The Price You Pay For Online Services

mark-zuckerberg-5

Perhaps you mentioned to a few friends on Facebook that you’re taking a trip to Amsterdam to visit your sick grandmother. Ever since, you’ve been afflicted with endless sidebar ads for vaporisers, travel agents and funeral homes. If you feel like you’re being watched, you’re not quite wrong.

Regardless of your privacy settings, everything you do on sites like Google and Facebook is tracked and gathered, grouping you with others who share your interests and attributes. Though it’s encrypted, the resulting data helps marketers target their advertising. An average Facebook user is worth just over $7 per annum, generating profits each time they log in or interact; a Google user is worth around $45. Although, in the long term the data will likely be worth much, much more. Your friends may insist that nobody cares what you think of Ms. Cyrus, whether you prefer sloths or meerkats, or what you ate for breakfast this morning. But Facebook is fascinated.

Read the full article at Spook Magazine

The Body You Pay For

Duck_of_VaucansonDuck of Vaucanson

Published as ‘After Humanity‘ in Right Now, Technology and Human Rights Issue

Little has been keen to show me his wireless neuroheadset for a while. It’s his latest gadget, and this is one of many nights we will stay up late talking about new technologies.

It is perched on my head: two of its plastic tentacles press against the cartilage behind my ear lobes, another six curl around each hemisphere of my skull. On the screen is a schematic of a brain with 16 dots at various nodes; some are black and grey, others traffic light green and red. Little adjusts the headset to reposition the contact buds against my scalp, and the dots change colour. More parts of the brain light up green now, others remain a dead grey.

The headset detects brain signals and passes them on to the computer via Bluetooth, to be interpreted by software presumably designed by a gaming company or some shadowy paramilitary organisation. On screen, the cursor follows my gaze.

Little leans over my shoulder with a grin.
“The contact’s not perfect, but I reckon you’re good to go.”
“Do you think my hair’s in the way?”
He laughs, “Scott, why do you think I shaved my head?”
Little opens the game that came with the headset, called Spirit Mountain. It’s got polygon graphics, New Age music, and dubious Orientalist overtones.

The game’s spirit guide tells me to move boulders, pull down reeds, raise a temple and gather the mountain’s spirits in an urn with my mind by focusing on pushing, pulling, lifting, and trying to think about nothing – but not before I have to growl at some mischievous spirits to scare them away. Little loses his shit laughing. I struggle badly. Soon my neck and brain are too sore to continue, and we leave the headset alone to go outside, have another drink, and talk cyborg politics.

Little is tech-crazy: he assembles his own computers and works in IT, and though he used to study psychology, he quit on the cusp of completion and took up computer science. Computers, he tells me, are easier to fix than people. Though in Little’s mind, the two goals aren’t so far removed.

He is a proponent of transhumanism, a movement united by the belief that humans can, and should, transcend biology through technology. As humanity merges with ever more advanced machines, they say, we will evolve into a new species that blends human and technological traits – the posthuman. In Little’s view, this is just swell, and he wants to become a cyborg as soon as possible.

Transhumanists believe that the coming posthuman species will be smarter, live longer, and overcome many of our present, all-too-human frailties. Their dreams of silicon ascent lead critics to suggest that transhumanists hold the human body in contempt. Indeed, many transhumanists disparage the body and its failings, and Little is no exception, often joking that he deems his body a poorly functioning appendage to his brain.

Little’s desire to transcend natural limitations can be partly explained by his fascination with science and computers. Surely though, nobody’s going to turn ourselves into a machine just because the idea of it is sort of interesting and cool. True, our relationship with technology is more than it has ever been, and it may be that technologies for enhancement will soon exist. But who would use them? What are these cyborg fantasies if not products of corporate brainstorms in Silicon Valley, of overstimulated minds, warped by too much screen time, caffeine, and an excessive love of gimmicks and novelty?

Yet the promise of overcoming the weakness bears more than mere novelty value for my friend.

In 1995, when Little was five years old, he ate some mettwursst from the supermarket. Days afterwards, he became ill and was soon admitted to hospital as, one by one, his internal organs shut down. The mettwursst was tainted with an antibiotic resistant variant of E. coli bacteria. Little’s kidneys, pancreas, and digestive system stopped working, and he was put on a drip for nutrition. His brain, heart and lungs kicked along; though they did not escape unaffected, and he was subject to a number of seizures. After four weeks of total organ failure and constant dialysis, Little began recovering and was released from hospital two weeks later.

Life returned more or less to normal until he hit puberty. During the summer of 2002, just before he entered Year Eight, Little noticed strange things happening to him. He was drinking more water, becoming sweaty and clammy; he needed to piss more often, lacked energy, felt unusually tired. He presumed it was due to the heat wave, but after he lost ten kilograms, he and his mum realised something was wrong. He went to the doctor and took a blood test; the doctor came to his house that night and informed him that he must go to the emergency room immediately.

