When it comes to telling big, epic, awesome, mythopoetic stories, our world is boring. It is boring because it is known. We can google any spot on the planet and get a complete breakdown of that place’s ecology, politics, history, industries, and turn-by-turn directions on how to get there. Not only that, most of us feel like we kind of know where the future is headed. A.I., rockets to space, self-driving cars, and replicators no longer seem a matter of chance, merely a matter of time. Wait around long enough and the future we’ve all imagined will get here. The now cliché “Where’s my jetpack” is said with the foot-tapping frustration of culture that believes technological progress is not merely inevitable but, in a way, owed. Not only is the future known territory, getting there feels more like a commute than a journey.
Yet a huge amount of what we love about story-telling, particularly the big “stand the test of time” style stories is a sense of wonder. So how do we inject wonder into our world?
Three major strains of narrative – sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology – are all about wonder. Whether it’s Star Trek, Game of Thrones, or the Aeneid, we as readers are drawn in to unbelievable locales, spectacular individuals, and encounter unexpected forces. Yet all of these stories also often feel disconnected from our world. The voyages of the starship Enterprise take place almost entirely off Earth. Game of Thrones exists in an alternate, slightly magical version of Europe and the Aeneid from so far in the past we hardly recognize it. Some of the greatest modern stories, such as the Star Wars trilogy (and by greatest I’m speaking to cultural resonance, not just critical quality), are a blend of all three and feel that many steps more removed from our own reality. Whole new worlds must be built to allow for wonder to exist.
George Miller’s Mad Max series, recently reinvigorated with the supremely enjoyable and brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, gives us some insight into another way to return us to a state of wonder with the world: deny us our expected future. The core premise of Max’s world is that, somewhere along the way, progress fails. It’s hard to know how far along we get beyond today, but that doesn’t matter – the only things that survive the end of progress are analog technologies. Communication technologies in particular take a beating as the world falls to wasteland leaving only disconnected islands of bare humanity left to states of isolated survival. The result is a new world, totally unknown to us, built on top of the world and the technologies we know and recognize every day.
The veil that is lifted in this particular apocalypse is that of progress itself. Humanity backslides into feudal barbarism, disease, and violence. It’s the Middle Ages with monster trucks. Of course, the Middle Ages are packed with wonder. Nearly all of fantasy is set within some modified form of Medieval Europe, and for good reason. The world was unmapped and the parts that were had the qualifiers of “here be dragons.” Even the known was wondrous then.
While there are so many moments within any given Mad Max film that may leave over-analyzing (why, o why do they build gas-guzzling monstrosities in a world wanting for every drop of fuel), the much broader sense of “I understand this world and yet know nothing about it” creates a deeply disturbing experience. Miller is able to tell a tremendous amount of story with very little exposition. We understand why a warlord would have oxygen tanks for his deformed progeny (and why those progeny would be deformed), why his psychotic minions would understand that O-negative donors are valuable in war, and why being a blackthumb is as valuable, perhaps more so, than having one of the green variety. The echoes of current existence are easy to see and understand without explanation because, not-so-secretly, we’re all to aware of how quickly it could all go away.
The joy of post-apocalypse is that it also carries with it the remnants of cultural progress. A huge amount of fantasy also borrows from the cultural trappings of the Medieval Eras the genre relies upon. Post-apocalyptic worlds don’t have to figure out which pieces of cultural history need to be folded in. All that we know already exists and is then challenged to survive along with everything else. If we think of culture as just another technology (as I am inclined to do) that allows for better social organization and shared objectives, then it too must come to terms with which pieces maintain their value in the face of annihilation.
