Talking Culture #19: Synthetic Life: A future of 'Natural History'?

Talking culture logo and image of Agnieszka, Johannes and Mike Goethe-Institut London

In this episode, we explore what becomes of nature when life is synthetic and ask what role biotech can play in ecological restoration.

The creations of biodigital convergence are redefining what constitutes life, just as a mass extinction is taking place. Emerging synthetic life includes, biological robots, digitally controlled dragonflies, internet connected implants in humans. What future natural history is being created today? The developments raise complex philosophical, societal and ecological questions about the kind of future present biotechnologies are ushering in.

Depending on what interests drive the developments, biotechnologies oscillate between amplifying the extraction and exploitation of nature, or aiding ecological restoration and interspecies kinship. It can be argued that by their very nature biotechnologies extract from and manipulate biological life; frog stem cells are the basis of a new breed of biological robots, mRNA vaccines record human DNA to attack Covid. The exploitation of life if digital systems of surveillance and control are extended into emergent digital biospheres. Yet, in the process of reconfiguring life, the inventions of biotech highlight the intricate workings of nature and challenge outmoded divisions and categories of the species. Resulting synthetic creations can help tackle environmental destruction, where beef is grown in a lab instead of cows grazing on deforested land, and bio-robots clear the oceans of rubbish.

The spectrum of possible futures that biodigital convergence opens up is vast, but could be very narrow if led by the interests of industry alone. In this conversation we consider the possibilities, and ask: What becomes of nature when life is synthetic? Who or what controls life when nature is bionic? And can biotech ever be part of ecological restoration?

This episode was curated by Lucy Rose Sollitt. 

Podcast Guests

Further materials for Episode 19

Further resources courtesy of Mike Levin: 

Further resources courtesy of Johannes Vogel:  Images courtesy of Agnieszka Kurant: 

  • Liquid bubbles made by Agnieszka Kurant Courtesy Kunstverein Hannover, 2023. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

    Alien Internet (2023) - Agnieszka Kurant

  • Glass, sodium silicate, salts of copper, nickel, cobalt, chromium, iron, manganese. Courtesy Kunstverein Hannover, 2023. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

    Chemical Garden (2023) - Agnieszka Kurant

  • A picture of a bonsai tree created by Agnieszka Kurant Courtesy Kunstverein Hannover, 2023. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

    Semiotic Life (2022) - Agnieszka Kurant

  • Termite mound built by termite colonies from colored sand, gold and crystals Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano.

    A.A.I (2014) - Agnieszka Kurant