The 1960s were the age of freedom and individualism. It was a time when hitherto social taboos of racism and sexism began to be challenged and popular culture was changed forever through the “countercultures” of sex, drugs, fashion and music. Pushing the boundaries to excess and beyond, they say if you remember the 60s you weren’t there! It's also when I was born. 1968 to be exact.
But the 60s were also a time of restriction, of violence, of war. The threat of nuclear war hung heavy throughout the decade. It was a time of fear and political change.
I’ve recently seen old film archive and family photos which show just how long ago my childhood of the 60s and 70s appears to be when viewed from 2016. There were certainly far fewer cars on the roads than they are now, not surprising when it only cost 2p for a bus fare! Three television channels was apparently all we needed and many of the films we watched were in black and white. Our telephone landline was in a red box at the top of the street, next to the fish and chip shop. Some shops had half-day closing and none of them opened at all on Sunday.
My grandson is just over a month old. In a few years, I’ll tell him about life when I was young and he’ll say, “Grandad, you are SO old!” and I’ll say “Yes. I am.” For him, looking back to the 60’s will be akin to me in my childhood looking back to the Victorian era. Unrecognisable.
During my lifetime we’ve seen technology take us to places we would have thought unimaginable back then. Not only does television now offer up hundreds of channels, we can watch it on the move on mobile devices; the same mobile devices which were once just a mobile phone, which were in addition to our home landline, which in turn were welcomed with amazement that no longer did we have to walk to the top of the street to make a call. Back then we actually walked to a friend’s house to knock on the door to see if they were coming out to play. Now we communicate instantly through any one of a number of apps, email, text, etc.
The advancement of technology changes society, there can be no doubt about that. Some would argue that society drives demand for technology but this is rarely true. How many of you were so disgusted with the capability of your iPhone 6 that you demanded Apple bring iPhone 7 out within such a short space of time? And while you’re buying your shiny new iPhone 7 you can be sure that Apple have almost finished iPhone 8 – not because you already know what your iPhone 7 can’t do but because they’ve developed the technology to improve it.
So often technology drives society and we are blinded by the light of the next new shiny thing that we fail to see how small subtle changes over a period of time leads to accepted social norms and expectations.
Scientists will always strive to use technology to create something new, to push the boundaries, to work out what’s possible. However, once they’ve developed something it’s up to us to choose how to use it or whether it should be used. Remember the 60’s? We came so close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the tense stand-off between America and Russia occurred because actually nobody wanted to press the button because we’d already been awakened to the devastating effects of nuclear weapons by what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What would life look like now if one of them had pushed the button? What effect on future generations would that have caused?
Ethics and scientific technology cannot be divided. As scientists develop more and more tests to screen for genetic conditions for babies in the womb, we have to be a responsible society and create a framework of ethics around that technology.
- Is it good technology?
- Should it be used?
- Why should it be used?
- How should it be used?
- What else needs to be done to support the potential consequences of using that technology?
These are all vital questions. By simply allowing the use of technology without considering its implications is irresponsible and does not protect the current and future generations. Doing nothing leads to small subtle changes that eventually change the fabric of society. Social constructs are created through these changes. To ignore the ethics of the use of pregnancy screening technology would by default grant consent to its use and the potential unintended consequences of its use. Today it may be Down’s syndrome that it is used for but shortly this technology will be developed for other medical conditions and non-medical markers which determine the characteristics of each individual that makes up the human race.
What is happening NOW and our response will not only determine what the future will look like but it will also define us and what it means to be human.
It's time for us to THINK AGAIN!
Please watch “A World Without Down’s Syndrome?” Wednesday 5th October 9pm on BBC2