Furiosa and the brides she helps liberate represent this cultural memory luminously. Like Max, Furiosa is driven by a single idea; though hers – redemption – is a bit higher on Maslow’s hierarchy than Max’s basic instinct to survive. Neither the film nor the characters ever question that a woman with a truncated limb could be an imperator (note, not imperatrix, the proper feminine form). Further, despite being captives for what was likely most of their lives, the escaped brides (one of whom, Splendid, is literally barefoot and pregnant) have tremendous agency and drive. It’s revealed that the escape was Splendid’s idea and, at several critical moments, it is Splendid and her fellow brides who take the action necessary to keep themselves alive and on a path to escape. Both Immortan Joe’s (and his army’s) uncommented upon recognition of Furiosa as an Imperator and the brides’ sense of agency and self-worth are reflective of the cultural trappings of our time. It’s not just that we understand and expect that they’d behave this way, it’s that the characters in the world do as well. And therein lies the awesomeness of the post-apocalyptic world.
When we are trying to tell stories of grand scale and with epic stakes, we have to build a world beyond our own. Our options are often to look to the far-flung past or distant future, or perhaps an alternate world, seeking unknown territory into which our heroes can journey. With that distance, however, comes an implicit change in cultural values. The entire world becomes somewhat alien, harder for us to identify with. Post-apocalypse offers us something different. It takes our world and strains it past the breaking point and asks us “what survives of today in the shattered world of tomorrow.” Like technology, culture is forced to survive, cobbling itself together out of scraps and salvage to build something new and, in ways, more impressive than the safe, familiar wholes we experience in our normal lives. The post-apocalypse lets us look wondrously at our own world and remember the future really is an unknown country.
A same-sex marriage decision is due from the Supreme Court June. Given it has been almost exactly a decade since I changed my position on same-sex marriage, I figure now is a good time to reflect on the nature of that change.
Until about my sophomore year of college I was against same-sex marriage. Moreover I opposed same-sex rights and found homosexuality in general to be immoral. I’m not particularly proud of those views but I think there is something instructive in understanding why I held them and how I changed them.
My views changed for a variety of reasons: arguments with friends, meeting lots of real people who weren’t heterosexual, and investigating the core ethical arguments being made on both sides. My path is not unique. A majority of the country opposed same-sex marriage up until just a few years ago. When I was growing up in the 90s most of the country opposed gay marriage.
It is extremely important to remember that anti-same-sex laws like DOMA were not the result of some theocratic minority. They weren’t even the result of Republicans. Those laws were a clear reflection of honest opinions held by the majority of Americans at the time. What is more important to remember is that most of those people changed their mind just like I did over the past 20 years.
If we accept any sort of ethical truth as existing, we need to acknowledge that most of us were on the wrong side of this argument and were so for a long long time. Many of us voted for laws and politicians who openly opposed or quietly denied equal rights for same-sex marriage. Yet very few of us talk about changing our minds or our conversion experience. I’m willing to bet many of you do not even remember thinking differently than you do now. But work at it, think back, remember.
My question to all of you, and the answers I’d love to hear emailed and tweeted: “When did you realize same-sex marriage was ethical?”
Enhancement is weird. It seems objectively obvious what is better and what isn’t. But then context goes and screws everything up.
The New York Times recently featured a debate series entitled Adderall in the Office (h/t James Hughes) in which a few thinkers (including two of my favorite bioethicists Savulescu and Parens) discussed the merits of using A.D.H.D. drugs for increasing productivity in the workplace. As I read, I found myself seriously questioning whether or not the type of “productivity” drugs like Adderall create is the type needed in the modern workplace.
I work in exactly the kind of environment where it would seem an obvious choice to take Adderall or Ritalin or Provigil to stay alert, focused, and productive. However, one of the things I’ve learned is that getting shit done often requires not putting your head down and grinding away at some task, but instead lifting your head up and talking to those around you. Teamwork, people management, and emotional intelligence seem to have as much an impact, if not more so on my “productivity” than pure output. Given that A.D.H.D. drugs often flatten people’s emotions, there is a serious question as to whether or not they might improve individual productivity but dramatically decrease the productivity of teams or companies.
