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Technology and Science: are you going to get it, or is it gonna get it you?

Commentary by Michael Walker-Thorsvedtt

Youth -- whether gay or otherwise -- are always at the forefront of technological advancement in any cultural setting which allows the open dissimulation of technology and technical information. Youth are the age demographic who are in school, who are learning the newest information available; youth are the ones who first embrace technical advances and new theories as they are not so tainted with tradition as their older counterparts.

I don't need to cite research to prove this point, I can simply ask any reader who is skeptical to visit their local shopping mall, school, or other public place to see young people dominating technological usage. We have video games, personal CD-players, laptop computers, pagers, and cellular phones. We walk around girded like futuristic warriors heading for battle with our weapons of communication and entertainment and often an arsenal of batteries as our ammunition, our sustenance. But I am just as concerned with the biomedical aspects of a new scientific culture as I am with the electronically engineered ones. Therefore, please understand that I contribute the information above to make a point: youth have embraced technology with the most open of arms, we therefore stand ready for further scientific adventures, if such may prove useful to us.

"Biomedical" is a very laden word, it has connotative meanings for many people which extend from its rather vague denotative meaning, which would be "things pertaining to the life sciences in relation to medicine and human health". The great advances in medical-related science and technology over the past two decades have changed how we culturally perceiving medicine and the scientific disciplines which contribute to medical knowledge. No longer do we look at medicine as diagnostic and curative measures alone which are provided during times of illness, but now the new "biomedical" sciences encompass everything from genetic testing and genetic engineering to the use of animal organs in human transplantation, as well as many other things which were only fantasies of science-fiction a number of years ago.

The greatest -- and most basic -- result of this increase in technology and knowledge seems to be a proportionate increase in the incorporation of biomedical themes into the popular culture of industrialized nations. We have two of the leading television series in the United States -- E.R. and The "X" Files -- based around medical and biomedical concepts, and we have a renewed interest in things supernatural --in part due to the aforementioned "X" Files . We have guide books to "Area-51" as if this formerly top-secret military installation was now opened up as some new Disney World. We have bumper stickers of strange-looking aliens and their stereotypically saucer-shaped space craft. Fox Mulder of The "X" Files was quite right: we do "want to believe", and we want that on a massive level.

Movies like Jurassic Park and Contact have allowed genetic concepts to come to fantastical fruition in the human mind; the idea is out there than we can clone, not just a simple one-celled micro-organism but a long-extinct dinosaur. Again, I think we are wanting to believe, and wanting to believe very much. Not that I assume many people to believe in the possibility of really cloning a dinosaur, but when scientific fact and science fiction run on correspondent but very different levels of reality, it is easy for the two to be confused. Not helping matters any is the simple truth that scientists do not really know exactly how far we will be able to take our current genetic knowledge and what miracles genetic engineering will produce in a few more years. This reminds me of what pilots call the "white-out effect", where they are landing a plane on a runway covered in snow and the sky above them is overcast and as white as the snow below, thus it is difficult to tell which way is up and which is down. That seems to be where biomedical science is standing right now in many ways: we're landing the plane but we're not sure where the sky is and where the ground is.

But how is all of this especially relevant to gay youth? Obviously, among other areas of human life explored by genetic research, homosexuality has received its fair share of attention from bioscientists. The argument that homosexuality is genetically determined is a two-edged sword for queers, especially gay youth. In a sense, this theory is highly beneficial to us because it offers an explanation for the way we are which lies beyond a person's upbringing or personal decisions. It removes blame and allows for the larger acceptance of homosexuality as something which cannot "be helped" by the homosexual. But it also medicalises gayness in a way, and breaks down everything to a scientific equation without considering the life that a person lives and their own desires, their uniqueness, period. In a discussion of genetic predetermination of homosexuality, one may use the term "rat" and "human" nearly interchangeably, we can remove the human aspect of our queerness and reduce it all to biological facts which may just as well concern laboratory animals as people in the real world.

