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Towards Bioparanoia and Self-Control

Towards Bioparanoia and Self-Control

We have the tendency to navigate through the intricate system of life by the misleading cause-effect formula, when the architecture of our body is much more complex. The perpetual surveillance in society does not seem to cease yet may even be amplified by future communal interest in public health and safety rather than individual rights. Surveillance can challenge or fracture our community relationship, however it can also help generate a self-controlled attitude to create a more constructive environment. As climate change has become one of the most critical issues of society, it affects the attitudes we have towards our own biology by demanding the right to manipulate ourselves and the genetics of our offspring. This can foster a culture of genetic and social polarity. ‘Monozygotic’ is employed as an apparatus to generate conversations and awareness surrounding such possible outcomes as well as a way to positively navigate social behaviours towards the environment. 


Surveillance has been a subject of interest for many years and has become an inescapable culture. As an initial proposal, it is a monitoring system mainly used by government authorities in espionage and counterintelligence, to monitor behaviours and activities for the purpose of managing and protecting its citizens, and even influencing and directing them. In the era of digitality and social media, surveillance has evolved from using the physical body as the main subject of observation. Contemporary surveillance includes using biometrics and personal data, and now with the advances in machine learning algorithms, even the emotion on our face can be used to generate a profile on us using facial recognition technologies.

Fig. 1 Future Human (Walderdorff, 2018)

Personal data is ever so attractive, not just for the government, but also for companies for its commercial value. The nature of digital technology spawns what Shoshana Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism” (Zuboff, 2019), whereby human experience is claimed as free raw material to be used to transcribe into behavioural data. Behavioural data is then fed into machine algorithms that create ‘prediction products’ to anticipate what a person will do for the purpose of steering them to a specific commercial objective. “Data is the new oil” is a modern society mantra where data is exploited and monetized. As companies and authorities treat data as a commodity, what more can they extract from its citizens? 

“We are our DNA” is a misleading retort that diminishes life to just our molecular constituent. It is a reductionist panorama that allows us to understand and navigate through the complex system of the architecture of ourselves. The advancement of biotechnology and genomic studies have allowed us to gain further insights into the framework of our DNA, to help us dispute against the widespread presence of genetic disorders. This has also sanctioned the criminal justice system to utilize the technology to find criminals through the use of DNA databases which can prompt the breach in individual privacy. With the perpetuation of surveillance on the general population and the progress of genetic engineering, can this contravention affect our society in deeper ways? The structure of life is enormously complex, our genes operates in a multitude of ways, and our genetic expression is influenced by our outside world. As climate change has become a critical issue, how will it affect our genetics when our actions are the perpetrators of such events? In what ways can design contribute to the current issues and how can it help us become more aware of ourselves, our behaviour and our world? 

This thesis aims to study the impacts of anthropocentric manipulation and how it can affect us, our role in society and our environment. Chapter one will lay the groundwork of genomic trends and how it can be used for surveillance. It will also delve into how our environment can affect our genetic regulations through epigenetics, and how Monozygotic is encapsulating the concept through the use of cellular automata algorithm. Chapter two will continue onto how humans have been changing both ourselves and our environment by looking into the cyborg movement and see the future potentials of genetic engineering. Finally, chapter three will investigate the impacts of climate change and how we perceive our body and our social-political environment. This chapter will also explore possible future scenarios and aims to provide a sense of awareness to our behaviour and the world around us. 

Chapter I – The Genetic Detective

1.1 “If You’ve Got Nothing to Hide, You’ve Got Nothing to Fear”

All living organism are made of individual cells, whose type, size and number defines an organism’s structure and function. There are approximately 37.2 trillion cells in the adult human body (Bianconi, 2013). Cells work together to make the body function. Genes are the instruction manual for the body. It is a short section of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is a chemical hidden inside the cells. Our genes contain directive orders that tell our cells to make proteins, which carries out various functions to keep us healthy, and determines our human body features such as eye and hair colour, and height. In recent years, genetic sequencing has become faster and cheaper, and genetic surveillance has caught more attention as not only as it is a way to identify people who are at risk of developing specific diseases and that these diseases can be inherited by their successors, but it can also determine whether a person of interest, such as a political figure, is suitable for a position. On the 21st of April 2008, U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama made a campaign stop at a diner and ordered a waffle, sausage and a glass of orange juice (Roosth, 2015). While having his meal, he was confronted by the press, which prompted Obama to respond “Why can’t I just eat my waffle?”. His retort went viral and so did his breakfast, which was then sold on eBay, with assurances from the seller that Obama’s DNA was still on the silverware (Fig 2).

Fig. 2 Obama’s breakfast (SoGoodBlog, 2008)

This urged a bioethicist to speculate a scenario in which the purchaser would sequence Obama’s gene and post the results online for the public before the presidential election. The results can potentially harm his election campaign if it showed that, for example, he was at higher dispositions to certain medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. Although the speculated scenario is likely, it is also perhaps inevitable when people are more curious about the physical condition of the powerful public figures and the people around them. This raises concerns on genetic privacy and the risks of creating a genetic surveillance society, and social polarization between the genetically advantaged and disadvantaged. 

Humans shed about 30,000 skin cells an hours, which is about 100 pounds of DNA material in our entire life (Kravets, 2015). Perhaps by now, we may have gained more awareness on the general surveillance arena by carefully trekking the online environment but yet dismiss the amount of biological traces we leave in the environment, from the strands of hair that we easily brush aside to the coffee cup we dispose. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is one of the bio-artists who investigates these genetic materials left on the streets of New York (Fig. 3), by re-constructing 3D portraits of the people who left their DNA. Her work, Stranger Visions (2012-2014), showed that it is possible to make a portrait from someone’s DNA, but the individual might look completely different from the portrait as the person’s phenotypic expression can be altered by their habits and environment. This nonetheless poses a fear that our body or the organic traces we leave can betray and threaten our identity, agency, role and appearance in the world (Costa and Philip, 2010).