The test had revealed that Little’s blood sugar level had risen to 82.1. Given that people can go into comas with levels between 20 and 30, doctors were astonished he was alive, let alone conscious. They put him on an insulin drip straight away. Flippant, Little tells me “They thought I was the golden child or something.”

Though fortunate to be alive, Little was by no means lucky. He was admitted to hospital again, and told that the additional stress on his body caused by puberty had finished off his already-weakened pancreas; though the organ still had partial function, it could not produce sufficient insulin to keep him alive.

Little was one of many who suffered from food poisoning from the tainted batch of Garibaldi Mettwursst. A four year old girl died, and at least 23 others suffer from severe health problems to this day. Little is one of the 23 victims who joined in a class action against Garibaldi Small Goods, which spanned 16 years and eventually won a settlement. The class action confirmed that Little’s condition was caused by his food poisoning when he was five, making him the first person in Australia legally determined to suffer from diabetes as a result of criminal negligence.

Little was forced to quickly overcome his phobia of needles. Like many people who suffer from diabetes, he has to manually compensate for his organ’s malfunction; to stay alive, he must constantly monitor his blood sugar levels, keeping them stable with carefully timed meals and injections of insulin. Little talks about his experience openly and without a shred of a self pity. “People kind of struggle to understand it,” he says. “If they ask me what it’s like, I tell them to imagine their lungs didn’t work automatically, and they had to always remember to breath. That might overstate things, but it gets the idea across.”

*   *

It is not so surprising, then, that Little should be unimpressed with the natural body and its failings, or that he should look to posthuman technologies for hope. For Little, they offer the possibility of a cure. The most significant of these technologies can be loosely divided into four areas – nanotech, biotech, information technology (IT), and neuroscience.

Nanotech is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular level, and gives rise to nanorobotics. Basic nanomachines have already been created, and this technology is advancing fast as researchers, corporations and medical professionals rush to get involved.

Biotech encompasses innovations that could modify us on a biological level, like cloning, genetic engineering, life extension, and organs grown from stem cells. Biotech includes technologies already in common use, like pharmaceuticals and genetically modified foods.

Like biotech, IT has been around for a while, and includes anything used to store, transmit or manipulate data. Computers and the internet are the poster children of IT, but it arguably includes much older tools like printing, writing, and language itself. IT already plays a part in insulin delivery implants, controlled via Wi-Fi; and as time goes on, they may help in the creation of fully functioning cybernetic organs. Further, IT may lead to the creation of artificial intelligence that rivals or surpasses humanity’s. This may seem hard to believe, as at present, computers, however powerful, have a limited range of thought processes, and are distinctly lacking in areas like emotion and creativity.

This is where neuroscience comes in. For the time being, it allows for such IT gadgets as the neuroheadset. Soon, however, neuroscience and related disciplines may allow humans to map the brain well enough for it to be used as a model for computer designs. As it happens, scientists are already creating simulations of human brains using networks of computers, akin to the networks of neurones that make up our grey matter. These networks have demonstrated the ability to learn independently. And, like humans, when one was given the chance to access the internet, it spent most of its time learning about cats. It formed its own image of a cat based on what it had seen, demonstrating a nascent form of imagination. Another network was used to simulate schizophrenia to test a psychological theory of how the illness works; the AI became confused about its identity, began referring to itself in the third person, and (falsely) claimed credit for a terrorist attack.

As they advance, these technologies tend to converge; scientists are already experimenting with biological computers, and DNA could become just another medium for information technology. And nanotech may one day be used to inject tiny machines into the bloodstream which help prevent ageing, fight cancer or monitor insulin levels. In coming years, these technologies will keep feeding into one another, mutually accelerating their progress.

It is tempting to dismiss such developments as sensationalist exaggeration; they sound too strange, too unsettling, too much like science fiction. Yet there is danger and naïvety in unconditional scepticism. Many works of fiction are created not as pure escapism, but as thought experiments, warnings of the future, warped mirrors of the present, echo chambers of our very real anxieties. We risk missing the fact that we are already living in what, several years ago, was considered the stuff of fantasy.

Battered with novelty and commercials, strangeness and fiction, we become numb to the realities unfolding. A sense of detachment can creep over us as we hear of new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, involving electrodes placed in the brain; when we hear claims of cyborg hate crime, as when a man with enhanced reality glasses surgically attached to his head was allegedly assaulted by the staff of a Parisian McDonald’s. We know that drone warfare is real, yet those of us lucky enough never to have been bombed by flying, remote control robots struggle to believe in something so perfectly absurd, let alone debate its merits, stage a protest, or seek means of resistance.

