When I started my guest editorship of this blog almost a year ago, it was with a question about the relationship between tools and creations. Will new ways of doing things affect what it is that we do? To try and flesh out my feelings on that question, I’ve peeked into a number of fields where innovation is intense; from documentary filmmaking to game design, architecture to (my) marriage.
But there’s one branching network of innovation that interests me so much that it’s found a home in the roots of a number of projects I’m working on. It’s the realm of biotechnology, and the disruptions it could bring to the stories we tell and how we tell them are significant.
In his book Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton includes a number of figures exploring the ways in which various technologies have evolved: from university or military research projects, into skunkworks industrial concerns, then into consumer products and (sometimes) multi-billion dollar success stories. From the mouse to advanced gesture recognition to the Internet itself, numerous information technologies widespread today took twenty or thirty years to make any inroads in the mass market, and have enjoyed lifespans as long as the average human’s. While it’s possible we’re projecting our mortal uneasiness on to our digital creations, the more obvious implication (that Buxton also arrives at) is that getting things “right”, or even “OK”, takes an awfully long time.
See how long it’s taken the Human Genome Project and its forebears to gain steam? See how long it took gesture-based interface technology? See bright things in your future / bloodstream?
If we keep this lag time in technological adoption in mind, perhaps looking to the nearest experimental physics laboratory for design inspiration isn’t the way to go… instead, we should be looking to the steaming pot of technological innovations from the last forty years, and trying to figure out what is right on the brink of boiling.
Time and time again, when I sit down and play this “Where’s Waldo” game, what I can’t help but getting excited about biotech – design and engineering endeavours bringing living systems and advanced information technology together. I’m certainly not alone – a 2005 report by the US National Science Foundation highlighted the ways in which so-called NanoBioInfoCogno revolutions could transform the world’s industries and societies rather extensively. There’s even an essay by Newt Gingrich sandwiched in the middle, if you’re feeling naughty.
But while the technical breakthroughs and complex technical underpinnings of those transformations are exciting, what I find most interesting are the questions to do with products and services. And not just the economic and business model questions – the experience design questions, as well. What new stories will NBIC innovations allow us to tell? With what new tools will we weave them? Will contemporary models of interaction apply between form and content, or will we witness the mass emergence of invasive species and new food chains in our media ecology?
In design fiction, the practice of creating artifacts and experiences from future hypothetical scenarios, biotechnology already runs rampant. Particularly in science fiction cinema and literature, it’s hard to put down your glass without spilling someone else’s cocktail of personalized medicine (with a wetware wedge). Paul Di Filippo refers to the domain as RiboFunk in his writing. Inception, The Matrix, A Scanner Darkly, Children of Men... these films and many more all have their narratives woven finely through a lattice of biotechnological products. In gaming the situation is similar, from Assassin’s Creed to Deus Ex (both intellectual properties developed in Canada… perhaps this is our thing?) Björk’s collaboration with Scott Snibbe, Biophilia, is an interesting new kind of cellular entertainment in a number of senses. The subject matter is even beginning to pervade the meatspace… I’m in the midst of building out an experience called ZED – it’s a transmedia biotech role-playing adventure that will unfold across Toronto over the next eight months, letting audiences take serious bites out of a story exploring the darker sides of our potential future.
If these are the stories exploring a world of ubiquitous biotechnology, what new tools might emerge to tell them? Some say those tools are technological – Rohit Talwar of the foresight consultancy Fast Future suggests that by administering narcotics and nootropics activated by electromagnetic stimulation, the DJ’s of the future could take us into personally curated altered states… with the requisite $20 cover, of course. The BioArt work of Steve Kurtz famously (and disturbingly) landed him an audience with threats of bioterrorism charges, setting an intimidating precedent for the use of living materials and systems in artwork exploring our relationship with technology. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the MakerBot Replicator of 2024… there’s nothing like printing a custom OLED slime mold and enjoying interactive TV on all the walls (and ceilings) of your house.
On the other hand, perhaps the tools that most directly steer our relationship with biotechnology in the future will be our values. People have been using “organic biotech” drawn (and sometimes domesticated) from nature for the purpose of inducing altered states of awareness and interaction with information for thousands of years. The posthumanist movement adheres to the value of updating our neurological firmware for better adaptability to change, and on the conceptual level, it’s difficult to identify significant distance between their philosophy and that of an experienced shaman, or field ethnobotanist. That said, if the form of our future content creation suites is to resemble a patch, tab, or injection; we’ve got some serious social issues to address… at the speed of technological innovation.
When it comes to biotechnology, industrially or socially, there is very little that isn’t still up in the air. The industry is only now becoming profitable; and in the coming years leaders, policy-makers, and just about everyone else will face numerous opportunities to interrogate emerging technologies and make decisions about their use. But as the DIYBio movement also surges, traditional stakeholders from industry and the media alike run the risk of being overwhelmed by a rogue wave of indie biotech experience designers. This is important to keep in mind – as a civilization we aren’t always very good at cross-generational and open-minded discourse on ethnopharmacology, as Richard Branson has been pointing out quite frequently of late.
Of all the ways to think about what could result from the rapid adoption of biotechnology into niches currently filled by established material and information technologies, the use of stories strikes me as the most interesting. Films, games, and other narrative media act like mirrors trained on our social values and behaviours as much as bacterial growth on the surface of new gear. There was an issue of HorizonZero in 2005 that really got me thinking about how we treat this topic, it’s still a great read.
While biotech may ultimately be responsible for reshaping how we tell stories and design experiences, I think it’s just as likely that the ways we reflect on biotechnological themes and subject matter today will shape the form these disruptive and revolutionary industries eventually take. The best way to consider the relationship between form and content is as a feedback loop: it’s never too late to get in early, and no matter how far you push the boundaries, you’ll never be done.
Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | www.longexposure.ca | www.zed.to