I’ve taken Ritalin in the past to write papers (Yes, papers about bioethics. In fact, papers about human enhancement. Yes, I recognize the irony). What always stood out is how terrible Ritalin was for helping me develop the ideas and arguments for the papers. What I had to do was get in a very creative place (good tunes, fun environment) do some mind mapping and outlining, sketch the big ideas and goals and then take the Ritalin and crank out the paper.
I think what I’m getting at here is that the whole argument about “smart drugs in the work place” is kind of silly. Will people eventually take drugs that help them adjust to the task at hand? Probably. But those drugs will be different for different teams and for different projects. Managers might take drugs that improve empathy while designers take drugs that foster creativity while customer service reps take drugs that reduce stress responses. We need to start thinking of drugs as tools that help us get to the right state of mind for specific types of work, instead of as these weird super-powered universally effective potions that can generate something as ill defined as “productivity.”
Sometimes I wonder if the people writing this stuff have ever worked in the stereotypical office they are so often pontificating about.
Mark Wilson over at Fast Company discusses “Chef Watson” and it’s many unusual recipes. Wilson focuses on a particularly disappointing burrito and how it came to be for most of the article. When setting up how Watson works, Wilson says:
Chef Watson—IBM’s Jeopardy-robot-gone-algorithmic-recipe engine—has released his first cookbook.
Chef Watson creates unexpected, but delicious food pairings by nature. (Read more how he does it here.) That’s in fact the software’s value—to suggest ideas we wouldn’t think of on our own.
Wilson seems to be deliberately using the male pronoun to refer to the AI. It is a distinct decision in that Watson was often referred to as “it” in most articles about battling Ken Jennings at Jeopardy.
I’ve long thought that true Turing tests would require more complex forms of expression than just conversation. Ratatouille makes a very strong case that cooking is something nearing a complete encapsulation of personhood traits.
Now, of course, the follow up question: why is Watson a he?
Each post this week serves a dual purpose: an exploration of the topic at hand as well as a re-introduction to big ideas this blog will be grappling with.
My Polish grandmother (aka Babci) regularly sends me cards on the holidays. Often there is a check in there with instructions for me to “get myself a nice dinner” or “have fun with friends.”
Recently, she’s started including my partner, Sara, and sending her a card and check as well. This is adorable and hugely generous of Babci for two reasons. First because the additional card and money is unnecessary: it should be obvious I’ll spend the money on the two of us, not just myself. Second, because Sara and I aren’t married and don’t plan to be. My grandmother was married to my grandfather for *fifty years* and is still reasonably Catholic. Let’s be honest, we’re all a bit surprised she’s quite so accommodating. The fact remains that she is so accommodating and understanding.
My parents’ generation dealt with the scorn of “living in sin.” What’s bizarre is that though my parents and Sara’s parents are nothing but loving, accepting, and supportive of the two of us, they are also a bit weirded out by us not being married. We’ve been together nearly a decade, longer than most our married friends, but it’s still a bit odd.
The question I have been asking myself is “Do I owe Babci an explanation?”
The feminist-gender-queer critical theorist in me says “hell no! I don’t answer to your heteronormative standards.” The guy who appreciates that his parents and grandparents pretty much rolled just accepted things as they were and never made the whole thing an issue even though it bugged them says, “maybe I do need to explain this.” The part of me that wants to understand how people go from believing something is bad to something is tolerable-but-not-for-them to something is normal and a-ok says, “what does she actually think about the whole thing?”
I’m not about to explain why Sara and I aren’t and probably won’t get married in this post. That’s not the point. The issue at hand is if I should sit down with Babci and explain it to her – the answer isn’t obvious. There is a kind of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell vibe to the whole thing. Babci doesn’t ask and I don’t tell. But we all know how well that policy went.
The bigger piece here is respect for Babci. She is up there in years and has some kooky theories (lord help me if I’m 80+ and don’t) but she isn’t an idiot. Moreover, she has already made the decision to accept how I express love, it’s only fair to share why.
