Biodesign + Future Humans:
The Rise of Biocultural Capital
For Material Futures, Central St Martins, March 1, 2017
I want to spend my time with you talking about the future, which has occupied a lot of my time over my career. Now, in saying that, I am really saying nothing at all. Everything we do is about the future. Even when we do history, we aspire for a greater understanding of our past, which will inform our lives going forward, hopefully providing us with a greater perspective on our world and perhaps even a greater capacity to understand it more fully.
But the future has other connotations and, when I use that term, I am very consciously engaging with a certain idea about the future that I seek to investigate. The problem with this is that investigating something that does not yet exist can be challenging. This is partly because the future is uncertain and some philosophers would argue that focusing on future issues is both lacking of scientific foundation, but also it is to neglect the present.
In fact, one of my earliest conference presentations back in 1999 explored the human rights of the genetically modified athlete. I arrived at this topic after having spent a year or so examining how the human genome project would frustrate a number of key organizing structures within our society — notably those which are based on some notion of a meritocracy. In other words, if an athlete could simply inject the genes to enable a Gold medal performance, then how does this make us feel about the value of effort, training, and earning our achievements? Even here, nearly 20 years later, we haven’t figured this out. But my point is that this was future gazing and some people would claim this to be simply unscholarly. Indeed, this is where the notion of futurology comes in. It has a bad name because claims about our far future can be so far from what ends up transpiring, that it might be even irresponsible to focus our attention in such a way.
Yet, we are also aware of how our decisions on this planet have implications that may only affect people far in the future. Consider anti-microbial resistance (AMR), which is rapidly diminishing due to the use of antibiotics. Scientists predict that, by 2050, 10,000,000 a year will die as a result of AMR, reflecting the diminishing impact of antibiotics to protect us. These are reasonably long term concerns and we certainly need to do something now.
Even so, the future is also something more than this and it’s crucial to really unravel ‘the future’ as a subject before we press on with examining the present. I’m not sure when it began — it might even be the International Expos of the 19th Century, which involved international demonstrations of innovation, shared with the world. But providing a vision of the future has always had some form of public currency. We see this often in the context of today’s digital products, where a new iPhone or a new setting on Facebook can capture the world’s attention. The future is news and news is a currency that can assist companies, governments, and individuals in spreading their products and ideas. Personally speaking, I often sense this whenever I do an interview for the media about something new. The newness is what engages the audience, along with the ramifications the vision has for our lives. Only today, a new story came out touting a radical twist on the Singularity hypothesis.
This makes it difficult to know where to intervene as an artist, designer, or critic. Part of me wants to say we should stop buying into the future, as it is wholly owned by people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and even Stephen Hawking. It is such visions of the future that explain our Kickstarter economy, itself a manifestation of our desire to occupy a better future, one that is sold to us within a promotional film, depicting the better life we will have, once this product is in our hands.
Yet, a lot does seem to be happening in science and technology, which makes it seem even more urgent to look at the longer term implications of such changes. A good example is gene editing and the chance that it could usher in a new era of designer people. Yet, it is still early days and it’s hard to know how this will be different from the designer babies discourses of the early 1990s, when the HGP was in full flow.
The future is also imbued with other ideas and expectations and, to help us unpack these, I want to consider this image, which is essentially a composite of two other images. The first is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and it’s a good way to frame our conversation about the future, because it leads us to talk about a number of themes. The first is the obvious connection between art and science, which the image demonstrates. Da Vinci remains a crucial exemplar of the idea that all knowledge systems draw on a form of critical creative inquiry that is complementary. Indeed, before cameras existed, scientists relied heavily on illustrations to depict nature, or imagine biology. Somehow, science and art became separated, but it need not be so. In fact, we have probably lost a great deal more than we have gained by thinking of them as separate forms of inquiry.
The image is mingled with another motif of the biotechnological age, though even her it is a pastiche of ideas. Of course, it resonates especially with the notion of the cyborg as a militarized machine. The stance it takes is imposing, prioritising strength, and its height is greater than Da Vinci’s ‘perfect’ human, indicating that it takes us beyond human perfection, into some new realm.
Together, they speak of our past as biology being superseded by some technologized other, and this is the dominant dystopian discourse of our future. In just the last few weeks we have seen many articles written about the impending age of the robots — with Bill Gates saying that robots should pay taxes, to deal with the problem of people simply having no work, since it will all be done by machines.
So here again, we have another challenge when thinking about the future — it becomes a polarized conversation: utopia versus dystopia. And yet the lie that surrounds this is that these two versions of the future sit happily alongside one another most of the time. So, you might get frustrated about fake news and the dissolution of singular media authority, or be annoyed by how digital devices seem to control your lives, but then we do not change our use of them, because we also feel that they make a lot of things easier, like working on the move, or staying in touch with friends, or finding which way to walk.
This duality is a condition of our inquiry, not a matter of choice. The future is both utopian and dystopian, if it were simply one thing, then this would not be a matter that occupies our attention. Yet, the act of imagining the future should be distinguished between horizon scanning, where we look for trends in technological change, to make reasoned predictions of what will influence our work and our lives in the future. And here we have some reasonably good foundations. For example, one clear alignment is between digital and biological systems. In many respects, the design opportunity presently is focused entirely around this relationship. To be innovative, simply doing one of these is no longer an option, but the trick is to approach it from the right angle and Stelarc’s Third Arm helps us here.
