Are We To Become Lab Rats?

‘Let’s watch something together Amma.’ , said the children one Friday evening. It is officially our movie night. Watching something that suits all of us is a true test of Democracy (An Email From Mars) The littlest fellow is the easiest to appease, and also the fellow you want to most watch out for. He sits there like a sponge absorbing everything: tilting his head to one side, looking through the corner of his eyes, this child seems like the ideal companion. But, his inappropriate quips at opportune moments have chastened us and we no longer welcome him saying, “Oh – he is too little to know.” He knows!

So, the debate raged – which show can we watch that everyone will enjoy?

Everybody Loves Raymond, Cosmos, Big Bang Theory? How about Lab Rats? 

A resounding cheer went up for Lab Rats.

‘Isn’t that show for Teens?’

‘Well…yes but this little dobukins watches it all the time with me.’ said the daughter tousling her little brother’s hair lovingly.

‘Really?’, I said turning around towards the fellow with my hands on my hips.

‘Yes….but Lab Rats is fine….not teenagie stuff.’ he said chuckling merrily.

Like he knows what teenagie stuff is.  Maybe he does and should that worry me? The daughter now tells me things are inappropriate for us to watch. I wonder what rules she uses.

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Lab Rats is a show about a family where the children have Bionic superpowers – Bree the girl can run free, Adam the hulk can lift a truck, and Chase the fellow whose name sounds like he must run after Bree, instead is the one with superior intellect. They live with their non-bionic stepbrother, Leo.

Like most Television shows these days, they had aced the humor, characterization and it was an enjoyable show. All the same, it left a niggling after-taste in me.

This show captured human desires in a nutshell. We all want to be better. Better than the rest, better than we ever were, better, faster, stronger, smarter. Better to do what?  And where does this betterment stop? We know how any concept can be twisted by thwarted minds to suit themselves as was evident in the sad state of Eugenics.

I am reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, and the same vein popped up again.

The modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

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Human kind, when we set ourselves on the path to development, most probably do so with good intentions. The problem is once we fix the problems, it seems we can use these very technologies to make things better for those who do not need it. Like  plastic surgery for instance:

Modern plastic surgery was born in the First World War, when Harold Gillies began treating facial injuries in the Aldershot military hospital. When the war was over, surgeons discovered that the same techniques could also turn perfectly healthy but ugly noses into more beautiful specimens. Nowadays, plastic surgeons make millions in private clinics whose explicit and sole aim is to upgrade the healthy and beautify the wealthy.

In Homo Deus, the author goes on to point out this trend in bionic legs, Viagra and memory treatments:

When you develop bionic legs that enable paraplegics to walk again, you can also use the same technology to upgrade healthy people. When you discover how to stop memory loss among older people, the same treatments might enhance the memory of the young. 

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm. but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also overcome impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

(Bolding my own)

Growth is a wonderful thing. For the first time in the history of mankind, we are able to self regulate our belligerence, spend our resources towards ending disease and poverty, and feed our growing numbers. Science and Capitalism have enabled this wonderful state. But what next? This relentless growth has led to an inordinate strain on the one planet we have. Previously, we could look forward to discovering new lands, but now we have mapped every ounce of the Earth, and we know no Middle Earth or Earthsea is hidden anymore. We have tapped them all. Our only hope is to find a parking garage planet close by so we can continue to expand at the rate we are now.

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We need to change course for a sustainable future of our planet, and Capitalism with its growth needs seems to be ill-suited to call for such changes.

The recently deceased author, Ursula K Le Guin, said in a speech once:

“We live in capitalism,” said Le Guin, “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I am sure our intense need to survive will push us towards self-regulation and conservation.

With immortality, bliss and divinity projects, are we not Gods capable of solving anything? But, we are also a species who can make the Butter Battle Book by Dr Seuss a sad reality.

Are we to become our own Lab Rats? What would our super-powers be? More importantly, will our shortcomings be even more apparent with our strengths magnified, or will our shortcomings be magnified too?

