The Big Idea: Matthew FitzSimmons
Progress happens all the time, but when do we notice it, and as importantly, when do we stop noticing it? The dynamics of progress is something Matthew FitzSimmons has been thinking about for his novel Constance, and how we humans adapt to it… or don’t.
My grandmother, Mary Eleanor Hughes, was born in 1921, fifteen years before the Rural Electrification Act of ’36 (at a time when only 3% of American farms had electricity). By the time she passed in 1999, America had been to the moon and back. It had invented and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The automobile, the television, the telephone, the computer, and the internet – these are only a handful of the technological miracles that reshaped the world she would live in. We take them all for granted now, but what must have it been like to witness the world change with such breathtaking speed? What must she have felt boarding her first jet airliner in her forties? I thought about her life often while writing Constance.
Once I began the world-building for the book, I knew that Constance wouldn’t be set in a time when human cloning, like air travel before it, was taken for granted. That’s why I chose to set the book in 2040, a mere nineteen years from now. That way the arrival of human cloning would be new and transformative and immensely disruptive. For all of human history, death has been a finality. But then without warning or fanfare, what if it became possible to upload and store an individual’s consciousness? In the event tragedy befalls that individual, their consciousness could be downloaded into a cloned body – an insurance policy against death. How would society react to so radical a revision to the fundamental assumptions of human life?
As a species, we’ve adapted the planet to our needs primarily though technological innovation. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that those same technological innovations have been adapting us right back, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. A current example of this endless cycle is Deepfakes, the video manipulation software. There was a time when the journalistic expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words” was a truism. However, the trustworthiness of photographs and videos is being rendered worthless by technologies such as Photoshop and Deepfakes. What are the positive applications for Deepfakes that justify the havoc that it will wreak on societal confidence in information? That question clearly doesn’t concern its creators who are too busy inventing for the sake of invention, while we are having far too much fun inserting our faces into our favorite movies to amuse our friends online. Meanwhile, Deepfakes continues to undermine society’s ability to believe what it sees.
That has been the way of things over the last five hundred years as the pace of innovation accelerated dramatically – technology arrives, society is forced to adapt. In Constance, I wrote that, “Humans are very good at inventing solutions and very, very bad at anticipating consequences.” Rarely is society given the opportunity to consider whether to let a particular genie out of a particular bottle. That decision is taken out of our hands, but the long-term effects are ours to contend with. Perhaps that is the price of progress.
So what would be the consequences of human cloning? It was a fascinating thought experiment. Would human cloning be accepted or envied or reviled, perhaps all three simultaneously? I remembered the reaction to the birth of Elizabeth Jordan Carr in 1981, the first baby born in America using in vitro fertilization. She was cruelly dubbed a “test-tube baby” and the attending controversy, stigma, and moral outrage continued for years before eventually subsiding. Four decades later, over a million babies have been conceived through IVF. Would human cloning follow a similar trajectory – an initial period of outrage followed by acceptance and adaptation, or would resistance become ingrained?
It also occurred to me that cost and access to IVF remain a barrier for most women experiencing fertility issues. IVF can cost upward of $100,000 and only seventeen states have laws requiring health insurance cover the procedure. Cutting-edge technologies are never distributed equitably – I give you the parade of middle-aged billionaires taking environmentally catastrophic joyrides into low-earth orbit – so what if human cloning were also prohibitively expensive and only available to the one percent? How would the rest of us respond to being left out, left behind?
Those were the questions that I hoped Constance would inspire.