How do you define ‘biotechnology?’

I stopped dead. This was the beginning presentation to my week’s intensive Micro-Residency at Fo:AM. I didn’t quite realize the emphasis on the word ‘intensive’ when founder Maja Kuzmanovic first proposed it to me. It definitely sounded fantastic that the whole core team was offering to spend the whole week helping me decipher my project, open conundrums, pull out gaping research holes that would eventually be filled by a gooey dough kneaded by brain-boggling dilemmas and heavily researched analysis…https://flic.kr/p/n1WqQ8

How do you define Are you sure that’s not just ‘biology’, not ‘biotechnology’?

Here was a 15 year expertise of “transdisciplinary labs for speculative culture” that’s famous for their dealings with food, biology, ecology, health, and the philosophy surrounding Fo:AM. I first heard their name almost in an urged “how could you have not heard of Fo:AM” way when I first brought my idea of eating invasive species in Belgium. Here, I was proposing that biotechnology was in need of expanding outside the glamorous media attention on the stem-cell cures and spotlight-grabbing transhumanism and that the everyday experience: the supermarket tomato, the sugars in our toothpaste, doctors and the dentist, the parrot-less parks, the preserved ‘nature’… I was insisting that every part of the biology that we experience had scientific human-action. That this was all biotechnology.

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So what do you suppose technology is?
human applications /skills/ tools towards a specific goal?
human applications /skills/ stages of ‘progress’ since language?
“anything that was invented after you were born” –Alan Kay

I suddenly realized that I wasn’t working with a bemused academic who’d be used to a field but had never seen it in a speculative perspective. Here at Foam, I was dancing with a team of speculative experts who tears this stuff apart all the time. This was a week of devil’s advocacy in the format of a sweatshop zen-ship that I would be extremely grateful for.

I came to Fo:AM to answer a very large mental block about my newest project about a new speculative fringe community, The Bioluddites. In the past 4 months, I’ve been working with Near Now in Nottingham, England, on a way to contextualise a public project, a movement even of eating invasive plants and animals in the Vegetarian Capital of Ghent, Belgium. This spiral of local, social activities supported by the Ghent collaborators at Timelab had led to a documentary filmed by the national TV, on-going collaborations with the scientists at the university, ‘folk’ practitioners of eating invasive to become local celebrities and I even fed the mayor with an invasive Canadian goose leg a la amateur-style cooking.

But what does this experiment mean beyond local enthusiasm? What do I do with the insights from these stories? Essentially how can speculative design use this intensely local project to create a meme that challenges us globally and socially?

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So invasive species are the Bioluddite’s biotechnology?

-because previously invasive species were a scientific glitch?

I’d been fascinated by the story of the Luddites and the sense of ‘city pride’ the history had brought to Nottingham. Luddites were 19th century activists making a stand to save their traditional social models and critiqued the profit driven production processes enabled by machines in the Industrial Revolution. But nowadays, being a ‘luddite’ is commonly interpreted as someone that doesn’t use twitter, or a smart phone or, according to www.urbandictionary.com :

“A luddite generally claims things were “just fine” back in the day, and refuses to replace/update failing equipment/software/computers on the basis that they were just fine 10 years ago.”

I proposed that perhaps the modern relevance of Luddites would lie more suitably in the world of my broader, everyday human experience definition of biotechnology because biotechnology is pervasive in our everyday lives and most of the time outside of our control. Perhaps Bioluddites could help to navigate society in the overwhelmingly vast spectrum of biotechnology that we depend upon and in finding a 21st Century model of performing the principles of Ludditism, become a role model of a new form of activism that gives productive benefits on top of the critics to the modern society?

If the above wasn’t ambitious enough, I was also hoping to convert Fo:AM into a Bioluddites…

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Have you read A Biopunk’s Manifesto?

I was ashamed to say, I had not. But after much reading, fact checking and many, many debates I was happy to decide that although biohackers and biopunks have the agenda of empowering everyone through science literacy, there is definite room for Bioluddites to play a counter part that navigate through large systems and existing modern lifestyles rather than on a laboratory scale. Bioluddites deals with a world where biotechnology leaks out of the laboratory (whether if it’s a pharmaceutical laboratory or a biohacker’s test-tube) and into the experiences of the everyday mundanely of modern survival. Whereas biohackers disturbs within a scientific community with content, the Bioluddites navigates at the social scale with services.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/foam/13794112893/in/set-72157643831604755/

That was just day one…

For the remaining week, The Fo:AM and I pursued through every data source possible and my previous hidden, disorganized, long-procrastinated research to find what these Bioluddites might look like, believe in, approve off. It was like a detective team, slowly finding clues to navigate what a Bioluddite might eat, wear, behave, how they might organize themselves and what their agenda might be. These exercises brought us one step closer to this speculative community, drawing upon a spectrum of people who already practice against technology:

The Amish used religion,
The Luddites used military power,
The Neoluddites (except for its association with the infamous Unibomber) used literature.

In order to socialize Luddism in our age of Peer-to-Peer and TED Talks, the Bioluddites would look like no average activist. In fact, their roles would fit more into the modern-day life-coaches/ gurus and mentors, navigating and through a combination of information /inspiration /entertainment / to ‘nudge’ us through the plethora of biotech consumer choices.

https://flic.kr/p/nbdBK9

In our public presentation for the Research Gathering, we outsourced brainstorming on the attendees along with biotech question-themed foods by with our list of real-life conundrums surrounding biotechnology. The responses were surprising. Most of the answers skipped the question’s details and delved directly into the systems behind and the expectations of biotechnology. The critiques were of the biotechnology corporations that stretched beyond the human scale.

Bioluddites do not claim to be another revolutionary movement with a manifesto; it would have more a charter of professionalism. Bioluddites are a gap in the knowledge market somewhere between techno-philosophy, self-quantification, sustainable living and the guru-economy of Digital Prophets, Fashion Evangelists, Lifestyle Curators and Media Ecologists.

Did I manage to convert Fo:AM into Bioluddites? Maybe they already are, a little bit.

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Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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