commodity. This can easily be seen in Oryx and Crake with the story of Oryx. Not only is Oryx commoditized by the pimps that earn money for her sexual acts and pornography but Oryx is also commoditized by every viewer that watches the child pornography, including Snowman. In her discussions of her experience, Oryx has clearly been influenced by the corporation mentality surrounding her, as she states:
“They had no more love…but they had money value: they represented a cash profit to others. They must have sensed that – sensed they were worth something.” (126)
Do we only value human beings for the monetary value they provide? I hope not. Atwood shows a disturbing reality if corporate power continues on its current trajectory. The power of corporations to influence politics and culture even today has implications for cloning and other advanced technology. It is unsettling to think of the development of human clones by companies driven by their own bottom-line. Morality does not seem to have a place in this kind of world.
If we do consider these clones to be “human,” how do we prevent the corporate developers from treating the clones like commodities and not humans, especially when humans today are already commoditized? In the novel, Snowman compares the children in the pornography to “digital clones,” as they did not feel real to him (90). With this statement, Atwood warns of the commodification of both existing humans and potential human clones in the future. If corporations both govern and profit, we cannot prevent abuse and exploitation.
Atwood is not far off in her portrayal of the commodification of human clones. Human cloning has often been criticized for turning human organs into commodities due to their monetary value with cancer treatments and other diseases. President Bush famously rejected all human cloning, stating, “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” He is not alone in being concerned with this idea, as scientists, philosophers, and policy-makers have discussed the implications of human cloning for decades. The Presidents Council on Bioethics expressed the following:
“When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force.” (The Presidents Council on Bioethics, 2002)
When corporate greed becomes entangled with the morality of health remedies, the potential commodification of humans and human clones is endless. Although Atwood’s fictitious world seems so distant, the reality is that it is much closer to present day than one would first think. From humans to clones to our independence and our value, Atwood shows that everything has a price, and the costs to society are high.
Images source: http://www.geekwire.com/2013/4-tech-titans-building-campus/
November 13, 2015 § 1 Comment
Meteorologists and climatologists around the world are sounding the alarm about the role human actions have played in bringing about “global warming.” And apparently, filmmakers are, too. The rise in ocean temperatures is being met with a rise in the demand for movies that explore the potential doom of humanity as a result of the deteriorating environment–movies like Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, the Interstellar, and even 2012. So what makes viewers so responsive to “climate fiction” and ecological disaster?
It’s no secret that climate change is real. Data from computer analysis and report after meteorological report demonstrate the rapid melting of glaciers and increased concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the upper levels of the atmosphere. These phenomena are observable consequences of what scientists believe is our own tinkering with natural processes and resources. With effects so tangible, it’s difficult to deny that there is something happening, even if we don’t know what it is yet. The mysterious nature of global warming only makes it scarier for the average citizen and cli-fi viewer. To make matters worse, the data seem to show that this is all the fault of the human race, all our fault. And because we have contributed so much to the destruction of our home, we feel a responsibility to fix this and return Earth to its original, untainted glory.
So that’s why cli-fi hits so close to home. The scenarios may not be real, but they are realistic enough to allow the audience to recognize and visualize the potential repercussions of growing industry and economy. Climate change is a global event, affecting everyone and everything from the poles to the equator. There is no escape; the only safety may come from jetting off into outer space, as films like Interstellar and Wall-E suggest, or restoration of our planet.
But Noah Gittell, a film critic who writes for The Atlantic, believes the choice is not so black-and-white, and such films do more to instill paranoia regarding improbable situations than to actually bring about change. Though climate fiction may lead us to believe that ecological disaster is no longer just a calamity of the future, Gittell feels that the sub-genre dramatizes the effects to an unconceivable extreme. And this is not at all helpful is promoting awareness of the actually manageable, and maybe even reversible, issues possibly caused by human actions.
Even if this new genre of media may misrepresent the scientific aspects of climate change, it certainly holds incredible merit. Literature and film are critical in providing momentum for any movement representing worldwide issues. Novels and films have played pivotal roles in beginning global conversations about the sustainability of Earth and initiatives to decrease gas emissions; this has made activism more accessible to the general public, especially since cli-fi films target a younger audience more receptive to the presentation of global problems in this format.
So what do you think? Is cli-fi only valuable as entertainment? Or can it serve a higher purpose and force us to address environmental issues more seriously?
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice… I hold with those who favor environmental disaster.
October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
The scenario is not an uncommon one. It is X years into the future, and the world is about to end. But how? Many authors would descibe a “zombie apocolypse,” some with a more scientific approach to a virus or a disease that wipes out the human race; others describe nuclear fallout, a more plausible way we could cause Armageddon since we seem to have the technology to do it; but ultimately some of the most plausible scenarios for the end of the world involve much less violence, at least at first.
