November 2011 Archives

In the news 11/23/11

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Enhanced prosthetics in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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In the world created for the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Sarif Industries creates high-tech prosthetics whose use is encouraged for everyone in the name of human enhancement. The catch is that once you have one of these prosthetics, you need to stay on the anti-rejection drug for the rest of your life—and drug prices are skyrocketing. Those protesting Sarif Industries use rhetoric like “Human augmentation: enslaving us all” and “Be human. Remain human. Purity first.”

Quick hit: the indifference engine

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science fiction museumMcLeod, Ken. “The indifference engine: how science fiction contributes to the public understanding of science, and how it doesn’t.” Extrapolation 51.1 (Spring 2010): 170.

In this article, McLeod examines why written science fiction (sf) is expected to contribute to public understanding of science. After all, he argues, “[w]e don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history.” His answer, drawn partly from the work of Gary Westfahl and Hugo Gernsback, is that sf as a genre contains, by definition, scientific fact—it's one of three elements: charming romance/thrilling adventure, scientific fact, and prophetic vision.

Another important aspect that “makes written sf distinctive as a genre is its relationship to its subject matter and to its core readership.” Fans of written sf expect real science and are able to identify scientific errors. McLeod believes this does not hold true for fans of “media sf”: films, TV, and games. These fans tend to be much less bothered by, and indeed less knowledgeable about, scientific errors.

McLeod concludes thus:

“the very minimum that written sf does is to popularize the rhetoric of science, and make the language of science familiar to the reader. It valorizes and validates interest in science, and stimulates thought about the consequences of discoveries and of new applications of science. But I would go further than that, and claim that science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

A noble distinction, to be sure.

Photo of the Science Fiction Museum via Flickr user adactio, creative commons.

Accelerated surrogacy in Silver Sling

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silversling3.jpgTze Chun's short film Silver Sling takes place in a near-future New York City and tells the story of Russian immigrant Lydia, who is considering becoming a pregnancy surrogate for the third time. In the world of Silver Sling, surrogates are given an injection that accelerates pregnancy, shortening it to three months. While acting as a surrogate comes with a good deal of money (enough so that Lydia could bring her little brother over from Russia), a third surrogate pregnancy usually leaves the surrogate sterile. Lydia struggles to balance the needs of the present (finding the money to take care of her brother) with the possibilities of the future (having children with her boyfriend Stephen).

What I liked best about this film was the way it let the technology itself be value-neutral while focusing on how our cultural and economic structure shapes the technology's use. Accelerated surrogacy is positioned as a smart choice for busy professionals; the company's promotional film contains lines like "In a world where you shouldn't have to wait for anything, why wait 9 months for your child to be born?" and "At Silver Sling, you can have the baby you've always wanted—in a time frame appropriate for the fast-paced world of today." Though this part didn't make the film, the synopsis on the film's web page says, "corporations offer financial incentives to their high-ranking female employees to pay for chemically accelerated surrogate births." The United States is economically polarized and highly focused on consumerism and convenience. It makes sense that a convenient but unnecessary service like this would be pitched to upper class women, just as it makes sense that the women hired to do the actual labor are, as the film's synopsis states, "people on the lower end of the economic spectrum—often immigrants or people looking to make their rent." Director Tze Chun said he wanted to explore how "immigrants function as a life support system" in New York City: "They cook food, they nanny children, they take out the trash. What if they literally became the life support system for the city's future generations?"

Beholder: the future is not necessarily progressive

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beholder_4.jpgThe short film Beholder is set in a near future domed community whose socially conservative politics are eerily familiar. Director Nisha Ganatra isn't subtle with her comparisons to present-day Republicans in the United States. For example, the community is called Red Estates, and a political stump speech includes the phrase "This is the real America," a well-documented conservative talking point in recent years.

The story centers on Sasha, the pregnant wife of popular political candidate Bobby Aryana. At a prenatal exam, she is told her fetus has the genetic marker for homosexuality.1 She tells the doctor, "I don't remember requesting that test" and the doctor responds "There's no need to request it. All fetuses are scanned automatically." He continues, "There's no need to be alarmed. We'll take care of the problem." In Red Estates, there is a highly effective inoculation to "correct the problem." The eroding concept of choice is cemented when the nurse hands Sasha a clipboard saying "Please sign the consent form for the mandatory inoculation." The only other option offered is "termination."

This is not the only trait controlled for; "designer babies" are the norm and a source of pride for the community. A woman in the waiting room boasts, "I hear that blue eyes are all but extinct outside Red Estates." The area outside the domed community, just referred to as "the coast," is viewed with disdain and pity, and discussed as a place of crime and primitive behavior. A Red Estates advertisement states, "Studies show genetically engineered children lead happier lives than children on the coast. Don't let your child be left behind." This echoes the way prenatal technologies can move from an option to a "mandatory choice" in our culture. As prenatal genetic testing becomes safer and more accurate, a woman who doesn't choose it will increasingly be seen as a "bad mother," as has evolved with expectations around ultrasound.