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December 2007

What makes the human enhancement movement tick?

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve been thinking further about what a loose intellectual movement around human enhancement and converging technologies may look like. Did some search and came across the Betterhumans website which seems to be one of the major on-line gathering places for the transhumanist crowd. One of the most prolific contributors to the discussion forum, Anne C., an electrical engineeer in California, expresses a rather common sentiment in one of the threads:

I don’t think that these sorts of things — discussion of life extension, cryonics, human enhancement, biological research, nanotechnology, etc. — are very popular topics in the population at large. Sadly, most people seem enamored with “reality TV” and celebrity gossip much more so than things that actually have the potential to improve their lives and make them a heck of a lot more interesting.

She also addresses the question why there are so many male geeks and so few female nerds involved:

There are probably more men interested in transhumanism simply because the “movement” is so internet-based and I think guys grow up being more encouraged to use computers.

However, she does have

a few internet-friends who are female and intrigued by life extension. I don’t know how significant this is, but I and these other females who have such interests tend very strongly to be diagnosed with “autistic spectrum” conditions. [my link added]

This is anecdotal evidence, and I don’t think one should characterise the converging technologies/human enhancement movement as a bunch of autists. That said, there is much more on Anne C.:s blog Existence is Wonderful: a goldmine for the historian of contemporary ideas.

For whatever it’s worth, the lasting impression of my two-hour search is that the quest for longevity seems to be an important motivational factor behind the human enhancement / transhumanist movement. (This is actually one of the things we could have made much more out of in our new exhibition Oldetopia; also here).

By Biomedicine in museums

Displaying the molecular anatomy of subcellular structures

I thought animations of subcellular anatomy, for example, ‘The Inner Life of the Cell’, were largely didactic tools, and that more serious animations for scientific purposes were restricted to the molecular level (e.g., protein animations).

But that was before I saw this awesome animated model of the molecular architecture of the nuclear pore in a paper in Nature (29 Nov).

The nuclear pore is a regulating port for transporting molecules in and out of the cell nucleus. Like all subcellular structures it has been the objects of thousands of studies which have generated enormous amount of biochemical and morphological data. What the authors of this article did was to piece all these kinds of data (others’ and their own) together using computational methods. There are millions of ways in which the 456 identified proteins of the nuclear pore might fit together, but there is only one optimal solution. In the same way as a puzzle is solved by checking if the pieces fit together one by one with respect to colour, form, over all picture etc., the authors used state-of-the art computational integration methods to puzzle the proteins of the nuclear pore together. The animated model is the result.

(from Frank Alber, Svetlana Dokudovskaya, Liesbeth M. Veenhoff, Wenzhu Zhang, Julia Kipper, Damien Devos, Adisetyantari Suprapto, Orit Karni-Schmidt, Rosemary Williams, Brian T. Chait, Andrej Sali & Michael P. Rout, The molecular architecture of the nuclear pore complex,
Nature 450, 695-701, 2007).

Stephen King and the formation of biocitizenship

By Biomedicine in museums

Speaking about the formation of biocitizenship: Non-fiction writers Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg (who have written about the science behind James Bond) have now published The Science of Stephen King (Wiley 2007).

The preview from Amazon doesn’t raise expectations of a particularly scholarly experience, but it could nevertheless be fun reading for King-fans during the upcoming holidays. And maybe there are some nuggets in it for those of us who are interested in the formation of public engagement with medicine? Several of Stephen King‘s books and movies deal with more or less probable social and cultural (and deadly, of course) effects of biomedicine and biotech. For example, The Stand was about a deadly plague that vicious scientists let out of the secret lab, with dire consequences; the movie Golden Years took its point of departure in ageing research and regenerative medicine.

Gresh and Weinberg’s Bond-book was mainly about the physics, of course, because Ian Fleming created the Bond character in the 1950s and 1960s when atom bombs and lasers were the favourite fictional mass killing instruments; in the last 30 years mystery books and action films have moved to bugs, alien life forms, pharmaceuticals and vicious recombinant DNA specialists. The formation of biocitizenship is a diverse and multichanneled practice.

