Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Ethics of Progress at Jackson's Lane Theatre

“Spooky action at a distance” was Einstein’s memorable description of the paradoxes inherent in quantum mechanics – and the words “spooky” and “weird” crop up more than once in Jon Spooner’s engaging one-man show about the places theoretical physics may soon take us.

As adults the vast majority of us, physicists excepted, take for grant that the world works in certain ways, and that everything is governed by a set of basic laws and rules; so to learn that the very smallest particles are not subject to these laws – in defiance of classic Newtonian physics – is a bit of a head-fuck: Spooner is clearly still spinning.

Written together with Chris Thorpe and Clare Duffy of Unlimited Theatre, The Ethics of Progress, a kind of everyman’s guide to superposition and quantum entanglement, came about following a process of conversation and consultation with Oxford University’s Professor Vlatko Vedral. Spooner describes how teleportation is theoretically entirely possible and goes on to outline what a future in which humans are capable of teleportation might be like. He draws an amusing but apt parallel with a pre- and post-wheel world: making the obvious but still persuasive observation that something which brought us so much in terms of agriculture, industry and freedom of movement is also a fundamental tool of warfare and environmental ruin. From here he extrapolates a possible future in which teleportation technology comes to be a boon in terms of global travel and the averting of humanitarian crises, but on the flip-side, there’s also an unnerving sequence in which he describes a scenario of potential genocide-by-teleportation.

Like the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, in his book Into The Silent Land, Spooner finds himself questioning what all this means in terms of the soul. If we’re all just data, a collection of transferrable particles, what does this mean for the essential stuff that is us?

It’s important, he says, to think about the social and ethical – and spiritual – consequences of new technology because it’s on its way. He uses the recent rapid advances in communication technology as an example, the way they’ve utterly and fundamentally changed the way so many of us interact. Some people find this exhilarating, others deeply troubling, but to a younger generation of digital natives it’s simply how things are. Spooner is not however advocating technophobia, if anything he’s excited about the possibilities; but he does stress the necessity for imaginative questioning. We need to think about this now, he urges, because we can’t simply turn the clocks back if the future isn’t as bright and shiny as we’d hoped (well, actually, as it transpires in the post-show Q&A with Vedral, maybe we can – but that’s another story).

Spooner’s show has a lot in common with Robin Ince’s exercises in Carl Sagan fanboyism. There’s something endearingly lo-fi about explaining scientific innovation with the help of a laptop and a couple of stools and in its own quiet, geeky way it’s like the clarion call which fills the final pages of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma, a call to keep questioning things, to ask and ask and ask, because the future is coming and all we can do is be ready.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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