I bring all this up because things are changing fast. We have new broadly accepted ways of living and loving that were unpopular 15 years ago and unacceptable 30 years ago. Those who love us but don’t understand and aren’t necessarily thrilled by these changes have earned a discussion on the topic.
Why? Because we might be missing out on something. I want to talk to my parents and to Babci not to explain my way of life but to investigate theirs and, in the process, find my blind spots. Our generation has reaped huge benefits from the work of those before us who pushed the envelope of personal liberty. It’s now our responsibility to make sure we aren’t losing traditions and values just because they came in out of date packaging. A lot of countries and generations modernized without abandoning essential parts of their culture.
If I can get Babci to understand, chances are pretty good I can convince a few other people too.
Each post this week serves a dual purpose: an exploration of the topic at hand as well as a re-introduction to big ideas this blog will be grappling with.
Whether or not I should buy an Apple Watch doesn’t seem to be a question of ethics, right? It’s a question about a little computer I strap to my wrist so I don’t have to take my phone out every time it buzzes.
Now, that seems like a minor benefit, but the fear of phones taking over our lives is a common theme among the tech anxious. We spend hours looking at our phones, checking them upwards of a hundred or more times per day, and perceive them vibrating even when they are not. Glowing screens are among the first and last thing we see every day.
Phones interrupt our social lives. Going to the movies, sitting at dinner, chatting with friends, among many others, are activities forever changed by the phone. We disconnect from our immediate social circle to connect with a wider one.
We have also, of course, gained social connections thru these devices. Perhaps an interrupting text is from a mutual friend who cannot attend, or a notification of an event relevant to everyone. More importantly, perhaps it is a communication from a friend who is lost or hurt. Partners and spouses can easily send little updates when the two are apart.
My partner and I use texts and the “Find My Friend” app to make sure the other is ok if one of us is out late with friends. I use FaceTime to see my parents and grandmother between trips and on holidays. I often tweet at and with a fellow ethicist from the other side of the planet.
The worst aspects of my phone are that I check it needlessly and it draws me away from intimate interactions, yet for the rare cases where I needed that notification it dramatically improves my life. If there was a way for me to stay in the moment more easily, and yet be notified of something important that would allow me to be a more engaged friend. I am aware of my bad habits and how they negatively affect those I care about. If there was a device that could help me curb or minimize these behaviors, it might (might) let me be a fractionally better person.
Kant’s “ought implies can” formula is simple: if we are morally obliged or compelled to do something, it is implicit that we can do that thing. Otherwise, it would be pretty unfair to consider it a moral failing for you to not do something that is literally impossible for you.
But what happens to ought when new abilities, new “can”s come along? Do our moral obligations shift with technology? Or is ethics a baseline and its relation to technology merely an extrapolation? Or is the extrapolation to these new cans the actual basis of ethics?
Technology is changing how we behave and, in turn, our ethics. Minor technologies may not modify our lives significantly, but huge society shaping innovations like the light bulb and antibiotics and cellphones and self-driving cars have profound implications.
This blog aims to investigate those implications of everyday things. Are we obliged to keep up with technology as it drives new social norms? What does it mean to reject new modes of interaction and intimacy?
So, should I buy an Apple Watch? And more importantly how does the answer to that question change if smartwatches become as popular as smartphones?
Almost 3 years ago I took a break from blogging. Well now I’m back.
I started PopBioethics for a simple reason: all these obscure, difficult ethical principles kept showing up in my day-to-day life. I couldn’t play a video game or watch a movie without bioethics showing up somehow.
Bioethics is still everywhere. If anything, it’s somehow more pervasive. Two of the biggest hashtags of the year were #BlackLivesMatter and #GamerGate. The Affordable Care Act became reality and we had a measles outbreak in DisneyLand. I feel like I could write a whole book just on the ethical issues illustrated in HBO’s Sunday night lineup.
There are no shortage of articles on these topics, but there is a shortage of discussion. One of the biggest failings of the Internet is that we have yet to come up with anything resembling a good system for discourse. Twitter is too short. Comment threads are too long, oddly managed, and either require a log in or full anonymity. Almost anything can be taken out of context and shared globally in an instant. Trolls, abuse, and lazy writing are everywhere. It’s time to up our game.
