Future Perfect: Designer and Discarded Genomes

Date recorded: Jun 16, 2017

This talk was presented for the event Future Perfect. In a moment when the future increasingly feels like a foregone conclusion, Future Perfect brought actors from a variety of world-building disciplines (from art and fiction, to law and science) together to explore the uses, abuses, and paradoxes of speculative futures. Curated by Data & Society artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington, Future Perfect was an experimental one-day, invitation-only conference originating from insights of the institute’s regular Speculative Fiction Reading Group.

Reimagining Science and Technology

In this episode of the AAS 21 podcast, Professor Ruha Benjamin and Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discuss science and technology, the allure of objectivity related to this category of work, and consider what it takes to proceed in a “third” way. Professor Benjamin is author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier (Stanford University Press 2013), Race After Technology, with Polity (forthcoming), and editor of Captivating Technology: Race, Technoscience, and the Carceral Imagination (Duke University Press, forthcoming), as well as numerous articles and book chapters.

Art by Manzel Bowman.

Life Finds A Way: Bodies, Futures, Embodied Futures

Professor Ruha Benjamin presented at Future Perfect, a conference sponsored by the New York City based research group, Data & Society. Professor Benjamin’s remarks begin around 1:47:00.

Full conference summary.

Future Perfect resumed with a presentation by Ruha Benjamin, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Benjamin used speculative ethnographic field notes to deliver her talk, entitled “Designer and discarded genomes: Experimenting with sociological imagination through speculative methods.” In order to “explore the antecedents and implications of the current era of genetic engineering,” Benjamin read a series of field notes from the Human Genome Project-Write initiative, a 2016 convening at Harvard for discussing the implications and logistics of producing synthetic human genomes. Benjamin subsequently read fictional field notes from 1816 and 2216 — 200 years into the past and future, respectively.

Benjamin drew attention to the changing standards of what constitutes “human life,” using her notes from 1816 to explore ideas of “humanity” as applied to enslaved peoples during the Middle Passage. Her 2216 notes explored speculative divisions between beings modified so that they no longer have to eat, and unmodified beings which still used food as an energy source. By doing so, Benjamin had the audience consider what part of “humanity” was discarded in the context of slavery. In the future, she asked, when we have the power to design “‘ideal’ genomes, what versions of humanity are discarded?” Benjamin concluded by observing that “fictions are not falsehoods, but re-fashionings.”