Let’s keep the dice rolling

I recently listened with increasing horror to an interview by Kim Hill on RNZ National with Julian Savulescu. Savulescu is a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, and he was advocating for the genetic testing of embryos to allow parents to select for a wide variety of traits. This was way beyond eliminating severe, early onset conditions such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It was about selecting for ‘intelligence’, perfect musical pitch, physical coordination and so on.

Take note people: if this is the society we create, gone will be the roll of the dice which means each child is a delicious combination of quirky traits that throws something new into the ring. Instead, it will be a world of Barbie and Ken dolls, perfectly dull, and without movement, growth or vitality. The swirl of life will freeze into a form imagined by the men and women who sit in their labs designing the human species. 

It will also be the end of sex. Think about it – if we can harvest a woman’s eggs, match these with a man’s sperm, and then select from and modify the embryos that result, why would you throw the dice? My goodness, you might have a child who struggles to read or do their taxes, or who doesn’t sleep well and gets depressed from time to time. Bad outcomes that you could have avoided if you’d been halfway responsible and gone down the IVF-select-your-baby route.

OK I know that 99.9% of sex isn’t about producing a baby, and people will still jump into bed with each other. But sex as we know it is being undermined through other technologies too. A recent Adbuster’s magazine offers the following vingette: ‘On the third floor of a sex shop in Akihabara, a shy young guy told me that pornography and sex toys are now so fantastic in Japan that you don’t need to bother with real sex.’ Can this really be true? Are young people starting to believe that images and sex toys can replace courtship, human contact, and the oscillation of emotions that accompanies the real deal? Maybe. We are certainly creating a myriad of technological substitutes for human interaction. Medicine, education, encounters with nature – the push is to get everything online until we drift into Matrix-like existences and life has ceased to exist.

In university teaching, the world I know best, more and more is done with the help of computers. Some of this just replaces paper with a screen, which (as far as I can tell) is innocuous. But increasingly, computers replace group based learning. Students can now watch recorded lectures at home, submit assignments via a website and ask their teachers questions through online discussion boards. This may all sound fine to you – as each element was introduced I thought it was fine too. But it all adds up. We are now only a whisker way from a world in which each student sits in their bedroom all day long interacting with a screen. What happens to their bodies as they no longer move through the city to their place of learning, walk between classes and find somewhere to have lunch? And what happens to their minds as they encounter only the thin audio-visual channels produced by computers and the sights, smells, sounds and feel of their bedroom?

As we seek perfection – the ideal baby, the ‘fantastic’ sexual experience, education delivered to your home – we kill life. Life is a mess. A glorious, tragic, frustrating, random, uncontrollable mess. Let’s keep the dice rolling.

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