Utility Pets: Smoke Eater, Elio Caccavale
Biojewellery, Tobie Kerridge and Nikki Stott

Towards a Critical Design

Consuming Monsters: Big, Perfect, Infectious.

Genetic identity, pharming, DNA theft, biopiracy, designer babies, consumer eugenics, genetic underclass and molecular surveillance ? these are just a few of the many new terms that have appeared in the media over the last few years in an effort to try and understand or often simply describe the implications of recent developments in biotechnology on ideas of identity, self, family, nature  and technology.

Although many issues are already being examined by ethicists and government organisations, the results usually take the form of highly technical, almost philosophical reports. When they are reported in the popular media it is often alarmist and sensational. Fine art might seem like an appropriate medium to explore these issues, but it is encountered in the highly artificial space of the gallery. Film and literature sometimes deal with these themes, but due to the nature of the media they stay fictional and are often over dramatised.

Products however, as a special category of object, can locate these issues within a context of everyday material culture. Design today is concerned with commercial and marketing activities, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way.

Although there is a relatively high awareness of biotechnology in the public sphere, there is very little actual understanding of it and, as a result, public discussion is very limited. Much of the current debate is presented through newspapers and specialist reports. The flow of information is one-way ? from the experts to the public. It is only when something goes wrong that the public get to express their concerns, for example the GM food debate in the UK. In much of the debate so far, the public have participated as citizens arguing in very general terms about the ethical, moral and social issues. Yet when we act as consumers we often suspend these general beliefs and act on other impulses. There is a separation between what we believe ought to be and how we actually behave when we want to use a biotech service or product.

Design can shift the discussion from one of abstract generalities separated from our lives to tangible examples grounded in our experiences as members of a consumer society. In this way, people can become involved in the debate earlier creating a dialogue between the public and the experts who  define the policies and regulations that will shape the future of biotechnology.

In other words, design can explore public perceptions of different biofutures before they happen, and make a contribution to the design of regulations that ensure the most humane and desirable futures are the most likely to become reality.

Speculating through design by presenting abstract issues in the form of hypothetical products enables us to explore ethical and social issues within the context of everyday life. We can look at how different ways of purchasing biotech services (through a family doctor or on the internet, for instance) or how different providers of a service affect peoples? perceptions of  biotechnology. Ideas of right and wrong are not just abstractions, but are entangled in everyday consumer choices.

Using design as a medium for facilitating discussion between the public and the experts is closely related to the use of scenarios in future forecasting, an approach formalised by Royal Dutch/Shell during the 1970s. But there are a number of differences. Firstly, future scenarios are usually aimed at decision makers in large corporations or governments rather than citizens, consumers or the public. Secondly, they take the form of written documents. In design driven scenarios the results take the form of hypothetical but possible products and services. If traditional scenarios are like screen plays then design scenarios are like props for non existent films.

Although objects are often used in scenarios from consumer electronics companies they serve a very different purpose. They are not intended to spark debate about our hopes and fears for alternative technological futures, but rather, to demonstrate how new products will fit into everyday life and meet our future needs. They are a form of propaganda designed to persuade us we will need their products.

The scenarios I am talking about do not try to convince, they simply use hypothetical products to present alternative futures -- both good and bad.

For example, Utility Pets by Elio Caccavale explores what would happen if in the near future xenotransplantation became more commonplace. He describes a situation where shortly after birth, a person is given a piglet, known as a ?knockout? pig with their own DNA engineered into it. The piglet, or Utility Pet as Elio calls it, is a form of living insurance policy -- an organ bank.

He asks where would such a pig be reared -- in a hospital, lab, or farm? He suggests most people would want to look after their pig themselves, in their own home. The project then goes on to explore what new objects might be needed if the pig lived in the home with its owner?s family. It?s an experiment to see whether or not products can draw attention to the consequences of using animals as living insurance policies.

The products he proposes include a TV exclusively for pigs which they can control themselves, a pig toy with a microphone and a radio handset allowing the owner to listen to the pig enjoying itself. Another item is a smoke filtering device that allows a person to smoke in front of the pig without it suffering the consequences of passive smoking. The final product, a comforter, is a psychological product made from the nose of the sacrificed pig that helps people come to terms with the contradictory feelings generated by this complex situation.

Biopresence, by Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara looks at what would happen if genetic culture fully infiltrated our imaginations and we began to think of our bodies less as stuff, matter, flesh, and more as information, data, DNA.

They explore how this would impact on burial rituals and propose  a business which offers a service for embedding human DNA in a living tree or plant without affecting the genes of the resulting organism. The trees can be seen as 'Living Memorials' or 'Transgenic Tombstones'. The designers believe that a growing, living tree has the ability to comfort in a completely different way than cold gravestones.

Biopresence has stimulated a great deal of discussion in the press, throughout the internet, and in scientific journals. It?s an excellent example of how design can stimulate public debate.

One issue that constantly arises is if one of their living memorials bore fruit would eating it be a form of cannibalism?

They recently received an award to help set up Biopresence as a real business. On hearing this news, New Scientist printed a full page comment which was very critical but interesting in that it exposed many scientific prejudices.

Biojewellery by Tobie Kerridge, Nikki Stott and Ian Thompson asks how biotechnology might impact on basic ideas like commitment. Does genetic technology offer any new possibilities for expressing everlasting love between two people?

The designers propose creating special wedding rings. When a couple decide to marry, they each have a piece of bone removed from which a block of biomaterial is grown. This is later worked into two rings and combined with other more traditional  materials like silver.

This project has also received funding to develop the project further. They have found two donors and are working with scientists to develop actual rings for them.

When technology is developing as rapidly as it is now, reflection and criticism are particularly important. We need to consider alternative visions to those put forward by industry.

Design, being accessible, contemporary and part of popular culture, is perfectly positioned to perform this role. It is a mediator between consumer and corporation.

In order to achieve this, however, some significant shifts need to occur. We need to develop a parallel design activity that questions and challenges industrial agendas.

Although funded and supported outside design, these projects are good examples of how hypothetical products can be used as an innovative and accessible way of generating discussion on the impact of biotech by engaging the public as consumers rather than citizens.

Design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers.

As biotech moves out of the laboratory into the marketplace, there is a need now, more than ever, for a form of design, let?s call it critical design, that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies. A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.