Designer Babies, the Panopticon, and a World Without Ethics
by Devon G. Peña
“You got to be greedy when others are fearful and you got to be fearful when others are greedy.” — Warren Buffett
Wired is often lauded as a rebellious poke-you-in-the-eye futurist magazine that brings leading-edge, outside-the-box thinkers to the reading public. However, I wonder how many people actually read the entire rag from cover to cover other than die-hard futurists, some research scholars, and men who forgot their Smartphones and are bored while sitting in the waiting rooms of the auto repair shop or a dentist’s office?
While Wired presents glimpses of technology at the edge, it is usually done without depth or analytical prowess. It is more like a snippet or PowerPoint version of Technology Review with a lot of colorful graphics and a semiotic code that could only appeal to Generation X and so-called Millennials. The magazine is therefore neither cutting-edge nor critical, at least not in the sense of any radical expository or analytical discourse; it is actually a rather staidly conservative magazine in the sense of kowtowing to established and worn out libertarian ideologies and a belief that ever smarter and better technology will save us and the world in some soon to arrive future populated by perfectly hard ageless bodies filled with square-jawed genetically engineered intellects.
This seems to be especially the case with its last page feature entitled “Found,” which involves inviting its readers and online followers to submit scenarios that respond to the Wired editors’ question, “What will the world look like in the future?”
The most recent (September 2012) entry in the Found series envisions the “Future of Shopping Centers.” Let me start by objecting that a more interesting vision of the future, one that would truly represent outside-the-box thinking, would be to imagine a world without shopping malls. Now that would be a radical idea! The future as represented by the readers and contributors to Wired is always capitalist. These futurists are rather oddly dated and old-fashioned, for they appear to believe in the end of history — and can we really imagine a future all that different from ours if history has ended?
The Futureworld mall presented by Wired will include Build-a-Child Workshop outlets, which presumably will be techno-labs where parents can design a baby using the latest in gene sequencing and cloning technologies. While the parents build a child they can always leave their other design-a-tots under the supervision of the robotic nannies at the Wackenhut Daycare Center — located in the position of the Panopticon at the very center of the shopping mall — which basically means that a corporate prison and detention, private security, and detective agency will have become the kiddie drop-off at your futurist shopping center. Hope those little bastards do not cross the staff too much, or they may end up as ingredients for the food mall’s star attraction, Soylent Julius, or simply disappear into a Wackenhut prison farm where the inmates become hosts of harvest organs for sale to the rich and infamous.
I see that Starbucks will still be around, surely staffed with the latest robo-barristas built by a Chinese-owned factory on the moon with lead investors organized by Newt Gingrich’s heirs and successors. Of course, as predicted in the film, Demolition Man, Taco Bell will have apparently won the fast food wars and become part of a conglomerate including DQ, KFC, and TCBY. A more banal and hellish combination is not possible.
I realize this is supposed to be all fun and games and that the Found feature is just a site for fertile imaginations. However, this feature tells us more about the hold of contemporary ideologies than the possibilities lying somewhere beyond the temporal horizon. It actually shows a total lack of imagination.
I am not impressed with the result: this vision of the future actually presents a world that has changed very little. The future will still have shopping malls; there will still be money; commodity capitalism will dominate; a handful of corporations will be feeding the masses the same Super-sized garbage; we will still have to go to restrooms cleaned by underpaid and non-union black or Latina/o workers; and Starbucks will still be cranking out gallons of its over-roasted and overpriced Javas and cups of chino [sic].
Oh wait! I should not be so sullen and negative; after all, we will have the newfangled Build-a-Child Workshop for those wanting and able to afford a Designer Baby. We’ll be able to purchase cognitive enhancements instead of learning in the school of life and hard knocks. But that is not such a great idea either, is it? It will probably make us much less resilient. So, you see, none of this is actually very innovative or inspiring as a vision of the future.
As my colleague Rob Hunt phrases it, “Sometimes Wired mistakes innovation for just trying to be hip.” Perhaps, but in my estimation there is not much of a difference between being hip without a sense of humility or humanity, and being a conservative dyed-in-the wool capitalist hipster. This is sort of Paul Ryan’s generational ethos, no? I mean Ryan, who is the epitome of the Generation X Randian hipster racist with a budgetista intellect that could not put a light to a truly radical idea if his life depended on it.
Fortunately, we can do better and are already building an alternative future — one without corporate control of our food systems; without the enslavement of money and commodification of our bodies; one built through solidarity and human-scaled institutions. Call these primitive futures, if you like. I prefer Helena Norberg-Hodge’s notion of “ancient futures.”
I can’t wait to get there with you; we’ll be walking instead of driving. And we won’t need to go shopping at the mall for everything we’ll need; we will be able and willing to slowly make for ourselves or enjoy exchanging that which is homemade by our neighbors.
It seems appropriate then to close with a quote from G. K. Chesterson: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” That is essentially what underlies the consistent failure of the imagination of Wired magazine’s approach to futurism.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.