Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 72-97
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Data Made Flesh:
Biotechnology and the Discourse of the Posthuman
Then you could throw yourself into a highspeed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market.
—William Gibson, Neuromancer
New Bodies, New Media?
Over the past few years, it has become increasingly commonplace to come across a new vocabulary in mainstream media reportage: headlines about "genomes," "proteomes," "stem cells," "SNPs," "micro-arrays," and other mysterious biological entities have populated the many reports on biotechnology. The completion of human genome projects, policy decisions concerning the use of embryonic stem cells, controversies over genetic patenting, and the ongoing debates over human therapeutic cloning are just some of the issues that biotech research brings to public discussion. For many advocates as well as detractors, the so-called biotech century appears to be well underway.
But we might be a little more specific in describing biotech, which is for many becoming the new paradigm in the life sciences and medical research. This is to suggest that one of the main things that characterizes biotech currently is an intersection of bioscience and computer science or, to put it another way, an intersection between genetic and computer "codes." Within biotech research, this is known as the field of bioinformatics, which is simply the application of computer technology to life science research. Its products include on-line genome databases, automated gene-sequencing computers, DNA diagnostic tools, and advanced data-mining and gene-discovery software applications. When we consider advances in [End Page 72] these fields, it becomes apparent that biotech is a unique relationship between the biological and the informatic. As Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics, states, "We are as much an infotech as a biotech company"; a notion reiterated by Ben Rosen, chairman of Compaq Computing, who states that "biology is becoming an information science."
The questions these mergers between biotech and infotech bring up are many: What does it mean to have a body, to be a body, in relation to genome databases? How is our notion of the body transformed when biotech research demonstrates the ability to grow cells, tissues, and even organs in the lab? How is the boundary between biology and technology reconfigured with the DNA chips commonly used in biotech labs? In biotech research, what happens to the referent of "the human" as it is increasingly networked through information technologies?
Between biology and technology, genetics and computer science, DNA and binary code is a more fundamental relationship between human and machine. I will take "posthumanism" as a wide-ranging set of discourses that, philosophically speaking, contain two main threads in its approach to the relationship between human and machine. The first thread I will refer to as "extropianism," which includes theoretical-technical inquiries into the next phase of the human condition through advances in science and technology. These are mostly technophilic accounts of the radical changes that leading-edge technologies will bring. The first part of this paper will be spent analyzing and critiquing the extropian branch of posthumanist thought, especially as it relates to the ways in which the term "information" is defined. The second thread is a more critical posthumanism, often in response to the first, and includes key texts by contemporary cultural theorists bringing together the implications of postmodern theories of the subject and the politics of new technologies. The second part will consider research in biotechnology in light of posthuman discourses. While biotech research raises many of the issues common to both the extropian and critical posthumanist discourses, it also elucidates unique relationships between human and machine, flesh and data, genetic and computer "codes." Both threads offer valuable insights into the ways in which notions of "the human" diversify, self-transform, and mutate as rapidly as do new technologies. [End Page 73]
There is a growing body of research, both theoretical and practical, on the ways in which advanced technologies—from nanotechnology to...