Some theorists worry that these new technologies may dehumanise us, endangering the foundations on which we build meaning. After all, if the human individual is universal, and the basic building block of values, then rapidly changing it would lead to chaos: if you’re uploaded to a computer, are you still part of the moral community? Is a genetically enhanced person still human? Are other humans still equal with them? Confronted with these problems, maybe we would prefer to simply reject such technology and go back to being plain old humans. The trouble is, it has never been that simple.

Since our ancestors starting using tools and fire hundreds of thousands of years ago, technology has been a part of us and defined us. Tools like language have shaped us throughout history, and it’s difficult to make any clean distinction between technologies and the humans they use – the lines have always been blurred.

Still, there is a difference between technologies which exist outside of us, and ones which are inside us, plugged into our brains and reshaping our bodies. Though this difference may not be so definitive as it seems. Belief in this difference is based, in part, on the idea that we are separate from the world around us. If this idea is false to begin with, if we and all we experience are just pieces of the surrounding world, then we are already creations of technology and social relations. Posthuman technologies would not be a rupture in our identities, but the next phase of perpetual change.

While such ideas may be common among scientists, sociologists and stoned teenagers, people living in late capitalist economies rarely carry their implications into daily life. In Western culture especially, we think of ourselves as individuals who inhabit bodies and environments, rather than bodies which are part of these environments. Many of us implicitly believe, on some level, in a soul – even if we are secular, and don’t call it that or think it exists. Coupled with the faith that such human essence is universal, this belief forms, in many people’s minds, the foundation of human rights. In this sense, posthuman technologies are unsettling not because of what they might do to a previously universal and shared humanity, but because of the questions they raise about its existence.

These questions aren’t altogether new: they just become harder to avoid. After all, what often passes for human nature is far from universal. In a society like ours, denying universality awakens the fear of difference, never truly overcome in liberal cultures, but lulled to sleep by the poets of assimiliation. Worse still, we risk revealing the structures of power lurking just below the surface of formal equality.

Better they come to light. Although its disappearance will create new challenges, belief in a homogenous humanity should not be mourned; such a denial of complexity should not be necessary for us to treat other feeling, thinking beings with kindness and respect.

*   *

For those attached to traditional ideas about personhood, such assurances aren’t entirely comforting. And the truth is, even for those who don’t believe in a sacred, unchanging humanity, there are legitimate concerns about posthuman technologies. The turmoil of the past century and the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made it pretty clear that new technologies can be abused; arms races, our struggle with fossil fuels and the reshaping of our minds by the internet highlight that technology can take on a life of its own.

Of course, the question isn’t merely whether humans retain control of technology; it is also – which humans? Even if business, government and paramilitary groups prove less dangerous and opportunistic than we’ve learned to expect, a global market economy ensures posthuman tech will be unevenly distributed. The rich will have disproportionate access to life-extension, brain enhancements and genetic engineering, leading to biological entrenchment of financial inequality. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s worth considering that even the medical treatment available to the rich at present is a form of radical life extension, giving them more time to accumulate vast power and wealth.

Many transhumanists aren’t exactly at pains to calm their critics’ fears. Having assumed a name fit for a super villain, the prominent transhumanist Max More also speaks like one: “No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back,” he declares. “Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity.”

For all this, it is difficult to imagine my friend Little as a megalomaniacal overlord, cyborg or otherwise. Laid-back and blessed with incisive, self-deprecating wit, he seems closer to a cartoon sloth-man than a scheming HAL 9000. And really, can any of this paranoia really justify denying him, or those in similar situations, the best medical treatment available? It seems heartless to dash someone’s hope of a cure, even if it involves technologies that challenge our understandings of what it means to be human.

“Perhaps”, one might say, “we should just to leave it to individual choice, allowing those who don’t want to change to take a conscientious stand and refuse to be enhanced.” And in doing so they would consign themselves to servitude or the dustbin of obsolescence, as others without such scruples race ahead. In a competitive market society, leaving it to individual choice leaves no choice at all. Though we should not simply reject these technologies, leaving it to the market to decide would be madness.

In the present global order, it will be almost impossible to prevent these technologies from spreading. This leaves us with two options: change the world economy altogether, or settle for trying to regulate them and provide equal access; when it comes to public healthcare, we could draw the line at artificial organs, and other treatments that bring people to normal functioning rather than enhancing them. Though as the public sector grows smaller, the second option looks almost as improbable as the first. At any rate, our concept of normal functioning is relative in nature, shaped by the abilities and expectations of those around us. And why stop there? And how? These questions demand urgent answers, for we are poised on a precipice, if indeed we are not already falling. Any adequate response will require an excavation and reassessment of the values, rights and responsibilities underpinning our cultures and economies, and a new way forward in making decisions as a collective. Because the question of how we distribute posthuman technologies returns us to older questions: what it means to be human, and how we are to distribute wealth and capital – only the stakes have been raised, and the answers we choose may be irrevocable.

