What’s this I ear?

There was a talk. A long talk. About Norbert Wiener (not to be confused with Nimrod Wiener, the Sydney chiropractor and anti-vaxxer). Norbert was the father of cybernetics, and sounds to have been a thoroughly brilliant, albeit rather strange and obnoxious man. But it was a L-O-N-G talk, from a distinctly unengaging speaker. I managed to take in a bit of it, but I’m embarrassed to admit that after the first 27 hours my mind did start to wander.

Then there was a panel discussion. About Norbert. Or Norbie, as I like to call him these days: I feel I know him so well now.  I got a few things out of it. A nice quote from Norbie:

In the field of science it is perilous to run counter to the accepted table of precedence. On no account is it permissible to mention living beings and machines in the same breath.

Admittedly this probably sounds a little overblown in a time when pacemakers are unremarkable, but you can see it might have been the case in the 40s and 50s. And, to be fair, many people do seem to find Kevin Warwick a bit strange or alarming.

And I was delighted to discover that Allende’s Chile was the only government ever to be set up on cybernetic principles. Which may explain the subsequent coup.

But I was starting to have out-of-body experiences by this time, largely because of one of the other speakers on the panel. I’ll get to her later. Then I’ll mop the venom off the keyboard.

Another panel member was Stelarc. I’m going to mesh his panel performance and his subsequent talk together, because you can have too much of a good thing. And I’m going to be fair to him: he doesn’t seek to set himself up as a scientist – he’s a conceptual artist and should be judged as such. Although when he started carrying on about Kant and Nietzsche I thought I might have some grounds for being snitty, but, what the hell, it’s just the kind of pop-philosophical gloss conceptual art types use to add some intellectual je ne sais quoi to their work. So if someone wants to use Kant to rationalise suspending himself by hooks through his skin, or growing a third ear on his arm, let him. No horses are getting frightened by it.

I’d actually come to this conference because the brochure made much of the themes of biotechnology and nanotechnology. The level of ignorance was profound. I saw no indication that any of the punters – maybe a couple of the cryonics experts, but none of the plebs – knew anything at all about what they are. The impression I got was that these are just science-y buzzwords for cool sci-fi stuff. But Stelarc actually managed to mention nano – with the deathless (pun intended) observation that ‘the micro or nano scale of new technology means the body becomes the host and the landscape for its machinery’. And the next act was all about biotech.

I’m not even going to try to be polite about this one. I don’t hang myself from the ceiling (not often anyway). I don’t grow extra body parts as a hobby. But I do write a bit, and I reckon that gives me the right to criticize another’s writing. We had a reading from a new novel.

Not just any novel. A verse novel. A blank verse novel. A blank verse time-shifting dystopian novel about genetic manipulation. Obviously you will feel the horror. And it wasn’t improved by the fact that the author was triumphantly, radiantly ignorant of the actual science.

A few highlights will suffice. More than suffice.

The book alternates between 2050 Melbourne and 2010 Melbourne. It’s supposed to be about the impact of science and technology on our daily lives. By 2050, we have ‘GM cloned whales’. Yep. GM, cloned. They’re different things, love. And it had to be whales.

There are carbon counters mounted on every wall. The sea level has risen about 200 feet. So quickly? The IPCC will be stunned. People have floral goldfish to match their couches. The water is ‘full of transgenics’ following a ‘leak from a genetics lab’. There are fish sprouting tomato leaves, and trout with human ears.  Between this and Stelarc, I was getting a bit eared-out.

Clearly biotech’s come on a bit in 38 years. And the woman appears to have an obsession with aquatic creatures.

Still, when she set out her stall afterwards, the faithful were keen to buy a copy. The faithful had self-selected: they would, in every sense, buy anything.


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