week 6 \ the promise (and peril?) of an emerging field \ ben marafino

Far too often in today’s media, genetically modified (‘GM’) foods have found themselves lambasted, as well the pejorative references of ‘frankenfoods,’ a name which would make you think that GM foods, amongst other things, have apparently got the ability to rot you from the inside out. Most of us, whether unfounded or not, also have some kind of aversion to these GM foods – an aversion that may as well border on luddism. Apparently our collective hubris does not stop at the mention of frankenfoods, but it too extends, and in a quite regrettable fashion, to biotechnology as a whole. We too often downplay the future possibilities of biotechnology while taking it upon ourselves to magnify its real or imagined social costs. The complexity of judging new technologies and their inevitable impacts is a very inexact science – who would have guessed that the Internet would have became the sort of phenomenon that it did? However, the Internet has grown unfettered by the intrinsic external costs that might accompany the development of biotechnology – perhaps on the environment and on our health (the scientific jury is still out on GM foods).

As we have discussed in lectures, biotechnology – under the umbrella of which we can certainly include GM foods – carries with it much promise. Yet we usually find that what is promised is relatively quite vague, in that it is difficult to determine whether a given invention or advance (let’s leave it at that) is beneficial. In other disciplines, this sort of categorisation will be a bit more cut and dry: for example, it is trivial to assume that advances in these fields (choosing just which fields, of course, would make for entirely another debate in itself) will either be, on the most basic of levels, useful or otherwise. In the case that they prove to be useful, then they will be so only in a manner that provides some kind of objective benefit (such as with the Internet, which has relatively few externalities, most of which are negligible).  We cannot apply the same dictum to something as new and accordingly completely undefined as biotechnology, but there exists good reason to suspect the existence of noninsignificant externalities in its case, as discussed previously. Art may contribute – albeit from the outside in - to its definition, but there are cases in which art has negatively turned public opinion – and if I may say so, unfairly – against a legitimate invention and overblown its dangers (like nuclear power, for instance).

The same dilemma exists at the interface between art and biotechnology. We must be wary of bemoaning the usefulness or prematurely declaring the apparent ineffectuality of a breakthrough, no matter which form it may take. One would be inclined to think superficially the idea of glowing mice a bit frivolous, but the sorts of future technologies and techniques they will eventually lead to certainly are not.  Last year’s Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded for the very concept (green fluorescent protein; GFP) behind glowing mice, which only underscores (or our perception of?) its utility and importance. GM foods certainly deserve a thorough investigation of their possible dangers, especially involving gene transfer, but their use should not be dismissed out of turn. Rather, we should aim to hold accountable the increasingly faceless multinational corporations that press GM foods into use without knowledge of their dangers, or force them upon independent farmers – and of course, this is the perfect role for art and artists who deem themselves to be socially conscious.

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