Eugene Thacker on Thu, 8 Nov 2001 08:49:35 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Wet Data talk

³Wet Data: Biomedia & BioMEMS²

(Talk given at the conference ³Fashioning the Future,² 4S ­ Society for the
Social Studies of Science, November 1-4, 2001, Cambridge, MA.)

Eugene Thacker
Georgia Institute of Technology

³There¹s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.² This was the title of a now-famous
talk given in 1959, by the Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman. In this
paper Feynman outlined a vision of future technologies which would be able
to control and design a range of miniature devices at the molecular and
atomic levels. (His examples included writing the Encyclopedia Britannica on
the head of a pin, as well as tiny mechanical manipulators and computer
storage devices.) As Feynman pointed out, ³that enormous amounts of
information can be carried in an exceedingly small space is, of course, well
known to the biologists, and resolves the mystery which existed before we
understood all this clearly, of how it could be that, in the tiniest cell,
all of the information for the organization of a complex creature such as
ourselves can be stored.² However, the example from molecular biology not
only provides us with models for information storage, but for acting on and
through that information. Feynman continues, suggesting that, ³biology is
not simply writing information; it is doing something about itŠMany of the
cells are very tiny, but they are very active.² With a hopeful, even
prophetic tone, Feynman looks forward to a future where miniaturization
makes possible what he calls ³surgeons you can swallow.²

This vision was a major influence in contemporary fields such as
nanotechnology and molecular biotechnology. It also resonates with
contemporary science fiction, which imagined the promises and anxieties of a
near-future technology able to design and control matter ­ living and
non-living ­ at the molecular level. (Some examples include the
³intelligent² biochips in Greg Bear¹s novel Blood Music, and the
self-organizing genetic algorithms in Greg Egan¹s novel Diaspora.)

Some fifty years later, Feynman¹s vision is perhaps in the process of being
realized in the space where biotechnology, engineering, and computer science
intersect. These combined fields are investigating the development of
micro-devices which combine biological and technological components, cells
with integrated circuits, DNA with silicon.

These micro-devices are known as ³bioMEMS.² MEMS is an acronym that stands
for ³micro-electro-mechanical systems,² and the ³bio-³ prefix refers to MEMS
technologies applied to biomedicine and biotechnology.

One of the earliest MEMS-based research programs was initiated at DARPA.
According to one of their textbooks on MEMS,

³Using the fabrication techniques and materials of microelectronics as a
basis, MEMS processes construct both mechanical and electrical components.
Mechanical components in MEMS, like transistors in microelectronics, have
dimensions that are measured in micronsŠMEMS is not about any one single
application or device, nor is it defined by a single fabrication process or
limited to a few materials. More than anything else, MEMS is a fabrication
approach that conveys the advantages of miniaturization, multiple components
and microelectronics to the design and construction of integrated
electromechanical systems.²

To this we can also add a comment from MEMS Clearinghouse, an online hub for
the MEMS industry, who state that ³MEMS promise to revolutionize nearly
every product category by bringing together silicon-based microelectronics
with micromachining technology, thereby making possible the realization of
complete systems-on-a-chip.²

While MEMS generally have found application in everything from airbags in
cars to digital projection, one of the leading fields of MEMS research has
been in biotech and biomedicine. Examples of such bioMEMS currently in
development include: in vivo blood pressure sensors (with wireless
telemetry), oligonucleotide microarrays (DNA chips), and microfluidics
stations (labs-on-a-chip). BioMEMS not only include devices with electrical
and mechanical components, but they also include devices which are produced
using microelectronics fabrication technologies.

Despite their highly-technical and pragmatic uses, I want to suggest that
these tiny devices raise a series of philosophical questions, pertaining to
the shifting relationships between the body and technology: For instance,
how do these micro-devices transform the notion of the biological body in
biomedicine and biotechnology? Are bioMEMS simply tools, or are they in some
way viable, living systems? Do they prompt us to re-think our common
definitions of media and technology? How do bioMEMS handle the different
³data types² which flow across biological and non-biological media?

By way of addressing such questions we can begin with a formal analysis of
bioMEMS. There are many different shapes and flavors of bioMEMS, from
drug-delivery probes the size of a pill, to multi-layered chips for the
analysis of biological samples. However, bioMEMS all share the commonalities
of bringing together biological and non-biological materials into
particular, engineered configurations, where they function in some
integrated relationship to biological systems. In this sense bioMEMS point
to issues pertaining to the boundary between biology and technology, the
natural and artificial, and the organic and inorganic.

