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Synthetic Aesthetic

by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
368 pp., illus. 30 col/41 b & w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01999-6.

Reviewed by Jason Paul Stansbie, Research Fellow
Transtechnology Research
University of Plymouth


As a former software and systems engineer I am excited greatly by technology. The prospect of feeding genetic code into a computer and producing ‘synthetic life’ capable of solving problems conjures visions of both science fiction and utopia. In a nutshell, Synthetic Aesthetic discusses how Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology may provide the answer to many of humankind’s needs, including tailored pharmacology, ecological solutions, and more. Combining the views of designers, biologists and engineers, Synthetic Aesthetic looks at many of the issues surrounding this new discipline.

Comprised of 18 chapters, three sections, and excellent supportive literature, such as a deep reflective epilogue, a robust notes section, an extensive index, and thorough about the team and index sections and totalling 334 pages with supportive, high quality images, Synthetic Aesthetic is a professionally constructed book that overall meets its aims.

The book
brings the reader's attention to the field of Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology; evident in Section 1, which outlines how these technologies could be the saviour that humankind has been waiting for. The book is balanced in its approach, exploring this new technological field. For non-biologists, the first three chapters consist of a primer to the field with historical and cultural perspectives, with Ginsberg enquiring into the use of the word design from both a science and art perspective.

Section 2 inspects genes, sequencing, and the issue of what some may term intelligent design (via the agency of extra-terrestrials) verses natural selection, happily trotting along the well-trodden Darwinian trail of survival of the fittest (p. 78-9). The question of whether nature designs is covered, which is seen as nonsensical as design is a vehicle to express human values. Designing biologically to aid humankind, for instance, vegetables containing herbicidal juice (p.103-4), is also covered. What may constitute future good design and the issue of product life and death are explored as is the question of whether humankind needs to ultimately explore Biotechnology or to better engineer materials from nature, for instance bricks constructed from fungi and structurally engineered wood.

The final section is organised to reflect a collection of writings and case studies from the project, covering biology and architecture, bio-computing and asking what it would mean to live with designed nature. The section also considers time, asking how will Synthetic Biology be viewed a million years from now. Sonfication, using Synthetic Biology in music, is discussed and whether future technology may come to allow for merging of machine and future life into a new form.

Overall, the aims of the book have been achieved: to open a dialogue between artists, synthetic biologists, designers and social engineers, provoking discussion about the place of design in relation to things. The arguments put forward are cohesive and coherent with well-constructed logical chapters.

Reviewing the text left me with a deep sense of sorrow. Whilst it is true that the book covers the subject well and by reading it an appreciation for the field of Bio-Technologies and design can be gained, I was saddened that the presentation of the subject was clinical, cold, matter of fact and Cartesian. Whilst the text touched upon the issue of ethics and legalities, it always appeared to emerge from the human perspective, using the term ‘bio-ethic’, which I felt should have been re-termed ‘human-centred-bio-ethics’.

Whilst discussing ethics, the text skilfully sidestepped responsibility. Whilst admitting that we may have to control the newly created life form by throwing the kill-switch on life-machines (p.113-114), it negated to explore whether there existed a moral context to that decision. Whilst exploring engineered-life, the text uses the term living-machine, without exploring whether the two terms are contradictions––can something alive and sentient ever be a machine––and fails to explore whether engineered life may have a greater context (p. 255). The living amongst living things team (p.181-182) describes owning a dog as entering into a relationship with a living consumer product––however, it fails to investigate the concept of ownership and/of life and whether pets are actually seen in this way. This book, whilst interesting, uses terms, such as life and machine, without quantifying what they actually mean and whether created life is sentient or not.

My criticism of this book is that of boundaries and the failing to push them. The chance to inspect what constitutes life and the responsibility of the creator to the created was screaming to be explored within this text. I am reminded of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein shuns his creation who, contrary to Hollywood sensationalism, starts life as benevolent and gentle, only becoming the monster through harsh treatment by humankind. The issue of whether humankind could become Victor could have been addressed. By not considering responsibility to the creation, asking whether it is a sentient being, whether we need to afford rights to a created form or asking whether we have the right to flick the kill switch and end life within another, the text fails to ask the ultimate question(s). I question whether this text could have examined the rights of the synthetic life form, posing the question whether bio-ethics need to extend not only to humans but also to the life form itself. This, I feel could have opened the discussion further into new branches such as consciousness, law, and ethics, ultimately investigating the nature of life itself.

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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