Relax, Medical Science IS Your Friend
It’s Luddism Appreciation Week over at Slate, apparently, first with a comically pretentious essay arguing that reading e-books is not real reading (please print out this entry on fine vellum and stroke it sensually, if you want the next ten minutes of your life to count) and now with one that explores the hypothetical existential crisis spawned by hypothetical brain implants designed to improve memory and cognitive function. All our i-goods and Internet addiction notwithstanding, technophobia remains a popular exercise in pseudo-intellectualism.
Imagine yourself living in a world where medicine is really primitive. One day, you read an editorial in your newspaper that discusses a futuristic new development in medical technology, called “anesthesia”, and specifically, the implications of being fast-asleep while a bunch of doctors do stuff to you. Clearly, the advent of this “anesthesia” thing means lots of people will wake up in recovery rooms to find that they’ve been turned into Frankenstein’s Monsters, because if there is one thing that’s certain in life, is that you can’t trust scientists. Or, imagine the article is instead about organ transplants finally becoming a reality. What is the first thing you think? Gangs grabbing healthy people off the street in broad daylight and butchering them for their organs, right? That’s what it sounds like to me when people talk about the “moral and philosophical implications” of hypothetical medical technologies of the future — ignore the realities of how or why new medical technologies are developed and focus on the most gruesome, least likely scenario.
Mention cloning in conversation, and the first thing that pops into most people’s minds is the super-rich manufacturing “designer children” who will take over the world, or keeping subterranean cities with thousands of clone captives for the purpose of organ replacements. I’ve met few people in my life who didn’t think the very idea of cloning was dangerous to the fate of humanity, democracy and apple pie. Never mind that the technology for cloning tissues and, perhaps, organs or body parts will probably long precede the technology for cloning healthy individuals with a normal life span. Never mind that cloning technology would bring us organ transplants without spending years waiting for a donor or having to suppress the patient’s immune system; cancer treatments that not only get rid of diseased tissues, but replace it with healthy ones; real limbs and eyes in place of prosthetics; and more effective treatment of conditions that range from severe disfigurement to brain damage. (Also, meat without killing animals or the environmental damage that results from raising livestock, but that goes beyond medicine.) No, let’s ignore all that realistic nonsense and instead delve into the craziest, most unlikely possibilities — creepy, diabolical copies of dead children we’ve seen in movies and so forth.
Brain implants improving memory, attention span and cognition? Think of what such a thing could do for people on the Autism Spectrum. And, before anyone jumps down my throat, I am not talking about people with Asperger’s Syndrome; despite the fact that popular culture pretty much equates autism with Asperger’s, the reality is that “aspies” represent only a narrow fringe of the Spectrum. I am talking about the majority of autistic people — those who need round-the-clock care and supervision, people who cannot communicate (often despite desperately wanting to, and having adequate intelligence for it), people who are incapable of functioning in the larger world because they are instantly overwhelmed by multiple simultaneous stimuli that their neuro-typical peers easily process and appropriately respond to without even consciously registering the sensory bombardment. There are lots of people who are quite obviously disabled because their brains cannot perform a certain function — people who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia, PTSD, retardation, auditory processing disorders, aphasia, severe ADHD, cortical blindness, seizures, motor planning difficulties or paraphilias that lead their sufferers to violent and criminal behavior. Imagine what it would be like to achieve dramatic, lasting improvement for such patients without a life-long drug regimen. Sure, if you take a severely autistic individual and give him the kinds of implants that will enable him to speak, interact with others, and pursue an education and a career, that will change him into a “different person” — but the identity issue here is puny indeed compared to what he, and those that care for him, would gain: a normal life.
Perhaps it is my personal experience raising a developmentally disabled child that informs my perspective (bias?) on brain-altering technologies — but I think it takes a special kind of aloofness to the prevalence of suffering in the world and its intensity as experienced on a personal level, to see such technologies primarily in the context of their speculative “dark side”, to look at something that would improve the cognitive functions of mentally retarded patients and worry about people of normal intelligence turning themselves into evil geniuses. This has always been my problem with existential issues — they are only issues for those who are suffering from a lack of real problems in their lives (and, if I might speculate here, probably a want of empathy, too).
Yes, doctors sometimes do crazy things to patients under their care — but this is very rare, and there are legal mechanisms in place to deter such conduct and punish it when it occurs. Organ theft happens, but again, it’s very rare, and it’s illegal everywhere in the world; the problem, at any rate, isn’t the existence of organ transplant technology. Poor women do get pressured into serving as rent-a-wombs for the more affluent, but that is a problem created by poverty and social inequality, not the medical advances that have made surrogacy possible. And should brain chips become a reality, they are unlikely to turn humanity into a mass of dehumanized, soulless androids — but they will sure help A LOT of very sick people. It’s not wrong to worry about medical ethics — but if you lose sight of the fact that there exist millions of people who desperately need these futuristic advancements in medicine, I’d say you are on the wrong side of the ethical issue.