Silicon Insider: Learning From Terri Schiavo

If you think the Terri Schiavo case was painful and difficult, just wait until you see what's coming.

I have tried very hard not to get enmeshed in the Schiavo matter. I'm a technology writer, and decided early on to leave this kind of stuff to the political and cultural pundits. Besides, these big cultural stories -- OJ, Scott Peterson, Columbine, Michael Jackson, etc. -- take on a life of their own, such that amidst all of the screaming and the flying accusations, it's almost impossible to ferret out the real truth in the matter [although, ironically, I can say that the "finger in the Wendy's chili" story is real: my kids' godmother was next in line that night, and even saw the finger].

Yet such is the nature of these big tabloid stories that, no matter how much you try, it is almost impossible to escape them -- or to come to some sort of opinion on the matter. For example, without having any real first-hand knowledge of the case, nor any expertise in brain neurology whatsoever, I seem to have come to the contradictory conclusion that Schiavo was not entirely brain dead, that her husband was ghoulish in his pressing this matter forward so relentlessly and that her parents are kindly but delusional about their daughter's real condition.

Is any of this true? I haven't the foggiest idea. If I want to be really paranoid, or at least Humeian, I might even wonder if this story was even real at all, or just an intriguing plot scenario designed by screenwriters as a litmus to our true beliefs. In fact, all of these big sensational stories that regularly capture the nation's imagination seem in fact to be test cases to prepare us for major crises to come, and as synecdoche for our deepest fears for a changing world. That's why, despite our resistance, we find ourselves drawn into the national debate, our emotions growing hot over people we've never met facing medical and legal challenges we don't really understand.

Precursor of Things to Come?

In that respect, these tabloid cases may actually have a salutary purpose: they are early warning systems for what we really fear is coming. Thus, the OJ trial was about the dangerous and growing cult of celebrity in America, however minor the celebrity, though the defense team skillfully managed to turn it into a barometer of the jurors' greatest fear: race. The Scott Peterson case was about the vulnerability of modern motherhood, Columbine was our fear of what our teenagers were doing home alone in front of their computer screens, and Michael Jackson is about celebrity and the lost innocence of modern childhood.

And Terri Schiavo? Of course it was about the pretty young woman in the photographs who morphed into the sad, perhaps empty, shell of a human being staring slack-jawed and empty-eyed at an incomprehensible world. But it was deeper than that. I think it was also about our fear of the mercilessness of technology and our dread of what lies in the near future.

It is hard to believe that the Terri Schiavo case would even have existed 50 years ago, much less captured the nation's imagination. She would likely have died before she reached the hospital, not 15 years later after being intentionally starved to death for two weeks. And this is the fear that secretly grips all of us -- not that modern medicine won't be able to save us, but that it will only be able to save us, not restore us. What horrifies us is not that Terri Schiavo was brain dead, but that she was not, that some fractional human being was still in there screaming to be heard. This is our 21st century version of the premature burial.

And it is only going to get worse … a whole lot worse. I remember a few years ago talking with an old friend, the business writer Tom Peters. He said, "You know, I am very damn glad I got to live to see the electronics revolution. And I am also very damn glad I'm not going to live to see the genetic revolution." However, the last time I looked, Tom was in the pink of health, and the genetic revolution has already begun to roar over the top of us. Even when we see them coming, tech revolutions always catch us by surprise.

Pondering the Possibilities

Consider the following scenarios, all of which may happen within most of our lifetimes:

      A computer processor achieves enough transistor density to equal that of the neurons in the human brain. Connected through analog-to-digital circuitry to powerful sensors, this computer is capable of independently interacting with, even moving through, the natural world. To the casual observer, this computer/robot is alive in almost every traditional sense. Do we have the right to pull its plug? Or is it now a being, deserving the respect we give all living things? Don't laugh: that question is already being asked about some robots at MIT.

      Go the next step: replace that digital processor in the robot with a human brain, your classic science fiction "brain in the vat." It has consciousness; even a sense of self, though that sense includes robotic arms and legs, digital cameras and fractional horsepower electric motors. Is this creature "alive"? Is it human? What rights does it have?

      Now, the ultimate step: what if one of our very large digital networks -- say, the Internet -- develops sufficient speed and complexity to begin exhibiting meta-behavior? Does it deserve the same protection we afford even the most primitive organisms?

      Go the other way: Let's say for the purpose of harvesting human organs we decide to grow complete human beings, except to simplify matters we make sure that they lack a cerebral cortex so that they are never conscious of themselves or their predicament. However, like any animal, they can feel pain. Are they human beings? Do they have rights?

      Now, take the Terri Schiavo case. Imagine that, using stem cells, we discover a way to regenerate brain cells in injured people. What if we are only able to generate enough neurons to make the patients functional, but with capacities little more than a dog or cat. Are these people human? What if instead we are able to generate enough cortex to return the person to a dim consciousness, like that of a profoundly retarded person. Should we undertake that therapy? Finally, what if we are able to fully restore the patient's brain, but so much information has been lost in the original injury that we end up creating the equivalent of a 40-year-old newborn with a fundamentally new identity? Would we consider that a success?

      Finally, and this is just an extension of the tragic story that has recently unfolded before our eyes, what if we develop the tools and the techniques to keep even the most vegetative or comatose person alive to their full natural lifespan -- perhaps even longer, given the low-fat, low-stress environment in which they might operate -- so that they outlive their parents, their mates, even their siblings? Who, if anyone, will then have the right to pull out their feeding tube? The government? No one?

There May Not Be Absolute Answers

I don't know about you, but I don't have a clue how to answer any of these questions. I'm not even sure how to formulate the problems. And I think that's one of the reasons why the Terri Schiavo case has had so much resonance. Each of us seems to draw the line differently as to where to divide living and not living, life and death, human and non-human. And it is more than disquieting to see those differences so nakedly exposed by this case.

My own heart is drawn toward those, like Pope John Paul II, President Bush and Peggy Noonan, who argue that for the sake of our own humanity we should err on the side of preserving the sanctity of life; that the alternative -- legalistic, pragmatic and utilitarian -- coldly culling out the sick, the feeble and the old, is too empty-souled, too ruthless, and too ungodly.

And yet, my mind can't help thinking about that last scenario, the one the life advocates never seem to talk about: the Land of the Living Dead. What if those endless twilight years are not rewarding, not even edifying, but a kind of Hell itself?

For that reason, I think, we have unconsciously chosen this case to force ourselves to ask those questions now, because, given the pace of technological change, we will very soon need to come up with some serious answers.

As for poor Terri Schiavo, she may not, as some of the protesters claim, have died for our sins, but she certainly died for our fears.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered the Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."