Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chip, Anyone?

There’s been a good deal of attention given to a positive, uplifting news story about a Chihuahua that was reunited with its original owners after five years of separation. I came across it a couple days ago with a link to the below video. I like to think it’s not just me, so I’ll assert that many people my age think of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey when they hear a story like this. There are actually real life cases that parallel that film, but in this instance, the truth is significantly less interesting.

Now, by writing on this topic, I run a risk of being branded a conspiracy theorist, or if you want to be a little more generous with me, just jaded, but I don’t find the coverage of this story, or dozens of others just like it, uplifting. They strike me as short-sighted, manipulative, and unjournalistically rhetorical. I’ve seen several of these stories in recent years, and they always go to great lengths to emphasize the practical benefit of having a microchip implanted in the body of your pet. This glorious technology, we are told to believe, is what makes such heart-warming tales of reunion possible. The twenty-one second video above manages to pack in a lot of that rhetoric, in that the reporter states flat-out at the end, “That, folks, is why you microchip your pets.” She says it to us as if we are children who just got a shock from sticking our fingers in the electrical socket. That “duh” quality to her pronouncement unsubtly suggests the real meaning of the comment as “What kind of heartless bastard would you have to be to not have your pet undergo a simple procedure that will keep it safe forever?”

Now here’s where I start to get conspiratorial. I would not be the least bit surprised if I found out that the story of this Chihuahua and all of the other microchipped returnees that preceded it were press releases issued by the company that produces the technology and offers the service of having it installed into living tissue. But whether it’s the company that’s imbuing the story with its imperative language or just the news organizations themselves, somebody is making a normative claim about the circumstances behind this case. The primary effect is not our being informed about something that has happened; we are being advertised something, the use of which is declared to be a logical or moral obligation.

My tinfoil hat shows more clearly when I say this: I am not at all comfortable with this technology. Now, I’m a vegetarian, a pantheist, and a trained philosopher who assumes a liberal view on the mentality of animals. Put simply, I’m very much an animal rights guy. Because I have a downright radical approach to that subject, I can’t help but ask certain questions about the value of microchipping from the animal’s perspective. We are given no facts about the case of the Chihuahua, who is named Cookie. It is merely said that she “disappeared” five years ago. Well, what if she tried very hard to escape? What if she didn’t like her owners, and was much happier living wild on the streets of San Diego? I’m not content to say that the human beings win out and earn the right to imprison a creature forever, just because they have the technology to make it easy.

Now, in fairness, I have a pet myself. I’m not against pet ownership. But I worry about losing my rabbit should it get loose outside, not simply because I like the company it provides, but because I’m concerned for its safety. If he chewed through his leash and ran off, I would be worried about his fate, but if I found him living in a park four years later, with a family and an established den, I wouldn’t try to snare him and drag him back to the comfortable enclosure of my apartment. At that point, he’s earned his freedom and proven his worth in the genetic lottery. And that’s another concern for me: The tendency to treat every animal the same impedes their evolution. But I digress.

What is really at issue here is not the way this technology is currently used on pets, but the way that it could be used elsewhere. We are told that microchipping a dog is the right thing to do, that there are no drawbacks, and that we shouldn’t question it, but just do it. But I don’t think the practice of implanting information-bearing technology or tracking devices in living beings is the sort of thing we should rush into. There is enormous potential for misuse of this technology, and it is spectacularly short-sighted to treat it as a moral obligation because of its benefits, without pausing to consider that we might be placing ourselves on a slippery slope.

If the media insists that it is so important to microchip your dog for its own protection, what is to prevent them from saying that you have the same obligation to take that precaution with your child? There are many tragic stories of children becoming separated from their parents. What if the process of returning the child to his mother was as simple as scanning a microchip in his arm and calling his mother’s cell phone? What if finding a child that has been lost or kidnapped was as simple as zeroing in on his signal with a satellite? Sounds wonderful, huh? So what if all those microchipped children eventually grow into adults who now have a piece of technology permanently embedded in their flesh, from a procedure that they never personally consented to? So what if they can potentially be tracked all their lives by anyone with access to the technology?

I seem like I’m sounding alarms without cause, right? But tell me: what aspect the technology makes it incapable of being used this way? We have a collective awareness of the dangers of things “falling into the wrong hands.” Is there somehow less danger when that which might fall into the wrong hands is linked directly to our bodies?

A myopic media doesn’t have cause only to advocate this violation of civil liberties for children and pets, for whom it can be justified on the basis that they cannot take care of themselves. What about implanting microchips in convicts, so that we can safeguard against escape, and so we can track them after they’ve served their time and been legally released, and so we can know instantly if people with whom we’re dealing have criminal records?

It doesn’t take long before an exclusive focus on the positive leads us to accepting the assertion that everyone should be sporting the same brand of internal jewelry, which can tell anyone of interest crucial information about who you are, and potentially other things, like where you’ve been, whom you know, and how you shop. There are dangers in this, and it’s dangerous to public awareness if we reduce the dialogue to “OMG look at the cute Chihuahua! He must be so happy to be back with his mommy and daddy!”

As a matter of fact, the effort has already been made to broaden acceptance of this technology and its multiple uses. I have seen more than one news story very similar to the tales of lost dogs, about human beings who have been voluntarily microchipped as a means of assuring that their medical information was available if they were ever taken unconscious to a hospital.

Unfortunately for me, the sidebars for videos like this one are filled with related videos declaring that Verichip is the mark of the beast. Personally, I’m not saying that anyone is trying to enact devious plans to control you or to limit your humanity if you don’t join the club. I just think we’re falling victim to the all-too-common tendency to promote the good that something can do right now, at the expense of awareness of the far greater harm it might be able to do later.

However, I do think it’s quite possible that someone who’s invested in this technology is trying hard to exploit that tendency. I’m even more suspicious of the source of the human stories than I am of the ones about lost pets. But in any event, the animal stories seem to be far more prevalent. When it’s a human being that’s the subject of the video, you’re much more likely to connect it to yourself, and thus to consequences. But focusing on animals is a great way to get people comfortable with the technology by showcasing what good it can do for you when it’s implanted in something that most people think doesn’t have civil liberties. But I advise you to not get comfortable, to not let the cuteness factor of little Cookie override your ability to think critically and connect a human interest story to a wider topic of genuine human interest.

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