Back at Little’s house, the night has grown old, and we’re no closer to agreeing on solutions. Before I go curl up on the couch, our conversation turns back to Little’s hopes. A while ago, after he won the court case, it looked like there was a stem cell cure available in Germany. The news proved premature: further scrutiny revealed that for the time being, the cure was more dangerous than the disease. With a grin and a shade of irony in his voice, Little tells me, “All I want is for my functions to be automated again. I mean, is that so much to ask?”

Two Letters – José Donoso

candle-mirror

Candle Mirror – M.C. Escher

Translated by Scott Arthurson from the original Spanish ‘Dos Cartas’. Published in The Nose, March 2013. The present version has undergone additional editing.

These are the last letters written between two men, Jaime Martínez, a Chileno, and John Dutfield, an Englishman.

They met as classmates in primary school in Santiago, and remained in the same class until they finished school. But they were never friends. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for their interests and personalities were marked out as antipodes from early on. All the same, the Chilean would bring the English boy sandwiches, because Dutfield was a boarder, and like every boarder in every school, suffered constant hunger. This was no cause for their relations to become more intimate. In a boxing tournament held at the school, John Dutfield and Jaime Martínez found themselves obliged to confront each other. For a moment, the cheers of the Chilean’s comrades inflamed his normally timid fists, and he gave his opponent a blood nose. Nevertheless, the English boy emerged the victor. This didn’t surprise anyone, given that Dutfield was a sportsman by vocation, whereas Martínez was given more to books and conversation. Afterwards, the Chilean boy continued to bring the English boy sandwiches.

Having finished high school without any particular distinction, they went to a graduation dinner. That night, alcohol and effusions flowed freely, cementing old loyalties while new loyalties were forged in the name of a recently discovered manhood. Dutfield was to leave soon. He belonged to one of those wandering and colourless English families, commercial nomads, impelled by the omnipotent voice of the firm that the father represented in various countries, changing their place of residence every few years. They were moving now, following the all-powerful mandate, to Cape Town, in the Union of South Africa. At the end of the meal, stories and reminiscences exhausted, Dutfield and Martínez exchanged addresses, promising to write.

And they did, from time to time, for more than ten years. Dutfield settled for a while with his parents in Cape Town. But he had nomadic blood. He crossed the veldt and the jungle, passing through to Rhodesia, alone, in search of fortune, and ultimately set down roots in Kenya, where he married and acquired land. The rest of his life took place there, close to the sounds of the jungle, caring for his acres of corn and watching his children grow, together with the trees and the natives, sharing the ideals and prejudices of those like themselves.

The Chilean, by contrast, stayed in his country. As the years went by, he found himself alone, found that little by little he had become distanced from all those who had been his friends in school, without making, in the mean time, new friends worthy of the title. All the same, never ceasing to be troubled by the irony of the situation, he maintained his correspondence, very remote of course, with John Dutfield.

Jaime Martínez studied law. As a Chilean lawyer his life passed quietly, surrounded by comforts of every kind. From the outset, he began to distinguish himself in his profession. Almost always darkly dressed, he kept his hands, perhaps too expressive for a man of his position, well monitored. The letters which he and the farmer of Kenya exchanged once a year, sometimes twice, contained humorous recollections of their days in school, news about superficial changes that both men’s lives were accumulating with the years, questions and responses about the changes undergone, with time, by the city in which they were both educated. Nothing more. And why would there be? How to begin, after so much time and from so many miles, an intimacy which, in any case, had never existed?

This is the last letter that John Dutfield, the farmer of Kenya, wrote to Jaime Martínez, the Chilean lawyer, more or less ten years after having left the school in which they studied together.

“Dear Martínez:

“Here you have me answering your letter from months ago, making the most of a minor illness that’s kept me in bed a few days. I hadn’t written earlier, because, as you know, a Kenyan farmer’s work is no easy thing, not as a Chilean lawyer’s must be.

“The other day something strange happened to me. I think that’s why it’s occurred to me to write to you. We’d gone out, my wife and I, to look at the farm animals in the late afternoon. When we came to the pigs, we saw a white-haired one, which seemed to regard the sunset with a sad air, apart somehow from the rest. So imagine my surprise when my wife said: ‘Look John, that pig looks as though he were inspired.” Imagine! You remember the ‘Inspired Pig’? I suppose not. He was that teacher fresh from Cambridge who we had for a semester, that fat blond one, remember, who spent his time admiring Chilean sunsets and reading us odes by I don’t know who. The day after his arrival, we boarding kids wet the sheets of his bed, assuring him it was a traditional welcome ceremony. He saw through our lie, but to ingratiate himself he refrained from denouncing us. He didn’t last long in the school. Melancholy got to the poor fellow, nostalgia for his country, and there was no remedy but for him to return to England. He was about twenty-five then, younger than you or I are now.

