Ad Astra 2014 day 3: Biotech, identity, and personal freedom


Panellists: Alison Sinclair; Shirley Meier

SM: Everyone is terrified of the loss of control. We use plague zombies to explain our fear. Dracula was about the fear of women’s power and blood magic. One of our biggest fears in biotechnology. There are a couple of good TED talks on the subject (Mel’s note: I found this one and this other one). Chemotherapy can be delivered directly to the tumour.

AS: Spider Robinson wrote about electrodes implanted in the pleasure centre of the brain. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Crossroads,” the Federation becomes a dystopia. The Borg are biological machines. In Star Trek: Voyager, 7 of 9 and Hugh explore these ideas.

SM: The essential questions are: Who am I? Who owns my thoughts?

Q: In Brave New World, what was horrifying then is common place now. People fear science. What’s the positive side of biotechnology?

SM: In my books, MOM (the medical override module) is corrupted. Technology is what saves people, frees them from the villain, Prime. Pets are modified into true companions. Of course, then you have the issue of old age, disease, and how you can justify putting the dog down. They rejuvenate animals, mammals specifically.

Q: What about clones? Currently they age rapidly to the age of the animal they were cloned from.

AS: Medical technology is always advancing. Right now, they’re working on cloning the heart. The brain is still too much of a mystery. Is it ethical to “treat” mental illness? How does the process impinge on personal freedom?

SM: Heart surgeons have noticed personality changes after bypass surgery. There is a distinctive decrease in, or complete loss of, empathy.

Q: Who should be afraid of biotechnology? Who will suffer?

SM: We add to our knowledge; we don’t replace it. The old doesn’t disappear. Norms shift.

Q: Do you have statistics regarding the percentage of personality change in heart transplant patients?

SM: It was in a Smithsonian Magazine article. The percentage isn’t certain. They’re not even sure why it happens. It might be a drug interaction.

Q: If we look at biotechnology rationally, our fear is relatively low. Irrational fear is automatically high, however. People forget our own criminal predisposition.

SM: Look at the military. They have drills for the nuclear fighter jets frequently. They have to make sure that all is in readiness in case the worst happens. They don’t run in these drills. They walk slowly. If the jets take off, the world will probably end. The ground crew is assessed. If they don’t react appropriately, they will be removed. When we write SF, we are troubleshooting. What if? Utopias are boring. Consider the controversy over stem cells.

AS: But what about the cost? We need to invest in quality control. In our society, who can afford it? In Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, the main character is autistic and offered a cure. Who chooses?

Q: What do you consider “you”?

AS: My mother has Alzheimer’s. Her personality hasn’t changed yet, but layers of memory get stripped off.

SM: Treatment is not the same as a cure. It makes illness tolerable. There’s a loss of dignity in Alzheimer’s that’s difficult to deal with. In the early stages, patients can be mistakenly addressed as if they are in the advanced stages. They don’t need that.

Q: There’s a tension between internal and external identity. Who we are vs. who others think we are. Is it the same person? I’m thinking of Heinlein’s Puppet Masters.

AS: Do we have a problem with free will?

SM: Yes. Our monsters steal our free will. Truth, justice, and the American way vs. the New World Order.

Q: What about mind control?

SM: Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is a fascinating look at mind control and possession in our society.

AS: There’s also a struggle between personal and medical personhood.

SM: Why do things not work? We’re essentially monkeys. Would you give a monkey “the button”?

AS: Technology both reinforces and subverts existing power structures.

And that is the last session I attended at Ad Astra this year.

I’ll save the wrap post for next weekend.

In the meantime, have a fabulous weekend, my writerly peeps. I’ll be back on Tuesday with my regular Tipsday curation.

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