Thursday, 27 June 2013

Preparing for the Death of Nelson Mandela

Yesterday we were informed by our press officer that the “University press office have had several media requests for a list of anti-apartheid experts in anticipation of Nelson Mandela’s death”. Would any of the people in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, where I work, be willing to comment? Since I’m certainly no anti-apartheid expert, I didn’t respond, but after only a short while one of my colleagues did, saying that he was “shocked and appalled at this utterly distasteful and disrespectful request, given that the great man is critically ill but obviously still alive”. Shortly after that, this view and the sentiment expressed therein were seconded by a second colleague. I must admit that this took me by surprise. It hadn’t crossed my mind that there might be anything wrong with the request, something about it that was morally dubious or even reprehensible. Yet since I think very highly of those two colleagues, the outrage they expressed gave me pause. Should I, too, have been shocked and appalled by it? Was the request really utterly distasteful and disrespectful?

I was reminded of the debate about the celebrations following Margaret Thatcher’s death (which I commented on in an earlier blog post). Some people found celebrating a person’s death, whoever they may be and whatever one may think of them, inappropriate and morally repugnant. Nelson Mandela’s death is of course not likely to be the cause of much jubilation. In contrast to Thatcher (for whom Mandela was once nothing more than a terrorist), Mandela is widely admired and even revered. Most people, me included, think of him as of a “great man” (whatever that means exactly). But the great man is also very old now and increasingly frail, and it sure looks as if he’s going to die soon. This is certainly regrettable – we may say that the world will be poorer without him – but it is also the natural course of things. He has got to die some day and he has already been around for a very long time, so it might just as well be now.

So, given all that, is it wrong to “anticipate” his death, to make preparations for it and to start thinking about how to respond to it? Do we really disrespect Nelson Mandela when we do that? In what way exactly? Because we act as if he were dead already, as if he were already past? But we don’t really do that: we just act in the knowledge that in all likelihood he will very soon be dead and past. We are just being realistic and pragmatic. Or is it wrong to be pragmatic in the face of death? Or in the face of the death of a great man? I don’t really see why that should be the case. It would certainly be disrespectful if we already started haggling over his corpse or his assets. But we are not really doing that either. We are not thinking about how to best profit from his death or anything to that effect. Nor are we speeding up his death or hoping for it. It’s not that we cannot wait for it to happen.

Or is it perhaps because we treat his anticipated death as news? But surely his death will be news, just as his critical illness already is. We are interested in it and would like to be kept informed about it. And that is what the media are meant to do for us: we use them to stay informed about what is happening in the world. The death of Nelson Mandela seems to be imminent. Journalists know they will be expected to write about it. Why should they not prepare themselves for that? And why should academics not share their knowledge to add depth to their reporting? I don’t find this disrespectful or distasteful. Actually, I find it quite all right. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

RoboRoach: the First Commercially Available Cyborg

The small startup company Backyard Brains is looking for people willing to fund the launch of a new learning tool: cockroaches with an electronic device on their backs connected to the neurons in their antennas, which allows the user to control their movements with a mobile phone:

“When you send the command from your mobile phone, the backpack sends signals to the antenna, which causes the neurons to fire, which causes the roach to think there is a wall on one side. The result? The roach turns!” This will work only for a few minutes, though. The roaches quickly wise up and ignore the literally misguiding information. Hailed as the first commercially available cyborg, the roboroach is claimed to be very useful to teach students “how our brains work”. However, the main insights to be gained here are, first, that you can actually manipulate animals by messing about with their sense organs and brains and thereby tricking them into believing that things exist which in fact do not, and if that is possible, we may reasonably infer, then it may also be possible to trick the human brain into believing in the existence of things that do not exist. But does that really come as a surprise? Didn’t we know that already? And aren’t there easier and more direct way to demonstrate this?

The second, and by far more interesting, insight to be gained from the experiment is that it doesn’t take the roaches long to realise that they are being tricked. How the hell did they figure that out? Their senses tell them there is a wall, but after a short while they know there isn’t, while (presumably) their senses still insist that there is. Remarkable little buggers! So what have we really learned from this? How our brains work? Hardly. What we have learned is rather that even the brain of a cockroach – or more simply: a cockroach - is far more complex than our customary disregard for these creatures prompts us to believe. And also perhaps that reality has a way of reasserting itself.

However, my guess is that most people will use the technique not to gain or generate that insight, or to learn anything at all, but rather because they are fascinated by the prospect of actually being able to remote-control a living being. To subject its will to our will, directly, without recourse to physical violence, that is an experience many will be quite willing to pay for. It’s a kind of mind-control, which is more complete than any other kind of control. It is a vision of ultimate power, which promises an excellent opportunity to satisfy what Michael Sandel has dubbed our drive to mastery. Thus we are probably much more interested in the few minutes during which the cockroach actually does what we want it to do than we are in the power of agency that only all too soon allows it to free itself from our reign. That alone may be a good reason not to promote the widespread use of roboroaches.

Are there any other concerns that we should take into account? The RSPCA has complained about the project, saying that encouraging children to “dismantle and deconstruct” and “deliberately harm” insects was “inappropriate”. In principle I would agree, except that in this particular case it is rather doubtful whether those insects are deliberately harmed, or even harmed at all. Neither are they dismantled and deconstructed. In fact the company takes so much care to make sure that the animals are not harmed that it borders on the absurd. Given that we live in a society in which mammals and other clearly sentient animals are not only being slaughtered every day in their millions to satisfy our appetite, but also used in countless other ways, many of which inflict suffering and distress on them, it is hard to see why we should worry so much about the well-being of cockroaches. We are, after all, talking about beings that most people would not think twice to swat or poison when they find them in their kitchen. We cannot even be reasonably certain that they feel anything at all. And now we are suddenly worried about their well-being? Come on. I’m not saying that the well-being of cockroaches should not matter at all to us (although I do believe that such a view would be defensible). My point is rather that it seems hypocritical to make such a fuss about it, especially since Backyard Brains really seem to go out of their way to make sure that the insects are not harmed in the process.

Just look at the detailed surgical instructions they helpfully provide: “Adults have wings and will no longer molt. Therefore, affixing a connector to their heads permanently is fine. NOTE: if you glue an electrode connector to a juvenile cockroach (no wings), it will not be able to split its exoskeleton when molting and will die. Do not do this surgery on juvenile cockroaches.” And the various things you then have to do to get the cockroach ready are all supposed to be reversible and done while it is anesthetized (by being dunked in ice water for a few minutes), and once it has done its job and the experiment is over, you are instructed to carefully, very gently remove the device and the wires, clean the cockroach, and then take care of it until it dies peacefully of old age: “You can now retire your RoboRoach from active duty status and allow it to spend the rest of its cockroach life eating organic lettuce, playing in toilet paper and work scraps, and raising a family.”

It seems clear to me that if we really take the instructions provided seriously and are being taught to follow them to the letter, then, although the cockroach is clearly used as a means, it is never used merely as a means, but always also as an end. And if we are thereby constantly reminded that they really are such ends and not merely means, then there may well be something that the RoboRoach can teach us: not how our brains work, but that even cockroaches have a life and a will of their own and deserve to be respected.