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Pathfinders

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Anti-socialists who peddle the old saw about human nature being unchangeable ought to hang out more with the kids and play online computer games, because if they did they would soon realize just how malleable human behaviour actually is. A recent study by researchers in Palo Alto, California, took two groups of virtual reality gamers and assigned them online cartoon representations, or avatars, which were deliberately given distinct physical characteristics, shorter or taller in the first group, and uglier or prettier in the second. Then they studied the behaviour of the gamers. (NS, Feb 25, p.30). Those whose avatars were taller displayed consistently more assertive and aggressive behaviour while the shorter players were more acquiescent, and in the second group, the uglier players stood farther apart than the prettier ones. A quick and informal interrogation by Pathfinders of known local players reveals that this sort of behavioural change is common knowledge among gamers and in fact accounts for much of the appeal of virtual reality gaming. If our behaviour is so easily influenced by our perception of ourselves and our virtual surroundings, it is not hard to imagine a sea-change in human behaviour occurring almost overnight if our actual material surroundings were changed, say by the abolition of private ownership. The researchers plan to run the experiment next using age as the defining characteristic. We look forward to gamers, confronted by themselves with wrinkled skin and grey hair, suddenly becoming gurus of wisdom and maturity.

RFID, RDFI, DRIF, FRIED...

News that researchers have managed to infect state of the art RFID tags with a virus (BBC Online, March 15) raises a number of disturbing issues for the security of this new technology, as well as a highly interesting question for socialist revolutionaries in the wired world of the 21st century. These electronic Radio Frequency ID tags, which give every inanimate object the ability to identify itself electronically, can now be printed on cans of beans, and even sprayed on advertising posters, so that in the supermarkets of the near future the checkout till, barcode reader and human operator will disappear and your goods will be automatically identified in the trolley, and your bank account debited, as you push your wonky-wheeled chariot through the doors and into the carpark. Such ‘smart-tagging’ of products, posters, pets and even people carries huge benefits from a capitalist point of view, and not a few benefits from a future socialist society’s point of view too (see Socialist Standard, Jan 2005), but none of this takes into account what happens when a virus introduces Factor X – the RF Identity Crisis. When all forms of hard cash have disappeared, and the circulation of money in the economy is replaced by the circulation of binary digits round a computer network, the money economy will have reached its zenith of efficiency, and its nadir of vulnerability. One smart hacker could in theory do by stealth what all the revolutionaries of history have failed to do by force – abolish price tags, wipe out bank accounts, mortgages, debts, profits, rents and fees, thus effectively ‘rebooting’ society and resetting all values at zero. The question, for socialists, is whether they could ever condone, or advocate, such a draconian step, given the chaos which would quite likely ensue. Given the organized chaos of a society which at present lets most of its members suffer appalling deprivation within a sea of riches, the answer is surely not straightforward.

More on viruses

AOL, the American internet giant, have recently been hit by a double whammy. First, according to informed sources close to Pathfinders, their endorsed anti-virus partner Macafee turned out a March upgrade to their anti-virus software which, oh dear, oops, deletes certain vital Windows DLL overlay files, which is the equivalent of removing the spark plugs from your car engine. Then, within days, the Norton group produced their anti-virus upgrade which accidentally removes, yes, you guessed it, your AOL internet software. If anti-virus companies are going to carry on doing more damage to your computer than the viruses they are supposed to catch, surely the obvious question is: why don’t they test these upgrades on virtual animals first? Remember, you saw this idea here first.

Lastly, on viruses

In case you missed this: the animals in the jungle are discussing who is the scariest of them all. ‘Me’, says the lion, and gives out a big roar. The animals shake their heads, unimpressed. ‘Me’, says the gorilla, and thumps his chest. The animals tap their paws, underwhelmed. Then the parrot lets out a sneeze, and everybody runs for miles…. You know it’s serious when the jokes start appearing.

Drugs trial + Pro-Test

The controversy over animal testing has always generated more heat than light, and the temperature has now been turned up several notches on the regulo dial by two unrelated but curious events. One is the unprecedented ‘coming out’ of pro-test students in Oxford under the name ‘Pro-Test’, instigated by a young student disgusted with anti-testers’ increasingly terrorist tactics against individuals as well as the alleged poor quality of the debate. The other is the catastrophic clinical trial of the drug TGN1412, developed by the German TeGenero biotechnology company, that left six UK volunteers in intensive care, with two of them in critical condition as this goes to press (FT.com, March 16). Early reports are suggesting that the paperwork for the trial was entirely in order and that the drug had already been extensively tested on rabbits and monkeys with no discernible adverse effects, so that it was deemed entirely safe to proceed with clinical trials in humans. What is especially interesting about this calamity is that both sides of the animal testing debate will immediately seize on it as proof of their position: the anti-testers will parade this disaster as evidence that animal testing is unable to prevent harmful drugs like Thalidomide and Seroxat, now TGN1412, from reaching humans, while pro-testers will be entirely justified in asking how many more potentially lethal drugs would have been tried on humans if animal testing had been banned outright. As with many things in science, both sides have a point, and there are no simple answers. Even in socialism, where there would be little likelihood of animal testing for non-medical purposes, eg. cosmetics (such research today account for around three quarters of testing), this debate would most probably run and run.