Richard with 'Gene the Bull'
Journal of a Futurist - 12 August 2001
A bull with future shock
Hi and welcome to the weekly journal of my gripping life. Dont ask why it took me so long to leap into cyberspace, seeing as Ive been prattling about it for 30 years. Onwards! Last week, after an even chillier-than-usual reception at US Immigration, I found myself in Minneapolis, birthplace of Prince, mingling with five hundred futurists, many of them older than me. It was the annual conference of the grandly named World Future Society, publisher of The Futurist, a techno fetishists handbook. The conference has never been held outside of North America, nor strayed from the bland hostings of Hilton . This is unlikely to change, despite growlings from non American change agents.
Why go? To foster rebellion and keep abreast of whats waiting in the wings. Smart dreamers float through the gilded ballrooms, muttering about space-food, third dimensional pixels and micro credit. The hot new topic is PROTEOMICS, which identifies proteins in the body and probes their role in transmitting disease. Its a "new route to drug discovery" according to Earl Joseph, an excitable elder, which brings researchers closer to actual biology than studies of gene sequencing alone. Proteomics will "develop means to radically change, evolve or revolutionise human beings". Example: growing two extra arms and a pair of eyes in the back of the head, which will add to our workload. Visions were painted of enhanced humans with the sight of an eagle, the sonar prowess of a bat, the speed of a gazelle. At this point I retreated to the bar with the thirst of an Australian.
On a less scary note, I learnt about the concept "youth creep", (scary to Xers, no doubt) in which middle age is being re-defined as between 50 and 75.. An encouraging political trend is the rise of NGOs, ranging from the global union of exotic dancers to the feisty Pakistani lobby group, the Association of Auto thieves. Overall, the topics were fascinating and the standard of presentations weak.
As dozens of sessions run concurrently, it is the one you miss that turns out to win high praise, such as a presentation on the Future of Women, which had a packed house rolling in the aisles. The next morning I hurried along to its sequel, the Future of Men. The note on the door was an eloquent omen: CANCELLED, no doubt owing to a lack of interest.
Anyway, more about the conference in a future entry, when I get around to deciperhing my notes. Having a morning to spare before my flight out of town, I took a touristy jaunt to the Minnesota zoo, and met an unusual beast. Dashing past the ostrich enclosure, I climbed aboard the brightly coloured carriage of a kiddies tractor train, looking absurdly out of place among two dozen pre schoolers in yellow uniforms. We inched towards the barn of the Wells Fargo Agricultural Farm, an educational installation. "Our corn and wheat are struggling in the drought", came the amplified voice of the driver, "all of it genetically modified". The next attraction was a big black bull called Gene. "Hes caused a bit of controversy", noted our fatherly guide astride the John Deere, "because hes a clone". Costly too, at $2 million. As I was soaking this up, the driver said, "But apart from that, Gene is a normal animal in every other respect". How does he know?
Man-made creatures are already considered so normal these days, that Gene attracts not the slightest interest from the schookids. We drift off to see the cows; two of which are also cloned. Again, Carbon and Copy blend in with the rest of the somnolent herd, as indifferent to us, as we are to them. Despite this being the only zoo in the world to display clones, it was not presented as a big deal. It was not advertised, and scarcely signposted . This is what made the morning interesting. In the land of the ballyhoo, there was no ballyhoo. Its like the Sherlock Holmes tale in which the dog doesnt bark. Why? To a new generation viewing beasts in the field, cloning comes off as yawningly normal. End of discussion. Hey teacher, now can we see something really weird, like a kangaroo?
As the life sciences explode and ethical questions multiply, I make this prediction, a foolish move for a futurist: the return of the public philosopher. Thinkers of high degree will leave the comfort of academy and garret to push aside the rock gods and journalists, in order to galvanise informed debate. They will not be seeking sponsorship.