More than ever before, scientific and technological innovations are playing increasingly important roles in our lives. New products developing today will fundamentally shape the world around us and manipulate our lived experience in the future. In twenty years, we could be zooming on hoverboards to visit real-life Jurassic Parks or navigating with our optic-implanted GPS systems. In this age of blossoming innovation, however, many wonder: how and why are these important projects chosen? And what are the ultimate consequences of this process?
In Unreal Objects, Kate O’Riordan unpacks these crucial questions and fills a gap in the theorization of digital materialities. Through her investigation, she discovers that many objectssuch as genomic projects, artificial meat, and re-creation of extinct speciescannot be granted scientific legitimacy and developed without extraordinary amounts of media, celebrity endorsements, and private investment. As a result of these filters, only certain projects take center stage when it comes to funding and political attention. O’Riordan calls these unreal objects; scientific projects and technologies whose utopian visions for the future are combined with investment and materialization in the here and now. By separating the media hype from the reality, O’Riordan shows how the huge amount of attention paid to these unreal objects hides more pressing social injustices and inequalities, while at the same time conjuring utopian visions for how life might be lived.
About the Author
Kate O’Riordan is a reader in digital media at the University of Sussex. She has authored or edited five books including The Genome Incorporated: Constructing Biodigital Identity.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Problems With Objects
'Unreal Objects' as a title might seem like a contradiction. That is the point. This is a book about contradictory and competing realities. The world is full of technological objects that are naturalized and taken as a given. Accepting these objects in their own terms means that responding reactively to them is one of the only positions available. Objects orientate people, knowledge and worlds. The point of the book, then, is to disorientate some of these objects and look at ways of taking them in different terms. There is an imperative to look at the world and its phenomena in terms of objects, and to disavow other ways of knowing by prioritizing some objects over others. This appears in particular kinds of materialist thinking such as object orientated philosophy and accelerationism (Bogost 2006, 2012; Morton 2013; Williams and Srnicek 2013). I'm going to refer to this as object materialism. Materialism itself is not the issue at stake here – multiple kinds of material thinking contribute to knowing and intervening in the world. Feminist materialism, historical materialism, science studies and ecological materialisms are also influential in taking things seriously as both material and representational. However, a particular kind of insistence on the object, in both the claims of technoscience and directions in academic and political thinking, are part of a problem to be addressed here. The way that object materialisms in the world of theory seem to mirror the claims of technoscience is striking; both insist on taking particular technological objects as a given, in their own terms. The book works to bring back a sense of objects as things in the making, mediated, unstable, not quite given, constantly deferred, and as part of the problem of always positing science and technology as the answer.
The book undoes this imperative to be object orientated by looking at what I'm referring to as unreal objects. Taking digital-media-materiality together amounts to a proposition that media objects mediate and make worlds, and that what counts as media and as material are political questions. Approaching emerging technoscientific projects as unreal objects is a way of challenging the imperative to find technological fixes for social issues, and the demand for everything to be an object.
The imperative to look at the world in terms of the agency of real objects operates across political discourse, technological, scientific and engineering fields, and philosophical and critical theory. For example, the US president Donald Trump promises to build a wall, delivering an agential object as a political solution. In the UK, Trident is offered as an object, a self-defined thing: it is what it is. Walls and weapons are offered as real political objects making cuts in the world. At the same time, in the register of philosophical and critical theory, leading thinkers tell us that there is a world of objects that appears to us directly, unmediated, and that we have to deal with this world reactively, in material terms.
The current focus given to objects and the idea that we can only deal with the reality of the world as it is given to us might be an abdication in bad faith. It leaves reaction as the only option and impels acceptance of multiple factors as just realities we have to deal with. However, realities are made up too, and the full capacity of 'made up' to mean manufactured, created, invented is important here. Objects are not just givens to which reaction is the only orientation. Politics are involved in the making of objects, realities and worlds. It seems to me that there are two types of object that are given to us as real: those that are construed as arising from the world, like bodies and mountains; and those that are made in the world, like iPhones and computers. Even though the latter are more obviously made up, manufactured, real things, they too are taken as inevitable. Their inevitability, high status and economic value mean that they outweigh other kinds of realities in a hierarchy of unreal objects. The status of technoscientific objects has a special role in securing the real: they are both made up and promise to remake other realities. Genomes will remake bodies, biosensors will remake homes and cities, smart grids will remake climates.
