Tomorrow’s People: how 21st century technology is changing the way we think and feel

by Susan Greenfield

In Tomorrow’s People, Greenfield, renowned neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, indulges her literary ambitions to create a speculative dystopia owing much to Huxley.

In this updated Brave New World, she imagines a near-future when the likes of genetic modification, nanotechnology and cybernetics conspire to leave us in a ‘passive, sensory-laden state’. Our sci-fi imaginings, says Greenfield, tend to present a high-tech world in which we nevertheless remain human, our essential being unchanged. However, the intrusion of these 21st century sciences will alter our lives beyond recognition.

Increasingly, the physical world will itself become an interface of ‘tangible bits’ where we exchange CVs via the electro-conductive sweat of a handshake, and communicate via the e-broidery of our ‘softwear’. Augmented reality (AR) applications will turn us into cyborgs. Chip-embedded spectacles projecting a superimposed image onto the retina will be used to aid engineering design, for example, pinpointing sections for maintenance or manufacture. Perhaps a little further off, allowing parents to peer into an artificial womb and track their child’s development.

At home, the little ones will play with their ‘smart toys’, that mirror their development, as each grapples with its environment; or amuse themselves assembling a kind of sub-atomic nanotech Lego. Meanwhile, their flexi-operative parents will ‘plug-in-and-play’, their serotonin depleted brains episodically provoked to virtual ‘desk rage’, as performance stats are relayed to the virtual boss. They will socialise ‘remotely’, or be promiscuously lost in virtual sex role-play with a designer partner of their choice. All the while, the Hyperhouse, with its ‘electronic spine’ will teem with smart appliances, activated by bodily sensors adjusting ambience and functionality accordingly.

Beyond the not so private sphere, populations will diverge further as the uneven application of these technologies leads to ‘speciation’. In Greenfield’s most optimistic scenario, there will be no international development as such, but a wiring up of cottage industries, equipping ‘every village with an electronic library’! The spectre of apocalyptic bio- and cyber-terrorism will reign. We will wear air quality monitoring devices, keep the hi-tech equivalent of a gas mask in the bathroom cabinet, and our offices and homes will be equipped with sophisticated air-filtration systems.

It may already be apparent that Tomorrow’s People is ambivalent about the future. It is also profoundly anti-human in outlook. Post 9/11, Greenfield finds it ‘harder to regard the human element as a constant force for good’. But her pessimism seems more deep-rooted. For her, the self is a fragile expressive entity, and ‘the firewall of our sense of individuality’ in increasing danger of being breached – by the collective, ie. other people! In the home of the future, you’ll need a ‘real room’ retreat from the interactive noise, but will equally find the offline experience exposing and disorientating. The desire for real time stimulation will draw us to the sporting arenas and their ‘seething mass of sweaty humanity’, a frightening and distasteful prospect for Greenfield.

Greenfield’s view that ‘human nature’ has changed little since our ancestors got off all fours, bares little scrutiny. If this were the case, these new technologies might indeed by unnerving. However, the shaping of every tool since the carved animal bone has also helped to shape our minds, our environments and our social organisation. Only deaf separatists would claim that cochlear implants erode the identity of its beneficiaries – but surely this example of early cybernetics is just an extension of historical precedent.

Like any good dystopian, Greenfield captures something of our lives today and projects it into the future. We are certainly living increasingly individuated lives, alienated and fearful of each other, but technology is not making us this way. Already, she notes, some of us float in and out of a virtual world, with our hands-free mobiles, oblivious to those around us. But text messaging and virtual-dating, for example, are popular because of their distancing qualities, the antithesis of what communication technologies are ostensibly for. Instead of being understood as a means to mastering our environments, technical advance can take on a threatening mystical quality, and end up mediating our anxieties.

Greenfield is anxious that ‘text-based unambiguous knowledge’ will give way to associative hypertext. But this would be a consequence of the relativisation of knowledge, a cultural phenomenon, not a technological one. Similarly, Greenfield wonders whether ‘science has made us less accountable for our actions’. Simply put, no it hasn’t. This very sense of humans being deeply vulnerable, with little agency (a sense to which she seems to subscribe), is doing this all on its own. Consequently, the erosion of the private sphere has been underway for some time, with the intrusion of the state, not IT, being the primary driver.

The Sewer King

review of ‘The Sewer King’ episode in BBC documentary series

London in 1848 was the ‘biggest, richest, most densely populated’ city on Earth. Its popoulation doubled in half a century leaving a ‘torrent in human excrement’. An outbreak of cholera was the worst seen since the Great Plague, not to mention dysentery and typhoid. There were riots in the East End as corpses overwhelmeed graveyards. By the winter of 1849, 14,000 had died. By 1853 it had returned.

The Lancet, mouthpiece of medical science, confessed to be ‘at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture’ as to the cause. For Edwin Chadwick of the Poor Law Commission, ‘all smell is disease’. Epidemiologist, John Snow, was the first to undermine the ‘miasma’ thesis, which dominated professional opinion. He found that, rahter than being a consequence of ‘bad air’, the disease was water-borne.

In 1856, as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette (subject of this documentary, and distant relative of the director Ed Bazalgette) embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the sewer system, at the time to do no more than disperse rainwater. His plan would mean a complex network of tunnels, with water being carried out into the Thames estuary and out to sea, employing the most powerful pumps ever – courtesy of Stevenson – to carry it into huge reservoirs.