“I don’t understand how anyone can feel nostalgia for England. Of course I was very little when I left, and we were in Jamaica for some years before going to Chile, so I can’t judge. But when I was discharged from the army—because of my leg that was wounded in battle, which continues to give me pain every few months—out of curiosity more than any real interest it occurred to me to travel to England. I found it ugly, dirty, crowded, old and afflicted with an intolerable climate. It made me claustrophobic and I returned to Kenya as soon as I could. But curiously enough, something similar happened to my parents as to the “Inspired Pig”. Some years back, my dad retired from the firm he’d represented for so long in Kingston, Valparaíso and Cape Town. Here he had a splendid situation. My parents were respected by everyone, had a marvellous circle of friends, and a lovely house overlooking the ocean in one of Cape Town’s good neighbourhoods. But instead of staying to enjoy life’s pleasures after retiring, it occurred to them to buy a cottage in a Yorkshire village, where they were born, met each other and married. Now they’re living there, happy, as though they’d never left. I know the village, because when my parents found out I’d been discharged, they invited me to spend several days with them. If you could see what an ugly little town it is. All the people are so very poor, my relatives too. I couldn’t live there, with those boring and provincial people, in that dirty, ugly little town, near a mine and surrounded by stinking factories. I still can’t understand how my folks are so satisfied.

“I don’t know if it’s on account of my illness, but just last night I was thinking I wouldn’t know where to go if the moment arrived to retire, like my father. I was very little when I left Europe, I don’t feel any ties with it. Kingston is out of the question, all I remember was a black nanny I had, the rest has been erased. In Chile I wouldn’t know what to do: I’d feel, no doubt, out of place, now that all my friends have dispersed. Besides, my wife is from these parts, and the idea of America frightens her. Maybe Cape Town would be a solution. Buy myself a little house by the sea, join a club where I have friends and the whisky isn’t too dear.

“Really though, I’m barely thirty and the moment hasn’t yet arrived to think about this seriously. In any case, I think that circumstances permitting, I’ll finish my days here, on this farm, in this house that I built myself and to which we’ve just made significant improvements. You should see how nice it is! My wife takes care of the garden and the orchard. Though I must confess, the fruit doesn’t prosper—the trees are still new—because Pat and John, my two boys, climb them like natives and eat the fruit green. If you could witness their indigestion!

“Well, I’ve prattled on and told you nothing. If some time it occurs to you to take a safari for these parts—my old joke again—you have your home here. Write. Don’t let the year pass without sending news of yourself and Chile.

JOHN DUTFIELD.”

This letter never reached the hands of its intended recipient. Somehow or another it went astray in the mail, and was received by a Jaime Martínez of Chile St in Santiago, Cuba. The swarthy fellow opened it, reading with bemusement. Upon ascertaining that it wasn’t for him, he closed the letter with the intention of sending it on to the Chilean layer it mentioned. But those days his wife was about to have her ninth child, and the missive was lost amongst a thousand other things before the fellow remembered to send it. When he remembered, he couldn’t find it. And he decided it wasn’t worth worrying about: the letter contained nothing of importance. It may as well have never been written.

The fact is that John Dutfield never wrote to Jaime Martínez again. The years passed, and the Kenyan farmer’s existence continued peacefully on his land. The work and the struggle were hard, but they had their compensations. Each day the dark line across his brow deepened, marking where his pith helmet protected his head from the sun; each day his eyes paled and his hands grew ruddier. From time to time, but only distantly, he regretted not receiving news from Chile. Then he ceased to worry about it. Some years later, John Dutfield, his wife, and his children were murdered by the Mau-Mau, their houses and crops illuminating a clear African night.

The last letter from Jamie Martínez was written around the same time as John Dutfield’s. The Chilean lawyer had just published a history on an ancestor of his who had played a fleeting role in one of the groups that helped cement the independence of his country. The book met with minor success in elite circles: its language was precise, and its evocation of the epoch free of sentimentality. It seemed that in his book, he had given credence to whatever dignity resided in his roots. But only he knew, and without great clarity, that these roots imprisoned him without giving him stability. He had not sought his profession or way of life, but had been swept into them, and thus lived prey to anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Without knowing how or why, one winter’s night when the cold pressed against his window, and after having drunk his customary cup of hot tea, he took his pen and wrote the following letter to John Dutfield of Kenya, to whom he had not written for nearly a year, and from whom he had not received news for a long time:

“Dear John

“I don’t know why I’m writing to you tonight. Maybe because nothing has happened in a while. The melancholy tone with which I begin this letter surely unsettles you. But don’t worry: they aren’t going to throw me in prison as a cheat, nor am I going to commit suicide, nor am I sick. On the contrary, because nothing has happened, I am better than ever.