Third Arm shows Stelarc writing the word evolution using three hands. In one image, we see the utopia and dystopia. Stelarc is, of course, enhanced by the appendage of an extra hand, which can help him write more quickly or perhaps even discover new ways of writing. A parallel here is the 6 fingered pianist in the movie GATTACA who could play even more exquisite melodies, due to the additional capacity this provided.
Yet, the image is also dystopian, in that it presents a future where we are restricted by the Third Arm. We imagine it as an imperfect system, due either to our doubts about its effectiveness — it may need constant charging — the cumbersomeness of its design, or our inability to adapt to the extra artefact. It challenges the sense we may have that our bodies are somehow in equilibrium, or that our presence in the world over time leads to a normalizing of its clumsiness, which would make an ‘add on’, something difficult to accept.
Yet, Stelarc’s work signals a post-biological or post-human era, which is characterized by a willingness to treat the body as a work in progress, something that both seeks modification, but also needs it. Indeed, our entire history makes this apparent to us. Nearly everybody who has ever existed is now dead. An even greater proportion has suffered from biological vulnerabilities. And an even greater number didn’t even make it to birth, but was instead selected out due to the stronger genes. Now, I admit, this takes us slightly further than I had intended with this analysis, but I welcome the chance to state that even evolution is at stake in this debate. The End of Species may be soon upon us.
Yet, evolution is also imbued with some of these principle. The idea that we evolve, that we are constantly transcending previous limits, would seem to be a supremely human or biological thing to do. In fact, there may be few technologies that are as awesome than that of biology, the most adaptable system we have ever come across. Of course, the key difference between evolution by means of natural selection and evolution by means of biotechnological enhancement is that the latter dramatically disrupts the process of adaptation — it may even remove adaptation completely and when we see examples of this, we are reminded of how that just might not work at all. I think Google Glass was an example of this, but I’ll come back to that later.
Somehow, the idea of undermining evolution, or transcending it, have become part of our desirable goals in life and we have done a lot of this already. The creation of so-called test tube babies in the 1970s, the achievements of prosthetics, and even genetically modified organisms, are all examples of this. And some consequences have been startling, as might be said of the PEPCK-C mouse, whose modified genes allow it to demonstrate superpowers of energy.
Equally, the slippery slope from therapy to enhancement has already begun and has created a population that is less troubled by the sanctity of nature and will quite happily modified to mitigate any age-related health loss, even when this is only an aesthetic loss (ie. Looking older). We are even willing to tamper with our genes, mix them with other species, in pursuit of a better biology, yet conversations about animal welfare are often absent from these debates about utility. One of the core examples of this is age-defying treatments, along with the idea that ageing is to be seen as a disease and something to be alleviated.
As I mentioned earlier, horizon scanning involves trying o identify fundamental trends and extrapolate from those to future scenarios. In this case, the link between biology and technology is apparent, but also very early still. We see this in the examples of Google Glass and the Telephone Tooth Implant by James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau, both, in different ways, ahead of our time.
So, this leads me to the conclusion of my talk: The accumulation of biocultural capital. I wrote about this idea in 2013 to capture what is at stake in this imminent transition. It draws on the idea of cultural capital form Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote that
“The term ‘cultural capital’ refers to the knowledge of and skills in the discursive realm relating to society, the arts, leisure, sport, science, politics and all the other elements recognised as ‘culture’ in society at large (cited in Rojek 1995: 68).
Building on Bourdieu, I describe biocultural capital as:
“biocultural capital refers to the various ways in which biotechnologies and the body/mind modification sciences are providing tools through which people can alter themselves to more adequately pursue their life goals”
In other words, what distinguishes our times is not the acquisition of cars or houses, but the accumulation of biocultural capital, which may be measured in likes or wrinkles.
I want to conclude this talk by drawing you in even further to the complexity of this world of biological transgressions. I have focused a lot on the idea of the future, our relationship to it, but it is really a surrogate for a wider anxiety we have about Otherness — about the things we do not know about ourselves. We find allusions to this within some of our bioethical debates about biotechnology. The so-called Yuk Factor that surrounds genetic modification is situated partly in an anxiety about removing something crucial about ourselves and, in so doing, becoming something that is less than human. The posthuman discourse is thus also about stepping into an existential void where the loss of subject occurs. This is why we cannot limit our conversations to just matters of scientific and technological change. There is something deeper going on and we find this by exploring a wider range of literature. So, to conclude, I want to take you through a series of examples, which make this clear. This montage of films was compiled by my friend Noam Toran, previously a tutor at the RCA on the Design Interactions programme. It was created for an AHRC Human Enhancement project we were involved within 2008. And so, I leave you with this as a way of encouraging you to situate your ideas in a much broader array of inquiries into what it is that makes us human and what might occur by designing ourselves out of the picture.
Ager, J. & Loizeau, J. (2002) Audio Tooth Implant.
Miah, A. (2013) Justifying Human Enhancement: The Accumulation of Biocultural Capital, in More, M. & Vita-More, N. The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
Rojek, C. (1995) Decentring Leisure: Rethinking Leisure Theory, London, SAGE.
Toran, N. (2008) Untitled. [compilation of videos]