One of the most depressing movies I've ever seen is Apollo 13. Oh, sure, the 1995 account of the almost-doomed Moon mission evokes plenty of other feelings as wellclaustrophobia as astronauts Lovell (Tom Hanks), Haise (Bill Paxton) and Swigert (Kevin Bacon) struggle to survive inside their small capsule that more and more looks to be a coffin; amazement as the men, along with the team back at Mission Control in Houston, improvise all manner of fixes and solutions to get back home; and, finally, exultation as the capsule emerges from radio silence with crew very much alive. Here's the major bummer: The crew gets maddeningly close to the moon and yet is never able to land there, never able to explore the orb's Fra Mauro highlands. "What must that have been like," I think to myself every time the movie gets rerun on cable. "To get that close and then, ultimately, be denied."
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But today, Iand the rest of humanityhave a slightly better sense of that frustration as Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. The Red Planet is as close as it will ever be in our lifetimes, and yet none of our species has been there or is going there anytime soon. Today would have been a great day to wave to colonists on Mars, just a mere 34.6 million miles away.
For a glimpse of what might have been, click over to Man Conquers Space, the Web companion to a 53-minute independent film about the space program being made in Sydney. Well, not the space program, but rather an alternate-history space program based on series of articles that appeared in Colliers Magazine from 1952-1954. They forecasted and vividly illustrated how man would conquer space in the near future. The contributors, including German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, predicted a Moon landing in 1963, followed by the establishment of a permanent lunar colony, and, finally, man landing on Mars. Through the mixing of computer-generated imagery (all done on Apple G4) and archival footage, Man Conquers Space attempts to turn those magazine articles into a reverential mockumentary about how space exploration might have unfolded. Though the film isn't yet completed, the site features stills as well as an incredibly stirring teaser trailer, featuring a score would make John Williams proud and would make me want to volunteer for the first mission to Mars.
Today is the second installment of Next News's weeklong E-mail debate on how society should deal with rapid and profound technological change. (Yesterday's dialogue can be found here. On one side is Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, a new journal that examines the ethics of science and technology with a "hold on now, let's think carefully about this" attitude. On the other side is Simon Smith, editor-in-chief of Betterhumans, a webzine that celebrates developments in life-extension and life-enhancement technologies.
Cohen: Technology is not destiny.... The question is: What limits to set, and why? For this, one needs more than simply knowledge of how things work, but some idea of the good life and good societyand real arguments about why certain technologies, left to themselves, endanger these goods. Doing what we want "so long as it does not hurt others" is a start-a kind of moral baselinebut only a start.
And here, the great embryo debate is an interesting one. I've written about this matter at great length elsewherein a new essay called "Of Embryos and Empire," available at www.thenewatlantis.com. but I will say only this: To see embryos as only a mass of cells is to miss the point, and the significance, of what lies before us: a new life in its earliest stages, unequivocally yet mysteriously "one of us." But there is a deeper issue beyond the questionable "means" of stem cell research, which is the "end" itself: the desire to conquer disease, to live indefinitely. This is, of course, an understandable desire; to experience the goods of human life, we need to be alive. This is obvious, and surely we should continue in the efforts to cure dreaded disease. But less obvious, if more profound, are the ways the goods of human life are inextricable from our being mortal beingsbeings who pass through the stages of life; who are touched by fragility and hardship; who live urgently, not putting off everything important until the endless tomorrow; and who commit themselves to another person ("my beloved") until "death do us part." We must also keep in mind the civic purposes and aspirations that are higher than simply staying alive: to travel in space, to fight and die for a noble cause, to bear witness to political and religious freedom. In a word, imagine life in a retirement community of 200-year-old, self-obsessed baby boomers, with minds that go before their bodies, or bodies that go before their minds. And imagine a society so carefully and single-mindedly devoted to health and safety that it does little to nourish the great souls who might aspire to and achieve much more.
True, new technologies have allowed more people to express themselves in more ways. But I often wish people would think more before they write, or have something worth expressing before they lay bare their thoughts and emotions for the whole world to see. I'll take one Jane Austen novelwith its depths of insight about human affairs, human love, and human characterover all the blogs in the world. About humans being a "blip in time," [as mentioned in yesterday's debate]. True enough. But I have never really understood why "posthumanists" or "transhumanists" are so confident that the beings (or machines) that replace us will be morally superior, or that these posthuman beings will have any regard for their obsolete human makers or human facilitators. To be a transhumanist, far from sympathizing with real human beings who are sick and dying, is to seek, with enthusiasm, the end of mankind, in what strikes me as the silly (and childish) search for something better.
Smith: You say that there are some "goods of human life" that are "inextricable from our being mortal beings." Well, anyone who wants to die is entitled to do so, if they can pass certain established criteria to determine whether they are making a "sane" choice. After all, society does have an obligation to prevent people from hurting themselves. But there is no reason to think that simply by living longer people will suddenly become worse off, or even obsessed with health and safety. So many people have countered this notion so often that I'm beginning to believe, as biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey does, that it is simply an argument promoted by those who think life extension will never really happen in their lifetime, or the lifetime of their children. Would people really become apathetic if they were to live indefinitely? Would people really lose interest in life if they had more of it to live? I asked a life extensionist once why he wanted to live longer. He said that one of his goals was to live for a long period of time in every culture on Earth. Does this sound like someone who is apathetic?
Finally, to transhumanism. Contrary to what you say, transhumanists are not confident that the beings that replace us will be "morally superior" or have regard for their "obsolete human makers." We are not seeking "the end of mankind" in a "search for something better." Rather, transhumanists realize that what makes humans valuable isn't the biological substrate that currently supports them, but such things as love, creativity and sharing. And such things aren't confined to humans, in their current form or otherwise. Rather, they are possible for "people." And it is this notion of personhood that is key to both discussions about transhumanism and discussions about embryos. A postembryo may be a human, and a posthuman may be a machine. Does the substrate really matter? No. What matters is personhood. While a definition of "person" is still not resolved, personhood will likely only apply to beings with a conscious mind. For this reason, transhumanism sees rights tied not to bodies but to minds, which makes it a logical next step for the expansion of equality.