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Pathfinders

Meat without the bleat

Panda pie anyone? How about cheetah chow mein or koala curry? The much-anticipated arrival of in-vitro synthetic meat is almost upon us, with the first artificial pork sausage now an estimated six months away (New Scientist, 3 September). Since the animals normally used for meat are those that were historically easiest to domesticate regardless of whether they were the best tasting, this could be an opportunity to get really adventurous. And, come to think of it, why stop at living animals? With the genomes of many extinct animals now in the bag or in the pipeline it should in theory be possible to serve up dodo and dinosaur too. And for the slightly perverse gourmand what about Neanderthal? We could even find out whether it’s true what they say about ‘long pig’. And all of it pain, guilt and mostly fat and resource-free, according to the hype in which it will surely be packaged. Though no lower in energy consumption than poultry or pork production, in-vitro promises to produce about a tenth of the greenhouse gases associated with beef farming and use around five percent of the water and one percent of the land. Vegetarians should be ecstatic, and meat eaters can stop worrying about ethics. Farmyard animals should be dancing in the barns for joy as the Third Meat Revolution emancipates the worldwide Doner-tariat and slaughterhouses become overgrown with weeds. Fish can swim round the mill pond rejoicing at their imminent return from the brink of extinction.

For socialists with a serious concern for world food supplies this ought to be unequivocally welcome news. Socialism, as a society of universal free access, presupposes material abundance, or at least sufficiency, and food is at the top of the critical list. Though the world could currently support around 10 billion using third world farming methods, the diet would be unenviably drab, and probably less healthy than at any time since the first development of farming. To provide the world’s population with the kind of meat diet and general variety the West is accustomed to would take between three and five planets. With this technology however, one of socialism’s most pressing problems looks well on the way to being solved.

Hard not to get excited about, surely? Well, we don’t want to piss on anyone’s mammothburger and chips, but let’s just take a moment here. Some scientists anticipate public resistance, citing a ‘yuk factor’ response as consumers react against this ‘unnatural’ technology. A thoroughly unscientific straw poll around our office’s meat-eaters revealed that, assuming general equivalence in price, two would indeed take this view, since meat ‘ought to come from real animals’, two wouldn’t care, given what goes in today’s meat products anyway, and one would be enthusiastic for ethical reasons. This suggests that though the ‘yuk factor’ is likely to be a real phenomenon, it is not universal. It may only be a temporary reaction too, since ‘artificial’ foods like quorn have grown in popularity over time. Comparisons with Europe-wide rejection of ‘unnatural’ GM foods are rather off-beam. People don’t just object to GM because it’s ‘unnatural’, whatever that means, but also because it is largely untested and untrusted technology in the hands of untrustworthy corporations, and in the case of the notorious ‘terminator gene’, blatantly used for the purpose of ruthless profit in defiance of any conceivable human interest.

One can hope that capitalism will use in-vitro technology in the best possible way to produce the best possible products, but one should add a piquant splash of cynicism to that dish. What is just as likely to emerge is something stringy, greasy and anaemic for the labouring classes while the price of ‘real’ meat rockets along with its upper class mystique. Capitalism will certainly try to wring the best possible profit from the technology, but it may be left to socialism to find the best possible use for it.

Citizens band

Socialists with their own PCs might like to consider donating some free machine time to important scientific research projects, many of which now use distributed networks of home PCs for the huge data-crunching they need.  The SETI@home project is probably the most iconic of these, the quest to find extraterrestrial intelligence that has such a remote chance of success that wags have observed they’d do better to mount a search for terrestrial intelligence instead. Now, and with more hope of useful result, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is requesting home help to process the data coming from radio observatories, including the soon to be built Square Kilometre Array, itself a distributed multiple-dish telescope the effective size of a continent (‘Skynet seeks to crowdsource the stars’, BBC Online, 13 September). This is exactly how we’ll do so much science in socialism too, because quite apart from the efficiency of distributed parallel data processing, distributed human participation is the whole point, the whole socialist raison d’etre. And how amazing to be directly involved in new discoveries! But did they really have to call it Skynet? Wasn’t that the name of the rogue system that took over the world and killed everyone in the film Terminator? Oooer….

Capitalism gets smart?

The University of Illinois' Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science recently announced a study which used millions of press articles to predict unrest in North Africa retrospectively, and which could, say the report authors, be used to predict future conflicts (‘Supercomputer predicts revolution’, BBC Online, 9 September). While the likelihood of future conflicts in capitalism is a total no-brainer, the ability to predict just when and where would clearly be of no small advantage to the world’s ruling classes. A not dissimilar claim is being made for a system which links global unrest to climatic conditions, with the observation that conflict rose in tropical countries during hot and dry El Nino periods and fell during cool and wet La Ninas, even independently of local conditions such as droughts and famines (New Scientist, 27 August). Meanwhile IBM has built a ‘cognitive’ microchip with transistor ‘synapses’ connecting wire ‘dendrites’ in imitation of a neuron cell in the brain. By connecting such chips together IBM expects to construct a supercomputer with some 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses (the human brain has 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses), and all in about the space of a shoebox – or a brain (New Scientist, 27 August). No doubt this paragon will also be pressed into service to fathom the complexities of capitalism and predict future wars, conflicts, slumps and civil unrest. The boundless faith some scientists have in their own gadgets is truly wondrous to behold, as is this farcical idea that they can use them to expose the hidden wires of the capitalist system. We suggest that they would probably get as good a level of predictive accuracy, and significantly better analysis, if they just shelled out £1.50 for a copy of the Socialist Standard every month.

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