The idea of an environmental disaster bringing about apocolypse is found widely in much literature, most noteably in that of science fiction. The notion is one that fits the genre; the science behind this kind of apocolypse is interesting and easily understood by readers, plausible enough to seem to never invoke the “tooth-fairy” response more than once. The variety availiable in environmental disasters is also a draw to writers, as who doesn’t want to be able to choose from a wealth of interesting and equally plausible scenarios for their plot? The plot could focus on crop failure due to the genetic homogeneity of the plants leading to suceptibility to a single devastating disease; it could highlight a disastrous disruption in the biosphere ecology and subsequently the world economy due to global climate change; the story could be one on the effect of water shortage due to overuse and pollution of the hydrosphere; it could be like that of Gregory Benford’s Timescape and focus on toxic algal blooms due to eutrification caused by agricultural runoff leading to economic disaster and death; or it could focus on one of the many more examples of disaster, all leading to world panic, likely war over resources, and ultimately bringing about a death toll higher than what we have ever seen.
Such plots draw our attention as readers because we know they could easily become real. Such plots are less fiction to us as they are an omen of the future, and that both terrifies and intrigues us. Every event named is one that could easily occur in the modern era. We grow our plants in genetic monocultures, meaning they are basically clones of one another, all grown together in neat rows, ideal for a virus to target the plants and easily be transferred to entire fields overnight. If one plant has no reistance, none of the plants will have any resistance. We are dependent upon these monocultures to allow us to make food crops in the amount currently necessary to sustain the population. If a staple crop such as corn collapsed, it would lead to starvation and the scarcity of resources would ultimately lead to war and death. Chaos and apocolypse because of one virus. Global climate change is an issue known and accepted by most, and its effects can be catastrophic. The overall warming of the Earth’s atmosphere can lead to melting of global ice caps which in turn leads to raised sea levels, submerging coastal cities where much of the world’s population lives. Further, the global climate change will disrupt the biosphere ecology. These two issues combined would lead to scarcity of resources, economic disaster, war, and death. Water shortage is an issue many in the world are already dealing with. Besides the shortage in California, the Middle East has always dealt with water shortage issues and wars have occured many times for water rights. We seem to use water like it is an infinite resource, though water is considered a nonrenewable resource in many states of the U.S. Water pollution and overuse around the world has caused many problems already and, especially when combined with any other of the issues mentioned, could contribute to world catastrophe. Eutrification is an issue in itsself without the neurotoxic blooms being added in. A normal algal bloom of algae with no neurotoxic effect will still lead to economic disruption due to the death of fish caused by hypoxic conditions created by the spike in algae and their decomposition. When neurotoxic organisms are added into the mix, blooms become terrifying. The infamous neurotoxic “red tides” caused by dinoflagellate blooms have occurred throughout history, but with the mass amount of runoff from fertilizers and other chemicals currently occurring the issue of their increasing frequency and severity is a real concern. The subsequent effect on the world economy and the death tolls that would be associated with a great increase in blooms would be devastating.
The reason why works with these kinds of disasters always hit home is because they are so real, so plausible. We as a species cause more stress on our environment than any other species combined. We have created these issues for ourselves, but even when we see these issues in the books we read or movies we watch and recognize them as so plausible and realistic, we hardly change our actions. We deal with the here and now and do not plan for the future, just as the society in Benford’s novel. It seems every day we are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole and its harder and harder to get out. It is not going to be zombies that bring about the end of the world; we are going to kill ourselves.
October 3, 2015 § 1 Comment
“So what does an immunologist turned successful business man want with a humble epidemiologist anyway?” asked Rohan as his old friend from medical school sat down in his office.
“Not a humble epidemiologist,” replied Robert, “the best.”
“I looked at the models of disease spread you wanted me to run…I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more information to be of any help, even to a good friend like you.”
“I thought you might, well I am prepared to explain everything. But, first, I need you to sign a form swearing to absolute secrecy.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me Robert, what is this you are going to be telling me…alright…fine whatever it is I’ll keep my mouth shut about it. Now please go on.”
“Thank you, you’ll understand soon, but everything I’m going to tell you is strictly classified.”
“You’ve been working with the government then?”
“Yes, I’ll explain. You remember what my research this past ten years has been on?”
“Yes of course,” replied Rohan. “You’ve been working on new ways of treating cancer, immunotherapy. Great possibilities there from what I’ve heard. But I heard…I heard you wanted to take it further than cancer.”
“That’s right. I published a paper on the possibilities of enhanced immune response for fighting of all sorts of diseases. The government got in touch with me about it, about five years ago. They wanted me to begin work to develop the possibility of using genetically altered immune cells to treat battle wounds in soldiers: to develop a way for soldiers hurt in battle to have their immune systems prevent any possibility of infection. Projections suggested they would reduce troop casualties by as much as 50%, and with war on the horizon, they backed me with all the money and equipment I could need.”
“That’s amazing,” Rohan said. “I don’t understand how you could do that though. With immune therapy for cancer it’s a matter of genetically modifying a person’s immune cells to be more active…but that takes lab work and time, how could that possibly help someone dying on the battle field?”