Happy Holidays (or Merry Christmas as we PICs used to say in the good old days)

By Biomedicine in museums

Just as I was leaving home for the last day in the office before the break, this pic came in from Vanessa @ Street Anatomy: a petri dish midwinter holiday season (now I got it right!) decoration — the black is said to be a yeast commonly found near bathroom sinks:


(thanks to Niall Hamilton, via Street Anatomy). Everyone else here at Biomedicine on Display is taking a break too — there may come some occasional postings, so don’t keep us out of sight entirely, though.

Do emerging technologies for human enhancement pave the way for a new kind of knowledge governance?

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve just read a call for papers to a workshop in Brussels, 6-7 May 2008, organised by the research project ‘Knowledge Politics and New Converging Technologies: A Social Science Perspective’. The aim of the project –which is funded under EU’s 6th Framework RTD Programme for three years, from April 2006 to March 2009, and is run by a consortium co-ordinated by Nico Stehr at the newly established Zeppelin University — is to study the knowledge production and anticipated social consequences emerging from the nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) field.

The call for workshop papers is interesting, because it raises an issue relevant for understanding the major changes in research and university regulatory frameworks that are taking place these days. Governments all over Europe have gradually restricted academic freedom and imposed new forms of research governance (Denmark is, by the way, one of the most afflicted countries in this respect; see this Danish blog).

There is of course no simple explanation to this historical change in the university system. However, the call for papers suggests that one explanatory factor could in fact be the rise of the NBIC-field:

Knowledge politics delineates the field of activities designed and implemented for the purpose of monitoring, regulating or even controlling the production and application of new knowledge gained through science and technology. Such activities are not new but have gained importance in the course of the 1990s with the rise of biotechnology and life sciences more generally. In view of its promise to enhance human performance through even greater interventions in the body, mind, and environment, converging technologies promises to become another virulent field of knowledge politics. Knowledge politics with respect to converging technologies is evidently one of those fields that is difficult to engage in – even as a researcher – without becoming enthralled in normative argumentation. The argument in favour of knowledge politics is that contemporary (and future) knowledge is intrinsically different from knowledge of earlier times because it will enable us to manipulate not only the human and built environment but also ourselves and fellow human beings. Therefore, new knowledge entails a potential for physical and social engineering that can be neither dismissed nor relayed to ad-hoc regulatory procedures, but rather calls for the development of new processes and tools. (my emphasis)

What Nico Stehr and his colleagues actually say is that emerging NBIC-technologies for human enhancement call for a closer monitoring, regulation and control of the production and application of new knowledge. In other words, the anticipated consequences of nano- and biotechnology is one important driving force behind the new policies for more controllable and managed universities!

I hardly need to say that this perspective also has implications for the way we understand the future role of STM (science, technology and medical) museums. I will have to think about this — will be back a.s.a.p. In the meanwhile comments would be appreciated.

Read more about the workshop here.

Is Nature Precedings entering the next phase in the hype cycle?

By Biomedicine in museums

What is going to happen with Nature Precedings? The public launch of the “beta” version last summer was met with a lot of positive expectations. Science bloggers have praised it as an initiative to democratize science and as a contribution to the broader open access movement.

But so far the result seems disappointing: only some 500 papers have been submitted, few comments are posted. After the first round of enthusiasm, the hype has faded away. Is it entering the phase of ‘disillusionment’ in the typical hype cycle? (see earlier post about biomed and biotech hype cycles here).

I haven’t seen any serious evaluations of the initiative yet. Will the owners close it down? Or will they let Nature Precedings continue to give it a chance to stabilize (hopefully) at a future ‘plateau of productivity’ á la Gartner.

Selling real-time PCR with some help from Darwin

By Biomedicine in museums

The most non-sensical biotech spam ad I’ve received in my inbox this fall:

October 2, 1836 Charles Darwin returned to England aboard the HMS Beagle. He carried with him the information that would lead to his Theory of Natural Selection. The Theory of Evolution was born.

October 1, 2007Bar Harbor BioTechnology, Inc. launched The PerfectCircle™. The next step in Real-Time PCR.

