The biotechnological revolution involves the extension of human power into life—living nature at the molecular level. As its concepts and styles of thought colonize professional, therapeutic, and counseling discourse, and as it is absorbed into popular culture, biotechnology begins to shape the experience of all of us. This triggers a quest for new symbolic forms with which to make sense of—to civilize—this new human power.
The starting point for these reflections on a social and ethical response to biotechnology, biopolitics, and biopower are the following two propositions:
First, technology is not simply apparatus and instrumentality. It involves a complex structure of social organization, institutional power, and cultural meaning.
Second, the social interpretation and meaning of biotechnological innovation are often overlooked in policy analysis, but they are key to a deliberative process of social learning and adjustment, and to the normative consensus formation that will allow any regulation of biotechnology to be truly effective. Experts are trained to respond to empirically grounded assertions and linear reasoning. The cultural meaning and reception of science and technology more often form a narrative and figurative mode of discourse.
The positive framing of biotechnology is nearly ubiquitous, except perhaps within the domain of reproductive medicine. And yet, an unease surrounds it; there is something uncanny about fabricating life with nearly the same facility that inorganic matter and energy are manipulated. I believe that this unease does not stem solely from the concern that biotechnology will be misused by human agents. It also grows out of the realization that institutionalized structures of power (state or corporate) have an agency of their own, so that power is not something we use or abuse, it is something that uses—or abuses—us. The distinction between rightful and wrongful use of this power urgently requires clarification. A global bioeconomy is being built rapidly; the normative, ethical work proceeds slowly.
So much by way of prologue. I turn now to four aspects of our cultural context that I believe have a profound effect on the reception of biotechnology.
The end of value neutrality. In the post-war period, a consensus gradually developed concerning authority, expertise, and progress in science and technology. It was a consensus centered around progressive values, economic growth, social modernization, and the betterment of life through technological advance. A new kind of cultural and political framing has emerged in recent years which is less prone to see in technology the amelioration of the human condition, and more prone to discern the development of new forms of control over individuals as material bodies—reproducing, laboring, neuro-chemically behaving bodies.