Fig. 3 Stranger Visions (Dewey-Hagborg, 2012)

As I document the traces I leave in my environment over the course of five days using the Google’s science journal application (Fig. 4), I became more aware of both my digital and biological trails. I noticed that I have a pattern in my day-to-day journey, from home to my educational institution. For example, anyone can find me on the first carriage of the DLR train every morning from the South Quay station in London. If anyone was inquisitive enough to obtain more information about myself, they can draw out a strand of my hair from that train, and extract my DNA from it, just as Dewey-Hagborg did. These results may show my physical appearance and they can also inform my biological fitness. What if these results can indicate whether I am suited for the role that I am currently trying to achieve? Gattaca (1997) is a science-fiction film by Andrew Niccol, which depicts a dystopian future on genetic social polarization between the “valid” and “invalid”; terms to differentiate the genetically engineered citizens. The dystopian fiction highlighted concerns on reproductive technologies, eugenics and genetic discrimination , all of which are not so distant from our current reality with the help of genome editing tools such as the CRISPR, in which we will further discuss in later chapters. 

Fig. 4 Google Journal (Ta, 2019)

The Human Genome Project (HGP) is the world’s largest collaborative biological project. It was initiated in 1990 with the goal of determining the structure and characteristic of the human DNA, to understand gene functions and their association to diseases. This large-scale genome project drove technological advancements in the field of genetics. Although the project reveals many potential medical and scientific benefits such as drug design and gene therapy, it also raises ethical, social and legal issues. The results of the individual’s genetic information can disclose discrimination and confidentiality issues. This prompts one of the main fears that employers and health insurance companies may refuse to hire or provide insurance based on the individual’s health, which is highlighted by their genes. 

1.2 The Growing Genetic Industry

Bill Maris, founder, President and CEO of Google Ventures is just one of the people who has invested millions into the genetic industry, specifically on life extension projects. The consumer genomic industry has been estimated to be worth over twenty-two billion dollars by year 2024 and would have more than a hundred million genotyped individuals by 2021 (Khan and Mittelman, 2018) as genetic testing kits are becoming cheaper and advertisements for the product are increasing. 23andMe and AncestryDNA are some of the largest consumer DNA databases (Fig. 5) that have managed to persuade millions of people to supply their genetic material for the seductive promise of finding their relatives, learn about their carrier status and to track down their ancestry (Barbaro, 2019). This kind of marketing downplays the limits of genetic testing to generate beneficial health impacts (Hosman, 2015). This obscures the extent in which the research as a system has been compromised by private gains to drive consumerism that proceed with little accountability to the public’s good and wellbeing.  Increasing reports have emerged that these consumer genomic companies have begun selling customer’s health information and have collaborated with law enforcements to solve crimes using “familiar searches” (Barbaro, 2019 and Hosman, 2015). This highlights privacy risks that forensic criminal searches are shifting from the individual to the familiar pool, potentially putting innocent individuals on the “risky population” category. With the “Golden State Killer” case in 2018, where the police were able to pin-point a long-term suspect with the help of a consumer genetic company, it can inform us that we may come under suspicion through DNA database searches even if we do not store any of our data, as long as one of our genetic relative’s DNA is currently on it. These databases can therefore skew bias towards communities of people who have been hitherto touched by the criminal justice system.

Fig 5. Consumer genomics is in the exponential growth phase (Khan and Mittelman , 2018)

1.3 Informed Consent

This elevates privacy concerns on whether the participants have informed consent over sharing their genome and who can come become the subject of genetic surveillance by the government. The consent to have our genome stored in these genealogical DNA databases is arguably broad as only minimal information is given to inform the potential use of our DNA, such as for “unspecified future research” and research use for “identifiable private information and identifiable bio specimens” (Ram, 2018).  Such consent can lead to many individuals giving broader consent than they may have realized as these data can be obtained as a standard physician-office document. In more extreme cases like in China, where the Uighur minority are under constant surveillance and oppression, collection of their DNA samples is masked through “free medical checkups” (Wee, 2019). Even if we did not share our genetic information with an online commercial service, millions more of us have our genetic data stored in various genetic collections such as in medical records and biobanks. Currently, there are more than five-hundred million tissue samples stored in biobanks in the United States (Ram, 2019). The Supreme Court in the United States has stated that the police generally do not need to acquire a warrant to have access to the data that an individual has voluntarily shared with a third party, like a physician, a direct-to-consumer genetics company, or a biobank (Ram, 2019). Although there is fear surrounding large-scale DNA-based information collections for the use of law enforcement, many are created for good intentions. 

These large-scale genetic sequencing can be used to help cancer patients whose treatments depend on the particular genetic dissimilarities that they possess and individuals seeking prenatal and new-born genetic testing to ensure that their offspring will be born healthy without any genetic irregularity. Due to the rising widespread presence of genetic disorder and chromosomal oddity, with the growing number of marriages between people descended from the same ancestors, the prenatal and new-born testing segment is estimated to show remunerative growth in the coming years (Hedge, 2018). With the prevalence of cancer, the cancer diagnosis segment is also estimated to grow as cancer is the second principal cause for mortality in the world, and according to The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), inherited genetic mutation is accounted for five to ten percent of all cancers globally (Hedge, 2018). These personalized and precision medicine can only be realized through the aid of large-scale genetic sequencing, in which genetic data can increasingly be found and stored in medical records by the patient’s medical providers and the laboratory that performed the sequencing. With the advent of personalized medicine and prenatal tests, in what way can it affect our future? With the prevalence of genetic monitoring, can it create a genetic self-monitoring society where individuals will choose to monitor their own genetics and ‘self-edit’ themselves?