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Magic of Zen

“Chitthi, you should read this book for sure. I am sure you will like it.”, said the niece, holding up some teen fiction. She has been reading what she calls Dystopian Fiction and some of her stories tend to mistake my blood for milk set out to curdle. I looked skeptical.
The daughter joined in the conversation with another book suggestion. “Adults won’t enjoy it, but I am sure you will Amma.” she said.
I donned an amused expression. That I should be pegged for having a child’s capacity made me feel truly honored.

Like Ursula K Le Guin, the famous fantasy author said, ‘The creative adult is the child who survived.’

“I mean of course you are an adult and stuff, but … well you know what we mean.” The girls rushed on almost immediately, “This is the good stuff – you will love it.”

The book recommendations discussion was happening before our trip to Mt Shasta, and I was deciding what should be taken along for reading.

After a little deliberation, I picked out Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. A better book for the wilderness could not have been chosen if I had researched the thing for weeks. Earthsea is a mythical archipelago where wizardry is not uncommon. This book contained tales from Earthsea set in various points in time. The stories are set in beautiful islands amidst forests and meadows and was the perfect read at Shasta.

One fine early morning, on a hike in the forests of Shasta, I chose a spot in which to slowdown and take in the surroundings just like the characters do in the Grove. I sat myself on a rock, and looked out upon miles of trees and forest cover. Sitting there, I noticed how the leaves were shaped against the blue skies, the clear, sharp shapes rising up against the sky, looking majestic and beautiful. Why is it, that nothing man made can even hope to compete with the magnificence of a leaf, tree, forest or mountain? It was a biomimicry moment.

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With the forest around me and Mt Shasta in the background, Nature helped still and quiet my senses so much that I felt strange. The incessant chatter of inner turmoil quiet, the constant rippling of life’s waves smoothened, the distant and affectionate view of my own foibles on Earth. In only a few moments of this relative calming of the senses I could feel every observation keenly as though the distant telescopes were adjusted better to give a clairvoyant view into life.

To hear, one must be silent.
Ursula K. Le Guin

I resolved to take the children on a hike that very evening. The evening hike was just as splendid. It hugged a coastline on a lake, and the evening sun transformed a normal forest setting into a magical one. We trudged up the mountain path chattering happily and gaining altitude. A number of meandering trails and paths criss-crossed the ones we were taking as we hiked on.

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As we were hiking, I told my daughter about the moment of Zen that I felt during the morning hike, and she said she would try it too. I looked up surprised, but noticed that a while later, she sought out a rock and sat there just drinking in the scenery. I hope she felt the same sense of quiet.

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As we made our way back, the sun had started to set and colored the sky with patches of radiant pink, purple and orange. It was then that we realized that we may have lost our way. I remember going left from this mountain peak, but that trail up there also goes there, how about this one? Every one was sure we had come up by a completely different path. The daughter was unusually quiet and then she exclaimed thoroughly proud of herself, “This is it! I know now. This is it. This is the way to go!” and she was perfectly right.

Days later, when we were discussing the concept of magic, I went all Ursula Le Guin on her and said, “You know? That day, on the hike, you were so much in tune with nature that you were the one who found the way back. You know how appalling you are usually when it comes to directions, but that day because you loved the hike so much, the forest revealed its magic to you.” She rolled her eyes, but the joy in her eyes was unmistakable.

Le Guin writes of magic in a way that is manifest in our daily lives without us ever stopping thinking of them as magic. It is neither wand waving nor dramatic, but it is spectacular. It is in the unique talents we each have, and just like any other talent needs nurturing and nourishing to develop to its full potential.

The Author’s work has the influence of Tao-ist philosophies, that help us tap into the ageless wisdom of generations. The books talk of listening to the Earth as a means to understanding the greater forces at play, the ability to gauge what is to happen, but have the sagacity to neither judge nor criticize its actors unduly. In short, it is life cloaked in the glamorous garbs of magic.

Lao Tzu Tao – Ursula Le Guin