However not all bioMEMS devices bring together the biological and
technological in the same way. There are several areas of real-world
applications in bioMEMS, and each provides us with a particular type of
relationship between bodies and technologies:

One primary area of application is in medical diagnostics. BioMEMS in this
class include in vivo biosensors, for measuring blood pressure, as well as
in vivo drug probes and chip-based optical prosthetics. In each case, a
functioning MEMS device is implanted in the body, where it aims to function
invisibly, as it were, in the biological milieu, while also gathering data
about its environment (e.g., blood pressure levels), and then acting on that
data (e.g., releasing a drug compound into the bloodstream). In more
long-term scenarios, such bioMEMS would also be able to use wireless
telemetry to send data outside the body to a receiving computer system
(e.g., physician or home monitoring). In the context of medical diagnostics,
bioMEMS highlight the relationship between a bioMEMS device and the
biological milieu, ensuring the right ³fit² between them. The body¹s
biological interior thus becomes a system receptive to a monitoring from the
inside out.  

Another area of application includes biological sample preparation for
biological assays or for biological sampling and screening. The
micro-devices used for these purposes are known as ³microfluidics stations²
(or ³labs on a chip²), because they integrate several sample preparation
processes that were previously separated to different parts of the lab. Most
often they are used for isolating, purifying, and amplifying desired
components (such as DNA from a group of cells). Microfluidics use integrated
circuit manufacturing techniques to design hand-held devices with a number
of channels, reservoirs, and basins, for directing the flow of selected
biomolecules. They are otherwise inert devices, until a biological sample is
passed through them ­ that is, until something ³resists² the device. In the
context of biological sample preparation, bioMEMS highlight the relationship
between biological and electro-mechanical components. Using either
electrical conductivity or mechanical pressure, microfluidics stations
create an environment in which molecules in a biological sample can
essentially ³sort themselves out.²

Finally, as a third area of application, current biotech research commonly
makes use of bioMEMS devices for genome and proteomic sequencing and
analysis. New lab technologies such as microarrays (DNA and protein chips)
have not only shrunk the molecular biology lab, but have further integrated
it with computer technologies. In such cases the goal is to further
integrate the ³wet² data of DNA or proteins with the ³dry² data of
biological sequence in computer databases. In these instances, bioMEMS
highlight the space separating biological data and computer data, or
biological and informatic networks. Analytical tools such as microarrays
have as their main function the transmission of data types across media, and
such devices act as a kind of fulcrum transmitting data from one ³platform²
to another.

What each of these areas of application, and their corresponding
relationships demonstrate, is that bioMEMS devices further integrate biology
and technology in novel ways. Despite this, bioMEMS do not represent a total
fusion of biology and technology, and neither do they imply the effacement
of that boundary altogether. This suggests that the hybrid quality of
bioMEMS is not only to do with their material construction, but, more
importantly, with their dynamical functioning within and across different

>From this view of dynamic systems, I want to suggest that at the core of
bioMEMS technology is the transmission of data types across different media.
For instance, in the example of biotech research, one possible scenario
involves the following: A biological sample (e.g, blood) may be taken from a
patient. Microfluidics stations may employ chip technology to isolate,
purify, and amplify targeted DNA that is to be analyzed. The sample DNA,
once isolated, may then be passed through a microarray (or DNA chip), where
fragments of known DNA are attached to a silicon substrate. The DNA chip may
then ³analyze² the sample through florescent-tagged hybridization. The
resultant pattern of hybridization can then be scanned by the microarray
computer, which digitizes the hybridization pattern (represented as a grid
of colored dots), where it can be ported to software for microarray assays.
That initial digital pattern is then ³decoded² or sequenced according to the
known DNA on the DNA chip, and can then be compared to online genome
databases (such as the human genome projects), to identify gene expression
patterns associated with a given genetically-based disease.

In this elaborate -  but routine - process, there are not only several types
of materialities at work, but there are also several data types being
transmitted, translated, and passed through various media. Such a
transmission of data types across variable media is what Lev Manovich calls
³transcoding.² In his analyses of computer-based ³new media,² Manovich
suggests that transcoding involves not only the technical file conversion
from one data format to another; it also involves the transmission of the
metaphors, concepts, and categories of thought, from one medium to another.
As he states, ³Šnew media in general can be thought of as consisting of two
distinct layers ­ the Œcultural layer¹ and the Œcomputer layer¹[Š] Because
new media is created on computers, distributed via computers, and stored and
archived on computers, the logic of a computer can be expected to
significantly influence the traditional cultural logic of media; that is, we
may expect that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer.² In this
sense, Manovich suggests, data transmitted across varying media (e.g.,
different database file formats; from digital video to Web animations to
static digital images) not only pertain to what he calls the ³computer
layer,² but they are indissociable from a ³cultural layer,² or the ways in
which media ontologies affect our cultural views.

In one sense, bioMEMS operate through principles of transcoding, as implied
in their name ­ the engineered combination of electrical, mechanical, and
biological systems. However, unlike Manovich¹s characterizations of new
media, which are based on a common logic of digitization, bioMEMS face the
challenge of potentially incommensurable, resistant, or distorting
transmissions across widely varying media. For instance, in the data
transmissions between DNA, integrated circuits, and micro-actuators, the
issues of biocompatibility, and digitization of the biological domain, must
be taken into account.