1.4 The Traces Left

As we discussed about the traces we leave in our environment and the concept of self-monitoring, is there a way to predict the health of our future self and our  offspring? We leave traces in our environment, but the environment can also in turn leave traces in us. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression in individual phenotype, which does not involve changes in the DNA sequence (Cowell, 2013). It is essentially between our genes and our environment (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 The Influence of Epigenome (Cicizhang, 2016)

Epigenetics work by adding or removing small chemical tags from our DNA. These chemical tags highlight which genes to switch on or off. The tags can be identified as a methyl group that can modify one of the chemical letters that makes up the genetic code in our DNA. Bees can provide a good example of how these chemical tags work (Fig. 7). Queen bees and workers bees in a hive are genetically identical, but they have very different bodies. The queen is much larger, they have an enlarged abdomen, can lay thousands of eggs, and can live longer, whereas the worker bees have complex communication and foraging skills, and are completely sterile. What makes them different lies in what was fed to them when they were developing larvae, which is the royal jelly. This secretion results in wether a larvae becomes a queen or a worker (Cowell, 2013). Identical twins  also offer insights into how our environment can change our gene expression and the interplay of nature versus nurture; which features of an individual come from their DNA, and which come from their environment? 

Fig. 7 Queen and Worker Bee (Latker, 2012)

Monica and Erika Hoffman are one pair of twins that are currently being examined by professor Nancy Segal at the Twins Study Center in the California State University at Fullerton (Hayasaki, 2018). These sisters are far from being ‘identical’ despite their appearances. Apart from measuring small differences in their appearance, it has been noted that Monica had been diagnosed with stage-two cancer in 2015, and Erika receives regular health screening but has never been tested positive for cancer. A year before Monica’s diagnosis, their mother was diagnosed with the early stage of breast cancer. Neither the Hoffman twins were tested positive for BRCA  gene mutations, which accounts for five to ten percent of breast-cancer cases, which raises the question of what led to their divergent diagnoses? 

Other studies have shown that stress factors such as famine can affect our epigenetics. The Dutch Hunger Winter, in which more than twenty-thousand people had died from hunger from 1944 to 1945, served as an unpredicted investigation into the human health. It has shown that pregnant women were particularly vulnerable to this stress as the offspring that they gave birth to were affected by famine throughout their entire life (Francis, 2012). When these children become adults, they experienced higher rates of diabetes, obesity and schizophrenia, which resulted in higher death rates than those who were born before or after the event. Studies conducted by Dr. Heijmans and Dr. Lumey (Francis, 2012) have suggested that the famine silenced certain genes in unborn children. Cells in a person’s body share the same genes, within them, different genes are active and silent in different cells. This biological program is formed before birth but scientists have learned that subsequent experiences in life can still affect the activities of the genes, such as lifestyle conditions, exposure to certain environmental chemicals, and diet. This has led me to investigate the concept of epigenetics and genetic surveillance in my design, to which, the project is called ‘Monozygotic’ (Fig. 8-9).

Fig. 8 Monozygotic (Ta and Jacob, 2019)

Fig. 9 Monozygotic (Ta and Jacob, 2019)

1.5  Monozygotic

Monozygotic is a light installation that aims to shed awareness on genetic surveillance (the traces we leave in the environment) and how our environment can affect our genome (the traces that the environment leaves in us). The installation features cellular automata triplets in the form of LED matrix, which are hung from the ceiling. These “triplets” are identical yet varied by their spatial disposition and are under constant surveillance by the surreptitious searchlight. Cellular automata  is chosen as a metaphorical representation of epigenetics. In this case, John Horton Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ (Fig. 10), a two-dimensional cellular automaton, is used.  It is a game that has been widely used as a heuristic biological device to investigate the implications and consequences of certain theories. The game determines the evolution by its initial cell state. Each cell has either the binary state of ‘dead’ or ‘alive’. This state is determined by a simple set of rules, which is dictated by the function of its neighbourhood of cells . These rules have parallel similarities to evolution theories (in ecological communities) as well as epigenetics principles; the cell is defined by the function of its neighbourhood of cells over generations (Caballero, Hodge and Hernandez, 2016). Similar parallels between Game of Life (GOL) and epigenetics can be drawn, in which the cell division in GOL is milieu-dependent; its reproduction is not by replication but rather depends on establishing its spatial conditions where new cells will appear. GOL’s constitutive rule whereby it regularly produces death corresponds to  the evolutionary theory of the role of selection, and in epigenetics where the process of making genes active (on) is as significant as making them silent (off). Cell movement is also essential to its development process in both GOL and epigenetics, because cells move in different spaces that allows them to undergo chemical processes. This creates a dynamic system that produces constant change by the organism and the ecosystem. 

Fig. 10 Conway’s Game of Life (Lipa, n.d)

The spatial configuration of Monozygotic is inspired by the Panopticon . In the context of surveillance, Michel Foucault refers the Panopticon (Fig. 9) as a symbol of a disciplinary society, where behaviours can be modified (Farnam Street, 2014). In Foucault’s study on the origin of prisons, the Panopticon was a technique for the guards to see the inmates without being seen themselves. This permanent visibility became a way to exercise power and induced the feeling of conscious, indefinite surveillance in the inmates. This can induce the inmates to monitor themselves where they self-constrain into “good behaviours”. In the context of the Panopticon, the moving headlight within the light installation follows the participants in the space using a camera tracking system and would point at the individual cellular automata station. This aims to create a sense of awareness to the surveillance, that someone is constantly watching, in which would raise the feeling of control and self-control; the audiences will be more attentive to their comportment, and would have to self-monitor their behaviours within the space.  It also acts as an interactive cue, urging the participants to follow the light. 

