Why is the colour blue like arguments on Twitter?

Instead of throwing around words like "mansplaining", we should try to understand each other's experiences - which are as unique as our individual perception of colours.

I happened to be reading up on qualia, recently. For those familiar with the term, please forgive my short and inevitably inaccurate explanation of this deeply complex philosophical concept. Qualia are those personal experiences which depend on subjective perception to such an extent that knowledge of them cannot be properly shared.

A common example of a quale, is the perception of saturated colour. Colour does not exist objectively and independently of our perception of it. The cone photoreceptors in our eye send a message to the brain, depending on the wavelength of light reflected, and we interpret that as red, or blue, or whatever. There is, however, no way to confirm that what I see as blue is what you see as blue. Try to explain blue to a person who was born blind and you will find it is impossible without resorting to analogies which rely on other sensations, or referencing other colours or other things which are “blue”.

Pain is also a quale. Imagine explaining the sensation to an alien race which has never felt – and is incapable of feeling – pain. This doesn't mean your pain isn't real, of course. It just means that, like so many other things, it is a singularly personal experience.

These unshareables are an important component of what makes us who we are. And since it is a philosophical impossibility for us to feel things as someone else does, communication is the only viable route to try and explain them, to foster empathy. I believe this is precisely what empathy is; an openness to information (and a willingness to understand it) which allows one to approximate what blue might look like through someone else's eyes.

This brings me to the recent debate about Twitter abuse, the possibility of censorship, misogyny, silence and speaking out. I have long felt that one of the biggest obstacles to understanding each other, to empathy, is the attempt to aggregate our qualia; to generalise about what is universally offensive and try to define it on behalf of an entire group. Each abuser is an individual with their own agenda, their own motivation and their own baggage. Each recipient of abuse, ditto.

It is entirely true to say I haven't walked a mile in a woman's shoes. Except for a few months in 1989 when I was trying something out. But each woman's journey is different, as is each man's. Nobody has walked in anybody's shoes. We are uniquely alone in our perception of the world around us. I was dismayed as I watched the debate somehow mutate from how to deal with abuse on social media – together – to how all men hate and want to hurt women.

Granted, there are shared experiences which might make it marginally easier for a woman to explain her colour blue to another woman. But it is still a mammoth task and it still just empathy, not actual shared perception. And it doesn't mean it is impossible for her to find a different common frame of reference which might allow her to explain her colour blue to a man. Trying to do so is incredibly worthwhile, not only for the explainee, but also the explainer. Each time we struggle to find the right words to describe our qualia to someone, it facilitates the next time someone struggles to explain theirs to us.

I read Dan Hodges' blog on modern feminism, and it is a good example of the knots into which we tie ourselves, when we try to generalise. He puts forward a world view in which men in general somehow get together and decide - or instinctively know - how to react to women in general. I have never gone up to stranger and broken the ice with “so. . . you have a penis, too”. Except for a few months in 1991 when I was trying something out.

Some of the reaction to Hodges's blog was equally disappointing – it was dismissed as “mansplaining”. A quaint little term with a very nasty subtext, meaning that anyone with a particular chromosomal combination could not possibly have anything of value to offer. The very same narrow-mindedness which kept women oppressed for millennia.

This world view of them-against-us simply doesn't tally with my perception. It is not the blue I see. I have felt many things hinder, annoy, anger or threaten me at one time or another. The possibility of gender equality has never been one of them. I welcome it. I fight for it. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my sisters, my mother, my nieces, my girlfriends, my female colleagues and cannot wait for it to come. To be told, quite consistently, “no, really, you want to rape them” is deeply upsetting.

I was similarly dismayed to see people I admire lay into each other on the subject of whether silence was the right approach. So far as I could see, nobody forced anyone to be silent as a protest. Some people decided, based on their experience, their colour blue, that it was an appropriate response and did it. Others decided to talk about inspiring women. Others decided to ignore it altogether and not allow abuse to derail them from normality. I say hurrah for them all. Why must it be one-size-fits-all? It is completely within our gift to allow each other freedom of expression.

The other day, someone accosted me on Twitter and wrote: “Muslims left alone would still be living in caves, Africans in trees and Arabs in children.” This gentleman was crystal clear about his intent to offend and upset and effective at expressing it. To him, I am the troll. Then, just as I was about to type something, someone else replied to him about “Arabic numerals”, someone else said to that person they were “actually Hindu”, a third person butted in etc. On top of the people (men and women) hurling abuse (to men and women) with wicked intent, why must we troll each other with oneupmanship?

The only true distinction I can see is between people of both sexes willing to put in the hard graft to understand each other and those who are not; those who want to evolve and those who do not. They are the only two clear camps I can discern. And they are fluid, as perception is. The idea that all those people who want to go forward are prevented from being effective allies for each other, based on what is between their legs, seems daft to me. It seems small-minded and antiquated. It seems to exclude fifty percent of shades of the colour blue from the palette.

Technological advances and increasingly shared linguistic and cultural experiences mean we are very close to an era where we might actually be able, all of us, to communicate with each other. Perhaps, even act in tandem. This will not have occurred since we were a small tribe of a couple of hundred homo sapiens in Africa, 195,000 years ago. I can hardly fathom it. The ability to share information across our entire species. It is a prospect that the “establishment” is terrified of. Anything is possible. Wouldn't it be tragic if we fucked it up because we went into it with a penchant for misunderstanding each other's uniqueness? Especially when, ironically, that solitude of perception and our need to share it is the only thing we all truly have in common.

Maybe #TWITTERSILENCE should become something we shout, when everyone needs to take five, calm down and get some perspective. 

What do you see?

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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