Friday, October 1, 1999

There’s none so blind as those who won’t see

But on the other hand, knowing is often unpleasant, and there are real ethical questions that we do need to address regarding what we should or should not know. After Dolly the sheep was cloned, Congress held an inquiry into the ethics of cloning; several of the scientists who testified told Congress that human cloning was years away. But they were being slippery and they knew it. The question isn't when the change is coming. The question is whether we should allow the change to happen or steer our fates in a different direction.

And the relationship between "see" and "know" in English is central to our understanding of these kinds of ethical questions. If you see the change coming, you can't pretend you don't know about it. I see that the sky is blue; I therefore know it to be so. Seeing and therefore knowing is the root of our understanding of experimental science, and experimental science in science fiction is often treated as a universally good thing. Not always, and certainly not during the post-WWII era or the seventies. But often.

The question is, Who's the one who won't see? The "firstsighted" narrator who wants to keep his eyes and thereby sacrifice all that he might "see" if he takes the evolutionary plunge? Or Cletus, whose thirst for an answer to a problem led to a highly unethical experiment in the first place?

The story is about a battle between those elements of humanity that we lose as we evolve and the evolution itself. But it isn't played that way. The narrator doesn't cling to his eyes because he has a particular attachment to seeing, or if he does, it isn't spelled out for us. We have to assume it from our own visceral horror at the idea of giving up our eyes.

At the same time, the prospect of becoming a supergenius isn't all that attractive either. Undoubtedly, whole new levels of existence would come along with the results of Cletus' operation that rewires the brain and allows us to use it so much more efficiently. But to be such a supergenius is so different from the life we lead now. As the narrator says, "firstsighted music probably bores the secondsighted." What other simple pleasures would we lose interest in? Pizza? Walks in the park? Harrison Ford movies?

Of course, one answer is that both the firstsighted and the secondsighted "won't see." There's none so blind as those who give up the magic of sight for intellectual progress -- and there's none so blind as those afraid to take that plunge into a whole new world. I think in balance, the story comes out on the side of evolution -- it's clear that the narrator is a vestigial, bitter remnant of an older humanity that is on its way out. But he is us, so of course we have sympathy for him, too.

The Mining Co. (now About.com) and Joe Haldeman did a great thing making this short story widely available, and it's a great, quick read for your Palm device. When you turn on your handy little electronic brain and read this story over your lunch or on the train, perhaps you, like me, will wonder if you too are leaping along the way to an evolved new relationship with computers and wonder whether it too is a Pandora's box. Of course, only time will tell -- and in the meantime we're all having too much fun to worry about the future.

Judith Tabron thinks the ultimate goal of human evolution should be that enlightened state where we all get dozens of cable channels and Bill Gates gets what's coming to him. She is the puppet dictator of academic technology at Brandeis University.