Genetic identity, pharming, DNA theft, biopiracy, designer babies, consumer eugenics, genetic underclass and molecular surveillance. These are just a few of the many new terms that have appeared in the media over the past few years in an effort to understand – or often to simply describe – the implications of recent developments in biotechnology for ideas of identity, self, family, nature and technology.
Although many issues are already being examined by ethicists and government organisations, the results usually take the form of highly technical, almost philosophical, reports. When they are reported in the popular media, the tone is often alarmist and sensational. Film and literature sometimes deal with these themes, but due to the nature of the media they stay fictional and are often over-dramatised.
Products, however, as a special category of object, can locate these issues within a context of day-to-day material culture. Design today is concerned with commerce and marketing, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into the everyday environment in a novel yet accessible way. Although there is a relatively high awareness of biotechnology in the public sphere, there is very little actual understanding of it and, as a result, public discussion is very limited. Much of the current debate is presented through newspapers and specialist reports. The flow of information is one-way – from the experts to the public. It is only when something goes wrong that the public get to express their concerns: for example, the GM food debate in the UK. In much of the debate so far, the public have participated as citizens arguing in very general terms about the ethical, moral and social issues. Yet when we act as consumers we often suspend these general beliefs and act on other impulses. There is a separation between what we believe ought to be and how we actually behave when we want to use a biotech service or product. Design can shift the discussion from one of abstract generalities separated from our lives to tangible examples grounded in our experiences as members of a consumer society. In this way, people can become involved in the debate earlier, creating a dialogue between the public and the experts who define the policies and regulations that will shape the future of biotechnology.
The hope is that design can explore public perceptions of different biofutures before they happen, and help shape the regulations that ensure the most humane and desirable futures are the most likely to become reality. Ideas of right and wrong are not just abstractions, but are entangled in everyday consumer choices.
As biotech moves out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, there is a need now, more than ever, for a form of design that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.
As part of the process of understanding where design sits within this new space of enquiry, a number of experts were invited by Anthony Dunne and Sandra Kemp to a one day seminar at the Royal College of Art supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to present different perspectives on human enhancement. The audience, of about 30 people, included bioethicists, philosophers, designers, artists, writers, dancers, curators and lawyers. The purpose was to explore new roles for design in relation to biotechnology and to discuss what design has to offer ongoing and future debates in this area. It's one of many varied encounters that, as designers practicing in this very different context, we find oursleves participating in. We have picked out a few of the pieces we found engaging to give you a flavour of some of the ideas presented.
Hair as a cage for insects
A foot modified to pick up more dirt
Nails modified to pick up more dirt
A germ-spreading lamb
Their work explores what it means to design and build objects and even products from semi-living tissue. How would we relate to objects if we knew they were made from real tissue (human as well as animal)? What does it mean for people who object to eating or using parts animals for clothing if animals are no longer harmed?
Many of their pieces use immortalised cell lines available to scientists for research. Basically, cells are extracted from humans or animals and grown in-vitro so the animal is unharmed.
This particular piece, a "victimless leather" jacket, uses a substrate of biodegradable polymer matrix shaped like a jacket over which a living layer of tissue is grown. Like Michael's work, it's designed to provoke debate rather than set out a plausible future.
For the victimless leather jacket, living tissue cells are cultivated around a jacket-shaped frame
SENSE OF SELF
The operation enabled her "to return to the planet of human beings –those who have a face, a smile, facial expressions with which they communicate."
"As for the face, it is not me," Dinoire told the Times in an interview on 7 July 2007. "It will never be me... I couldn't look at my old photographs. It was too painful. Now I have got used to it. Now the graft has become a part of me. I am very different from before. Part of me and my identity has disappeared for ever. I keep preciously inside me the memory of what I was."
We really like this story because it makes very clear the implications of procedures like this on our identity. Every modification to our body will bring with it unanticipated side effects on our sense of self and identity. It reminds of us of how, in our great enthusiasm and excitement for science and its promises of making everything better, very little exploration and understanding into subtle and unexpected psychological implications exists. Human error is cited as the cause of most technological disasters. Acknowledging, and designing for, human fragility is something that will personally continue to fascinate us.
Frank Crusiaux/Gamma, Camera Press London