“Maybe that’s why I’m writing to you. Should it interest you, let me tell you that I continue rising in my profession, and that I’m bringing in loads of money. Within a few years, and I’m barely thirty, I will be, without a doubt, one of the greatest lawyers in Chile. But immediately upon assuring someone of this, I feel the need for a drink of whiskey, so as not to doubt that in reality it’s all worth it. It’s worth it (I just had a large drink). No doubt you will laugh at me upon reading these lines, and not without reason—you, with your great external problems resolved. But wait, do not laugh. It is precisely because you are so different from me, and because you are so very many miles away, and because I do not see your ironic smile, that I am writing you these things. But in truth I do not know what I am telling you. Maybe nothing.

“Clearly nothing. But nothing provides grounds for much. Do you remember school from time to time? I imagine you never do. Or, if you remember, it would be as a grand old country club, where everything was big and easy and pleasant. And you’re right, since you have not had to go on fighting, like I have, with the terrible ironies it permitted. I do remember. Now above all, in recent times, I remember it often. Do you remember those last years, when we would go to those places we’d resolved to get to know from way back, and those audacious binges on the eves of various exams? Remember that time Duval told us he’d invited a stunning woman to the school’s annual ball, and then made his rotund appearance, arm-in-arm with one of his cousins? Duval’s cousin has married and has four children.

“I don’t know why I keep such an indelible image of you: I see you perched on a wall looking to see if any of the girls from the girls’ school on the other corner were passing by. One time, it was in our final year, my great friends of that time, Lozano and Benítez, wrote a love letter, for the most part quite scandalous, to a girl from that school. Olga Merino she was called. One time we saw her walk past, you said that she was the most gorgeous girl you’d seen in your life. She was petite, with smooth fair hair. I was very much in love with her, although I hadn’t spoken to her more than two or three times. But I never told her anything. And that love, like so many of my loves, died quickly. I see a lot of her now, because she married a colleague of mine. If you could see her, she’s very different. She’s famous for her elegance and beauty in this corner of the world. But she’s another person now. She retains nothing, nothing, of that which made me crave her so terribly for the course of a month, over ten years ago now. It’s only natural, logical. But it’s also unbearable. And to all of us the same has happened, we no longer recognise ourselves, no longer recognise the only things that mattered to us then. Will I too become, do you think, a being so unrecognisable, so different? Olga isn’t significant in and of herself, I name her to you only because you saw her once. She is of no significance because, naturally, I have loved again many times in my life. And nor did those loves dominate me. I turned my back on them and they didn’t dominate me. Nor have my vices dominated me, nor my desire to make a fortune, nor my friends. I suddenly think that nothing of what I have done has any significance. I think it is because one forgets. And I haven’t wanted to forget! I’ve never accepted that a single atom of my past life, nor the things and people and places that I’ve loved or hated, should lose their significance and be extinguished! And all has lost significance. Which shows that I only have the capacity to scratch at the surface of things.

“By the way, I remember when you were in the war. You recounted the horror of a world undone. And I comforted myself that I was here, in this never-never land, on the margins of that miserable ordeal of humanity. I read the papers, informed myself meticulously, followed the unfolding of the battle. But nor did that move me. Why? Maybe you will know the solution.

“Don’t laugh too much on reading this letter. Also, I beg you not to answer me in the same tone. Answer me as though you’d never received these lines from:

JAIME MARTÍNEZ.”

When the author reread his letter, he found that his problems had cooled off notably in the  writing of it. He found it incoherent, sentimental, literary, revealing of a part of himself which, looked at clearly, had had little importance in shaping his fate. He tore it up and, upon throwing it in the bin, promised himself to write another one soon. What’s more, he remembered that John Dutfield was a man of somewhat blunted sensibilities, and he didn’t wish to baffle[1] him.

The years passed and the Chilean lawyer didn’t write again to the Kenyan farmer. As though he were embarrassed by the letter he’d written and discarded, he postponed and kept postponing the moment to write to Africa. Jaime Martínez soon arrived at the pinnacle of his profession and no longer had time to remember his debt to Dutfield. Only sometimes, in the passing of the years, browsing the paper in the silence of his library or his club, at random he’d read the name of Kenya in an article. Then, for no more than half a second, something paralysed within him, and he thought of his friend who was no longer his friend, who never had been and now never would be. But it was only half a second. The tea they’d just brought him and the copper mining problem discussed in an article next to the one casually naming Kenya arrested his attention completely. After that half a second, he would go years, two or three, or four, without thinking again about Dutfield—unknowing that the African winds had long ago scattered his ashes across the skies of the world.


