Immortality and Rabbits and Research Process


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Although my PhD is in English and I've been in the field of English (as both a student and educator for years), I am essentially a cultural historian. Through my work, I have been lucky enough to make contact with many different fields to varying degrees.

Yet, I often find myself returning to the same essential concepts - ideas that actually inspired me as a child.

My work most deeply concerns how technology impacts the human condition. This interest has spawned work on robots, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and immortality in both fiction and the sciences. This interest has also inspired work on technologies such as nuclear technology, remote warfare and information warfare. Most recently, I've examined how electronic and cyberbullying are examples of a 'postchildhood information war' by looking at literature such as the popular young adult's series Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (books) and I. Marlene King (TV). So - it's quite diverse. Yet, often I find myself examining very similar root ideas.

Today, I received my own copy of Discover Magazine (issue May 2015) in which (on page 74) I wrote on issues of immortality. This is by far the most scientific piece I have written to date. However, while writing, I was struck by the amount of creativity, imagination and fiction surrounding the development of this idea - from ancient efforts of Emperor Qin Shi Huang to the dreams of the 2045 Initiative.

Writing this piece was such a shift for me. Naturally, a lot of my work examining technology has a technological and scientific bent to it - especially my forthcoming book on nuclear technology in popular culture. However, this piece was something different. I had a strict word limit of 650 words and consequently had to edit away most of my standard waffle and literary anecdotes to get to the very bare bones of facts and science. I'm delighted with the end result which was truly an example of teamwork between me and the helpful folk at Discover.

Nevertheless, sitting with the article in my hands I wondered how I went from my undergrad dissertation on fairy tales to writing a scientific piece on immortality.

There seems to be a gulf between them. Or is there?

The book I most remember from my childhood was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. This book I read over and over. My parents even bought me a new copy on my 21st birthday. The story involves the quest of a stuffed rabbit to become real. The rabbit belongs to a young boy who loves the toy very dearly. However, when the boy becomes ill from scarlet fever the doctor orders the rabbit to be destroyed along with all the boy's possessions. Dumped in the garden for burning, the rabbit and his artificial friends encounter a fairy who kisses the rabbit and makes him real.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams 1922 front cover

Well damn. If that story hasn't inspired a lifetime's work! From my love of fairy tales to my work on artificial intelligence - it all stems from this. What does it mean to be real? What things can influence this process of real? Over the years, this interest has grown and bloomed into widely varied discussions on how the human condition has been impacted by technology (read: how the rabbit was transformed by the fairy). The rabbit is how the human and the fairy is now technology. Thus, I question how technology impacts the human condition. Even when my train of thought stretches as wide as to consider nuclear energy, at the centre of it all is this rabbit that kick started a wonderful evolution of thought.

Rabbit - real - fairy tales - quest for real - what is real - Jean Baudrillard and what is real - technology as altering real - Martin Heidegger and technology - technology as problematizing human experience and natural world - what is the human condition - technology as problematizing human condition - technology as enabling genocide - technological apocalypse! - technology as extending the human - technological singularity - immortality ...

In The Velveteen Rabbit the Skin Horse told the Rabbit “Real isn't how you are made ... It's a thing that happens to you."

Not only is that true about life, but it's true about research - it happens to you.

Read my article '20 Things You Didn't Know About Immortality' online http://discovermagazine.com/…/22-20-things-about-immortalit… or in stores

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