Fig. 11 The Panopticon (Simpson, 2013)

This form of interaction is also defined as a second order cybernetics, as the participants are forming and affecting the system of experience (Glanville, 1997). The moving light and the atmosphere create an empathetic engagement (Freedberg and Gallese, 2007) with the participants through its embodied simulations. The observed actions of the movement of light and its behaviour is a mirroring mechanism that creates an inward imitation, arising in an empathetic response produced by the mirror neuron systems (MNS) in the participants. This neurological system gives tactile value to the lights. The light can be observed as a ‘graspable’ object, which activates the ventral premotor cortex, the motor area of the brain that is responsible for the control of actions, therefore encouraging the audience to interact with the lights. According to David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese, this does not require much effort from our brain to assemble an understanding to engage with the artefact as its movement and behaviours can be interpreted in various abstract ways, and it abstractly indicates tactile signals to usher the participants to interact with it. As stated by Gordon Pask (Pask, 1971), because this project encourages an interactive environment between the installation and the audience and is also reactive, it can therefore be an aesthetically potent environment. According to the theories of physiognomic expression (Freedberg and Gallese, 2007), although the lights do not have any facial expressions, its behaviours and atmosphere may suggest associated emotions as the electromyographic responses of the participants’ emotion may be parallel to the deduced emotion of the designed behaviours of the lights. David Eagleman (Eagleman, 2015) has stated that humans unconsciously mirror other peoples’ facial expression as a way to estimate their emotions, by internalizing it. This is also a human survival skill that is engrained in us since birth, to see whether a certain individual is trustworthy. As human beings, we tend to seek novel experiences, therefore if we are constantly given repetitive inputs, we will deviate our attention towards a novel stimuli. As this installation may be successful at generating interaction from the audience, however to keep the level of engagement, the moving light and the LED panels should adapt its behaviours based on the level of interaction it receives from the participants (Pask, 1971).

Fig. 12 Experiment of Apparent behaviour (Heider and Simmel, 1944)

One of the objective of this project is to design the behaviours of the headlight and the LED panels that may suggest at first glances to the viewer that it has its own agency; that it is a non-trivial machine (Gage, 2006). According to professor Gage, a non-trivial machine is defined as a trivial machine, a machine that operates as exactly as it is designed to, whose contained within another machine whose function’s results are uncertain. The LED panels, which shows the cellular automata algorithm, also aims to react to the movements of the people within the space. This is anticipated to create an illusion that the light stations has some form of autonomy. How the light stops when detecting a person, pulsate and brightens in certain areas where people are more clustered, give illusion that it is a complex, sentient being with human-like behaviours. An interpersonal perception study by Friz Heider and Marianne Simmel, “Experiment of Apparent Behaviour” (Fig. 12), argues that humans tend to institute narratives on moving objects. Their animation (Fig. 10), shows simple, primitive shapes. Although the shapes are primitive, they have discovered that the shapes’ behaviours and motion in relation to one another proposed complex behaviours and narratives according to the observers after watching the video (Heider and Simmel, 1944). The perceived unpredictable behaviour of the light by the audience, although pre-programmed, should prompt a sense of wonder and delight (Gage, 2006), which would result in the audiences’ desire to discover more and give narrative to the installation, as every individual construct their own reality based on their lived and understanding of the world (Foerster, 2003). 

Fig. 13 Monozygotic at the Barbican (Ta, Q, and Jacob, R, 2019)

As of yet, the relationship between the behaviours of the audience and how it affects the light is not clearly evident, as cellular automata patterns can appear to have a random path, therefore we need to construct a strategy to translate its actions and behaviours into noticeable patterns. Currently, we have assigned the colour orange and blue in the GOL pattern (Fig. 14) to differentiate the new patterns emerging from the interaction and allocated the octagonal shape to signify that it has detected a person (Fig. 15), but we still noticed that many of our audiences have yet comprehended the interaction. For the next iteration, movement tracking, possibly with a Kinect, will be considered to carefully translate specific movements into noticeable behaviours in the lights as the current camera tracking system, using computer vision and background 

Fig. 14 Octagon Period 5 Oscillator (Revolvy, n.d)

subtraction (Fig. 15), can only prescribe rudimental person detection within the space. By using the principle of creating octagonal oscillator to begin the interaction, this can be reversed to have the participants as oscillators to affect the system. We may also need to carefully place objects within the space to give interactive cues to the audience, to monitor their behaviours towards the objects, in order to transcribe it to the lights as well as program behaviour adaptability into the LED panels for the purpose of adapting its behaviour according to the level of engagement it receives. 

Fig. 15 Computer Vision and Background Subtraction (Ta, Q and Jacob, R, 2019)

As the lights have different behaviours, we hope the audience will anthropomorphize and feel empathy towards them, allowing a deeper connection thus creating a more interactive and immersive experience. By anthropomorphizing and having a more profound connection with the artefacts, the viewers may imagine that they are affecting another being through their actions, or realize that this creature is in fact themselves. Through the concept of the surveillance and epigenetics, the traces we leave in our environment and how the environment affects our genetic regulation, I would argue that this would raise a sense of awareness and attention to our own actions, thus creating a sensation of self-control. This opens the possibility to also raise awareness to our everyday activities that could affect our ecosystem, which will consequently affect our genetics, such as the anthropogenic impacts resulting in climate change in which we will further discuss in chapter three. 