This is then a book about emerging technologies, new things that promise to remake other realities. Some of the examples are more emerging than others. Some haven't made it off the prospectus and others have already become part of everyday life. All the examples in this book can be thought of as big emerging technosciences, and the idea that they will all be realized in the world is a naturalized and deterministic story that I seek to disrupt. All are emerging in a moment in which the role of the media is central to the research into, and the development and delivery of, new technoscientific realities. The role of the media is folded into these projects in multiple ways. On the one hand, the role of public relations and creative media agencies is pervasive in the development of these projects from their very early stages. On the other hand, technoscientific objects themselves constitute processes of mediation, stabilizing temporary realities through media texts, devices, sequences and platforms. All of the examples join up technologies and bodies to create sites at which biological materials and informational technologies circulate, flow and mediate each other.
I use the term unreal here to try to emphasize hierarchies of reality and of materiality and to demonstrate differential materialities and realities. The unreal objects of the title are media materialities, objects which are given as real but also operate on a spectrum that includes what can also be thought of as immaterial, symbolic, insubstantial and unreal. Unreal objects are both a proposition and an approach: a proposition that objects that appear real are also made up; and an approach to emerging technologies that takes them as objects and discourses, material and symbolic, imaginary and actual. They are contradictory things in the world that can serve as reminders of the contradictions of given realities. This is to point to forms of intervention, thereby disrupting the narrative of the inevitable world given to us in which we can only react.
The premise of this book is that political legitimacy is negotiated through science and technology taken as objects, that mediation is central in materializing this authority as real, but that other stories can be told which undo the objects of technoscience as they are given. Emerging technologies become nodes of contestation about what collective investments should be made and what common futures are desirable, and as such they are political objects. However, the question of which objects come to accumulate that political gravity, or to assume a reality, has as much to do with the media life of these objects as anything else.
SOME BACK STORY: WORKING WITH EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
I've been thinking about unreal objects for some time, and some specific experiences will help to tell a story about how this developed into a proposition and an approach. The first is an anecdote about a dinner conversation. I was working on a three-year project about the economic and social aspects of genomics. This was just after the Human Genome Project had been completed and some two decades into the emergence of genomics as a global big science endeavour. At the annual project conference dinner one of my colleagues observed jokingly to a genome scientist that she wasn't sure if she believed in the genome. After all, she noted, you can't see it or show it to me.
We had both recently read the novel Life by Gwyneth Jones, in which the protagonist conjures a strand of DNA from onions and washing-up liquid. DNA you can touch and see. Genes and genomics on the other hand are not apparent to the eye. Genomes are only manifest as objects as sequences of data, three billion base pairs per genome. You can look but you can't really touch. The human genome is printed out as a sequence of letters in a book in the Wellcome library and you can touch the book – but this is a book, a media object, not a genome. The genome sequence is likewise a sequence not a genome. On one level it is hard to believe in genomes, and this story about scepticism expressed at the centre of genomic research is refreshing. On another level, a huge amount of attention, investment, work and media production has gone into making genomes objects. This realization and materialization has been complex, produced through networks of objects, actors and processes of mediation over many decades. They have real effects on people's lives, from the careers of scientists, to the experiences of research subjects and patients.
At the time of this conversation my attachment to genomes was abstract. I'd been working on the economic and social aspects of genomics as a media analyst for some time and continued to do so for a decade. Towards the end of that time my attachment became more passionate when I discovered that my mother, my sister and I had a relatively rare genetic condition. Whether passionately or abstractedly invested, it is clear that genomes occupy such an important position that world leaders have claimed they are the language of god, and billions of pounds, dollars and other currencies have been poured into them. Although, as other scientific fields come into (re)ascendance in the early twenty-first century (physics and neuroscience in particular), it is also clear that perhaps there are fashions in the sciences as elsewhere. The £11 billion spent on the Hadron Collider, which opened in 2008, overshadowed the estimated spend of £5 billion on the Human Genome Project completed in 2000, or thereabouts. Science and their technologies rise to prominence, rule the day and move on. However, as mediations they don't disappear, they reanimate and remediate (Bolter and Grusin 1998). For example, neuroscience reanimates psychology, and genomics remediated questions about the effect of nuclear and chemical warfare on populations (Higuchi 2010; Cook-Deegan 1991).
Another key experience that shaped this book was my involvement in the technology assessment project EPINET. As part of a larger consortium, I led the media analysis strand of the project alongside people working on environmental, economic, legal, socio-technical and ethical aspects. At the time I was surprised that the research objects in each strand of the project were media materials. The basic units of analysis were texts produced about the technologies. Where there were prototypes, trials or pilots they were communicated through reports, images, texts, conferences, conversations, as well as assemblages of actors, relations and objects. We had been commissioned to look at technological objects, which although designated as emerging, were defined as things in the world. The emerging technologies were already given to us as objects, in relation to which assessment was reactive.
