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Discovering The New Atlantis

Reading the new bioconservative journal virtual cover to virtual cover can cause a sinking feeling

Monday, June 09, 2003, 6:59:57 AM CT

As if the GOP right needed it, it looks as if there's a journal to back up what impartial, disinterested and objective people such as me have defined as the brain dead and backwards science policies of the Bush administration.

Welcome to The New Atlantis.

As you might imagine, a policy magazine that attempts to defend this current corrupt administration isn't exactly taking in all the data. It's full of contradictions, if not outright misrepresentations and possibly even lies.

Inside the enemy's mind

The journal launched this spring, and has since received much attention from bioliberals, especially transhumanists, who point to it as a peak inside the enemy's mind.

Its stated goals are to help "clarify the nation's moral and political understanding of all areas of technology -- from stem cells to hydrogen cells to weapons of mass destruction," and to address questions surrounding technology and "human nature" (whatever that means) and how government should regulate science.

The name comes from a 1627 parable by Francis Bacon, the founder of modern science. While editors of The New Atlantis claim that Bacon's tale "hints at some of the dilemmas that arise with the ability to remake and reconfigure the natural world," critics of the journal's name point out that Bacon was actually an advocate of scientific and technological progress, and that his story New Atlantis is a tale of a utopian society in which human life is radically improved through the application of science.

But that's just the beginning of the journal's problems.

Placating Emperor Bush

Why, just scan the shorter bits in The New Atlantis for evidence of this. How can anyone write about the Microsoft case without talking about how Microsoft essentially bribed the Republicans? Is that the mediocre role of the boorish pro-Republican intelligentsia? To ignore the obvious?

Or how do you quote President Bush talking about the last shuttle tragedy without mentioning that he's done nothing for the space program, other than militarizing it and threatening Europe and Russia if they dare to exploit the stars in their own interests? Are those small factors? That Bush speech, unedited, amounts to little more than a prayer, not policy analysis.

Don't get me wrong, there are some moments of good reporting. Scott Gottlieb's piece on the future of biotech actually yielded an interesting speculation or two, for example, and Christine Rosen's piece on genetic profiling is pretty much on the mark, and doesn't feel at all feel like propaganda or an argument for a conclusion that you already know.

Also, the level of writing is very high. The New Atlantis's editors are clearly going for an academic tone, as opposed to the breezy pop journalism that Betterhumans or its diabolical evil twin Tech Central Station might be accused of.

From the desk of Leon Kass

At its worst, however, The New Atlantis is what we should fear, a kind of ideological underpinning for its first issue's lead speaker, Leon Kass, a man justifiably loathed by bioliberals. (By the way, if I didn't know better I'd say he's reading Betterhumans. "And may our children and grandchildren continue to reap their ever tastier fruit -- but without succumbing to their seductive promises of a perfect, better-than-human future, in which we shall be as gods, ageless and blissful," is how he starts off his speech. How flattering.)

For example, Charles Rubin's piece, the worst of the lot, features attacks against Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec that are wrongheaded and condescending, and don't seem to have anything to do with science, other than the fact that Rubin doesn't like their conclusions.

He also mischaracterizes their perspectives. Hans Moravec is horrified by what Rubin refers to as "extinctualism." Moravec talks about the technological singularity with all the joy that a patient feels when he's told he has terminal cancer. He doesn't predict it with a breathless Wired-style glee, he simply thinks that's how it will end, with artificial intelligences triumphant. Likewise, Kurzweil isn't some shrill cheerleader. His position, as I understand it, is that we should evolve and merge with our machines. Or as I once put it, "We become Data and Data becomes us, or else."

You, Mr. Rubin, may find this all distasteful and bad. It should be your choice to become obsolete and die in what you define as a timely fashion, no doubt fully embracing Leon's "finitude." But please allow grownups to make their own choices.

Contradictions and hypocrisies

But that's not the biggest problem I see in creating a science policy magazine that advances the Bush administration. For me, it has to do with the administration's hypocrisy, as it has no problem supporting controversial applications of technology that support its interests.

Why haven't Kass and the Bush administration come out against genetically modified foods, for example, instead of suing the EU over them and blackmailing African countries to take them?

Take Jeremy Rifkin, for example (please). He's often used by the right anti-tech side during their jihads against stem cell research. But at least Rifkin is consistent, opposes GM foods and doesn't take lots of bribe money from Big Pharma.

I'm probably the only Betterhumans columnist who sympathizes with the EU on the GM issue. I look at this issue not so much as a matter of science, but a matter of choice. As I understand it, the EU isn't looking at a ban, but simply wants labeling so citizens can choose. It seems as if the crux of our argument is choice. But that also means respecting the choices of those who don't make the same choice. There may be people who don't want the ebony rhino horn grown upon their foreheads. I think those hornless people have bad taste, but they should always have that choice to go without.

What I don't get is the Bush administration's choice. Here it is at the forefront of the stop-embryonic-stem-cell research debate, and yet that's a science whose implications have yet to be felt. Meanwhile, we're already eating GM foods and quite frankly we're the experiments. My every reading of Kass -- the sentiment, the self-righteousness, this longing to maintain courtship and this romantic notion of the past -- says that he should be against GM foods for the very same reasons that he's against stem cell research. I suppose I could coyly hint at the answer but let me state bluntly that it has to do with the perverse influence of Big Money on the Republican Party and the party's almost whorish enthusiasm to serve its well-funded donors.

Irrelevant and preachy

On the whole, I find the enterprise to be somewhat irrelevant and preachy, which is probably what I should expect from the journal's editor, Eric Cohen, a Weekly Standard alumnus. Here is a man who has been quoted as saying that he wants "a role for religion in public life."

I'm sure that's what science needs, just a touch of Wiccan lore added to that proteomic mix, or quantum computing spells conjured up by the dead Warlock Aleister Crowley (death shouldn't stop him), or Hare Krishna chants thrown in with your GPS tracking or imaginary beings in the sky who watch over your particle acceleration runs and yet have time to talk to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson about their money problems. Thanks for nothing, Eric.

To illustrate just how absurd this kind of thinking is, imagine if it were applied to computer technology. So and so, from the far right conservative position, thinks that peer-to-peer and the backspace key should be banned because, to quote Leon, almost at random, "To the extent that we come to regard our transformed nature as normal, we shall have forgotten what we lost."

Or another conservative "thinker" believes that this monstrosity called the graphic user interface must end for, quoting Leon again, "I have tried to make a case for finitude and even graceful decline of bodily powers." And this has what to do with icons?

And later, we learn that The New Atlantis board doesn't like the Transmeta chip or the open source philosophy because they find such notions to be "troubling" or "disturbing" and against the "natural order."

You might find it funny and oddly self-righteous, until Leon whispers his "truths" into President Bush's ear and you find out that you're typing in commands line by line on a black screen, and you're paying Microsoft a grand for XP part two and your backspace key has disappeared, much like the US lead in genomic research may have vanished.

I guess we'll have to fight for a future in which we can choose antiaging therapies with the same nonchalance that we choose browsers or Macs instead of PCs. There's no "wrong" choice in biology or computers, just the choice that best fits you, rhino horn and all.

That last sentence is my nomination for the only content that should be in the next issue of The New Atlantis, but I don't think its board could comprehend it.

Philip Shropshire ran a consumer group,worked as a general assignment reporter and sold white box computers. He has written for Locus Online, American Times, Tech Central Station and more alternative weeklies than he can remember. He believes in the future. You can reach him at pshropshire@yahoo.com.

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