Chapter II – Altered and Inherited

2.1 The Status Quo

In comparison to other species, humans take longer to fully mature, one of the theories as to why suggests that our brain takes more time to develop thus demanding more energy (Eagleman, 2015). Humans are becoming more intelligent and powerful with the advancement of technologies. Although we change ourselves and our environment all the time to evolve more rapidly, we still have the tendency to preserve the status quo. The status quo bias is one type of the cognitive bias. It is defined by human preference to remain in the current state and can have effects on human behaviour. Over the years, our technology have progressed at a very rapid speed. With the advancement in artificial intelligence, there is an increasing fear and resentment towards it as it will replace and automate many employments in the near future. Elon Musk, a technology entrepreneur and engineer, warned that artificial intelligence can be far more dangerous than nuclear bombs (Clifford, 2018). Through films and fictions, there seems to be an increasing feeling of machine phobias as many warns a dystopian future where the evolution of artificial intelligence will outstretch beyond human control.

Fig. 16 Ex-Machina (Kermode, 2015)

Ex-Machina (2015), by Alex Garland, is one of the films that epitomizes this example well. It is a story of a programmer who was requested by his firm’s chief executive officer to be part of the human constituent in the Turing test, to test the capabilities and consciousness of a robot, named Ava. They later learned that the android was much more deceptive and self-aware than they had believed. With such traits and having a human facial appearance, it also depicts a future where we can no longer distinguish the synthetic beings from the biological ones. Although there seems to be a co-inhabitation dichotomy between us and such technology, we must not forget that we are already living with powerful devices that assist us in navigating our daily lives, such as our smartphones, in which the majority of us have yet to fully understood its capabilities.

2.2 The Edited

On the other spectrum of machine phobias, we have those who extend the status quo by embracing technology. It is perhaps one of the most inherent traits as an individual in this society to strive for more, to push our own limitations and to explore the unexplored. Earlier on, we have created tools to facilitate our daily lives, and these tools form our environment, sometimes in unforeseen ways. With more powerful technologies at hand, from artificial intelligence to bioengineering, they can be used to alter us, our body and our environment on an even deeper level. To push the limitation of our body, there are those who venture as far as implanting cybernetic components to create or add new sensory systems to their body as a way to correct or augment human biological limitations. This is called the cyborg movement. Stelarc is one of the key individuals of this movement, and is even regarded by many as the father of cyborgs. For decades, using his body as a medium, the performance artist has pushed the boundaries of the human body as well as the post-humanist thoughts. In one of his projects, called the “Ear on Arm” (Fig. 17), with the help of surgeons, he surgically constructed and grew cells to create an ear to implant beneath the skin of his arm.


Fig. 17 Stelarc Ear on Arm (Viti, 2016)

This ear also contains an implanted microphone and a wifi module to allow anyone on the internet to listen to the artist’s activities (Lawler-Dormer, 2018). Donna Haraway is another key figure in this movement, where she published an essay on technology and culture in 1986, called “A Cyborg Manifesto”, in which she describes the characteristics and capabilities of cyborgs as a way to transcend the polarization notion of genders (Haraway, 1991). She defines a cyborg in four different ways; a “cybernetic organism”, “a hybrid of machine and organism”, “a creature of lived social reality”, and “a creature of fiction” (Haraway, 1991). 

Pursuing further than augmenting our physical body, what if we can enhance our body on a deeper level? What if we can “hack” our genes, or our children’s genes even before they are born, to create a body that can sustain old ages, to rid of diseases and illnesses, and even to have what society would deem as the most perfect physical features? Throughout history, we have been continuously modifying the environment around us. Most animals and plants around us have been genetically modified by our own hands. We have been tweaking the genetics of our favourite breeds of domesticated animals (Fig. 18) and food (Fig. 19) to suit our needs and what we deem favourable, through the practice of selective breeding.

Fig. 18 Dogs 100 Years Ago and Now (Gibson, n.d)

Fig. 19 Painting of Watermelon in the 17th Century (India, n.d)

This practice dates back from thirty-thousand years ago to when the first dog was domesticated. This allowed people to breed and select particular traits but it can cause severe problems to animals’ health. For example, through pure-breeding, overbred bulldogs have difficulties breathing because of their shortened nose and narrow nostrils and need assistance when breeding (Wilkes, 2015). In Japan, during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), plants and flowers, such as cherry blossoms, were commonly modified by people to strive for a more beautiful greenery. We have now reached a point where scientific technologies can allow us to deeply, and precisely control and edit genes by using gene editing methods like the CRISPR-Cas9.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology allows geneticists and researchers to edit parts of the genome, by using an enzyme called the Cas9, to cut the DNA strands at a specific location to introduce or alter sections of the DNA sequence. Currently, this technology is the simplest, most precise and most adaptable technique of genetic manipulation available (, n.d). With this gene editing technique, researchers can develop ‘gene drives’ to exterminate problematic animal populations and even diseases.   The Selfish Gene, a seminal book by Richard Dawkins, gave credence to the concept that natural selection occurs at the gene level rather than by the population or organism level (Synthego, 2018). According to the Mendel’s Law of Segregation (Fig. 20) proposed by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, every individual possess two alleles, and a parent can only pass one allele to his or her offspring, in which the inheritance of a pair of factors or genes is independent from the inheritance of the other(, n.d).

Fig. 19 Law of Segregation (Ta, Q, 2019)

However with the CRISPR gene drive (Fig. 21), it allows geneticists to bypass this law by ensuring that the selected mutations or foreign gene can be rapidly inherited to nearly all of the animal’s offspring and population (Callaway, 2018). In 2018, for the first time, the controversial technology was successful at collapsing the malaria-carrying mosquito population in the lab. This breakthrough provides hopes that the genome editing tool can engineer populations to fight against diseases and eliminate invasive pests, but this might not be released anytime soon into the wild as organisms carrying such gene drives can be difficult to contain. 

Fig. 21 Gene Alteration Through Normal Inheritance Versus  Gene Drive (Synthego, 2018)

With the widespread presence of genetic disorders such as cancer, the ability to self-edit and triumph over death can be appealing. What if we can live in a society free from diseases? What if we can precisely select the appearance and enhance the cognitive ability of our child from birth? We are increasingly maladapted to the progress of climate change but is it ethically justifiable to amend our genome to magnify our adaptation ability? And with the pervasiveness of surveillance, what kind of civilization will we live in?

