In 2007, physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson wrote in The New York Review of Books that “it has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology.”
Freeman elaborates on this claim, predicting a bright future for the biotechnology industry. Others have since proclaimed that we’re in the midst of what’s being hailed as The Biotechnological Revolution.
What exactly is biotechnology?
According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, it’s “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” At its simplest, it’s technology based on biology.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the term sounds like something reserved for dystopian films or otherworldly exhibitions, but biotechnology is our food, health and environment. It is also coming sooner than we think. Biotechnology isn’t simply something that’ll suddenly kick-in to prolong our lives in retirement. Modern examples of biotechnology include synthetic biology, or engineering biology for wider use by automating and coding DNA, the quantified self, or collecting data about our daily lives; and cyborgization, or enhancing ourselves with mechanical or biological devices or capabilities. All of which are fairly thorny issues and the subject of heated debate. However they might be overshadowing a more pressing issue.
Our everyday contact with biotechnology is via healthcare, food and agriculture, all of which we cannot live without. All of which seem pretty straightforward until something goes wrong. Once there is an investigation into medical errors, food scares or farming crisis, the reasons we dig up become extremely complex networks.
Imagine that explaining to someone in the 1800s how something so straightforward as farming has become one of the most convoluted trans global system made of Intellectual Property laws, treaties, incentives, fuel prices, international politics. It is no wonder that many people feel out of control in new technological changes. This unease is not caused by the actual technological complexity but because we cannot penetrate the labyrinth of accountable systems to have an opinion.
In an age of design thinking, service design and speculative design, the industry of future-facing strategy has become a prominent platform to scale technology to a pocketsize that it becomes interactive with the general public. However, in this scaling process, important perspectives from communities are lost. What I want to know is: “Can design help the general public have a voice in the Biotechnological Revolution?”
Learning from the Luddites
To answer this, I believe we need to take a detour away from our biotech future and into the past. In the 1800s, The Industrial Revolution was gathering critics. Cottage lace-weaving industries were being squeezed out by large factories that could make lower quality and cheaper goods. As one historian put it to me, “Imagine you’re making Wolford and suddenly you had to compete with Primark. You’d be insulted.”
One by one, families that took pride in craftsmanship were being absorbed into factory work. Today, in the Nottingham Castle Museum, one can still see factory clocks specially engineered for factory owners to extort unpaid labour time out of workers. As none of the workers could afford their own clock, they had no way to argue with the owners. Machines became the amplifier of oppression.
A group of revolutionaries called Luddites demonstrated against the changes imposed on people’s lives. Their protest was brilliantly designed, particularly when compared to some of the half-hearted, quick and easy clicktivism we participate in today. The Luddites understood the political conditions. They made a fake king to lead supporters while providing anonymity to protect actual core planners. They were strategic in giving everyone roles. The Luddites created instruction manuals embedded in songs that enabled illiterate workers to break the machines. They inspired the Lord Byron (father of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer) to defend their cause in the parliament. The Luddites left a legacy of pro-craftsmen literature in some of the most influential cultural figures such as writer Charlotte Bronte, novelist Mary Shelley, industrialist William Morris, critic John Ruskin and writer Thomas Emerson.
Who else could claim to be the start of labour rights and the inspiration for starting a whole genre of dystopian horror! Nowadays, the legend of the Luddites has been reduced to a derogatory term for someone that doesn’t use an iPhone or Twitter.
I believe we are forgetting the innovative quality of Luddites movement when it comes to activism. Luddites left a legacy not because they simply smashed machines. Before the plight of Luddites, people would have constant food riots whenever food prices became inaccessible to the ordinary folk but these riots passed without long-term policy change until the Luddites came along. Why?
The Luddites were producers, craftmen, makers and tinkerers. The word luddite might be used negatively by the tech-savvy among us – but like the 19th century activists, we need to start thinking about our labour and makers rights in the new biotechnological era.