I slid down an internet rabbit-hole and landed in a science-horror-show, that asks more questions about the state and future of humanity than you’d think possible.
In what could be a sketch written by Chris Morris, a story has been dragged from the internet archives, exposing the first organic modular body, OSCAR.
I found the entrance to Oscar’s warren while scrolling through the hosepipe of content that is DeSo. The headline “Scientists Have Built the First Modular Body” caught my attention, piqued my interest. Bait swallowed, I clicked through to Yahoo, and was met by a reposted piece from Popular Mechanics.
Yahoo retells the story of Cornelis Vlasman, a biologist who “envisions the human body as a working biological LEGO system” fully modular with “each part interchangeable” allowing a body to be organised in “unique arrangements”.
Personally, I find this kind of thing fascinating, grist to the mill of science-fiction speculation. Stories about scientific developments that are as fascinating as they are concerning surface every day. Tim Newcomb’s story had me imagining chimeric monsters churned out by some apocalyptic future.
A couple or three years back, Dan Robitzski wrote about a material made with synthetic DNA, able to “continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself in a process so similar to how biological cells and tissues grow” researchers likened it to an “artificial metabolism”. That discovery brought with it visions of self-replicating nonobots, consuming and reproducing, until there’s nothing left of the planet but grey goo.
Comparing Newcomb’s story to the reality of cultured meat “grown from animal cells in a factory rather than on a farm” and the “organic modular body” doesn’t seem that far-fetched. All kinds of unethical but not beyond possible. Just another idea made real by research and experimentation.
Then I watched the video. Cornelis Vlasman presents the creepy looking organic robot, Oscar. About the size of fat Barbie Mattel, wearing a chicken filet dress and matching bacon gilet, it has all the charm of a parasite escaping a David Cronenberg character, especially when it starts moving, thrashing around like some newly hatched bird.
The video is just
shit enough to make Vlasman’s brief presentation feel authentic, but something about it feels off, not right. For a start, the low angle looking up at Vlasman is wrong, it’s too deliberately framed. Scientist are all about proof. It should’ve been framed higher, wider, including as much of the scene and possible. My guess, they were trying to make a basement look more like a lab, without dressing the background too heavily.
Curious and curiouser, I went looking for more. The original article wasn’t hard to find.
Almost immediately you see Yahoo’s retelling is different from the original. In paragraph two there’s a one word difference, one word that changes everything.
In a (fictional) experiment, Vlasman created OSCAR, a living, organic being formed from his own cells, albeit one that functions with the help of technology.Popular Mechanics
Yahoo removes the parenthetical “(fictional)” from the first sentence, turning what is speculation from Newcomb, into fact.
In an experiment, Vlasman created OSCAR, a living, organic being formed from his own cells, albeit one that functions with the help of technology.Yahoo
Newcomb wonders, the way any of us might, about a the idea of a modular body. Yahoo excises any hint of speculation, in favour of sensational lies.
While this is sadly a sci-fi experiment, it’s one that just might have legs (and arms).Popular Mechanics
Supposedly the same author, with contradictory intentions and conclusions, presumably for Yahoo’s clicks and giggles.
While looking for the Popular Mechanics piece, I landed on a couple of other publications who’d picked up on the story.
Shaw Johnson, who at the time of writing has an impressive 9573 stories under their belt for Business News, rehashes the Yahoo effort with the kind of care you’d expect from headless chicken.
Mason Regan, another prolific poster, this time for Canada Today, does a less than sterling job of cutting and pasting Newcombe’s original story.
They both claim a by-line but inexplicably include Newcombe’s bio?
The staff reporters at The Rio Times at least took the time to “rewrite” the story. Same sensational science-horror-show but more concise in the telling of it.
Both Business News and Canada Today reference someone called Andrei Tapalag, clumsily reorganising one of Newcomb’s sentences, taking “In the video from a few years ago, recently unearthed by Newsbreak’s Andrei Tapalaga” to “recently appeared in the video newsbreakAndrei Tapalga” and “In the video from a few years ago recently dug up by newsAndrei Tapalaga” respectively.
Andrei Tapalag seems to be the source for this reappearance of Oscar. His story, posted on 01 February 2023, profiles Vlasman as the heroic “biologist who believes that the path less trodden is, by definition, the least interesting”.
I think Tapalag botched his quote? What he’s done is rewritten “the well-traveled path is by definition the least intriguing” and cocked it up. In a keen example of the internet eating itself, the latter is Tapalag writing for History of Yesterday a day or two before his NewsBreak story appeared.
Undeterred by misquoting himself, Tapalag continues singing the praises of Vlasman for conducting “experiments with organic materials on his own initiative, with his own resources, and with his own crew” and successfully “creating new life from cells collected from his own body”.
If we believe Tapalag, Vlasman is a true outlier, an innovator, a true maverick, a scientist on a hero’s journey?
I don’t think it will surprise anyone to learn, this student from Guildford, with an extensive experience history on LinkedIn, is founder and publisher of History of Yesterday.
Apart from being picked up for Popular Mechanics, Tapalag’s NewsBreak story seems to have struck a cord with most of its readers. Only one guest flagged it as a “science fiction story”. The rest take it at face value, landing their opinions somewhere between outraged and horrified.
Yahoo’s comment section is a little more circumspect, but it’s still crazy how many of the opinions go along with it the bastardised Popular Mechanics story, and respond with similar sense of outrage and horror.
The thing is, the truth of Oscar is far more interesting than the science-horror-show presented by Yahoo or Tapalag.
If you search “Oscar” and “Cornelis Vlasman” you’ll quickly find a YouTube channel. If you get to it as I did through their app, you immediately know it’s “part of online science fiction story http://www.themodularbody.com – by Floris Kaayk” because it’s there, in the channel’s bio.
Floris Kaayk is a Dutch digital artist and filmmaker, whose work explore the relationship between technology and humans, commenting, unpicking, exposing, both its positive an negative impacts.
The Modular Body is one of several storytelling projects he’s released online, using the internet and social media as his medium. Created in 2016, Oscar consists of fifty-six interconnected documentary clips telling the story of the modular life-form. Kaayk’s fiction picks at the role biotechnology has in our lives, scratching at the distinction between natural and artificial until the metaphorical scab starts to bleed.
I suppose, if you were being unkind, you’d call this satire. If you did I think you’d be missing the point. It’s more complicated than that. By asking big questions in such a provocative way, Kaayk is able to make really profound observations about the state and future of humanity.
Certainly it’s more intelligent and challenging than the sensationalist science-horror-show favoured by Tapalag. A generous interpretation might allow him to be part of the dialogue, but his lack intention places him outside the discussion. He functions in the territory of clicks and commerce, not questions and insights into the human condition.
For me Kaayk’s intervention is the purest piece of science-fiction storytelling I’ve seen in a long while. He made me consider the possibility, because for a brief moment the idea was real, alive in that space between what’s actual and our fantasies.
That space, rare, illusive, is art revealing a truth.