Perhaps most importantly, the genetic argument draws lines, it nearly forces a person to accept either its theory wholeheartedly or to reject it with equal vigor; like abortion, it is socially a topic where the sides have already drawn their lines and approached the battle field. For a young person who is just coming to terms with what being gay means personally, forming an opinion of the origins of homosexuality can be daunting. And what if these so-called origins are not the same for every gay person? Genetic research in other fields has determined that some attributes of human behavior appear to be both genetically and environmentally influenced. Homosexuality may fall into the same bucket when more of the facts come in, if indeed there are more solid facts about this rather ethereal subject to examine.

As gay youth, we are born into all this, as I said before we walk around with our various forms of personal technology, either to become more connected to our world or to remove ourselves from it. We are constantly bombarded with an overload of techno-scientific information -- some of which may be of great relevance to us, but much more is of no great consequence. And are we being asked about what all of this means to us, by our mass media, our teachers, our idols in film, in music, in sports, our friends: we are all becoming closer or conversely more separated from the people in our lives through technological innovation. We take truly amazing technology for granted because it has been there through our lives; we are not of the generation that was impressed easily by advances in engineering but we are of the generation that desires and constantly makes use of such technology. So what of the next generation, those who shall come after us? What if they are born into a time when genetic technology is as much a part of their daily lives as electronic technology is today? Will they --these gay youth of the future-- take their sexuality as a scientific granted fact, will they see their "gayness", their "queerness", -- however you wish to term the property -- as something which is more of a medical condition or a biological fact than a personal and cultural phenomenon?

Don't get me wrong, there may well be plenty of positive, useful, findings to come out of all this genetic research concerning homosexuality; I of all people have always supported and encouraged all manner of legitimate scientific inquiry and never would wish to suggest that research is inherently a "bad thing". I have simply come to the point where I realize that as far as research that has serious social ramifications is concerned, performing "good science" is only the first step in providing responsible and useful information. A large part of the remaining task is to facilitate a viable pattern of dissimulation of this information into the general public.

What do I mean by this, in reference to gay youth and biomedical issues? Well, I feel that the task is two-fold, that the scientific community -- realizing that they are now dealing with issues which directly have a strong impact on the public and a public that is (we hope) intelligent and eager to be well-informed -- must make a concentrated effort to establish better communication with lay-people, to allow the public a proactive role in science. On the other hand, the "public" -- and for our purposes here let this mean gay youth -- has just as pronounced a responsibility to keep abreast of scientific and technological development, to possess an understanding of basic scientific and mathematical concepts that will allow them to accurately interpret the advances taking place in science around them.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there was a space-age push to encourage American youngsters to pursue education in the physical and life sciences with unconcealed vigor. At that time, there was a general enthusiasm for science, an eagerness to discover -- and benefit from -- newness and progress of all types. The space program was certainly a catalyst for this excitement but it is important to realize that new technology was changing every aspect of life during this time period, that technology had become a synonym for progress. This was before concerns of damaging the environment through our industrial might, this was before the thought of exploiting other cultures for our selfish gain, this was the last age of American innocence, really. And technology was the fairy godmother which made the fairy-tale possible.

We no longer live in such innocence, but we do live in a time where experience is no longer a cautionary force in our lives but instead a harbinger of complacency. We neither stand in awe nor stand in fear anymore; we now stand in jaded acknowledgment. But as gay youth, as a minority, as a group which has much to gain and possibly even more to lose, we cannot afford complacency right now. We need to be on top of the advances in science and technology happening around us because we stand at a thresh-hold where we may either reap the full rewards of progress or we may see our lives impacted in some manner by how others interpret these advances. So this is why I implore each one of you to become informed about these topics, to pick up at least enough of an understanding of the sciences to make informed interpretations and decisions based upon that knowledge. I don't at all mean to be alarmist here, but I honestly feel that no one else is going to look out for us other than ourselves, so we cannot be ignorant or anywhere close to complacent. And those bright horizons are still out there, it is still possible for us to accomplish a great deal with the means of technological and biotechnological know-how which are set before us; it's just a question of whether we are willing to rise to that challenge. So are you going to get it, or is it gonna get you?


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