[1]               The word used in Spanish is “paralogizar”, which has no English translation. It is loosely defined as “To try to persuade with fallacious reasoning; to mislead or produce perplexity.” It bears connotations of confusion and deception. http://que-significa.com.ar/significado.php?termino=paralogizar

No Refuge From Hypocrisy

Published in Farrago, Issue 5 2012*

Generally, public anxiety surrounding nautical arrivals has been easy to dismiss as a hysteria-driven beat-up, driven mostly by misinformation and thinly veiled racism. More recently, the boat panic has centred on a seemingly philanthropic justification. Far from an expression of xenophobia, the strong desire to repel leaky vessels from Australian shores has been framed as a humanitarian concern: we must deter refugees from seeking asylum via boat to save them from drowning and to stop their exploitation by people smugglers.

Mass media outlets condemn politicians for failing to agree on an offshore-processing solution, whether in Malaysia, Nauru or elsewhere. The choice is portrayed in stark terms: implement offshore processing or take responsibility for the deaths of the people who drown at sea. But are these really the only options we have? And is a newfound sympathy for those seeking refuge the real motivation for such policy?

The human loss in the recent tragedies at sea is appalling—of that, there is no doubt. But this does not make offshore processing the solution. The rationale of humane deterrence simply doesn’t stand up. Its supporters reason that a “tougher policy” will prevent asylum seekers from making the dangerous boat journey, thus saving them from drowning. Aside from the lack of evidence for such a position, it also fails to account for something essential: just what is it that made these people desperate enough to make this journey in the first place? A common misconception is that ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees and are attempting to cheat the system. On the contrary, over 90 percent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be refugees.

Refugees typically flee their homelands because they are persecuted for reasons including their politics, ethnicity or religion. Generally, the risk of the journey is less than the perils they face at home. They have no option but to leave their lives behind, fleeing danger by any means and as quickly as possible, often not knowing where they will end up.

Likewise, some flee refugee camps in transit countries because the processing can take years and conditions are often deplorable. In many such camps, supply shortages, violence, and various forms of abuse are commonplace. In short, that which they are fleeing tends to be even worse than the terrible boat journey they must make. Logically, the only way a “tougher policy” could deter refugees from dangerous voyages is by making the prospect of the journey worse again than staying at home. Following this line of reasoning, the most effective way of “stopping the boats” would be to treat refugees more atrociously than their oppressors, or to deny them any hope of asylum and of escaping persecution in their present location.

Yet removing the option of travelling by boat will not save refugees from danger, nor ensure that they join an orderly queue; such queues do not exist. Instead, it will increase the likelihood of people being trapped, oppressed, incarcerated, and in many cases murdered.

Moreover, a tougher policy is unlikely to prevent people from seeking asylum in any case. Contrary to popular rhetoric, there is little if any causal relationship between immigration policy in developed countries and the number of people seeking asylum. The Coalition has blamed rising numbers of boat arrivals on softer Labor policy compared to the golden era of draconian laws under Howard. Yet such a view reflects either cynical political posturing or wilful insularity verging on solipsism: according to the UNHCR, asylum seekers numbers decreased under the Howard government because they also decreased around the world. In this case, the evidence confirms common sense: the primary factors driving people to seek asylum lie in the conditions they face in their own countries and regions.

All this being the case, it seems possible that the humanitarian rhetoric for offshore processing veils less philanthropic motives, such as media hype, political opportunism and populist exploitation of public fears and prejudice. Indeed, humanitarian concern commonly keeps discursive company with outright prejudice: all too often, concern about deaths at sea and resent against outsiders are expressed in the same breath. For instance, in an article otherwise centred on Christmas Islanders’ concern regarding asylum seekers’ deaths at sea, one local is quoted calling boat arrivals “‘queue jumpers’” who “‘take spots away from genuine refugees.’” He says that: “‘There’s bad feeling towards them – not much sympathy. We’re second-class citizens on our own island.’” The two sentiments have something in common: they are both mobilised into a call for harsher measures, designed to punish asylum seekers and keep them out.

Given politicians’ propensity to draw on such bile, the humane rhetoric surrounding offshore processing may simply be a mask, allowing major parties to feed on public prejudice while holding moral criticism at bay. If this is so, their hypocrisy must be condemned. Yet, it may also be a strange sign of hope: the fact that these draconian positions are now framed in humanitarian terms shows a shift in the discussion. It may even be a sign that it is no longer considered acceptable to justify policy purely in terms of cold and ruthless national interest. This provides an opportunity. By defending their policy on the ethical grounds of saving refugee lives, policymakers open the door to arguments as to what would better serve the interests of refugees.