In this project the media analysis was distinct because we were looking at public and audience engagement and mediated visions and imaginaries. However, our strongest contribution was in some ways the reminder that other forms of assessment were also looking at visions. We compared use and take up with prospective visions, and focused on questions about the forms of media production and consumption involved. However, the objects kept shifting, and my overriding impression coming out of that project was that these emerging technologies, which included in vitro meat, biosensors and smart grids, were, above all, media objects. Things, and discourses, formations, tropes, figures, visions made up through media forms, and the attempts to define these as objects, were communicative, world-making processes that embedded the beliefs of those making, attending and investing in them.
The idea that technology is the materialization of cultural beliefs or is a cultural form is not a novel observation; it has been influential in both media and science and technology studies (Williams 1974; Latour 1991). That imaginaries are world-making is a proposition that has been examined in feminist approaches to technoscience, and especially in the work of Donna Haraway (1988, 1992, 1997). The proposition that we can only react to objects is at odds with these approaches to science and technology. Objects after all are orientating devices (Ahmed 2006), and to suggest that the objects of technoscience are unreal is to provide some disorientation as an intervention.
OBJECTS IN THE BOOK
The examples of unreal objects that are analysed in this book are: human genomics, biosensors, smart grids, in vitro meat, and de-extinction. The chapters are arranged around each of the listed examples, with in vitro meat and de-extinction considered in the same chapter. In the second chapter I focus on the case of Genomics England to discuss human genomics. Human genomics is a massive terrain and multiple books have been written about its economic, cultural and social aspects over the last two decades. In the spectrum of unreal objects considered here it is well established. Genomes are media objects which have a very high media presence and a digital media ontology. This is because genomes take the form of sequences, anchored in an imagined biological materiality to which there is a very strong ontological claim but no object. Genomes are digital media, or at least appear as such in sequence form, but as the chapter demonstrates, these sequences simultaneously appear and are deferred as objects, made relational through the imperative to collect them in large numbers. Human genomics brings human biology, genetics and informatics together. Chapter 2 explores some of the media work of Genomics England and sets it in the context of the political economy of sequencing. In doing so the chapter draws out the way genomes are made meaningful in this context, but also suggests that we need to think about them otherwise.
Each chapter looks at an example in terms of how it is given as an object and set up in a dominant or preferred form, but also looks at counter versions, alternatives and contradictions. In using this strategy I aim to bring an analysis of the objects together with the suggestion of alternative ways of understanding them. For example, Genomics England is an investment based on the promise of genomics to revolutionize biomedical health care; an alternative way of seeing this is to understand genomics as part of a digital economy, driving big data and sequence technology. It also offers investment in genetic editing technologies and the possibility of engineering species and it is important to bring this into focus when the question of NHS resources are at stake.
The third chapter is on biosensors. It looks more specifically at fitness tracking technologies, object devices that measure and quantify human movement, calorie consumption and sleep patterns. Biosensors, as a category, refer to a much wider range of technologies that sense and measure biological signals and create data streams based on these. They have application as scientific instruments, in climate science, health care and leisure. Examples include monitoring blood sugar for diabetes or measuring sweat for fitness training or chemical composition. An early example of an analogue biosensor is the so-called lie-detector or polygraph test which senses several biological signs including blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity (Littlefield 2008). The rhythms of these signals were written out in patterns and subject to interpretation. In the examples explored here, these layers of collecting, recording and interpreting are condensed into a device, which provides a strong interpretative framework for the biological data collected. The chapter uses the example of fitness monitoring to look at how the mass-market roll out of such technologies has been taken up. It sets these objects alongside other forms of measuring and recording fitness in everyday life, by looking at diaries and letters in earlier periods. It also sets the market model of fitness tracking against digital art practices and alternative interventions into these technologies. Like the previous chapter, it does this to look both at the object as a mass-market product to which only a reactive response is offered, and at how it might be otherwise.
Excerpted from "Unreal Objects"
Copyright © 2017 Kate O'Riordan.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures
1 Introduction: Problems With Objects
2 The Shadow of Genomics
3 Biosensory Experiences, Data and the Interfaced Self
4 Smart Grids: Energy Futures, Carbon Capture and Geoengineering
5 Real Fantasies: De-extinction and In Vitro Meat
6 Unreal Objects and Political Realities