Conceiving of technologies as autonomous agents takes responsibility away from the people who are using them

Recent news reports predict that CRISPR-Cas9 and other technologies of synthetic biology will alter the genetic destiny of our species. But what does it mean when we metaphorically envision biotechnology as an autonomous agent with the power to alter the human germline? A new paper in Life Sciences, Society and Policy investigates the rise of a new rhetoric suggesting this technological determinism.

To tease out the influence of language choices on efforts to engage in responsible research and innovation, I conducted a metaphor analysis of two essays published in Science that call for research pauses for deliberation about regulation of new biotechnologies. One was written about CRISPR in 2015 by a group of 18 scientists and bioethicists, including one of the scientists responsible for the breakthrough, Jennifer Doudna. The other is known as the Berg letter, written in 1974 about an earlier genetic engineering technology known as recombinant DNA. Both texts led to international meetings, but the earlier meeting produced some regulatory action while the more recent one left matters hanging in the air.

Conceiving of technologies as living things takes responsibility away from the people who are using those technologies

What I found after conducting a close rhetorical reading of these two texts was that the more recent one treats the technology in question not as an instrument to be used or not used, but as an agent in its own right. The Doudna essay uses metaphors that anthropomorphize CRISPR technology, treating it as a powerful entity that is revolutionizing science and reshaping the biosphere as it emerges and develops.

In contrast, the earlier Berg letter makes it clear that scientists are the responsible agents who manufacture products with the biotechnology in question. In the 1975 text, researchers are metaphorically treated as construction workers capable of building or choosing not to build something by withholding their labor.

The summary statement written at the Asilomar Conference that the Berg letter called forth repeats the metaphor of scientists as construction workers who create things with and around the technology in question. The summary statement that came out of the 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing repeats the language patterns seen in the Doudna essay, with biotechnological tools conceived as agents performing the act of moving science forward or causing problems in society. The scientists who perform the research are missing from the more recent document and are thus deflected from our attention.

The difference in metaphoric worldviews embedded in texts from the two time periods is telling. Some hypotheses for why this difference exists can be found in my full paper. Regardless of the reason, the rhetoric of the more recent texts suggests a technological determinism in our current thinking that makes it hard for scientists to conceive of an active role for themselves in fostering ethical constraints on biomedical research. Conceiving of technologies as living things takes responsibility away from the people who are using those technologies and places it in the metaphoric hands of the technologies themselves, absolving us of accountability for the acts performed.

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