Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Presumption of Continuity

A farmer in Indiana is suing Monsanto over that company’s control of generically modified seeds. The lawsuit then constellates similar interventions into biology like modifications of human genes (to prevent or cure diseases) and their patentability. And where technology and patents are involved, ownership looms large. Brows darken when contemplating that some future humanity may have to pay royalties to some great Biotech Giant just to be permitted to live on with genetically-modified cellular DNA. Monsanto requires farmers to sign a contract that they will not collect and then replant genetically-modified seed sold by Monsanto. Will there come a time when a couple, one or both members of which have modified genes, will have to pay Biotech G a substantial fee before their baby may be removed (by C-section, of course)?

Such matters, however, are not my point this morning. I use then to illustrate something else. We worry about these incursions of Commerce into Biology because we operate under a presumption of continuity. By that I mean that we casually assume that what has been recently and is now will always be—and that all trends that we now see will continue on forever, intensifying as they go, and that the science fiction model invented in the 1950s is an accurate projection for centuries, indeed for millennia, to come.

If so—yes. There are lots of things to worry about. Apple is now working on its watch-sized smart-device. And after that the tooth-sized smart-device will follow, tooth talking to satellite, projecting the images it gets right into the eyes by genetically-modified ocular nerves. And just a little later, or simultaneously, will come that drug first mentioned in Dune, Semuta , which lets you hear music played permanently in the head if only you will take the pills. And on. And on. But that sort of projection is only plausible under the—presumption of continuity. Technology forever, capitalism forever, deformed democracy forever, fossil fuels forever (or some exciting new replacement for them, today still only a projection), urbanism forever, satellites, electric current vibrating in ever thicker strands forever so that, by night, the earth will glow like an almost-star.

None of these scenarios—or their manifestations in detail, like the smart-watch, the cancer-cure-ultimo in the form of a brief visit to the hospitals operated by Biotech G subsidiaries—none of that actually worries me in the least. And that is because the presumption of continuity is—wrong.

A much more sensible working model is that what goes up must come down, what has been will return. Now it so happens that at least one branch of science fiction—the not so scientific branch—has its own projection. In that what is to come is also, in greatly exaggerated form, rendered as one or another variety of Armageddon or Apocalypse. When we reach Z we must begin again at A. I think the farmer will lose his suit against Monsanto. Nevertheless Monsanto is doomed. The Deep Past is rushing toward us with a great wind and a roar from the future, but we’re so mesmerized by the presumption of continuity, we haven’t got a clue. Unless the ears are open.

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