Monday, September 26, 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011
This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the company of a bevy of historians of Cold War science. One of them, a specialist, as he puts it, in "the human experience in the milieu of space," pointed out the way in which Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke – the author of the book that formed the basis for the movie – worked closely with engineers at NASA to shape such visions. It seems fair to say that 2001 played an important role in stoking support for the Apollo Program that led astronaut Neil Armstrong to take his momentous “small step” on July 20, 1969.
Why I am telling you this? There could be a thousand reasons. But the one I want to highlight in this short post is about scientists as technical advisers to filmmakers. I’m particularly interested in the role that claims to technical accuracy (not to be confused with T/truth) play in mediating science and fiction.
In my research on the history of cryobiology I have been startled at how often scientists, as early as the 1930s (if not before), were asked to go on set to ensure the ‘accuracy’ of scenes involving attempts at human preservation. For example, in the late 1930s scientist Ralph Willard was credited as a consultant to the film “The Man With Nine Lives,” a medical thriller starring Boris Karloff as a mad-scientist who attempts to freeze humans alive. Willard, who is now viewed as a purveyor of pseudo-science, conducted early experiments with cold-induced hibernation. In the late 1950s, James Lovelock (yes, that James Lovelock) earned a day’s pay by serving as an on-set consultant for the play The Critical Point, which “revived” the effort to depict humans in a state of cryopreservation. Before he came up with his cybernetic Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock made important breakthroughs in the ability to keep blood and sperm functional after exposure to low temperatures. The ability to defrost and revive whole bodies remains controversial and elusive, but is an example that makes it worth asking: What’s at stake for scientists when they participate in the production of fiction? The boundary work of scientists behind the scenes of pop culture is still largely uncharted territory for students of the cultural cartography of science.
I’ll conclude with an example from the present. In the weeks following the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a number of the scientists and public health officials who served as technical advisers for the film have used their involvement as a platform for raising awareness about biosecurity and epidemic preparedness. Assuring accuracy in the film both legitimates them as experts and legitimates the film as an extension of that expertise. Time will tell if anyone is taking them seriously and how.
There are many, many more examples. What scientists/films come to mind? What sort of scholarship -- work on nature films, scientists as consultants in other fields, etc -- could one draw on to go deeper into these questions?
Monday, September 19, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
|Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.|
|International Petrified Forest, photo by Dean Jeffrey|
|Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument|
Monday, September 5, 2011
The project aims to assign a 12-digit ID to every Indian---that's 1.2 billion IDs---and link those IDs to names, fingerprints, and iris-scans. As Lydia Polgreen, the Times reporter, notes: "It is a project of epic proportions." It also promises to make the Indian government into the world's most important aggregator of biometric data, surpassing the US-Visit program by an order of magnitude.
Nandan M. Nilekani, the former chairman of Infosys and Aadhaar's head, explained the necessity of the system in terms that made it sound like a natural governmental activity: "What we are creating is as important as a road." It is, in other words, a kind of infrastructure: statistical infrastructure. That's a phrase I use quite a bit in my own work as I trace the ways that different systems for gathering data about individuals developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around the life insurance industry. In that story, private and public actors worked in parallel and sometimes together to improve the nation's system of vital statistical registration, to discipline doctors and nurses, and to build special biometric (of sorts) databases that could help assess each individual's risk. Yet the United States' own giant leap in gathering data (Social Security) created a national identity database only as an after-thought and had no thought of including biometric data.
That's the most intriguing thing about Aadhaar, as viewed through Polgreen's reporting. Identity sits at the center of the project. Polgreen begins with Ankaji Bhai Gangar volunteering to be IDed with hopes of getting "the first official proof that he exists." She ends with Mohammed Jalil pointing to the biometric station and saying "This will give me an identity....It will show that I am a human being, that I am alive, that I live on this planet. It will prove I am an Indian."
I'm wary of Polgreen's enthusiasm. She brushes aside concerns of "privacy watchdogs" effortlessly. She thrills at the possibililies of overcoming corruption on the local level and getting around the "crippling bureaucracy that is a legacy of [India's] socialist past." Aadhaar, we learn, will increase worker mobility and allow for greater agricultural modernization---these are both, we are made to understand, necessarily good things.
I'm all in favor of reducing corruption, improving the distribution of poor relief and welfare benefits. I think the poor ought to have access to savings, credit, cell phones, and teachers who show up to work. Who doesn't? But will a centralized, national system of identification really do that? Does bypassing local government---rather than, say, fixing it---solve that problem? I can't pretend to know, but I think there's reason to be skeptical with any theory of improving governance that tries to bypass local institutions. I do hope my fears prove entirely unfounded.