BioMEMS technologies thus present us with a paradox: on the one hand they
ceaselessly hybridize biological and technological components and processes
(e.g, the DNA chip); on the other hand they maintain the boundary between
biology and technology, as implied in their design and application (e.g., as
tools for genomics research). In approaching the relationship between
biology and technology, bioMEMS appear to at once hold separate and yet mix
together these two domains. How can bioMEMS maintain these two seemingly
contradictory positions?

In this sense bioMEMS must maintain a dual functionality, and they do this
through a two-step process. The first is the bracketing of biological
components and processes (e.g., DNA hybridization in the DNA chip), and the
second is the technical re-purposing of those components/processes towards
novel ends (e.g., for use in genome analysis). Biology functions as a
technical means, that is nevertheless not separate from biological function.

In such instances, technology is configured not so much as a tool, but as a
set of conditions in which biology can act technically upon itself (i.e.,
the silicon in the DNA chip is passive, since DNA does all the work).

This is a process that I¹ve been calling ³biomedia.² Put simply, biomedia is
a term which describes the ways in which biology is reconfigured as a
technology; in this it is one of the defining characteristics of
biotechnology itself, as the technical conditioning of biological components
and processes. For bioMEMS, the approach of biomedia is to combine
biological with electro-mechanical principles, in order to generate certain
types of data. This very logic puts forth several assumptions: First, that
data inheres in ³wet² biomolecules in a way that is commensurate with ³dry²
computer systems; second, that bioMEMS devices simply make explicit what was
previous implicit (the ³natural² data of the organism); and third, that the
body¹s data types is extensible (that beyond this natural data, there are
other data types which can be technically developed, such as genomic
profiling or molecular simulation).

In one sense, bioMEMS are not unique, in that implantable devices,
artificial organs, and prosthetics have long been the domain of biomedicine.
What is unique about bioMEMS however, is their manifold intersections with
new media (such as computer science and integrated circuit technologies).
BioMEMS are not exactly tools (as are the X-ray, CT or MRI), in that part of
what makes them function is the integration of living biological components;
similarly, bioMEMS are not exactly intended to be biological replacements
(as artificial organs are), in that they are engineered for the purposes of
analysis and diagnostics. BioMEMS seem to hover somewhere between living and
technological systems. As we¹ve suggested, a key to understanding this
hovering is the approach of biomedia ­ at once hybridizing and keeping
separate the biological and technological domains.

Again, these are material devices which raise a whole set of philosophical
questions pertaining to the body and technology. Do these philosophical
questions have any relevance in relation to bioMEMS and biotech? I want to
suggest that they do, for they form the ontological basis from which
principles of biomedical engineering begin, and from which a broader
cultural understanding of the body in biotech and biomedicine may emerge.

To this end, I would like to close with one suggestion for thinking about
bioMEMS beyond the apparent paradoxes which they engender, and that is the
perspective of ³design,² but design as a situated, open-ended activity that
would reflect on its own processes. This reflexive thinking about design in
relation to living systems is what Humberto Maturana has called
³metadesign.² Metadesign is a reflexive, bottom-up approach which places
less emphasis on properties and components than on the types of
transmissions, interactions, and resistances between systems. As Maturana
states, ³the expansion of biotechnology has resulted in an expansion of the
knowledge of living systems as structurally-determined systems and
vice-versa. However it has not expanded our understanding of living systems
as systems.² Instead of the traditional relationship between ethics, design,
and living systems ­ that is, make something first, then debate ethics
afterwards ­ Maturana¹s insistence on metadesign pushes for the need to
consider ethics and design in an integrative fashion. This means, quite
simply, that the seemingly extraneous cultural, philosophical, and political
dynamics of the ³use² of living systems is indissociable from the design
approach to hybrid systems such as bioMEMS. BioMEMS devices such as in vivo
biosensors and DNA chips are interstitial devices, and an analysis of them
suggests that, an understanding of changing views of the body in biotech &
biomedicine can develop on the level of systems integration, multiple data
types (wet data and dry data), and the relationships between different media
(including the body).


DARPA Bioflips Program.


Feynman, Richard. ³There¹s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.² Zyvex website.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2000.

Maturana, Humberto. ³Metadesign.² Technomorphica, ed. Joke Brower et al.
Rotterdam: V2, 1997.

MEMS Center.

MEMS Clearinghouse.

Michalicek, Adrian. An Introduction to Microelectromechanical Systems.
Online presentation (2000):

National Research Council. Microelectromechanical Systems: Advanced
Materials and Fabrication Methods. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press,

Shuvo, Roy, et al. Microelectromechanical Systems and Neurosurgery: A New
Era in a New Millennium. Neurosurgery 49:4 (October 2001): 779-91.

Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference:

Eugene Thacker, Assistant Prof
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology

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