Technology Versus Romance
Edward (Ted) Fischer is the Director of Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University.
Fischer studies cultural anthropology, specializing in matters of economics and moralities. Most of his fieldwork has been in Guatemala (with the Maya) but he has also worked in and written on Germany and the United States. His books include “Cultural Logics and Global Economies,” “Maya Cultural Activism,” and “Broccoli and Desire.” With Peter Benson he is now working on a project titled “Markets and Moralities.” He also has a video series out from The Teaching Co. titled “Peoples and Cultures of the World.”
He received his PhD, in anthropology at Tulane University and his undergraduate degree from University of Alabama at Birmingham after studying at Birmingham-Southern College.
Question: Have Internet dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony.com Killed Cupid?
Ted Fischer: I’ve have thought about this. And I think it’s -- on the one hand I think that those sorts of sites try to come up with a neat mechanical formula for romantic love that very often doesn’t hold up, despite their advertisements claiming so many marriages from some these match sites. On the other hand, if we create love, and if we think, “Okay, I generally like people like this,” and I have, you know, the sort of social life, or sort of job where I don’t into the kind of people I like, it could be a great way to meet people. So there’s no reason why it couldn’t work. I generally like people who like to go to movies, or go to the theater, or like certain kinds of sporting events, and so I want a partner like that. And so, match sites make lots of sense that way. On the other hand, we can fetishsize the match. Right? We can say, “If I can just tick of all of these boxes then that’s going to be the partner I like.” And that’s setting us up for fall, because it’s still a lot of work. Again, we have to make this relationship work. It’s not as if I find the partner who has all of these traits I’m looking for and ta-da, we’re going to, you know, violins will rise in the background and we’re going to live happily ever after. So I think there’s a danger there as well. And just personally when those sites first came up, I always used to joke with friends and say, you know, “Wouldn’t you hate to have to tell people when you go around and say, ‘how did you meet?,’” “Well, you know, we met on a dating site.” And now I don’t feel that way anymore. I think, you know, why not. It’s a perfectly acceptable way of meeting other people. And so, maybe some of us old-fashioned folks did or still would fetishsize the other kind of running into somebody on the street or at a bar, or being introduced by friends. And yeah, so there’s not single formula.
So I was reading something recently about there’s a phenomenon in Japan of young men who take as their girlfriends these inflatable dolls. And they’re not really sex dolls. They’re more elaborate than that in that they -- although they do have sex with them, I think. And they will take them to dates to restaurants. And so it makes one think or can one have a romantic relationship with a nonhuman, with a piece of technology, or a piece of plastic? And I think so. I think the answer would be yes. But it’s an interesting question. Does love have to be reciprocal to be love? And I think we can create love in our own minds in a way that can probably be rewarding; although, many of us who are involved in relationships with real live people might not clearly see how.
Question: What has Second Life done to the idea of love?
Ted Fischer: Second life is a wonderful example. I’ve read statistics that, you know, the extramarital sex on Second Life is just rampant. So it’s an easy outlet for people to pursue these things. But they seem to be real as well. I mean, people have real emotions invested in this. It’s not as if it’s just a game. And so, I think that technology will probably keep changing the way in which we envision love in that sense.
The Vanderbilt anthropologist claims that the Internet and sites like Second Life have taken the romance out of love.
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
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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