How did you get into your line of work?
Peter Rojas is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Engadget, which is a daily weblog covering gadgets, consumer electronics and personal technology. He is also the cofounder of Joystiq, a weblog which covers video games. Rojas has worked as a contributing editor at Cargo, an editor-at-large at Sync, a technology editor of VMan, and a columnist for The Guardian, writing on emerging technology. He is a frequent contributor to a variety of publications both on- and off-line and appears on radio and television regularly as a technology commenter. Rojas was educated at Harvard University and the University of Sussex. He lives in New York City.
Topic: Dot-com boom bust
Peter Rojas: I was someone that, like, when Wired magazine came out in 1993, really loved the magazine and loved sort of . . . I mean someone who was always interested in science fiction and new technologies. And I’ve been using the Internet since about 1988 with like Prodigy and other sort of dial . . . Compuserve and other dialup networking things. And even before that doing some really basic BBS stuff with like, you know, a PC . . . it was a PC2 from IBM. So I . . . I was familiar with some of that stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily like a script kid or a hacker or anything like that. I was just someone that liked kind of getting involved, and just sort of liked the promise of all that stuff. And . . . and you know it’s like, when Wired came out, we kinda felt like we were on the cusp of like living in like a William Gibson novel. It was like this like crazy world of cyberspace. And everything seemed like it kind of . . . seemed like it was just about to explode. And so to be a part of that world by covering it, and documenting it . . . And . . . and you know I knew about all the stuff that was going on in the dot com world in 19 . . . in the late ‘90s in San Francisco. And it was a chance to kind of . . . actually participate in it rather than sit on the sidelines and . . . you know and watch me . . . watch myself being slowly priced out of apartments in the city. And not that my salary at Red Herring helped at all but . . . but you know what I mean. And so I . . . I ended up actually being offered a job either . . . It was my choice. I could work at the magazine, or I could work at RedHerring.com, which for some reason they had it split into two separate editorial teams. And rather than having to be unified, it was . . . RedHerring.com did completely different work than the magazine. And sometimes they overlapped and conflicted and things like that. And it’s funny given, you know, where I ended up that I would say, “Well I’d rather be with the print magazine than on the online.” But at the time . . . I mean this was about 10 years ago that there was still . . . There was still a difference in terms of prestige to being involved with a magazine, even a magazine that was covering the technology industry. So I chose to be with the magazine and ended up being a staff writer for them and writing some really great stories. I mean not necessarily that the stories were that great, but like it was an opportunity to write . . . to cover great things; to go to South Africa and write about racism in the . . . the . . . in the technology industry there. Or to go to Nepal and meet with the Minister of Communications and talk about their sort of, you know, steps towards, you know, bringing broadband communications to the country. And just writing about, you know, just cool new . . . like interesting new technologies. And that was something that I was really excited about. And when I lost that job in 2001 – I was laid off along with about 40 other people in May of 2001 – it was definitely a big blow because that really . . . it had been the first time where I had felt like I . . . I kind of had an idea of what I was gonna do with my life. I kind of realized, “Well this is something that I’m good at, and this is something that I can do.” I can . . . I can write about technology, and I can, you know . . . I wanna be a writer, and I wanna write for the New Yorker, and I wanna do all these different things. I wanna be a magazine writer. And kind of losing that sense of purpose was . . . was you know . . . It’s a pretty . . . I mean I think it’s devastating for anyone to lose their job; but especially when you lose a job that is so like . . . where it becomes so much a part of your, like, how you define yourself and your identity. And then realizing that with the crashing economy that it wasn’t . . . there wasn’t . . . there weren’t these other jobs you could . . . you could get. And in fact I spent several months trying to find a . . . desperately trying to find a new job; trying to get a job at Wired, which was downsi . . . I mean they were firing people rather than hiring people. And I went through actually a phase where I would actually apply to magazines and then they would go out of business the next day. I applied to One . . . I don’t know if people remember One magazine. It was a very short-lived sort of design magazine based out of San Francisco in, like I guess August 2000, 2001. I went to all this trouble to put together a package of clips, color photo copies. I had spent all this money. I went with the little money I had to put together this thing; and I borrowed someone’s car and drove it over to the office and dropped it off; and the next day discovered that they had gone out of business. And this happened several times where places I would write freelance for, or places where I would apply would all go out of business. And George magazine; Stephen Johnson’s Speed Mag. It happened about four times, and you start to really despair because you say, “Well I have to do something else with my life.” You know this is not gonna work out. And of course whenever you’re at the bottom of a recession, it seems like it’s always gonna be like that. And when you’re 20 . . . I think was maybe 24 or so. No I was 26. So it seemed like, you know . . . Two years seemed like an eternity to try and wait for something to turn around. And so I decided well, if I’m gonna be a broke technology writer or broke wannabe magazine writer, I might as well do that in New York where at least there are magazines left; rather than in San Francisco where it seems like the only game in town is Wired, and they already decided not to offer me a job. And I was still freelancing for them. It was just I couldn’t . . . They had no full-time positions. So I bought a plane ticket and decided to move on September 11, 2001, and of course did not make it there that day.
Recorded on: 10/2/07
Rojas talks about the evolution of his career, and using his interests in technology as the basis for his work with Engadget.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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