Hiding in the Nerve Garden

By Sheep T. Iconoclast, 10 September 1997

A sheep speaks out from the pen on gene ownership, flesh factories and the end of narrative.

People have been asking me recently if I am a clone. "Of course," I answer. We [sheep] are all clones of each other. Like a GIF image we have achieved the state of simulacra. Sheep are amongst the most genetically modified of all animals. We have had every gene indecency imposed upon us. We have been synthetically twinned (q.v. Megan and Morag) and cloned. Human genes have been introduced into us in order to synthesise rare proteins in our milk, with the result that we're now biochemical factories on hooves. We have been irradiated by fallout until our flesh is inedible and turned from vegetarians into fine mad cannibals.

Our ontology is now completely foreign to us. We do not own our bodies. Our flesh is alien flesh, our self not indigenous but the work of others. We were the first mammals to be patented. Owned, that is - ourselves and our children too.

Nor are sheep naturally white. Albinoism is frequently the byproduct of domestication. The high incidence of twins is another trait created by selective Darwinian engineering.

Why do sheep go first? Because, as a geneticist once told me, no one can imagine a mutant killer sheep. It's just not a plausible threat. But the Island of Doctor Moreau should by rights have been a hill farm somewhere. Because there's more - listen. We incubate eggs now for other mammals, helping to keep each ovum manageable and prepared for the hot needle of inquiry I to be inserted. We are the bleating laboratories of the gene X revolution. We are the sheep of drugs.

An ovine body is so much meat in a tank of formaldehyde. We are factories of meat. This creates a dilemma. When entering cyberspace, humans may leave their bodies behind. But sheep are just flesh. There can be no sheep in cyberspace.

Sheep embody the post-industrial, post-religious ideal. We are tagged, our flesh is tracked. Electronic devices control our dietary supplements. But before you get superior, just remember how thin the line is between consumer and consumed. Tag through the ear or supermarket 'loyalty card' in the pocket; there's not much space between a barcode (baa-code, see?), a program and a sequence of DNA. My flesh is the product of indiscreet duplication.

The human genome project is an attempt to map every common gene in the human body. In reality this is an attempt to recode from one format to another. One creative use of such a recoding would be to transmit the gene description to the stars. Travelling at the speed of light, the human code would take an hour to reach Hale-Bopp; after 9 hours it would pass the frozen hulk of Pioneer 11. The human code would be everywhere and nowhere, the first living being to achieve the status of television. Perhaps an alien intelligence would eventually receive it and decode and reverse the process, perhaps to create an extraterrestrial Jurassic Park. Or factory farm.

No surprise therefore that cynical mammals like to point out that the decoded man is likely to be preceded by the decoded lamb. Indeed a programmer might even try to save space by passing us through a compression algorithm - as if it were sheep dip.

But would our decoded man not have lost something en route? All sheep may be one, but then we don't have the human advantage of thought transfer via coded bleating. Language has the privilege of transferring experience from one human to another. By comparison all sheep are islands of self-contained knowledge. For you, problems exist as narrative, and narrative links the oral chronicler, his stories passed down from generation to generation preserved only by memory, to the art of writing which absorbed him. Subsequent media have always recycled and subsumed their forbears; narrative always remained. Radio absorbed some theatre, film absorbed radio, television absorbed film. Even computer games use narratives, abstract though they often are. The spaces of Doom must be 'read' in a particular order for the 'story' to be understood.

But multimedia threatens to absorb past media all. It has become meta-media, threatening to do away with the narrative that was the life blood of its predecessors. Like a new sheep with authored genes it has been removed from its story, its history. Meta-media breaks with narrative; this is unique and, according to Ted Nelson, quite deliberate. Added to this is the fact that meta-media is currently a producer's, and not a user's, medium. It's becoming write-only.

Perhaps the failure of multimedia could be its very reliance on text. As a dyslexic mammal I am one of the 20% of the (American) public who are functionally illiterate. Film and video work partly through the lack of reliance on text - their semiotics are the much more easily acquired ones of voice and image. The failure of text is compounded by the number of people who become on-screen illiterates, skipping large texts for simple graphics or printing the text out to read on paper for later assimilation (something that HTML is well designed to do). The success of a windowing system stands as testimony to the preference for graphics over words.

So is this text, with its tales of sheep and men, a short treatise calling for a fundamentalist revival of plot? Or is it the start of an autopsy of narrative, a careful dissection of sequence before meta-media completely divorces us from story, protagonist, suspense, resolution? Or is it that I am retaliating in kind, making a surgical strike on your meta-media as revenge for your theft of our body-ego? We. Sheep.

Sheep <sheep AT> is a lecturer and course director of the Msc in Virtual Environments, Bartlett School of Architecture. He also works in an obscure programming cult in Cambridge.