Edinburgh International Science Festival: Future Human – the movies
Motion pictures have a lot to answer for. They lie to us, to contradict Godard, at 24 frames a second. Think of all the poor kids who put themselves through archaeology school only to find that there’s no whip, fedora or kooky sidekick handed out with their degree. All you get is a tiny brush that you're going to use for laboriously uncovering artifacts that have no capacity to melt Nazis. The nerd doesn’t get the girl, the underdog rarely wins and it is never – now remember this one, cos it might come up – I repeat, never, the red wire.
One genre that doesn’t deceive us, at least not in the long term, is the sci-fi movie; give science long enough and it will take ideas that were once fantasy – space travel, cordless communication devices, public transport that doesn’t smell of urine – and turn them into reality. (Okay, the poindexters are still struggling with that last one.) Looking at the dystopian nightmares on offer in this month’s Edinburgh International Science Festival’s Future Human strand, however, you might wish this wasn’t the case.
Future Human asks, what it is to be human? “A lot of people are interested in the way in which science is transforming our self understanding as human beings,” says Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, whose book, Humanity 2.0, was an inspiration for the Future Human series. “I think at this point in history we’re sort of at a crossroads about what the future of humanity is going to be.” The films in the EISF programme present an array of possibilities:
Re-programed Human (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 3.15pm): Don’t let that messy breakup get you down, have all traces of your ex wiped from your memory forever. The process is a bit like dry-cleaning, only for your brain.
Created Human (Frankenstein, 6.15pm): By stitching together snatched body parts from the recently deceased, mad scientist Dr Frankenstein fashions a monster who’s more human than he is.
Cyber Human (RoboCop, 8.45pm): The half dead body of a police officer gunned down on patrol is used to create a cybernetic law enforcer. Is the resulting RoboCop simply metal and computer programing?
Designed Human (Gattaca, 3.15pm): Andrew Niccol’s film imagines a future where babies are designed by geneticists to be disease-free, without flaws. Where does that leave those children born the old fashioned way?
Rented Human (Transfer, 6.15pm): Damir Lukacevic’s film explores the idea of body exploitation, set in a future where the poor can sublet their bodies and minds to the highest bidder.
Gaming Human (eXistenZ, 8.45pm): From the twisted mind of David Cronenberg, this is a dark future where virtual reality-junkies live life in hallucinatory games using a techno-biological pod that plugs into a vaginal socket on their spinal column.
Stoned Human (A Scanner Darkly, 3.15pm): If reality is too boring or stressful for you there’s always mind altering drugs to make you feel more alive. The mysterious Substance D is the narcotic of choice in Richard Linklater’s trippy Phillip K Dick adaptation.
Mutated Human (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 6.10pm): This 1931 film based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic morality tale suggests there’s a monster inside all of us, we just need the right cocktail of chemicals to release it.
Grown Human (Splice, 8.45pm): A scientist couple accidentally grow a humanoid by blending human and amphibian DNA. The resulting creature is sexy. And bitey. But is it human?
All pretty terrifying, right? The expert is a bit more sanguine about humanity’s relationship to science. “Usually with the premise of these films there’s a sense in which what one is trying to do is rather good in principle but in practice it turns out to have all kinds of disastrous consequences,” suggests Fuller. “I think one of the things that these films do is, in a way, sensitise people; not to necessarily be against these technological innovations, but to be aware that there are some negative consequences and one has to be prepared to deal with them.”