(with reference to

So, what has Darwin’s return with the Beagle got to do with launching a new real-time PCR procedure? None, as far as I can see  — but maybe that’s the kind of nonsense that will make me remember Bar Harbor Biotechnology, Inc. for ever.


Transhumanism and 'converging technologies' as a museum topic

By Biomedicine in museums

In my humble opinion, transhumanism is one of the most interesting intellectual movements today. It attracts some philosophers; quite a few high-ranking people from the fields of nanotechbiotech, information tech and cognitive science; and some accomplished artists and writers as well, like Michel Houellebecq. It has also drawn some severe criticisms, for example from Francis Fukuyama (in Our Posthuman Future, 2002).

Yet it is a publicly rather neglected intellectual movement. True, the social, political, ethical etc. consequences of some specific aspects of its technoscientific base — the so called ‘converging technologies‘ (i.e., nano-bio-info-cogno, or nbic for short) — have given rise both to scholarly research and to some public debate. But alas the movement as such and its credo has not been under much public scrutiny.

Unfortunately, because if one understands some of the ambitions and hopes that makes individual transhumanists tick — and thereby make them behave collectively as loosely defined anticipatory intellectual movement — one will probably also understand some of the drives behind the contemporary convergence of nano-, bio- and information technologies — and as a consequence some of the phenomena of today’s university and knowledge politics.

After all, what happens in laboratories today is not just a question about publish-or-perish or about venture capital investment — there is most probably also individual and collective cultural visions behind. And, for better or for worse, transhumanism is a good candidate for such a collective cultural vision. 

One of the key historical documents that throws some light upon the movement and its constitutive technologies is the proceedings (Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, 2002) of a strategic workshop organised in December 2001 by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Commerce on the potential impact of the nbic-field “on improving human capabilities at the microscopic, individual, group and societal levels” (pdf-file here).

I think transhumanism could be a great conceptual frame for a critical museum exhibition on future medical technologies and human enhancement. Such an exhibition won’t be easy to make. The constitutive topics of nano-bio-info-cogno are technically difficult to make sense of. Much of their material base in invisible and intangible. And much the visual material only exists in the brains of the members of the movement. Like many anticipatory intellectual movements it exists primarily in the form of dreams — and in words.

Yet, the movement is very real, and the technoscientific base (nbic) is very real too. So it would be a rewarding exhibition for an STM museum to take up on its program. 

The Final Cut on DVD today

By Biomedicine in museums

No, it’s not the final surgical cut I’m thinking of. But Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which came in the International Cut (same year) and Director’s Cut (ten years later), and now eventually the Final Cut (which Scott says is really the final one).

The theatre version was out two months ago — today is DVD version release day. Digital Bits has a detailed review of all the changes in this Absolutely Final Cut. Forget about the upcoming gloomy midwinter holiday and rejoice at the thought of the 5-disc Ultimate Director’s Edition which is said to be full of extra bonus material.

And why do I write about this DVD-event-of-the-year here on Biomedicine on Display? Well, simply because Ridley Scott was the first director whose imagination put the future of biotech, biomedicine, information technology, robotics and human enhancement (in other words converging technologies) right on the screen. His critical comment on what has later become known as transhumanism (note) hasn’t been surpassed since.

Wish we could stage an exhibition on human enhancement with crucial scenes from Blade Runner (e.g., where Roy meets his Maker) playing all over the background — it will probably cost us a fortune, though.

(Note: Some commentators (like George Dvorsky) naïvely believe that Scott simply endorses transhumanism — but Blade Runner is of course much more sophisticated than that.) 

CFP: Re-Presenting Disability: Museums and the Politics of Display

By Biomedicine in museums

Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd — who are currently co-directing a two-year research project on ‘Rethinking Disability Representation’ in the Dept of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester — are soliciting some 20 “original, provocative, timely and scholarly papers” to

explore issues surrounding the cultural representation of disabled people and, more particularly, the inclusion (as well as the marked absence) of disability-related narratives in museum and gallery displays.

Here’s their synopsis to the edited volume they are planning together with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University), titled ‘Re-Presenting Disability: Museums and the Politics of Display’:

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