What’s “Human” about Human Practices?

This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing over the next couple of months about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.

Human beings live within cultures, and have social relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and indeed with strangers. How we each live with these relationships and how they change over our lifetimes is an inescapable dimension of social life, so that how we view ourselves and others similarly shifts as these connections change and develop. Imagine how strange it would be to think of your friends in the same way now as you did as a toddler. In this regard, we are ‘socialised’ into the cultures in which we grow up, so that how we learn to relate to each other (through more or less formal social norms, rules, laws and so on) is culturally specific by virtue of how we are taught to do this. Whilst the family unit and friendship group might seem natural for many readers of English, how we conceptualise family and friendship changes from culture to culture, and over time. These elements of our lives thus only seem ‘natural’ to us because that is how we were taught to think and relate to each other. And indeed, what constitutes a family in America, Europe and elsewhere is currently contested.

cg_image2We are also embedded in networks or webs of materials, including such things as trees, atoms of oxygen, food, trains, genes, pharmaceuticals, bodies, oceans, and an ever expanding number of consumer goods. The list of things involved in human life is already incomprehensibly long and we’ve only just got going. Just think about how many things you can now buy in a large supermarket store and how all of those things have to be constructed from other materials, which have to be mined or manufactured themselves. The chains of connection between various materials in our lives help to organise how we do everyday life so much so that they can often become essential to how we view the world and each other: what would life be like now without computers? But materials and technologies are also shaped by existing structures and practices of everyday life. We can see this, for example, in how designers of mobile phones have sought to better mimic co-presence between speakers – as would normally occur in everyday life conversations – by improving sound quality, introducing the use of emoticons and pictures in text, and by the addition of video cameras.

In the first stage of the study, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of the same person of the opposite sex shown with one of four different facial expressions. Moreover, because we ourselves are material bodies we’ve got feelings and emotions, psychological and physical states, as well as habits, routines, reflexes and so on, all of which are essential to our experience. These too are socialised so that how people experience love and anger, how they taste and eat food, how they sleep and so forth all differ according to their positions within culture and across cultures. For example, how women are taught to experience love and anger may be quite different from how men are taught to experience these dimensions of life. Moreover, some of these differences may now be partly because of differences in the kinds of materials that we surround ourselves with and make sense of ourselves through. So the equipment we use to cook and eat food, the kinds of clothing we wear, and the arrangement of rooms in houses differs from culture to culture.

In the mix of these cultural relations and material chains there are thoughts, ideas, concepts, stories, books, advertisements, news reports, TV shows, films and a plethora of other textual and visual features to everyday life. These texts help us to describe and organise our everyday lives but they also serve to shape them. When President Barack Obama campaigned with the slogan “Yes we can!” he wasn’t only trying to describe a state of affairs but actually trying to bring about the situation through which the imagined social change might become possible. In the same way, promises made by synthetic biologists about how the future will be driven by a biological industrial revolution are not just descriptions they are part of how we try to bring about those situations that we imagine.

Then there are a whole bunch of different structures of social life that bring together these cultural and material relationships into stable patterns. This is one of the ways in which the ‘practices’ element of human practices becomes important. One example of a complex set of human practices that show some stability would be the assemblage of trained professionals, friendships, rivalries, family traditions, rules and tactics, bodies and exercise, habits and creativity, food production and consumption, entertainment reporting, and advertisements that all have to be orchestrated together to make up the individual games of football[1] in a local, national or international tournament. At the same time as these orchestrated assemblages of relationships, texts and materials are shaped into a game of football, so too does the game of football shape the meanings of individual actions within the game and its appreciation.

When a player makes a ‘dive’ to claim an undeserved penalty, the meanings of that dive to the player, her team mates and opponents, the supporters, the referee and managers and so on is informed by their role or position within the whole orchestration. And so how they subsequently feel about and act in relation to the dive will differ. In this regard, single actions only make sense as part of larger projects of social practices and will have different meanings for participants given their position within the network of relationships assembled into the ongoing project. For the referee the dive is just one more instance of a game gone sour, for the player it’s a calculated risk, whilst for the fans of the opposing team it is a travesty of quite epic proportions. So the referee sighs and holds up a yellow card, whilst the player feels a swell of satisfaction and relief, as the opposing fans growl, shout and chant in disgust.

We humans are thus powerfully complex. The meanings of our whole lives and everyday individual actions are interwoven with relationships, materials, bodies, texts and social practices. So much so that they are impossible to disentangle. Add to this the dimension of social change, so that the meaning of a given action, material or text might change over time, and we have a picture of human life that truly boggles the mind.

All this means that when we talk of human practices we have to remember that there is all of this going on for the human beings we’re referring to, whether they’re scientists, politicians, football players, members of ‘the public’[2] or whatever. So in order to appreciate how synthetic biology might figure amongst all of this we have to take synthetic biology to be just one amongst many ongoing projects in the lives of all of the humans involved. What it means to envisage, create, produce, use or contest the development of an engineered microorganism will be shaped by the complex of other ongoing human practices involved for the many different people brought together to make these practices of imagination, creation, production, use and contestation possible.

Imagine how much meaning and complexity there is going to be at the 2014 jamboree when people from all around the world, from many different cultures, speaking many different languages, and familiar with many different practices, come together with their individual life histories and recent team experiences in order to compete for a range of trophies in the assemblage of people, relationships, materials, bodies, texts and social structures that make up the iGEM competition!

And, finally, let’s think about how complicated things would get if even just a few of the projects that teams bring to the competition are taken forward in some way and developed into novel technological and social changes. How might those future projects be made up of relations, materials, texts, structures and so forth? How will these technical developments borrow from or change existing patterns of social life? How will we all, scientists, politicians, football players and members of the public alike, make sense of all of this change and with what consequences for how we do things in our everyday lives?

If iGEM teams are going to start making human practices into something that can be more about the human of human practices then we need to take seriously all of these dimensions of what being a human is about when we are considering our synthetic biology innovations. We need to be adventurous in how we use social research methods, how teams collaborate, how we imagine what synthetic biology can be, who it can work for, and how we might try to change social relations for the better through it and with it.

In a series of posts, of which this is the first, I’ll be writing accessibly about some of the dimensions of human practices work in the context of iGEM and synthetic biology. My hope is to be able to help some iGEM teams to think a bit more broadly about what human practices could be about and what they might do as part of their own human practices work. Some of the information might help to inspire teams to think creatively about how their proposed technical innovations might be shaped by existing social forces, and also in what ways they might think about the possible futures in which their proposed innovations might play a role.

Suggestions of topics that you’d like to see me cover are very welcome – though no promises.

[1] Or soccer, for our American friends.

[2] I’ll come to this term in a later post I’m hopefully going to write: What’s “public” about ‘public understanding’?

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