To that end, PopBioethics will be rebooted with three main goals:
- Highlight and elevate interesting topics, voices, and perspectives in bioethics and culture
- Create a space for discussion and debate
- Continually seek out biases, fallacies, assumptions, and generalizations
I have some ideas as to how to make those a reality, but the whole thing is a work in progress.
For now, here are some things you can expect:
- No comment section – got something to say? Email me popbioethics at gmail dot com. Good stuff will get reposted anonymously.
- A short, daily post, with some longer posts once a week and something resembling an essay once a month.
- Regular changes and experimentation.
Blogs are meant to be part of the larger, daily conversation. One of the great failures of conversation is, of course, simply waiting for your turn to speak. I’ve found myself listening recently and not quite sure what to say next. For the moment, Pop Bioethics is on pause.
For those of you who’ve found my writing interesting or engaging I highly recommend the following:
My twitter feed @popbioethics will remain active and is the best place to continue to engage with me in conversation.
Stanton Peele makes a compelling case that our obsession with being “treated” for every minor malady reflects our abject terror in the face of clinically based recommendations to cut back on testing.
American health care costs are driving America into the ground. These costs stand at from 2-3:1 compared with other nations (like the UK), and the chasm is widening since virtually all other nations have stablized these costs, while we are only beginning to tackle the rate at which theyincrease. But Republicans can still run on simply resuming lock, stock and barrel the same old private care system, Americans in general dislike Obamacare, and Obamacare itself is built primarily around expanding coverage without controlling costs. This is because any effort to rein in such costs is met by accusations like “death panels” or “rationing,” which immediately kills them like glassy-eyed dead fish floating on the surface of the stagnant pond that is our care system.
It does no good to cite comparisons between America and other countries, like the study finding mature adult Americans in all social classes to have twice the rate of virtually every type of illness (from cancer, to heart disease, to diabetes) as the English, despite that the latter smoke and drink more (they are thinner), and that the British system spent (at the time of the study; the gap is greater now) roughly one-half of what Americans do per capita on health care.1 And our greatest differences in cost and health outcomes are not with the UK—in part because their health behaviors most resemble our own relative to Continental European nations.
We’re addicted. And the ACA might be the first step in a brutal intervention.
Alice Park’s new book The Stem Cell Hope, convinced me it is time to retire, “Where is my jetpack!?” once and for all. After reading her new book, Park will have you screaming, “Where are my stem cells?” from every rooftop.
Jetpacks are a puerile toy that we all know would be impractical, deadly, wasteful, polluting, and that will likely never, ever be built. So why do we keep rhetorically demanding them? The saying is supposed to encapsulate the sense of ennui we all feel when we look at depictions of the future from the ’50s. And the future is still broken. It’s the complaint of our disaffected era.
Well guess what, most of the depictions of the future from the ’50s were wrong. None of them showed personal computers or cell phones (let alone smartphones) or iPads. We now rue the fact that our country is lined with interstate highways and packed with cars, which was supposed to be the proof the future was here and amazing. Sure, whole factories are packed with robots, but none of us have a robot butler (Roomba withstanding). Yes, we have a space station. That is pretty amazing.
So what the hell are we complaining about? It sure as shit isn’t technology. That stuff is incredible. Yet, we know this version of the future is broken. But how?
Medicine. Health care. Diseases and death. These were supposed to be something the future could deal with. Why can’t it?
After reading The Stem Cell Hope, you’ll have an idea of why we’re living in the medical past among a technological future. Between the covers of her great new book, Alice Park explains how the promise of stem cells came to be trapped in a Kafkaesque maze of political posturing, fundamentalist ignorance, government bans, legal quagmires, and corporate greed. The Stem Cell Hope explains why our medical future has been indefinitely delayed and gives us a new question to ask of our delinquent future.
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Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
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