Speculative cultures: writing future ethnographies for synthetic biologists
Paper short abstract:
How observations of teams in a multi-disciplinary synthetic & computational biology project were used to create divergent speculative futures reflecting on current working practices and exploring the potential implications of different methods of developing & interacting with their living product.
Paper long abstract:
I was employed as an anthropologist at a speculative design agency to work with a multidisciplinary, multi-site project of synthetic biologists and computer scientists designing a system of programmed microbes for use in healthcare as well as a biological modelling system. The systems will take many years to complete, and the scientists were interested in exploring the cultural factors affecting its uptake at completion as well as interrogating their current methods of work. I undertook semi-structured interviews with 14 scientists, observed meetings, read interim findings and published papers and followed the progress of their work closely for several months. Rather than explore the ramifications of introducing the system now- decades before it will be ready- or discussing one possible outcome, I drew on observations of the different teams and disciplines, as well as other ethnographies, to develop three divergent futures within which stories and objects were set. By following a timeline into the far future we had space to develop subtle differences in meanings or in power balances into clear, extreme examples which could be useful for discussion. This project offered many learning opportunities regarding working with interdisciplinary teams, in speculative work, and with scientists in new technologies who must themselves engage in speculation to muster funding and faith in their work. The scientists found real value in anthropology and fiction de-naturalising their practices, reopening spaces for thought and inspiring new use-cases for their work, but it is only a start in an exciting, potentially vast field.
Future temporalities in anthropological practice