“I developed a new way to do it. Normally, we use a lentivirus to infect the immune cells of patients with our vector for activation, essentially an altered and inactive form of the HIV virus that requires careful conditions to work. I developed a new transfection agent, with the inactivated HIV virus and another. It performs the transfection in vivo.”
“That’s incredible,” stammered Rohan, sitting on the edge of his seat now. “What did you use to accomplish that?”
“I needed something highly infectious to act that fast, and to have it spread to the whole body it needed a neurologically infections element. It is a lyssavirus, inactivated like the HIV of course.”
“A lyssavirus…like…rabis?” Rohan gaped.
“Yes, exactly. And it worked; animal tests showed infection rates dropped by nearly 90% upon treatment. Because it was classified, it skipped right through normal approval processes. Within five years we began testing on human subjects.”
“Wow. Amazing. You’ll win the Nobel Prize for this! But I don’t understand…how does this relate to the models you sent me to run. They don’t make any sense; the rates of spread are insane, far higher than a disease could possibly reach. The new infection rate is astronomical. When I ran it, it was like people were trying to infect others, it has no real application.”
“Oh but it does Rohan. It does. When we use viruses for immuno, we inactivate their disease potential and make sure they can’t recombine to form an active strain. I did the same with the lyssavirus….but when we went to human subjects, something happened to the transfection agent. It may have been that the complexity of the nervous system in humans gave more opportunities for recombination…I don’t know.”
“They formed an active virus?!” exclaimed Rohan.
“Yes…well not exactly,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t active HIV or active rabbis. It formed…something new. Something more aggressive…especially to the central nervous system. It was as if the HIV made the virus less destructive to the body…longer lasting…but the rabbis…it made the subjects very aggressive, delusional. The vector was so prolific too, every part of them was teeming with the virus. We had to restrain them, a few patients we couldn’t…the virus spread to a few staff before we could get a handle on it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Rohan. “Those models, the patients…they attacked others and spread the virus. That’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”
“And exactly why I came to you. We need to understand this, because…I’m afraid… the government ….with the war coming….they want to weaponize it. What’s more…we may not have contained all of the subjects.”
September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
Americans have always been a curious lot. We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon. However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.
We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more. And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore. Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease. Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life. But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?
Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred. Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back. Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy. Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child. Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene. Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease. With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.
However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality. Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things. Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take. The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research. It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years. And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals. Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did. Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000? As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.
Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome. Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved? If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest? If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?
Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above. Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two. We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such. Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it. We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.
September 3, 2015 § 2 Comments
“It will only be a little pinch.”
Doctors always say that. I think they say it more for themselves than for the patient. A little asterisk to fluff their conscious. They hurt you, but they tell themselves it is to help you. They hurt you, but it only hurts a little bit. You tell me when the last time was that you got a shot and it didn’t hurt. The shots that don’t hurt aren’t described as a little pinch, they don’t need to be.
In the years since the civil war, Earth was simply a shell of a civilization. The neighborhoods still stood, but no community to be found. The office buildings still kissed the sky, but no businesses to fill them. There was no economy. No politics. No trust. But there was pain. The civil war took our humanity but it didn’t take our pain.
I was sick of the pain. Fight or flight had served our ancestors well, but I was never one for running, nor fighting really. I was the perfect candidate for the study: weak, depressed, and desperate.
My thoughts were interrupted by the searing pain inflicted by the hundreds of needles suddenly in each vein. No wonder they strapped me down, I thought, running suddenly seemed like the perfect hobby. I could feel the glistening serum fill my veins. With each and every drop I could feel myself changing.
I drifted home after that. What a quack. If anything I was in more pain. My back ached; my knees ached. When we learned how to travel faster than light, so did our knowledge. Cancer was stomped out like a bug within days. Nearly half our population had moved to Mars. But each day we lived with pain.
My disappointment clung to me like dirt. I needed a shower. I scrubbed until my arms were raw but I couldn’t wash away my disappointment. As the steam cleared I looked in the mirror. Terrified, another being looked back at me. His forehead was broad, nose flat, and head rounded. I moved. He moved. I blinked. He blinked.
I was the monster.
I tried to scream but it was a screech that rang out. I needed to see the doctor. I needed to know what was wrong with me. And so I went.
Running down the desolate streets, my backache gradually turned into searing pain. Hunching helped. And so I went.
When I barged into the office the doctor didn’t look surprised. Instead, he looked relieved. I tried to explain my terror but I couldn’t find the words. And so he went.
“I understand your terror. You sought relief from your pain, but to treat your pain would be to treat a symptom, not the cause.”
“Civil war spread like a disease after the human intellect doubled and tripled. It was John Stuart Mill that said ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,’ but he did not account for the emptiness and desperation that accompanies dissatisfaction.”
“The desire for perfection was a virus that ran rampant after that. We tried to regroup but it was too far-gone. It is only through regression to our primitive selves that can truly cure the pain that civilization suffers from.”
“Consider yourself ground zero for the civilization that is to evolve.”
And so it goes. . .