Chapter III – The Epoch of Anthropocentric Manipulation

3.1 Invisible Threats

Fig. 22 Earth’s System from Holocene to Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2018)

We are entering in a geological era called the “Anthropocene Epoch”. This is a period where the influence of Homo sapiens (anthropos) have predominately gained geological agency, from local to global scales. It is a period of dramatic environmental trends that transforms our Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere, where the collapse of essential ecosystem and global warming are the most crucial issues. The name ‘Anthropocene’ is used to differentiate from the ‘Holocene Epoch’ which was a period that carried on for approximately eleven thousand five hundred years, where the climate was largely benign. The period of the Holocene was the time where humanity shifted from being hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies to develop into an increasingly urbanized society (Haines, 2018). This transformation has led to the increase and excessive use of freshwater and energy to drive the fast growing economy, and to drive the demands for supply of the natural resources and food. This has allowed millions of people to escape poverty, particularly in places like Latin America and Asia. The global life expectancy is now at seventy years, which has more than doubled since 1900. All the countries in the world now have a higher life expectancy than the highest life expectancy in 1800. Although this period has resulted in advances in many areas, such as poverty and technology, it comes at an expense to the Earth’s natural systems.

Greenhouse gas emission has resulted in one degree celsius global temperature increase since the pre-industrial times. Our biodiversity has decreased about a hundred times less pre-human rates, the marine ecosystem has been extensively degrading through plastic pollution and ocean acidification, and the deviation of the nitrogen cycles are worldwide. Although many complex systems can adapt to considerable changes in the environment, they however have a limit to which their adaptation can amount to a tipping point (Haines, 2018). The World Health Organization estimates that about twenty-three percent of the current global illnesses are owing to environmental factors, which includes air and water pollution (Pru¨ ss-Ustu¨n, Wolf, Corvalan, Neville, Bos, Neira, 2017). In 2015, around nine million premature deaths could have resulted from the outcome of pollution, which majorly arises from household air pollutants, stated the Lancet Commission on Pollution (Landrigan, Fuller and Acosta, 2017). There are three main pathways that environmental changes can affect human heath. The first pathway is through direct affects, such as increasing exposure to high heat, and frequency to changes and severity of climate events. The second is arbitrated through the ecosystems, zoonotic infections or transference of disease vectors, that could be resulted from land use changes. Finally, socially mediated changes, such as population displacement and increase in poverty. Our understanding of mechanisms that drive these pathways is yet to be fully comprehended as it is still difficult to quantify the magnitude of the effects of the environmental changes. 

At a local level, the risks of climate change can venture onto uncertain paths – places can suffer from droughts, floods, become drier or wetter, which in turn influence our health. According to Tim Flannery, the chief counsellor of the Climate Council Australia, the pace of climate change is taking place thirty times faster than the melting of ice in the last Ice Age (Flannery, 2019). Environmental disruption is known to cause alteration in profusion and distribution of species which often induce a decline of biodiversity. Animals respond to the changes in their physical and biological environment through the primary method of the sensory input to the central nervous system (Kelley et al., 2018). Although our sensory system is a dynamic system which constantly adapts to its response to match the current environment state (Webster, 2012), these fast-paced environmental impacts can consequently jeopardize our sensory adaption ability, when our sensory states can no longer progress at the same time with the danger. The increase of cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders have been associated with air pollution. Air pollutants could function as endocrine disruptors, employ genotoxic effects and foster oxidative stress, as suggested by in vitro and in vivo studies (Conforti et al, 2018). Although there are on-going debates whether air pollution can affect female infertility, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have been found to promote miscarriage and stillbirths (Conforti et al, 2018). 

3.1  Ethics for Attuning the Maladapted

As climate change progresses, we find ourselves inhabiting a world where we are increasingly maladapted, but to adapt to such fast-paced, anthropogenic changes, is editing our genome ethically justifiable? Should we emend our genome not only to intercept diseases but to also help us increase our ability to function in the changing world? Over the past 3.8 billion years, humans have evolved from a single cell organism to complex living organisms. We understand that the information technology is variable and expect our phones and computers to improve every year. By recognizing our biology as variable as our information technology, we start to perceive all forms of life, including our own, as manipulative. We have seen many ways in which we can alter ourselves, from the surface of our skin to an even deeper, molecular level. The development of democratized genetic technologies such as CRISPR and gene drives can help us avoid extinction level events such as warmer climates, synthetic pathogens or the eventual expiration of our sun, but on the darker side of human nature, it could be used to plummet our entire ecosystem or socially divide us by undermining our common identity. Genetic technology has great potential, for example, it would enable us to edit the source code of what it means to be human. This raises the issue of human liberty where people should have the right to change themselves and their offspring. If the technology will be successful to “hack” our biology in the future, only the privileged will have the chance to enhance their children’s biology on their behalf, and the poor and marginalized in society will be more vulnerable as they have less means to adapt. Regulations need to be in place to constrain these opportunities as it can harbour unbridgeable inequalities.

Although eugenics was a term coined in the nineteenth century which combines the Greek roots for ‘good’ and ‘birth’, the concept of selective breeding and human population culling has been around for centuries. Infanticide was widely practiced during the Roman Empire and was written into the Roman Law. According to Table IV of the twelve tables of Roman Law, “a father shall immediately put to death to a son who is a monster, or has a form different from that of the human race” (Metzl, 2019). By appealing to Darwin’s principles of natural selection to human societies, Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and science polymath, hypothesized that if societies prevented their weakest members from being aborted, our human evolution would regress. In his book, Hereditary Talent and Character (1885) and Hereditary Genius (1889), which were welcomed by orthodox scientific communities, he theorized how eugenics could have a favourable impact on our humanity by encouraging the more capable and advantageous members of the society to reproduce and vice-versa for the disadvantaged. Although his work was partly aligned with the Victorian times, Galton was then and even more so now, labeled a racist. 

