Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Code of Life

Bregtje van der Haak, a Board member of the Prince Claus Fund and a renowned cultural analyst and film-maker speaks to The Blog about her forthcoming documentary The Code of Life.
Why the title "The Code of Life"?
The Code of Life refers to the fact that biology and information technology are merging into one huge, new field of analysis. With the latest generation of DNA scanners and super computers, any organic material (blood, skin, saliva, flowers, flies, bacteria etc) can now be cheaply 'sequenced', transformed into code and processed as digital information. Once life is viewed as a code, it can be analyzed and improved using the language of mathematics and algorithms. The young scientists working on genomics in China believe that the secret of life itself is embedded in the genetic information contained in each living cell. They are inspired and fascinated by the fact that they are uncovering previously inaccessible layers of information about the essence of life. At the same time, their own lives are also clearly affected by things that can not be so easily understood in mathematical terms, such as falling in love, loneliness and family expectations. This widening gap between life as information and life as a messy and unruly bag of feelings, family ties and cultural influences, interests me. It is clearly reductive to see life in mathematical terms only, but it is also unwise to ignore the major shifts in techno-science, because they will unavoidably have a major impact on culture, society and politics and eventually affect all of us. My hope is that the advances in techno science will be accompanied by informed public debate, new theory and empirical research by social scientists.
Can you give us the reasons that led you to explore the topic for this documentary film?
When I was working at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong last year, I was struck by the strong future orientation and optimism of my Chinese students. They embrace new technology in playful ways and seem to believe that they can improve everything, including themselves, just by trying, working hard, and then trying again. They are very supportive of each other and do not give up easily on anything. This is very different from my recent experience in Europe. When I read about a genomics institute in Shenzhen, which had become the leading DNA sequencing facility in the world in only two years time, I was fascinated. When I read that an 18-year old boy was leading the research team to uncover the genes for human intelligence, I wanted to make a film about it. My interest as a filmmaker is in showing how the world is changing. Technology itself does not interest me, but I am drawn to it intuitively when it starts to intersect with society and lived experience. There is also a strong visual drive. When I first visited BGI, the pale colors struck me as very beautiful and I felt dwarfed by the scale of the building, an old shoe factory at the outskirts of Shenzhen. Cinematically, it resonated, because it felt like Blade Runner, science fiction. But ultimately, I think the reason to make this documentary is that my personal experience in Hong Kong raised many questions for me and made me want to understand this new world more deeply. BGI seemed a place where a lot of 'newness' was concentrated, not only the super computers, DNA sequencers and cloning labs, but also Chinese family ties, the framework of a market economy ruled by an authoritarian state, and the focus on very young talent. BGI employs 3000 very young bio-informaticians, a profession that did not exist ten years ago. Altogether, it provides a new model that forced me to rethink a lot of things and I hope it will have that effect on viewers as well.
Why is China so hooked up on these types of almost post-human experiments?
The advance in genomics is by no means an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. Genetic researchers from all major research institutions in the West are collaborating with BGI in Shenzhen and paying for sequencing services. Shenzhen is one of the Special Economic Zones in China where the market economy is thriving. Because China has a planned economy, it can shift resources to new fields quite easily. Biotechnology and information technology have been identified by the Shenzhen government as growth industries and BGI has received a rent free building and a 1.5 billion USD interest free loan to buy up the best technology in the world. When I started working on the film, I thought that ethical guidelines would be less strict for cloning and DNA research in China, but in fact they are quite similar. Cloning human beings is strictly forbidden in China, as it is in the rest of the world. 
However, there are cultural differences. When you have been raised in a Christian culture, you would probably not say in front of a camera that the cloned micro pigs are ‘life that I have created under my microscope'. In Europe and America, the idea that we can 'create life', bypassing God as the exclusive creator is still very controversial, also among non-believers. That's why stem cell research and animal cloning are difficult. The cloning department at BGI in Shenzhen has been founded by a Danish professor, who could not get sufficient funding to bring his research to the next level in Denmark. His best Phd. students were Chinese and he was happy to go to China with them to establish the largest cloning facility in the world under his leadership.
What do cases such as those you examine in this film tell us about the future of nature?
The future of nature is artificial and man-made. The convenient separation of the world in 'nature' on the one hand and 'culture' on the other hand can no longer be maintained. Technology is human and therefore 'natural'. It is not outside us, but part of us. It is also inseparable from our landscapes now. Once we accept that technology is part of us, we can we start to talk about how we want to use it. If the scientists in Shenzhen will find the genes for IQ, pharmaceutical companies will get involved. They will try to make drugs that improve cognition and design tools to select embryos with genes for high IQ. In the future, babies might be born smarter because of these technologies. Of course, new technologies are expensive and most people will not have access to them. New inequalities and discrimination will arise and new battles will result from them. The political philosopher Michael Sandel has tried to draw a line between technology that is meant to cure nature's mistakes and technology that aims to improve on nature's work. He proposes to allow the first category and to limit the second. Although I tend to agree with his ambition, I think reality will be different. Once technology is available, people will find ways to buy it whenever they can afford it and feel they need it. Animal cloning is already thriving in China, Australia, Brazil and India, because it allows farmers to breed better meat at lower prices. We are living in a global market place and regulation for new technologies is always behind and usually too late to be effective. The global financial crisis has demonstrated this once again. We are heading into an increasingly chaotic global capitalist mining field, where everything of value will be extracted and the rest will be left behind. There are currently no powers or institutions capable of changing or regulating this. We can only do it ourselves.

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