Early in the 19th century, some people genuinely believed that if a human travelled over thirty miles per hour their head would fall off. Cartoonists depicted what they expected to happen when the first trains cracked this mythical speed. No doubt newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and spread the fear with ludicrous headlines. Daily Mail readers probably shook their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.
We geeks and technologists tend to look back on these times and laugh. But the situation still occurs today. And what is worse, sometimes I think I am one of those people worrying that my head is going to fall off.
Take mobile phone radiation for example. There’s no conclusive data to tell me that mobile phone radiation is or isn’t dangerous. I carry on using my mobile phone safe in the lack of knowledge of whether it will or won’t kill me. But I still get the jitters occasionally when I feel it warming against my face. And I never put it in my front pockets…
GM foods are more of a concern. The scientist in me wants to love the idea of bug-resistant crops with high yields that will feed the third world. The fact that most of these crops are neutered to maintain the farmer’s dependence on the supplier is another issue: the technology appeals and seems to have a humanitarian benefit.
But it all seems a bit turkey twizzlers to me. I love food, possibly more than gadgets, and as I have got (slightly) older and (slightly) wealthier I find myself increasingly turning to organic food. It might not look as pristine but feels right, and in most cases, tastes better. By contrast GM conjures in my mind the supermarket tomato, plump and even coloured but without an ounce of flavour.
Where things get really complicated in my mind is looking at the future. I recently heard an acronym that had bypassed me until now: BANG or Bits Atoms Neurons Genes. This is about the ultimate in convergence, bringing together our bodies and minds with the best the silicon world has to offer. The idea is to improve our lives but I’m not sure I like the idea of interfering with my body in such a way. I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even have a piercing or a tattoo.
On paper the idea is fantastic: a wetware interface to the world wide web, giving you access to all the knowledge the world has to offer at hundreds of gigabits per second. Complete control of the always on environment around you with just a thought. But still…
Part of me enjoys the limitations of the human body. Some of the most interesting art and literature has been created based on the restrictions that the artist suffered. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ they say, but necessity arises from the hurdles we have to leap.
But maybe my mind will change over time. The first time I see someone enjoying their enhanced life it might be like seeing the first passengers whipping along at a bracing thirty miles an hour. And I might just decide that I want a ride too.