Be who you’ll become
During the InScience weekend, the NEMO City Lab is set up at the Mariënburg library. Together with experts and designers, visitors discuss the possibilities and limitations of DNA technology. The project titled #DNAdialoog is one of multiple DNA technology-related activities set up at the library that actively engages visitors. And for good reason. We’re getting closer and closer to world in which humans can genetically engineer almost anything. Reports of a Chinese doctor claiming to have brought the first designer baby into this world make us feel like we’re living in a science-fiction reality. Without any prior knowledge of DNA technology, I decided to go take a look and broaden my horizon.
Even before entering the library, I’m already part of the project. That’s because the “defect fixers” of the DNApothecary have set up shop outside and they engage me. They would like to ask me if there’s anything I’d like to change about myself and if I would like to participate in a small drug test. Caught off guard, I answer that I sometimes struggle with insecurity. It turns out to be my lucky day, because that’s something they’re able to fix with the newly-developed drug “Defectfixoide”. One of the defect fixers carefully chooses a small box from a crate and tells me to take a daily dose with a grain of salt. It won’t affect my driving ability. Let’s hope I’m not part of the placebo group.
As I enter the library, a greeter from the City Lab asks me if I’ve already received a compliment today. I answer with no and after receiving a compliment from and a colored ball, I’m referred to one of the greeter’s colleagues. He’s stationed at a box on which the following proposition is written: modifying DNA to prevent hereditary diseases before birth is a good idea. Visitors are supposed to deposit their colored ball in an emoji-coded compartment that corresponds with their opinion. It’s a tough question. The greeter tries to help me make my decision and shows me the clipboard next to the box. Other visitors have written answers to questions about which features they would like to remove or add. I peruse the many answers. Outlawing ‘self-imposed stupidity’ sounds like a good idea, but how do you define that and where do you draw the line? ‘Till here and no further’, one of many answers provided, isn’t any help. I decide to continue my journey through the library. I leave the colored ball in one of the compartments.
I continue along the blue line on the floor until I reach three television screens. Each screen shows an animation depicting possible futures in the year 2039. Three couples want a child, but possible complications are detected even before conception. Each scenario deals with a possible consequence of DNA technology policy. The couples in these scenarios are with a difficult question and in the end, the wildly varying opinions from friends and family complicates their own decision-making process. Different policies and their consequences, as well as possible motivations to modify an embryo’s DNA are demonstrated in this way. It dawns on me that there are a lot of factors to consider in debates surrounding DNA modification.
The many questions and perspectives I’m confronted with during the first few stops provide me with enough fodder to enter into a dialogue with members of the project team. I join two visitors engaged in a discussion with a researcher and an illustrator. As the researcher questions the visitors about their views on the use of DNA technology in certain situations, the illustrator visualizes their ideas by drawing them on a screen. An effective way of mapping various opinions. I walk up to a lady next to a plastic dome, called the filter bubble. She explains that she conducts roundtable discussions with small groups of visitors within the dome, providing them with different perspectives from politics, technology, and religion. She encourages visitors to track down the source of these perspectives and judge them critically. It teaches visitors to not only think critically when forming their own opinions, but also to understand other perspectives.
Meanwhile, the lecture at the opinion factory has come to an end and I approach the lecturers to ask them to tell me about it. One of the lecturers tells me that discussion start from the current state of DNA technology, applied in different scenarios, and that lecturers and audience members together map a possible future, based on the audience’s opinions and ideas. They then collectively reflect on this future. Is this the best possible result for the test subjects in their scenario? Will the test subjects be happy this way? Is diversity not more important than perfection in a society? Every opinion raises more questions.
With a head full of new thoughts I step outside into the cool November air again. By participating in the City Lab, I’ve gained a better insight into the DNA debate as a whole. It’s time to make critical, carefully considered decisions regarding DNA technology policies in the Netherlands. Through a project such as this, the public can make itself heard. This experience has not (yet) made me less certain about it, but I am more certain about my knowledge of this DNA dialogue.
Not yet convinced if you should visit the City Lab? The results and insights from this project will be incorporated into a report presented to the national government. So come down to the NEMO City Lab to have your voice heard!
Text: Yvette van Engelenburg
Photos: Henk Beenen