Using critical fiction to design for reproductive futures
How will we interact with technology in 2035?
Individual project | 8 week | Umeå Institute of Design '15
Skills: design fiction, critical design, futuring, storytelling, filmmaking.
What if there was another way to shape our genes?
By 2035 gene editing has become increasingly common among the wealthier classes. To counter this, alternatives have risen to cater for the others.
The others are those who either choose to, or are financially unable to use germline improvement technologies.
One of them is a company called New Natural, which offers services and products that enable people to have better awareness and control over the genome.
The company has now released their first product line, the Three Wise Friends, which provides the expecting parent(s) control over the phenotypic* development of the embryo.
* The phenotype is the observable expression of the genes, such as morphology and behaviour.
New Natural presents a critical take on gene editing technologies that are being developed for the purpose of human genome modification.
The focus lies on the future citizens that either will not be able to afford to or choose not to genetically modify their children's DNA. The vision takes place in the fictional world of 2035.
The project was originally inspired by my Bachelors thesis that discusses the ethical ramifications of the Italian law 40/04 that regulates access to Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ARTs).
The Three Wise Friends
A safer way for aspiring parents to influence the genetic development of their child.
The tools provide an alternative way to shape genetic development without touching the genes "artificially" (i.e. by using gene editing technologies that involve the direct manipulation of the DNA by extraction or insertion of genes).
The primary aim of the tools is to teach the parent(s) during pregnancy about behaviours that have an adverse effect to the development of the child. The Turtle and the Bunny can be used also after the birth of the child.
The bunny is as a biosensor that detects the presence of viruses, bacteria, toxins, proteins and allergens in food.
It not only recognises the foods that are suitable for the mother to consume, but it gives special attention to foods that lead to the development of favourable characteristics in the child (pre-specified by the parents).
How it works:
When food or other products are presented within a specific distance of the bunny, it will indicate their safety by bending its ears forward or backwards. For example, if the item presented is not safe, the ears move backwards; the more backwards the ears move, the more harmful the item is.
The hedgehog reflects the extent to which the child is affected by the mother's emotional state.
Stress in particular can have adverse and long lasting effects in the genomic development of the child.
How it works:
The mother uses a sensor which is placed on the skin, which recognises foetal DNA present in the bloodstream of the mother. When the mother is stressed, the hedgehog curls up to indicate the amount the foetus is affected by it.
Indicating the presence of environmental pollutants.
Air quality, like other environmental agents, plays a large role in shaping gene expression.
How it works:
The turtle is connected to an external sensor that is placed outdoors to measure air quality (ppm, or particles per millimetre). The information is then translated to the turtle’s degree of exposure. The better the air quality, the more out of its shell it is. Conversely, the higher the ppm value is, the more hidden it is.
Speculating a future world and society
What kind of problems will we be facing in 2035?
Critical design provided a new perspective in the activity of 'design'. Instead of addressing established problems, critical design is used to raise awareness and call for discussion on issues relating to our current norms and values.
Since our task was to design for the year 2035, the practise of design fiction held a key role in the project. A fictional society was created through several iterations of narratives. The narratives were inspired by current events, which were extrapolated and used to create future projections.
Extensive secondary research was carried out on technological development and societal trends relating to reproductive health and decision making. The findings were then used to map potential trajectories, one of which was chosen for the project. See more below.
A selection of current trends
Late motherhood and the rise of IVF
Postponing childbearing has become increasingly common, which has lead to the increased reliance on assisted reproduction technologies.
Environmental degradation and rising infertility rates
Human fertility is on a steady decline, a fourth of which is still due unknown reasons. Many argue this is the result of the presence of toxins present in our products and food.
Development of gene editing technologies
The development of gene editing technologies is in full force in several countries around the world, some of which are already experimenting with human embryos for traits such as intelligence.
Gene editing will become accessible to wealthier classes by 2030
Edits will begin from the eradication of illnesses, but may gradually spread to other cognitive or physical traits
The use of assisted reproduction technologies, IVF in particular will grow. In such a case making selections basing on genetics is already done. Movement to bigger gene modifications is very likely to happen, albeit gradually. Due to the gradual nature of the development and human need, ethics around this are also likely to develop along.
Gene editing will be technologically feasible and financially accessible. Gene editing and ‘reading’ technologies are already being developed to eradicate inheritable illnesses. Due to these developments, the gene editing for other characteristics, such as looks or intelligence is likely to be technologically feasible in the next 10 years.
- It will be difficult to create and maintain global restrictions on the use of gene editing technologies. As long as one country legalises the use of gene editing for non-illness modification (the extent of which will be likely to grow) it will become hard to stop its global usage (via initial reproductive tourism).
If gene editing becomes commonplace, how can we avoid genomic inequality?
If strict legislation fails, how can we provide everyone with access to improving their genome? Are there other, safer and less technologically invasive ways for us to influence our genes?
Epigenetics - genes can be expressed in different ways
Many of us know that we are unique amalgamations of genes collected from the totality of our forbears. Like pieces of a strange puzzle - where each piece varies in size depending on how close the relative is to us - our genes are seen as fixed items that can be combined in innumerable different ways.
But now, this view needs some updating. Though we are a blend of our ancestors, the looks of every single piece of the puzzle can change, depending on our behaviour and the environment. In other words, the expression of a gene, aka the phenotype, can change, depending on external factors.
The field of epigenetics looks at changes in organisms that are caused by modifications in gene expression.
Although changes in gene expression can take place throughout our entire lifetimes, our genes are at their most fragile and changeable state during the foetal stage. This means that the time of pregnancy – the way the pregnant mother behaves and the environment she lives in – is key in shaping the person’s cognitive and physical traits.
More interestingly, epigenetic changes (a gene switching on or off) are passed on to future generations as well. This explains why for example psychological traumas reverberate in descendants several generations ahead. What if we knew which behaviours and environments help switching unfavoured genetic expressions – such as family illnesses – off?