Perhaps the central premise of the communitarian movement is to create an acceptable balance between individual rights and community interests. However, the individual right to stay in a community while the individual has contracted a transmittable disease is outrivaled by the state’s right to protect the health of its general citizens (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). Perhaps it is in our best interest to rid ourselves from contagious diseases but we have also learned that some groups of people are at higher disposition to certain diseases than others. Those of North European ancestry are at higher risks of developing cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disorder that can affect the upper respiratory system (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). With the consensus of public-health safety, it will be almost unavoidable that researchers will try to detect patterns of allele frequencies, DNA markers and genetic profiles of the members who are prone to these conditions. Ethnic-affiliation estimations of allele frequencies is currently of utmost interest in forensic science’s research agenda (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). As there is a public desire to reduce crimes, an individual could try to find DNA markers that criminals putatively share. Like the 19th century’s phrenology, a period of scientific racism that sought to answer criminal behaviours by measuring the evicted felon’s head sizes, there is a recurring seduction in researchers who wish to do parallel correlational studies of “population-based allele frequencies” with “ethic estimations” with the grouping of felons, which has recurring false precision (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). When DNA databases and profiling has increasingly been used to solve crimes and to find common ancestors, we can imagine that it can skew bias towards those from an disease-prone ancestry and those who have previously been touched by the criminal justice system. 

According to sociologist Troy Duster, there is a complex paradox emerging when genetic research affirms that race does not exist in the biological category while social life still persistently remains racialized (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). The promotion of DNA databases and the advancement of genetic engineering can consequently foster feelings of racialization and “othering” of people from different racial communities. Anthropocentric manipulation can create interspecies hierarchy (Haraway, 1991). 

Without proper governance arrangements, we may face fear of converting to a “human barcode” civilization, like a “Gattaca” (1997) society driven by eugenics, where there is extreme polarity between the citizens who have been conceived through the eugenics program and those who have not. The science fiction depicted a future where genotype profiling is used to validate the “superior” humans for professional employment whereas the “inferior” were only allowed low-grade jobs. “Blade Runner” (1982) was also another widely popular science fiction film that portrays a dystopian technology-dominated society where humans played the role of God and “frankensteined” its society through what they call “Replicants”, bio-engineered synthetic humans, while destroying their natural environment in the process. However, in contrast to Gattaca, these bio-engineered humans stood the lowest of human status as they were deployed for hard-labour work. Blade Runner also represents a paranoia of the manifestation of corporate power, the power over individual citizens through the lens of genetic polarity, and the global warming and the extinction of animal species through industrial pollution. 

As human-induced pollution is threatening fertility rates, our society may be more inclined to approach a medical surveillance state to control fertility and reproduction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian tale of a totalitarian society, during the period of environmental disasters that cause the decline of birth rates, that desperately tries to repopulate its population by ministering women as state’s property and forcing the remaining fertile women into sexual subjugation. The SmartMom (1997) was a project by the cyberfeminist organization, SubRosa, which aims to respond to the increasing medical surveillance through the development of eugenic applications of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and women’s cyborg adaptation. SubRosa reimagined the smart T-shirt (Fig. 23-24) by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which was engineered for sensing wounds in remote battlefield and to simplify telepresence surgery for soldiers in space, to be used as a mean to surveil the behaviours of pregnant women. Historically, women are known to be resistant to cyborg adaptation and medical regulation as their body is unpredictable, like unstable menstrual cycles, hormones, metabolism, fertility. The SmartMom T-Shirt is used as a “solution” to the women’s resistance to machine adaptation (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). The purpose of this project is to raise awareness to the fact that women’s bodies are increasingly becoming the subject of behavioural control from the public and the authorities, especially when she is pregnant. 

By imagining such a society, a society of increasing perpetual surveillance and readily available genetic engineering programs, we can imagine citizens fostering a paranoia of being demoted by the state through which they self-control and self-surveil by administering bioengineering themselves. Through these fictions and possible future outcomes that challenges our sense of community and raises socio-political problems, we need to revise our social values and reconstruct our DNA identity narrative to foster a more nurturing society. 

Fig. 23-24 Drawings of the SmartMom Sensate Pregnancy Dress and Smart T-Shirt technology (Da Costa and Philip, 2010)

3.2  Everything Has a Memory

“We are our DNA” is a reductionist and misleading perspective that manipulation of life only happens at a molecular level (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). When the apparatus of life are vastly complex, it is easier for many of us to make sense of it through cause-effect formulas. According to Denis Noble, we should not diminish life to purely code and metaphysically represent its intricacy into chemical components. He notes “What genes do is to contain the database from which the system can be reconstructed. They are the ‘eternal’ replicators. They don’t die, but outside the organism, they also don’t live” (Da Costa and Philip, 2010). He contends against the statement that organisms are elucidated only by their genetics, in which he argues that genes operate in various ways and that our genetic expression is influenced by our physical environment. Our cell biology is anthropomorphic and adaptive to their communal environment. Living organisms cannot be estranged from their environmental constituent– they are constantly in flux. Our thinking of nature has been reversed by the Anthropocene, in which nature was independent and free from human interventions. According to Donna Haraway, the concept of human exceptionalism and methodological individualism is accountable for our strained relationship with nature (Haraway, 2016). Historically, the notion of “nature” was used to separate humanity from the rest of the ecology, to establish a dominant, colonial relationship. This binomial segregation can be found throughout present-day Western society, such as man/women, straight/queer, normal/abnormal, white/non-white (Rosa, 2016). However we are in the period where the human and natural forces are entwined, where the fate of one determines the other’s. “Nature becomes largely humanized and the human becomes naturalized in the Anthropocene” (Holy-Luczaj, M and Blok, V, 2018).

