There has been a long standing debate on the ethics of bio-genetics. Habermas, while speaking in Marburg some years ago warned of a loss of understanding of ourselves and our environment as a result of bio-genetic manipulation, whereby we shall start to understand our ‘natural dispositions’ as mediated; we shall start looking at ourselves as objects that can be tweaked or manipulated, and hence as essentially contingent beings.
After inventing the robot head Morgui, which contained all the five senses, used to investigate sensor data fusion, Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics scientist went on to transplant a chip in his own hand, turning himself into the first cyborg, whose nervous system was interfaced directly with a computer. He thus became the first person, whose five senses were being bypassed by a machine. In 2002, the New York Times magazine reported that scientists had created the rat-bots, whereby, the brains of laboratory rats were wired to a tiny radio – controlled back-pack and scientists were able to control the movements of the rats, making them turn in any direction they wished, even taking over their instinctive fears and making them scurry through tight pipes, climb trees or run across brightly lit spaces without a trace of hesitation.
Juxtaposing might not be the right word here, rather, if we transpose this idea of manipulation from our internal environments to our external environments, (though fundamentally, they are seamlessly connected, but just for the purpose of making a point), the ethical issues related to the ways we are manipulating our ‘natural’ environmental matrix are perhaps similar. Just like the rats, we think of our actions as voluntary ones, unaware of the invisible chip planted in our environments controlling us – directly interfacing with our five senses.
Marshall Mcluhan, in his interview to Playboy in 1960 had said, “The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and — boom boom boom! — we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa; a Hollywood star gets drunk — away go the drums again.” In the same interview he also said, “Because all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.” The noises that surround us today are way more deafening than the beating of tribal drums…the images are way too bright and have a blinding effect and everything else more than numbs our senses.
Just how complicated is this problem of losing our senses or having them lie to us? The dialectics are inevitable. Are these problems of biological reductionism or capitalist/economic reductionism? Do we curtail the advances of science and technology? Do we curtail all sounds, all images – to gain a sense of autonomy and moral dignity? But in doing so, would we be creating a greater divide between science and ethics? Would we be denying knowledge? Would we be denying our own reality?
The passage of five years that we have traversed through the magazine, has been under-pinned by these very philosophical musings and ideas, where we have constantly tried to heed our senses, often re-inventing them – to re-define our notions of freedom, our notions of morality and responsibility, our ideas of agitating and educating…
Hopefully, if at the end of it all, we could be that posthumous tape containing the sounds of the postman Mario’s island – “the waves washing ashore, the screaming of the seagulls, the church bells and at the end of the tape, the horrifying sound of nightsticks crashing against the onslaught of the crowds, instead of applauses… a screaming crowd and the terrible sound of gunshots”…a generation of readers could treat it as our final gesture of love and devotion – Mario’s tribute to his favourite poet Pablo Neruda.