Thanks to J. Craig Venter’s just-announced “synthetic” cell, there now exists “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” His team managed to synthesize a length of DNA consisting of a million units and plant it into a bacterial cell, taking over the cell’s functions via what is referred to as a new “software,” i.e. a new genome created digitally.
The implications are extraordinary for creating new life forms, some of them potentially catastrophic and some perhaps highly beneficial. It is an experiment that questions life, God, our futures, and the meaning and existence of Nature. The synthetic cell was created by a computer, a machine, to create the code for a new life form and many others to follow - a composite of the digital and of DNA, two code-based architectures, the latter thought to be “natural.” It makes most of the science fiction cyborgs seem almost sweet.
In the After Photography book I argued that it is no accident that we created a code-based digital media once we began to define ourselves, since Watson and Crick’s discovery, as code-based through our DNA. Can we (must we?) use digital media to explore what Venter’s experiments might mean for us in ways that previous media are not capable of doing? Can we use a new digital photography to explore the datascape of the genotype, just as we once used analog photography to explore the phenotype?
We are in desperate need of figuring out what all this might mean, in distinguishing (if still possible) between the natural and the synthetic, in charting out ethical and sensible courses of action, and my very strong sense is that we invented digital media to help us to deal with just this situation.