As elementary as it may strike to simply engineer ourselves to adapt to our increasingly hostile environment, how are we so confident that these anthropocentric manipulation will not hinder our ability to accommodate future environments? All living entities have a memory, including our skin and our environment. The stem cells in our skin can form memories of an inflammation response (Nield, 2017). The traces we leave in our environment and the traces the environment leave in us can take time to come into effect. The manipulation of both our environment and ourselves may only solve the current crisis but how are we sure that such manipulation can guarantee our future survival? An experiment in mice showed that their wounds healed quicker when they were previously damaged, as far as six months which is the human equivalent of fifteen years (Nield, 2017). The “damage-to-danger” protein, which is a protein within the AIM2 gene , is an important sensing protein and is responsible for our recovery process by remembering previous damages and put our cells on high alert. It has also been proven that plants can also remember. The Mimosa pudica plant (Fig. 25), also known as the “sensitive plant”, has a mechano-stimulation response as it folds in on itself after being touched. In an experiment designed by Dr. Monica Gagliano, the Mimosa plants were shown to be able to be trained to retain both short and long-term memories. By repeatedly dropping water on their leaves using a custom-designed tool, the plant stopped closing its leaves as it learned the recurrent drops had no consequences to them. What was even more astonishing was their ability to remember and apply what they had learned weeks later (Wohlleben, 2016). Perhaps by engineering “perfect” offspring, we are concealing them from such memories which might hinder their ability to adapt. To this, perhaps by enhancing our responsiveness to damages, these memories can assist our body maintain its integrity, and the same principle can be applied for our environment. 

Fig. 25 Mimosa Pudica (Chelab et al., 2009)

As all living entities have memories and these memories can require some time to take effect; this principle can be applied to the project’s LED panels. The flow and input of the interactive system will need to be reconsidered for future development.  Data can be collected as part of memories of the interaction and will be used as a passive behaviour. These data can potentially be participants’ motion, action and perhaps even touch. Through the interaction, the participants can see some immediate effects from their behaviours, for example, by touching the panels, it can generate an immediate noticeable behaviour, like the Mimosa’s reaction, which would cease soon after, these behaviours can then be used to promote changes in the cellular automata ecosystem over time. These effects will need to be tested beforehand but this interactive system can be used to raise awareness on the everyday actions that could impact the environment, however small or significant, which would in turn, affect our genetic regulation.

3.2  Instigating Good Behaviour and Future Development

With the perpetual surveillance in our present society that does not seem to cease yet may even be amplified by future communal interest in public health and safety rather than individual rights, and as debates have shifted from whether editing our genome is ethical to whether is it not ethical to not edit ourselves, we can argue both sides of genetic surveillance. We have learned that surveillance can challenge or fracture our community relationship as it can foster polarity between different ethnical groups as our social life remains persistently racialized, as mentioned by sociologist Troy Duster. With the widespread presence of genetic disorders, we appreciate the need of gene therapies and precision drugs, as well as sympathize with the reasoning behind the desire to edit our genome to eradicate these diseases for our successors. However, by venturing through the path of controlling genome on behalf of our offspring, we risk contributing to an unequal society, where modification is mandatory to remain as a functioning citizen within society. Surveillance can also be argued to be used as an apparatus to instigate good behaviours in our society. As mentioned in chapter one, by allowing participants to see their effects on the environment only then can the participants become aware of their behaviours, which would encourage a self-control comportment. With the increase prevalence of climate change and surveillance technologies being used to monitor and herd social behaviour, Monozygotic can utilize such methods to change our environmental behaviour. A study has shown that by giving the illusion of surveillance, it can stimulate better human cooperation and create more positive effects on decision-making in public (Ernest Jones et al., 2010), which is similar to the effects of the Panopticon. Additionally, by showing the effects of both humans and the environment, we can produce a more constructive and self-care attitude.

Fig. 26 Monozygotic interaction system (Ta, Q.,  2019)

At present time, recurring feedbacks from the project mention the difficulty to comprehend the design intention of the project and see immediate system reaction and adaptability to interactions. The project Monozygotic needs to have its input and interaction flow improved by designing a method in which participants can recognize their immediate impacts, and also see their longer-term impacts on the LED environment, as well as adapting the LED’s behaviour to the amount of interaction it receives from the audience. In order to do so, we will need to revise our tracking system and figure ways in which the participants can directly influence the system, in which one way is to have the participants act as a oscillator (mentioned in chapter one) that can influence the local ecosystem of the cellular automata’s Game of Life LED environment. Perhaps another flaw from this current iteration is that it does not deeply impact the audience. To create a more impactful experience, I can suggest the use of real genetic materials and biotechnology which will involve complications. Of course, there are many difficulties exhibiting such work simply because “wet art” can be hard to display live, and in the eyes of traditional art critics this can appear unethical. However art and design that utilize biotechnology as a form of expression is currently addressed as “less as art and more as a discursive and often instrumentalized form of contributing to ongoing public debates beyond the aesthetic realm” (Da Costa and Philip, 2010, p.83). For future development, I hope that Monozygotic can be employed as an apparatus to contribute meaningful discussions and awareness on the possible denouement of a anthropocentrically manipulated society and the impacts that we have on our environment, and in turn, the repercussions of such impacts the environment has on our genes. 



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Ta, Q. and Jacob, R. (2019). Monozygotic. Personal Archive

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Ta, Q. and Jacob, R. (2019). Monozygotic. Personal Archive

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Ta, Q. (2019). Monozygotic system of interaction. Personal Archive

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