TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1988

CURIES’ CHILDREN

Discovery

WHATEVER THE TERM “art” may mean at present, it had a different meaning for the ancients. Then, two art forms were held supreme: the art of living, ars vivendi, and the art of dying, ars moriendi. We have unlearned the second of these, but the first has recently reemerged in a surprising shape: it is now called “biotechnics.” The word seems a Greek-derived version of the Latin ars vivendi, but it is quite different in climate from the ancient sense of the term. In fact, it is a discipline out of which a whole world of artificial living beings—living artworks—will arise, and that adventurous world will create a radically different context for our grandchildren’s existence.

We often consider this development as if it were a new kind of industrial, or computer, revolution: instead of animating inorganic machines, we’ll animate organisms, and instead of creating artificial intelligences from silicon we’ll have artificial brains made of nerve fibers. But the biotechnical revolution can also be seen from the viewpoint of art. Whatever “art” may mean—and setting aside for the moment those artworks that are created to be temporary, or to exist only in the mind—art is always the production and preservation of information. An art object is information stored in some material—stone, bronze, paint—that keeps it from being forgotten. In the end, this is a forlorn purpose. The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system, for example the universe that surrounds us, all energy, and thus all information, will in time dissolve and be forgotten. Those who aim at immortality through the production of art, those who believe in the creation of eternal values through art, are on the wrong track.

There is, however, a curious material in our universe that seems in a way to defy the universal tendency toward entropy. It is living matter. As far as we know, it exists only on the planet Earth, and there is little hope of finding it elsewhere. This “biomass” forms a sort of slime that covers the globe; its weight can be calculated with some precision. It consists of individual microscopic drops containing information. Those drops tend to divide, and they transmit their information to their successors. During the transmission variations or mistakes may occur, and the information changes. These mistakes are called “mutations.” Thus living matter as a whole carries a stream of ever more diversified information, apparently defying the second law of thermodynamics. It doesn’t really, of course—life on Earth is not eternal, and will disappear one day. Still, the duration of Earth’s biomass is very considerable. It is to be measured in hundreds of millions of years, not in the millennia that measure art and culture. It is as near eternal as we can come.

Something must be said, however, about the production and transmission of information by living matter: it applies an extraordinarily stupid method. New information—creativity—comes about by mistake, or, if you prefer, by pure chance. Even such marvelous, complex information as the nervous system of an octopus, or the human brain, are the results of blind, haphazard variations. And there is more to the stupidity of biological “evolution.” In the course of hundreds of millions of years, the single drops of which the biomass consists have brought about very complicated structures called “organisms”; the human body is one such. But these organisms do not contribute to the diversification of living information. The drops, the germinal cells, flow through organisms as if they were mere channels, and the information the drops contain is not affected by anything the organisms do or suffer. They take no notice of anything in our culture, in our art, and they mutate, they change the information they contain, not by anything we do but only by mistake, by chance, amplified, in Darwin’s terms, by natural selection and by the passage of large periods of time. This may be put the following way: there is no possibility of biologically inheriting acquired information. What could be more stupid?

The drops that carry biological information are microscopic, which is why they have been discovered only lately. And the information they carry, molecules of complex acids, are even smaller. Once they were discovered, however, it became possible to manipulate them. This is a shattering statement. Breaking to bits almost everything we have learned about life, about art, about our position in the world, it says that it has now become possible to create information that can be inserted into living matter, that can become hereditary. It has become possible to create a work of art that will live, will multiply, and will itself create other works of art, practically forever. This is in essence what biotechnics is about—this is the new “art of living.” To artists who put information into stone, canvas, paper, celluloid, electromagnetic fields, whatever, must now be added those who can create living beings, and who do so by a method apparently more intelligent than the one that brought us ourselves into existence.

At this completely immodest point a word of caution is in order. First, of course, we have no idea where these techniques may lead us or what blunders we may make getting there. Second, the term “creation” may mean two things. One is the production of new information by recombining the elements of the information already available. This one might call “variational” creation. The other is the production of new information by the introduction of some new element altogether, some “noise.” One might say that this is “true” creation. So far, biotechnics has restricted itself to variational creation: it has recombined the elements of available genetic information. If “God” created us, He or She had recourse to the other method, to true creation. But there seems to be no reason why biotechnics should not do the same in the future.

The genetic information that flows through the biomass is all encoded in the same material, nucleic acids, and it all has the same structure, the double helix. Thus all manifestations of life on Earth, be they as different from each other as is a pine tree from a chimpanzee, are variations on the same type of information. Should there be somewhere in space, or even here on Earth, some phenomenon very similar to life processes but encoding information in a slightly different way, we would not recognize it as life. (This is why the search for life in space is a self-defeating endeavor.) So far, to my knowledge, biotechnics is doing the same thing natural evolution does—variational creativity, the sole difference being that it does its work not by chance but according to a deliberate program. Yet there is no reason why the material and the structure of genetic information should not be interfered with in the future. And if even a single atom within a molecule of a nucleic acid were replaced by a different atom, we would have created a form of life as it had never existed before in the world. This would be true creation.

Consider for a moment what this statement implies. It says that we now possess a technique for creating a whole series not just of living beings, though that is remarkable in itself, but of forms of life such as never before existed. Over time, Earth’s biomass has produced complex nervous systems, and thus sensations, perceptions, desires, thoughts, decisions—all our and other species’ mental processes. We now possess a technique that permits us to create the foundations of mental processes that have never before existed, processes for which words like “sensation,” “perception,” “desire,” “thought,” and “decision” are inappropriate, since they describe only processes we already know. In short, the statement that we can now create new forms of life implies that we can now create “spirits” that we are incapable of understanding.

Is this not a description of magic, and of the magical power that is said to characterize artistic creation? Is it not said of art, by romantics and not-so-romantics, that it creates what has never existed before (“originals”), that it brings things to life, that it results in something its very creator is incapable of understanding? So far, all such affirmations have been metaphors. With biotechnics, they become literally true. This new “art of living” enables us to become not just metaphorically but literally creative. Thus it might be said that biotechnics is art in the literal sense of the term.

If we consider the future as it begins to emerge from the mists of the two revolutions we are witness to—the “telematic,” or computer and media, revolution and the biotechnical revolution—we are impressed by the fact that they promise a world where life may be calculated, programed, and computed. But what is even more impressive is the promise that we may become truly creative artists, masters in the art of living. With this curious reservation, however: we shall be incapable of understanding the spirits to which we shall be giving life.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He has written various books on modern communications.

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