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The Building Bricks of the Debate

This discussion is not intended to provide answers; it’s purpose is to set the scene for debate, investigating and presenting hypothetical life cycles of products and services, and identifying design paraphernalia to better visualize the ethics and aesthetics of not-so- distant fictions.

In this new environment, objects become multifunctional frameworks in which even matter can be programmed and change its behavior and properties.[] Along with the ability to deform into different shapes with different functions, objects will be personalized so that automated customization down to the individual unit will coexist with mass manufacturing processes. Still, true personalization, wherein the objects around us are completely adapted to our needs, is a distance away.

One possible way to bridge this gap is with biology. We are fast approaching a world in which synthetic biological organ objects begin entering our everyday life. Craig Venter, entrepreneur and scientist, managed to create the first cell whose DNA was entirely synthetic (meaning that it didn’t previously exist in nature) and watermarked it with an email address. In a nutshell this was possible thanks to what is called BioBricks (see Figure 17-1): standard DNA sequences of defined structure and function, which can be combined to form new life forms.[] These elements cannot be patented, but the result or their combination can. These completely synthetic living organisms are grown within a protein-nutrient matrix and maintain their stable DNA with antibiotic agents, which can both be patented, as well.

The building blocks of new life forms

Figure 17-1. The building blocks of new life forms

Using these real scientific achievements as a starting point, we can think about synthetic biology not as an abstraction but in fictional scenarios relevant to our day-to-day experiences. We can bridge the gap between science and design, putting the issues in real context to understand the range of possibilities and discuss the ethical landscape. These technologies have the power to entirely change industries and industrial procedures. What if these technologies were part of our daily lives? What if we could actually generate and grow our organ objects at home in a even easier way that it is possible to print 3D objects today?

Synbio objects already can be patented, leading to all kinds of problematic scenarios. Genetics companies argue that it is their right to own these structures because they have invested heavily in research to identify and isolate them. Nevertheless, hacking and copying their structure is possible. On the other hand, the nutritional and antibiotics components that keep these objects alive will be scarce and actually quite difficult to replicate properly. For a scenario that features fragmented homemade production of synbio objects, what would be the role of brands? Perhaps they will patent these components, and probably our loyalty relationship with them would be based on the biological DNA they will produce.

In a world in which “living things” are widely common, it’s easy to speculate that intellectual property and monetary value would play very different roles. If we stretch our minds enough, we can see that the synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize the society at scale. Imagine the monetary system in this context. New currencies probably will be generated by a mixture of models, formulas, and generative diagrams of these DNA sequences, which would be traded according to their demand value. On the other hand, functionalities and intellectual properties will be subjected to a renovated bartering model. Such a dichotomic model will raise questions about how we will perceive value and price. Will finance still be possible? How would it evolve? What kind of social configurations could coexist in this future? Will we live in a mixture of global tribes based on DNA?

Rather than being judged by our possessions, the logos we wear, the cars we drive, or the teams we support, we might be divided up into groups possessing different genetic characteristics, some of which are rarer, cooler, and more expensive than others. This kind of division echoes racial segregation, but perhaps it will be more akin to fashion or to English soccer fans or American baseball fans wearing their team’s colors and stripes.

 
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