Hello all! I’m Bryce Taylor, a postdoc in Genome Sciences. On October 5th, Jolie Carlisle, a graduate student in Genome Sciences, and I led a Salon on Science Fiction at the Simpson Center. It was our second time leading a discussion on the topic, and this time our focus was on utopian and dystopian views of how emerging technologies may impact future societies. We were excited to tackle this topic as we’re huge fans of the genre, and appreciate how science fiction pieces can act as thought experiments for ways human nature will direct use of new tools.
Group discussion on portrayals of SciFi societies
We first discussed the connection between science and society, and whether technology can change human nature. The room generally felt that while technology can impact the human experience by giving us access to new opportunities, it does not change human nature. One participant brought up the example of literature from past eras that show living conditions that are totally foreign to us, and yet are navigated by people with very familiar emotional responses to relatable events. SciFi provides a similar lens where we can imagine how a future version of ourselves with the same basic motivations would act in response to some technology.
Part of this time was spent on equity in disseminating the benefits of technological progress. My favorite moment of the session came in a comment about the song “The Space Program” by A Tribe Called Quest, which uses travel to a colony on Mars as a metaphor for how minorities in the US are frequently not given immediate access to the benefits of technological advancement. It’s a piece I had not thought of specifically as science fiction, but it fit the discussion well and is a nice summary of a critical concern among Salon participants that day. As a music fan, I sense that more and more artists are bringing in elements of science fiction to their work, which I imagine is inspired by the increasing role of scifi in pop culture generally, perhaps combined with more than a little David Bowie nostalgia. For further reference, check out St. Vincent (e.g. Digital Witness; about screen addiction), Public Service Broadcasting (e.g. Gagarin; a tribute to the first cosmonaut), and ANOHNI (e.g. Watch Me; a song about Stockholm syndrome in a surveillance state) for catchy examples (warning: some of the examples include explicit language).
Small group discussions on technological themes
We next broke into smaller groups to discuss two general themes of technological application: surveillance and genetic engineering. The surveillance discussion focused on the novels 1984 and Brave New World, which are explorations of a fascist and communist dystopian future, respectively. This discussion quickly moved towards how modern media dissemination through targeted outlets creates a series of thought silos where ideas and interpretation spread rapidly within but not between ideological clusters. Attendees also noted how contemporary surveillance, such as through Facebook or smartphones, is tolerated or maybe even welcomed in exchange for the convenience it brings, e.g., more accurate anticipation of user wants and needs. This discussion felt urgent, as the topic is rapidly changing our current experience.
The genetic engineering discussion focused on how this technology will impact diversity. I came into the discussion expecting to talk about genetic diversity– depending on approaches taken, using genetic engineering to “correct” disease alleles may also remove genetic variants associated with particular ethnic backgrounds that may in turn impact phenotypic diversity. The group, however, was more focused on diversity of experiences. One member brought up the deaf community as an example. Some members of this community are concerned about cochlear implants, which are given at birth and remove an infants’ agency in deciding their life experience. Genetic engineering could conceivably extend this by removing traits from all future generations. This point really stuck with me after the Salon and will surely prompt a long reading list on the topic.
Related topics in the news
Since our Salon took place, I’ve come across two interesting news stories that related to our discussion group topics. The first is a product made by Google called “Clips“. It’s an internet-connected camera that continuously watches for movement and uses an algorithm to “decide” when to capture photos or video for future consumption by the user. It’s billed as a hands-free solution for parents or pet owners who want to capture fun, spontaneous moments. It was quickly called out as a potential surveillance threat. Google clearly considered this in their design by making the camera “audio free”, which tech enthusiasts speculated was a way to prevent attempts by law enforcement to acquire recordings from a crime suspect’s house.
There has additionally been an announcement of the first known human to attempt gene editing with CRISPR on themselves. This individual claims they can make targeted edits in their arm to promote muscle growth. Based on my limited understanding of their approach, I see it as highly unlikely to yield impressive biceps. However, this same person is selling a home CRISPR kit that will likely receive a boost in exposure from the coverage his antics have received. DIY genetic engineering is currently a regulatory grey area that desperately needs more attention going forward. The announcement is additionally a potential point at which we could plant a flag to demarcate the “human genetic engineering era”, if such a future comes to be.