The hypocrite in this sense is a monster in retreat, giving fresh credence to the maxim that “hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue”. The chance now exists to shift the question from “How do we keep these people out?” to “How can we help prevent further tragedy?” As such, it becomes possible to trap more cynical politicians between doing
what is right and having the emptiness of their hypocritical words exposed. Moreover, many adopting such rhetoric and policy may have genuinely good intentions that are merely misdirected. Either way, this could be a key moment to push for a more humane policy on asylum seekers.

*I wrote this article in the middle of 2012, prior to the reopening of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, as hysteria and ill feeling crescendoed on the issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. The situation has worsened since then, and this article’s conclusion looks rather optimistic in retrospect. Still, I’m inclined to stand by most of its arguments.

Dreaming of Dystopia

Originally published in Farrago*

Contemporary culture is awash with dystopian fiction. The popular imagination is captured by nightmarish visions of the future: from the police state of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to the robot-ruled wasteland of the Terminator series. Yet there are comparatively few visions of an ideal society—of utopia.

Dreaming – Lynley Eavis
Artwork by Lynley Eavis.

Those that do exist tend either to quickly degenerate into dystopia, or occur in political and philosophical treatises that few people actually read. Are people just too damned pessimistic, or are there better explanations for our dark fixation?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is that utopias are boring. A good story usually requires tension and conflict. As utopias are worlds in which societal tensions and conflicts have been resolved, they make great places to live in, but dull places to write about. One of the World Controllers in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World points out that “… you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.” Huxley’s novel is nonetheless entertaining and of artistic value, largely because its readers and protagonists are less comfortable with the world it portrays than the bulk of happily enslaved consumers inhabiting it.

Most of us are more interested in seeing how believable characters negotiate life’s challenges (or fail to), than in sickly sweet portraits of perpetual happiness. It is in struggle and not stasis that we find our humanity confirmed. This may be partly because our intellects evolved to help our ancestors anticipate threats and to avoid them. This critical role of the intellect implicated in the socio-political function of dystopian fiction. Through imagining dystopia, we’re better able to avoid it—Orwell wrote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”

Dystopian fiction is also likely to prevail because utopia is, by definition, perfect. As such, any coherent ideal of perfection can lead only to one kind of utopia, whereas there are infinite ways things can go wrong. More importantly though, there’s probably no such thing as perfection—making utopia impossible. There is no clear set of ideals that everyone holds. People have different values and want different things: one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. And even individuals contain many contradictory values. However, there are potential outcomes that most people will agree we don’t want, making dystopia quite plausible. While not everyone agrees on what’s most important in life or politics, most would shy away from a world ruled by a tiny elite who not only harvest the rest of us for organs, but make Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged compulsory reading.

Yet there is a less intuitive reason for us to imagine the future to be filled with horrors. It’s not merely that the future might be ‘evil’. It’s that the future is certain to be a place that we cannot comprehend, in which we could not function; and in which many of our values will be obsolete. Even our present selves might be viewed in a negative light by the people we once were. Yet this doesn’t usually bother us. While many of the hippies of the 60s went on to become the squares they reviled, I presume they aren’t all in the grips of self-loathing. Change is inevitable; with it, come new sets of values. These values threaten our own, and so we perceive new worlds as dystopian, even when they’re not all bad. Brave New World’s society is spoken of as a dystopia, though most of the characters inhabiting it are happy. It is dystopian because it is repugnant on our terms, not on its own.

Our present world would likely be considered dystopian by the standards of many former civilisations. And even many today compare it unfavourably to the past. While many have valid concerns, this does not mean that we should try to turn back. The dreams of conservatives and primitivists are hopelessly utopian, desiring nothing less than to hold on to a world which no longer exists. Even when they are able to force their old ideals on present institutions, new contexts will transform them to the point they are scarcely cognate with their advocates’ intentions. For instance, the conservative preservation of the right to private property underpins capitalism – an unceasing desecrator of old values and great engine of change. Humanist progressives are not spared from similar irony, for if they should succeed in their goals of reshaping institutions for human good, those that inherit these benefits will be reshaped as well. Human nature is fairly malleable, after all. So in the future, the common humanity that progressives seek to serve may no longer exist in the form they now understand it.

In this view, dystopia does not spring from pessimism as such. It’s just that the future is a place where we don’t belong. Perhaps the only remedy is to discard obsolete value systems and embrace constant change. Yet shedding the comfort of our old morals and pleasures is understandably frightening, and could remove the very grounds on which we make our decisions. Further, it’s a dangerous option because we cannot know where it will lead, nor the extent to which it will run counter to all we presently care about. If then we are determined to clutch on to a few threads of our flimsy moral garments, we had best heed the warnings that dystopian fiction provides.