Illusions of Control

by Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Thresholds, MIT Department of Architecture

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"The concept of the single engineering paradigm indicates a future in which the control of matter and life would be achieved by applying engineering principals; through nanotechnology, synthetic biology and, as some suggest, cognitive- and neuroscience. Ironically, this might seem an admission by the life sciences that the idea of the unifying theory of biology cannot be achieved and therefore a utilitarian application based approach might be the next best thing. Looking at such a future, is there anything we can learn from the past? In addition, in the light of some recent research into the ‘engineering mindset,’ what might an artistic mindset achieve? Can it be a counter-balance or an attempt to artistically engage with an engineering future doomed to be perceived as reactionary in one way or another? In this deliberately polemic piece of writing, we will tackle these issues.

In recent years, we have witnessed a resurgence of the application of engineering logic in the field of the life sciences. With the recent introduction of the concept of Synthetic Biology, a revolutionary rhetoric is being employed, such as ‘a radical shift’ and Synthetic Biology will ‘revolutionize the technology of the future.’ As is pointed out:

Engineers are interested in synthetic biology (or in biology in general] because the living world provides a seemingly rich yet largely unexplored medium for controlling and processing information, materials, and energy. Learning how to effectively harness the power of the living world will be a major engineering undertaking.

Having control over life and its processes may have always been an ambitious human endeavour. What is changing is the accumulation of scientific knowledge and technological capabilities, mounting up with increasing speed and scale of manipulation. A choreographed interplay between hype and actuality is overlaid on a public that is bombarded with information that should excite, but which is also easily forgotten. A recent recurring trope mobilized to describe our coming future is the promise of applying engineering principles to biological systems, or more generally the idea of the single engineering paradigm that engulfs nanotechnology, synthetic biology, as well as in some cases cognitive and neuro-sciences..."

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By Oron Catts & Ionatt Zurr
Thresholds Issue 38, Published by MIT Department of Architecture