For Bazalgette, ‘without sanitation we are little more than beasts’. But it wasn’t until 1848, against massive opposition from both his peers and the press that a Bill was passed in Parliament. This resulted in a ‘dramatic improvement in health across the metropolis’. Ironically for Bazalgette, like everybody else save Snow, water purification was secondary to eradicating the stench of sewage.

There are strking parallels between this characteristically Victorian feat of engineering and the popular reaction to it, and contemporary Britain. The sheer grandeur resulting in something we take for granted today dwarfs projects dismissed as unattainable today. The descent into rumour and prejudice by the elite said a lot about their fear of and repulsion with the masses. Indeed this seemed to drive the project more than anything. Today’s eco-fears, and our truly poisonous cynicism, only seem to put a brake on urban development.

The Donahue Sisters

C cubed, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Group: Attica Theatre Company

In this beautifully acted piece, written by Geraldine Aron, three sisters find themselves in their old playroom of an attic on hearing their father is ill.

What looks like being a parochial meander through their reminiscences is transformed as they re-enact the terrible shared secret of their childhood.

‘All for one and one for all – the Donahue sisters stick together’ takes on a malignant resonance as we learn of their sibling complicity. The inconsequential to and fro of the opening of the play is thus sent into disturbing relief.

11 to 24 August

Trojan Women

Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Group: Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Society

Watching Euripides’ Trojan Women brought to mind contemporary attitudes to the idea of a just war. This young cast powerfully portrayed the aftermath of the mythical end of Troy.

The women recall the ‘honourable deaths’ of their men in the face of a ferocious onslaught. The eventual sacking of the city and their being taken as slaves and concubines by the Greeks doesn’t diminish their spirit – for ‘Troy will be famous’ and ‘time will remember us’.

Tony Blair said history would judge whether he was right to wage war on Iraq. But this is in the absence of any commitment to ‘fight and die for a good cause’. Instead there was a passive opposition at best, or general indifference to the war, whatever it’s for. The moral certainty of having right on their side, of the superiority of their civilisation against the ‘barbarians’ of Greece, is at odds with our cowardly new world.

Blair, like the women of Troy, may well ask ‘where are the gods now?’

1 August to 24 August

Lessons from Dolly

Institute of Ideas Genes and Society Festival, Battersea Arts Centre, London

At the Genes and Society Festival, Harry Griffin, Acting Director of the Roslin Institute, reflected on the scientific significance of Dolly the sheep. In a follow-up interview, I asked him whether he thought she had any cultural significance.

With the creation of Dolly,the Roslin Institute succeeded, in the first successful application of nuclear transfer, to produce a clone from the cells of an adult mammal. Griffin said she had become an ‘icon in the biotech industry’, the subject of numerous theses, and a backdrop to discussions on genetics. I suggested that perhaps the media’s hysterical reaction to the Dolly episode reflected a broader trend in society. Did he have any thoughts on the source of the anxiety and mistrust in GM technologies being expressed? He responded that the ‘vested interests’ on both sides of the debate feed an opportunistic news agenda.

For some, ‘the future is not to their liking’ and rather than recognising today as the best time to have lived, they’re inclined to hold the view that we are ‘heading for the dog house’. Griffin thinks the hysteria around the application of biotechnology, and transgencic animals, has become a lightning rod for these kinds of attitudes and personalities. But why, he asked, is it being singled out for attention as a vehicle by the misguided trying to ‘right the world’s wrongs’?

Griffin described a ‘law of diminishing returns’ where the pervasive benefits are not as likely to be as great or as visible, as the introduction of the Pill for example. The major risk factors associated with heart disease and strokes were as susceptible to changes in lifestyles, as the application of genetic technologies. There are ‘serious ethical issues’ that need to be addressed rather than focusing on ‘imaginary things in the dim and distant future’. Why are we spending so much money on acute medicine when it would be better directed at preventative health? Griffin answered his own question, arguing that the statistical benefit of such an approach is overlooked because tugging at the ‘heartstrings [is] far more persuasive’. Although I agree there is no place for sentimentality in medicine, his enthusiasm for the new public health was rather perverse given his credentials as an ambassador for the potentials of biotechnology.

During his talk at the festival, Griffin spoke about cloning and how it resonates with people’s fragile sense of their identity. He referred to a need to ‘examine our view of uniqueness’. I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by this. Cloning is a strong theme in science fiction literature, he said; the clone is seen as somehow ‘sub-human’. He elaborated on this with the analogy of a painting by an Old Master – the original is worth a fortune, but an exact copy is relatively worthless. We are far more than our genes. They determine predispositions rather than providing certainty or determining our fates. Despite this, the perception that cloning is a threat to our uniqueness as individuals persists. Griffin speculated that this might disappear with time. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

A member of the audience, during his talk, questioned why scientists weren’t setting the agenda rather than reacting to it. I asked Griffin whether there is a reluctance by the scientific community to defend their work in unapologetic terms. On the contrary, he asserted, scientists do defend their work. The UK’s scientific community is comfortable with their need to ‘engage’ with the public. They provide the facts, and society weighs up the pros and cons.

Griffin rightly argued that science is neutral. But scientists can’t afford to be neutral when it comes to defending their work. There is a danger in leaving the so-called ‘ethical’ debates to run their course. In the absence of a robust case for each and every breakthrough, the free-floating and ever present anxiety, will irresistibly attach itself, regardless of the merits. This can only reinforce the sense that scientists are pursuing a field of intellectual enquiry isolated from society and its interests, and end up not ‘engaging’ at all. Today’s irrational and stultifying climate must be countered by scientists themselves if it is to be overcome.