Geary, James. The Body Electric An Anatomy Of The New Bionic Senses (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2002), pp. 181-185.
What do you buy pet lovers who have everything? They have the cat that sings, and a dog that surfs. And theyve already bought tickets to this years Pig Imitation Festival in the south of France.
(Its an animal fans delight: townsfolk dress up in eye-catching pig suits and oink to win prizes.)
The answer is a glowing green rabbit. Artist Eduardo Kac has created one using genetic engineering. Into a bunny embryo he inserted the gene that causes jellyfish to glow. A little while later, out popped Alba, the iridescent rabbit. When blue light is shone on her, she fluoresces green.
Release Alba into the wild and shed no doubt cause a few shooters to swear off the grog. And thered be more farmers than usual reporting alien encounters. But would a gaudy rabbit really make an appropriate pet?
Most certainly, insists Kac. After all, the jellyfish gene Alba is carrying is harmless. In fact, in the lab, scientists routinely insert it in many species in their experiments as part of their genetic engineering. It doesnt have side effects, apart from turning the animal green. In other words, Alba is as cute and cuddly as any black or white rabbit; she just happens to come in fluoro.
Fluorescent pets could even become quite popular. After all, plenty of people like to own exotic new breeds of dog, and these are no more than genetically engineered wolves. (Engineered by breeders rather than scientists, but engineered nonetheless.)
And why stop with luminous bunnies? In this brave new era of genetic engineering, all sorts of exotic new pets could soon be pulled out of the scientific hat. While we joke about it, and insist that mixing and matching species like this is just too weird and will never happen, Kac thinks we could be wrong.
He says his glowing green rabbit demonstrates societys split attitude to genetic engineering. At first glance Alba seems utterly bizarre - even repulsive. Then, when you get past your initial reaction and star thinking, its hard to find anything really wrong with Alba.
Shes simply a different color. Most of us would quickly get used to her.
Will people get used to genetically engineered humans too, in the same way? Even get used to that big genetic taboo - cloned people?
When Dolly the sheep was cloned several years ago, almost everybody said how disgusting it would be to clone people. Yet, like the green rabbit, its hard to find anything terribly wrong with cloning when you think about it. After all, in essence, a clone is just an identical twin, born years later rather than a few minutes.
In fact clones do not bear all the similarities of twins. They are only genetically identical, whereas twins have also developed in the same womb and have had the same mother.
Clones, in comparison, not only grow in different wombs but at different times (and are therefore exposed to different hormone levels). And they effectively have three mothers: the one who passed on her genes, the one who donated the egg and the one who provided the womb. (Genes may play a large part in how a person turns out, but these other factors certainly count.)
Surely its only a matter of time for cloning techniques to be made safe enough for the first human clone to be born. At firs well be shocked - outraged! Then well realize clones are just perfectly normal human beings. Well probably get used to them as quickly as we got used to test-tube babies back in the 1970s. But will we get used to chain children?
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES
This chapter began with claims about a new genesis taking shape. It ends with a passage from the Book of Genesis: Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over everything living thing that moves upon the earth.
In a performance first shown in 2000, multimedia artist Eduardo Kac translated this quotation from the Old Testament into Morse code and, by means of a conversion principle he devised himself, translated the dots and dashes of the Morse code into a strand of DNA he called the Genesis gene. He used the four chemical letters of the DNA code, replacing the dots of Morse with the base cytosine, the dashes with the base thymine, the spaces between letters with guanine and the space between words with adenine. The Genesis gene was incorporated into the genomes of a colony of E. coli bacteria, where it made the bacteria glow when exposed to ultraviolet light.
The ultraviolet light caused mutations in the bacteria, which altered the DNA in the Genesis gene, which in turn rearranged the letters in the quotation from the Book of Genesis.
As part of the performance, participants accessed the gallery via a webcam and were able to activate the ultraviolet light above a Petri dish containing the genetically modified bacteria. A video projection displayed a view of the bacterial division and interaction as seen through a microscope. At the end of the show the altered biblical sentence was decoded and translated back into English. Parts of it read: Let aan have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that ioves ua eon the earth.
This passage from Genesis was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion of divinely sanctioned human supremacy over nature.
Morse code was chosen because, as first employed in radiotelegraphy, it represents the dawn of the information age, the genesis of global communications. The work confronts us with a dilemma: we have to take responsibility for changing the genetic structure of an organism, and for changing the word of God in the body of the bacteria.
This book has chronicled the ways in which people are changing the human body through technology, and endowing electronic devices with senses that might one day give them a soul. Some might consider this to be tampering with the work of God or interfering with nature in inappropriate and possibly dangerous ways. There are, of course, dangers in this kind of technology, just as there are in any new technology. Its commonplace to observe that technology is morally neutral; its people who are good or evil and who put technology to good or evil uses. Morally neutral through it may be, technology does induce in people a desire to use it. Consider the incredible popularity of the mobile phone: no one felt the compulsion to communicate so much or so often - or so unnecessarily - until the means were available to do so. Technology creates demand as well as feeds it.
