I N   V I T R O    Issue 2.08 - August 1996

Fast Saves and Saving the Whale

By Roy Porter

There's a lot of angst in the air as everyone buffs up their crystal balls and peers into the third millennium. They're going to be policing you with all sorts of panoptic technology; Science will create new Frankenstein's monsters; Nature will fight back, unleashing new diseases and pollution crises; above all, things will get so confused that you won't have a clue what's happening.

Grim prospects all. So if you want a future vision that's more upbeat, avoiding the paranoid mode and looking forward to paradoxes and maybe even pleasures, the cultural-studies spin offered by FutureNatural: Nature|Science|Culture should appeal. Twenty philosophers, feminists, situationists, critical theorists and historians from both sides of the Atlantic - plus Satan himself, interviewed by Frank Dexter - present their take on what things are like on the rim of the real or virtual 2001.

Familiar landmarks whizz by on this postmodern grand tour - biotechnology, world wide webs, cyborgs, fractals, computer graphics and Prozac robots, to name just a few - but the real business of this book is a collective attempt to appraise where the Western mind is as we hit 2000, and to write our passports for the future. First, rewind to mid-century to get some bearings. C. P. Snow was telling us that the trouble was the Two Cultures: the arts and the sciences spoke different languages. Snow set it out in rather a fuddy-duddy way, sounding like a host trying to seat some very superior friends at a dinner party so the conversation wouldn't freeze. But he put his finger on the button. There was (back in those days) the world of Nature, which scientists studied, and the world of people, allotted to the humanities. The Cartesian oppositions (man/nature, mind/matter) seemed unbreakable. It seemed that Dr Science and Ms Arts just had nothing in common.

Nowadays the cerebral landscape has changed completely. The old Berlin walls of the mind have come tumbling down, largely thanks to new electronic communications that realise the dreams of futurologists, stirring science and fiction together in a new technological soup.

And there have been conceptual revolutions, too, which FutureNatural inventively explores. Structuralism abolished the old idea of the individual author, the Romantic genius, so the arts have become more like the sciences: depersonalised, objective, antihumanist. But at the same time, science itself has stopped being so impersonal. Philosophers have started telling us that Nature was, after all, a projection of our minds, that the particles the physicists tracked were postulates, that quantum physics had shown even matter didn't obey the laws of causality and hence was quite unpredictable. And, since the double helix, genetic engineering has meant that what we call Nature is itself made in test tubes - Genes 'R' Us, according to Tom Wilkie's witty vision of designer babies, 2095 vintage.

Unfortunately all this creates another crisis. We're excited about all these new technological possibilities, yet we're also Friends of the Earth. We want to surf the Net but also Save the Whale (and perhaps the Family too). We know that "nature" is a category our minds have thought up - and hence, in Robert Young's clever paradox, "science is social relations". Yet our hearts crave some environmental Eden as yet untouched by human hands (or concepts), a paradise still pure and unpolluted. That's not on, however: there is no conservation without contamination. The paradoxes involved in such conceptual black holes are pinpointed by Andrew Ross's striking opener, "The Future is a Risky Business". In this he probes the bizarre fact that one of the organisations now parading itself as a great conserver of rare birds and other endangered wildlife is none other than the US Army!

This conservationist paradox (there is no Virgin Nature) keeps cropping up throughout this book. Several authors point out that the pristine beauties of "natural landscape" that environmentalists fight to preserve - England's woodlands, wetlands and hedgerows, for instance - are essentially the products of the enclosure system: "back to Nature" really means back to gentrified capitalist agriculture, 1750s style. Offering some Jungian environmentalism, analyst Karl Figlio suggests we relate to the destroyed forests as to a wounded mother - "knowing, loving and hating". In other words, Figlio says, Nature is not just a cultural category but one with profound interior and unconscious resonances. His aim in saying this is not to discredit environmentalism as hopelessly sentimental, less still to suggest it is a "problem" that should be presented to a therapist; he simply wants to prove that there is no such thing as an objective Nature, a Nature "out there" that stands apart from our experience.

So what does the crystal ball reveal? A feast of prospects. After the cybernetic soup, the authors' menu serves us up "Posthuman Unbounded", "Postmodern Virtualities" and many other goodies, including - for those with an iron digestion - "Lacan with Quantum Physics".

Electronic escapism? Pretentious posturings? Perhaps. But more, I think, a vista of playful pleasures. There's a hopeful feeling conveyed by this book that the new posteverything culture can be more than washed-up smackhead despondency - instead, a real release. Time was when art and nature were elite preserves, museums and labs sporting fierce "Keep Out" warnings. But as with the telephone a century ago, observes Mark Poster, today's electronic-technology public sphere is remarkably open and democratic. No single out-fit, no Murdoch mogul controls the switches; no taste dictator determines digital aesthetics. Possible futures present a tomorrow open to radical experiment.

FutureNatural: Nature|Science|Culture, edited by George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis and Tim Putnam: £40 hardback, £12.99 paper. Routledge: (0171) 583 9855.

Roy Porter is professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. He is currently working on a general history of med-icine, the history of Bethlem Hospital and the Enlightenment in Britain. Recent books include Doctor of Society: Thomas Beddoes and the Sick Trade in Late Enlightenment England and London: A Social History.