Tuesday, September 16, 2008

That Brave New World Threatens Again!

By Mike Crawmer

I admit it: I watch way too much TV, albeit it mostly of the elevating kind—you know, PBS, Discovery , Science, History channel, FoodTV, etc.

Not much of what I learn from all this watching is very practical. Sure, it’s nice to know that provenance increases the value of your family heirlooms (not that I have any), but what use can I make of the knowledge that it was their mastery of the horse than enabled the Mongol hordes to overrun much of Asia and eastern Europe?

Then, a few weeks ago, a segment of the Science channel’s “Beyond Tomorrow,” a program that showcases cutting-edge technology, got my attention. Now, here was something that could have a real impact on me (and, I bet, some of you, fellow mystery writers).

If what this program predicts comes to pass, CSI, Quincy ME and Dr. G: Medical Examiner will seem as outdated to future viewers as a silent film is to us now. (Needless to say, Kay Scarpetta and others like her will be just as anachronistic.) Why, these future viewers will ask between smirks, did Gil and Catherine and Quincy spend so much time dissecting, weighing, measuring, testing, and analyzing when, as everyone knows, autopsies are done by machines in just a couple minutes?

Yep, it seems that researchers in Sweden have developed a new CT-based scanning system that produces a vivid, non-invasive autopsy. Just slip the body through the special scanner and, voila, a few minutes and 6 gigabytes of information later the investigator has a complete 3-dimensional image of every bone, tissue, sinew, ligament, capillary and organ, what’s right with them, what’s wrong with them.

Just think of it: No more messy lab tables and livers, hearts, brains and stomach contents sloshing around in stainless steel bowls. No more too-eager assistants and queasy detectives rushing out of the laboratory, hand over mouth. No more idiosyncratic MEs peering with their one good eye into a cavity or scratching their manes of unkempt grey hair with bloody fingernails. No more elegantly written autopsy reports with their references to obscure southeast Asian diseases transmitted by the feces of some endangered bat species.

In short, a brave new technological world—all dull and boring and straightforward—where a machine sucks out another bit of the soul of our imagination.

Right now I’m finishing a mystery, set, ironically, in Sweden. Among its cast is a cantankerous forensic pathologist—not quite central casting but almost. He was a character, but of more interest to me was the various detectives’ reactions to him and, to them, his grisly job. That dynamic was grist for the writer’s imagination and skill, providing the author with lots of opportunities for character development and insight.

This new autopsy technology, if it becomes commonplace (and I’m sure it eventually will if only because it’s more economical than the current system), would relegate the pathologist to the dustbin of history. Detectives wouldn’t have to worry about witnessing the next autopsy or fight with the coroner for faster turnaround on vital information. All they’d have to do is drop off the body, sip a decaffeinated latte and munch a granola bar, then, presto, there’s the report they need.

Technology is great, but all these advances threaten to sap fiction of its spirit. Not an original thought, I know, just one more thing—like the collapse of the financial system, the presidential election, global warming, the price of gas—that I can add to my list of ongoing worries.


Tory said...

I still remember an article I read as a teenager, predicting commonplace technology 10 years after it was printed. It's been over 30 years since I read it, but, in my experience, most people don't have houses where the walls light up. Most of us still use lamps or ceiling lights.

Predicting things is a difficult business, I've learned, and it's hard to figure out exactly what use people will make of technology.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Joyce said...

I can't imagine an autopsy becoming completely automated. There are some things that only a human can figure out. There will still be questions only a medical examiner will be able to answer.

I agree with Tory about predictions. Otherwise, we should all have flying cars by now.

Very thought provoking post, Mike!

Gina said...

I suspect the non-invasive autopsy would be very popular with surviving loved ones, who cringe at the thought of anyone dissecting the decedant. Another advantage would be that the organs, injuries, etc., could be viewed in position, without anything having to be first taken out or moved aside, which would surely present a clearer picture for reconstructing things like angle of entry, etc. Besides, being up to the elbows in bloody tissue may not bother you meat eaters but, as a long-time vegetarian, I can only say it really creeps me out.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Joyce, 25 years ago could you imagine paperless photograghs?

A couple of years ago, I went to a meeting on change management and the speaker was from Kodak. He knew me and used me as an example. He asked what we would think if someone challenged us to deliver a Budweiser to the consumer without a bottle, can, keg or glass. He said that's how they felt when management asked them to deliver paperless photographs.

I also remember reading (not all that long ago) about this new thing called digital music and MP3. They said it would revolutionize the industry. How would that happen? My vinyl records and cassette tapes worked just fine.

Mike, When I was writing the final scenes of my first book, I got to the climax where my FBI Agent had to stop an automated event from happening. For thirty pages I've been building up to this dramatic sequence. Laura Daniels is racing to the scene to stop the event and it dawned on me, "Why doesn't she just use her cell phone and call it in to have this stop?"

That would not have been the explosive ending I was looking for. OH, I could have used a lot of excuses, no bars, "can you hear me now?", etc. But I wanted to make it plausible and not one of those convenient little tricks some lazy writers use. It took a week to come up with it and I had to go back and re-write a scene to make it work, but in the end, it was worth it.

I think that's why some writers write fiction based in the past. You KNOW the capabilities of the technology and we had to use our brains a little more.

Friday I plan to talk about a little research trip I did for my current book that involved technology that I wanted to get right.

Good stuff.

mike said...

Thanks for the comments and insights. I wanted to include a link to that segment/program, but didn't have much luck finding it! Hmmm, must be me...certainly can't be the technology.

nancy said...

OKay, I find myself wondering why I can't have one of those scans while I'm alive instead of all the poking, prodding, x-rays, Ct scans, blood tests by the gallon and that damn stress test when they pump me full of radioactive stuff to look at my heart while I gasp on the treadmill. Yeesh!

It's probably available. Just costs too much for anyone but the tax payers who must fund autopsies!

Dana King said...

I had the same cell phone thing happen to me. Detective rushing to save someone close to him, trying to call to see if she's all right, and it dawned on me: he'd use his cell, demmy. So I had him appreciate the danger as he was coming out of the shower. In his haste to towel off and get dressed he FORGOT HIS CELL PHONE.

Whew. That was close.