From 2008 to 2010,set out to create a comprehensive database of all non-microbial life on a single Polynesian island.
Five years on, a team of humanities students at the University of Pennsylvania have assembled their own, rather ironic. Its premise is that the most surveilled, studied and categorised creatures on earth are not, in fact, microbes, but humans – ordinary people. And just how do we feel about that?
In categorising the world, we invent systems called taxonomies. They are never complete or free of error, and are always controversial. Taxonomies meant for humans to slot into are even more problematic because they tend to be invented on the fly by people whose attention is focused elsewhere.
The overlooked ramp
This point was nicely explored in a talk by Sara Hendren, an artist and design researcher based at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts.looks at ramps. Ramps are, she reckons, an overlooked technology, and this puzzles her. Why, in a world full of skateboards and wheelchairs, are ramps not ubiquitous, cheap, mobile and stackable? Why are wheelchair users and skateboarders addressed separately in design discussions? Who made that decision? And did they realise that they were needlessly fragmenting and obscuring the public’s demand for ramps?
Hendren’s own access ramps (portable, stackable and skateable) are half a practical “design solution”, half a work of conceptual art, uniting two seemingly unconnected groups around a shared challenge.
Once people have been put into categories, those categories tend to acquire the force of moral law., made this point powerfully, while backing up her big claim that “people in West Africa are likely the most surveilled on earth”. Focusing on areas of Nigeria controlled by the Islamist militant movement Boko Haram, she detailed how people are subject to three levels of surveillance. Through satellites and drones, they are spied upon from above by Western military intelligence. Their radio and cellphone communications are intensively monitored, too.
But the most intensive surveillance they are subjected to is conducted by the Islamists themselves, whose militia constantly watch and police the communities under their control, violently punishing anyone that deviates from their extremist doctrine.
In our era of post-Snowden paranoia, it is good – if disturbing – to be reminded that surveillance can be just as brutal an analogue activity as a digital one (a talk byhad much the same effect, highlighting how much of the modern art of surveillance was developed as part of the slave trade).
We watch people closely, using whatever technology is to hand. We categorise them for our convenience – and then leave them stuck, trapped behind the fences we have thrown up. This is the kind of pessimistic world view science fiction was invented to explore, and, talking about the ideas behind his 2008 indie science fiction movie Sleep Dealer, drew the threads of the Biocode conference neatly together.
Long fascinated by the politics and economics of immigration and the US-Mexican border, Rivera distilled complex concerns and ideas into a story about factory workers in Mexico using elaborate mechanical and biological interfaces to control robots that have replaced them as unskilled labour within the US. All the cheap labour that the US economy needs lives south of the fortified border wall that keeps migrants out.
Stories can focus anxieties to a point. Conferences cannot. With its eclectic mix of artists, performers and academics, Biocode sometimes felt a little intangible, as though its various elements were competing with each other to find a theme.
But perhaps that was the conference’s point: between ordinary lives, and how our taxonomies represent them, is a zone of constant uncertainty. It was a pleasure to see such a variety of artists and academics let loose among these emerging, unmapped territories.
The Biocode: Performing Transgression After New Media conference was held at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, from 9 to 11 April
If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, pleasedepartment first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.