What new demands will this technology create? Its difficult to say, since many of the devices and interfaces are still so immature. It could well be decades before the most promising applications emerge.
Nevertheless, entertainment is already sure to be one of the main sources of demand.
Joysticks and steering wheels fitted out with haptic feedback already exist. Imagine the possibilities when the emotional and physical effects of a video game could be induced through a direct interface with the brain, a future envisioned in the 1999 film Existenz. Gone will be the need for any apparatus at all; all the gameplayer will need is the proper electrical stimulation in the brain; and why stop at games when any type of novel sensation would be at your fingertips. Users could orchestrate their own brain states, calling up everything from opium- like highs to day-long orgasms at the press of a button.
More sinister applications are not hard to imagine either. The opportunities for covert surveillance and unwelcome monitoring will increase when the walls, and many other everyday objects, have ears, eyes, noses and mouths. Privacy will become even more fragile, and even more fiercely guarded, as a result; and when direct brain interface technology becomes more sophisticated, the threat of mind control will become real. Brainwashing will no longer require years of rigorous indoctrination, but some relatively straightforward neuro-surgery and the appropriate computer program.
Yet as the Borg are fond of saying in Star Trek: The Next Generation, resistance is futile - and just plain stupid. Technology will continue to advance into regions where no one has gone before, and this is as it should be. Its far wiser to engage in that process from the start to help shape its outcome than to recoil in horror from its possible consequences.
There is, in fact, nothing unnatural about technology. It has always been a part of human nature, since the first Homo sapiens used a stone to crack a nut and crush a skull. Whats changing is that technology is moving from being something outside the body to something inside the body, from being a way we shape the external world to a way we shape the internal world of our perceptions, feelings and thoughts.
Technology is becoming a part of our bodies rather than a mere extension of them. The relationship between technology and the body is frightening because the skin has always formed a barrier between inside and outside, Kac says. Now that barrier is being crossed.
This should not alarm us since nobody - and no body - is now or ever has been really secluded from the external environment. While the skin may be a barrier between the outside world and our internal organs, the senses themselves are portals designed to let the outside world in rather than keep it out. The senses enable us to perceive the world, but they also restrict our view. We cant see light in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, for example, and we cant hear extremely low - or extremely high-frequency sounds; but other animals can. Theres nothing unnatural about this, and we wouldnt be transgressing any laws of God or nature if we were to endow ourselves with these abilities as well. Birds do it. Why shouldnt we do it?
The senses themselves do not passively receive information about the world; they actively shape, distort and, in many ways, create what we perceive. When we see an object, for example, the brain actively composes the image, extending lines and rounding out corners where these aspects of the object itself are incomplete or indistinct. The brain makes its own reality based on the ambiguous, ill-defined and often contradictory information pouring in through the senses. As a result, sensory perceptions are modifications, impressions and recreations of whats out there in the physical world. Moreover, human beings have been modifying their bodies for centuries, through cosmetic surgery, diet regimens, drug regimes (both recreational and medicinal) and exercise. Now this process of modification is being internalized.
If its natural for our senses to actively create the world we perceive, why shouldnt we actively recreate our senses to enhance or change the way we experience that world? We have always asked what machines can do for us, Kac says. Now might be the right time to ask what we can do together.
Kacs work provides a glimpse of what man and machine can do together. In the 1999 work A-positive, Kac hooked himself up via an intravenous line to a machine. The work gives a contemporary twist to the artificial heart-lung machine, a device that maintained circulation during heart surgery by pumping the patients blood away from the heart, oxygenating it and then returning it to the body. The artificial heart-lung was first successfully employed on a human being in 1953, and was one of the first true bionic devices. In A-positive, an intravenous line ferried Kacs blood to the machine, which extracted enough oxygen from it to support a small flame. In return, the machine deposited dextrose, a nutrient, into Kacs bloodstream and returned it to his body. Kac gave the machine enough oxygen to keep the flame alive, and the machine gave Kac enough energy in the form of dextrose to make up for his loss of blood..
That little tongue of flame is a fitting metaphor for how technology and biology are coming together to pry open a little further the doors of our perception. Norbert Wiener once advised, Render unto man the things which are mans and unto the computer the things which are the computers Thats sage counsel, indeed; but as this anatomy of the new bionic senses has shown, its becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference.
However our perceptions may be extended, enhanced or repaired in the future, we will still have the humble neuron to thank for keeping our senses burning bright. So let us sing the body electric, mindful of its perils as well as its possibilities, and lift up our voices in praise of the Holy Spirit.