~ Grit Hartung ~

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Genetic Communication
A Woodhill Park Critical Forum and documenting article.

'Genetic Communication' was part of Woodhill Park Critical Forum - a series of eight round-table discussions in the Department of Communication Art and Design at the Royal College of Art in 2006.

On June 9th 2006, I hosted my critical forum titled 'Genetic Communication'. I extended invitations to Fiona Raby, (partner in design practice Dunne&Raby) / Tobie Kerrigde (Interaction Designer, Researcher; project'Biojewellery') / John Wood , (Design Futures, Goldsmith's College) and James Woudhuysen (Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester), and was very happy to have all four of them as guests contributing to a widereaching discussion. In preparation everybody attending received a reading pack. It combiled various articles of my research that would intrigue and stimulate for the discussion.

Everybody who couldn't make it to the forum itself can have a read in the Woodhill Park Critical Forum publication. You'll find the 17 page article I've written from the transcripts recorded on the day on page 118. This book compiles all eight round-table discussions held and was published in Feb 2007. The book was designed by Kieran McCann and edited by Nick Evans. It is available to buy at the RCA.

'Genetic Communication' excerpt from my introduction
Language, by definition, is the primary concern of this department. The title 'Communication Art and Design' is fantastically broad, but I want to discuss how we can design language itself, and conversely, the extent to which we ourselves are designed by language. In that context I want to address in what way emerging technologies - Genetics, Robotics, Information and Nanotechnology (G.R.I.N.) - are influencing the way we work and think as designers. How is our practice changing and how are we dealing (or not dealing) with it?

Spreading a new language creates powerful changes - not only economically but in the way we live our lives, built relationships and understand the world. It wasn't by accident that conquerors historically forced the conquered to use their language: it has been a tool for naturalisation and control because of its intimate connection to peoples' identity. In the fight for independence the use of ones own language - and one's own alphabet - is often a key issue. The language we use influences the way we think and form relationships - are we singing to each other, are we writing letters, are we iChatting.

I will focus in the G of G.R.I.N. (Genetics) since it is the easiest to understand as a spreading 'new' language. Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and professor at Harvard University in America, amongst others, observed. "Many biologiests have capitalized on the close parallel between the principles of grammatical combination and the principles of genetic combination." (Language Instinct, Perennial Harper Collins, Reprint edition, 1995). Looking back we've come a long way in terms of the way we communicate thoughts and exchange information. We have become better at coding and faster at transmitting increasing amounts of information. Early cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux in the South of France, were schemantic, meaning each thought equalled one item in the painting. The first written alphabets created with cuneiform letters and hieroglyphs, made it possible to transmit more abstarct concepts than just 'boar' or 'hunt'. The Chinese combined standardised sounds and words to express abstract thought - simpler but not a purely abstract alphabet (to read a basic Chinese newspaper, or to type a letter, a student has to memorize close to 10.000 basic characters). The Greek simplified further and created a few letters which, combined in different ways, could express almost any concept and formed the basis for the twenty-six letter alphabet we use today. The story does not end there.

If you reflect, you'll notice today's dominant language is binary (*In the mid-twentieth century, engineers invented a device to transmit or not transmit electrical impulses. Those transistors let to the first computers, requiring two-letter alphabet / coding system to catalogue, transmit and process information) - a system of just two letters (0 and 1) that transmit music (*music is no longer only pressed vinyl records with varying ridges read by a neadle, but we use mirror-surfaced CDs that contain only 1s and 0s. /J. Enriquez, p67), voice (*in 1997 telephone wires, for the first time, carried more digital data, than voice conversation. In the digital world your voice is no longer transmitted as sound waves but as a long string of 1s and 0s. / J. Enriquez, p.67), photos, movies, virtual realities and anything else you can think of ("Hello World!") Surprisingly we see that a reduction in the character set of a language has actually led to more variety and complexity.

And again this is not where the story ends. Adenin, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine (ATCG *four substances from the rungs in the DNA's double helix structure discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 (who built on an earlier experiment by Gregor Mendel). The Human Genome Project (HGP) was completed in 2003, finally allowing us to interpret the complex blueprint for building a human being.) are the four letters of the alphabet that code and govern all life. These four letters are the chemicals that comprise DNA do not transmit music, voice, photos or movies but give instruction for how to built bacteria, worms, fish, birds ... humans.

What does this discovery mean? How is it affecting the way we work and think as designers? How is this affecting the way we live our lives? These changes seem difficult to understand. However, I agree with Joel Garreau, the American journalist and author, who points out that most people "don't care about gee-wiz technology ... What they care about is what it means to be human, what it means to have relationships, what it means to live life, to have loves, or to tell lies. If you want to engage such people, you have to tell a story about culture and values – who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed and what makes us tick." (* Radical Evolution - the Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies and What it Means to be Human, p4). That is what's interesting.

I'm intrigued by which technologies we perceive as external and alien and which technologies we have by today interiorized and made part of ourselfs - technologies that are or become part of human nature. "Plato was thinking of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of computers"

Following you'll find Fiona Raby introducing Dunne&Raby's ideas with Biodolls, Tobie Kerridge talking about using design to create platforms for discussions and introducing Biojewellery, John Wood engaging ideas of Kant, Aristotle, George Bohle's mathematics, Marvin Minsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his favourite language anectode with Raphael Lemkin and James Woudhuysen asking about the real progression within genetics, arguing the me-me-me culture, the hype, New Age dabbling vs scientific enquiry, experiment and risk-taking, ...

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"Genetic Communication" : WHPCF CAAD RCA, coverpage, book design by Kieran McCann, editing by Nick Evans

I'll make the whole article avaible for download as PDF.