A few years back I wrote a paper for the Cascadia Nanotech Symposium (March 2007 held in Vancouver) called: Engaging Nanotechnology: pop culture, media, and public awareness. I was reminded it of a few days ago when I saw a mention on Andrew Maynard’s, 2020 Science blog about a seminar titled, Biopolitics of Popular Culture being held in Irvine, California on Dec. 4, 2009 by the Institute of Ethics for Emerging Technologies. (You can read more of Andrew’s comments here or you can check out the meeting details here.) From the meeting website,
Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.
Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?
Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?
During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.
I’m not sure what they mean by biopolitics, especially after the lecture I attended at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus last night (Nov. 12, 2009), Liminal Livestock. Last night’s lecture by Susan Squier highlighted (this is oversimplified) the relationship between women and chickens in the light of reproductive technologies. From the lecture description,
Adapting SubRosa Art Collective’s memorable question, this talk asks: “What does it mean, to feminism and to agriculture, that women are like chickens and chickens are like women?” As liminal livestock, chickens play a central role in our gendered agricultural imaginary: the zone where we find the “speculative, propositional fabric of agricultural thought.” Analyzing several children’s stories, a novel, and a documentary film, the talk seeks to discover some of the factors that help to shape the role of women in agriculture, and the role of agriculture in women’s lives.
Squier did also discuss reproductive technologies at some length although it’s not obvious from the description that the topic will arise. She discussed the transition of chicken raising as a woman’s job to a man’s job which coincided with the rise of chicken factory farms. Squier also noted the current interest in raising chickens in city and suburban areas without speculating on possible cultural impacts.
The lecture covered selective breeding and the shift of university poultry science departments from the study of science to the study of increasing chicken productivity, which led to tampering with genes and other reproductive technologies. One thing I didn’t realize is that chicken eggs are used for studies on human reproduction. Disturbingly, Squier talked to an American scientist, whose work concerns human reproduction, who moved to Britain because the chicken eggs are of such poor quality in the US.
The relationship between women and chickens was metaphorical and illustrated through popular children’s stories and pop culture artifacts (i.e. poultry beauty pageants featuring women not chickens) in a way that would require reproducing far more of the lecture than I can here. So if you are interested, I understand that Squier does have a book about women and chickens being published although I can’t find a publication date.
Squier’s lecture and the meeting for the Institute of Ethics for Emerging Technologies present different ways of integrating pop culture elements into the discussion about science and emerging technologies. Since I’m tooting my horn, I’m going to finish with my thoughts on the matter as written in my Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium paper,
The process of accepting, rejecting, or changing new sciences and new technologies seems more akin to a freewheeling, creative conversation with competing narratives than a transfer of information from experts to nonexperts as per the science literacy model.
The focus on establishing how much awareness the public has about nanotechnology by measuring the number of articles in the newspaper or items in the broadcast media or even tracking the topic in the blogosphere is useful as one of a set of tools.
Disturbing as it is to think that it could be used for purely manipulative purposes, finding out how people develop their attitudes towards new technologies and the interplay between cognition, affect, and values has the potential to help us better understand ourselves and our relationship to the sciences. (In this paper, the terms science and technology are being used interchangeably, as is often the case with nanotechnology.)
Pop culture provides a valuable view into how nonexperts learn about science (books, television, etc.) and accept technological innovations (e.g. rejecting the phonograph as a talking book technology but accepting it for music listening).
There is a collaborative and interactive process at the heart of the nanotechnology ‘discussion’. For example, Drexler appears to be responding to some of his critics by revising some of his earlier suppositions about how nanotechnology would work. Interestingly, he also appears to be downplaying his earlier concerns about nanoassemblers running amok and unleashing the ‘goo’ scenario on us all. (BBC News, June 9, 2004)
In reviewing all of the material about communicating science, public attitudes, and values, one thing stands out: time. Electricity was seen by some as deeply disturbing to the cosmic forces of the universe. There was resistance to the idea for decades and, in some cases (the Amish), that resistance lives on. Despite all this, there is not a country in the world today that doesn’t have electricity.
One final note: I didn’t mean to suggest the inexorable adoption of any and all technologies, my intent was to point out the impossibility of determining a technology’s future adoption or rejection by measuring contemporary attitudes, hostile or otherwise.
’nuff said for today. Happy weekend!