Vital Digital

Dr. Sakari Tamminen’s post doc research project is focused on the manners of convergation of  digital life and organic life in the new practices of computer driven bio-informatics and different fields of biomedical innovation in the context of Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland’s (FIMM) population database practices and other global initiatives.

The first aim of the study  is to compare the imagined uses attached to different kinds of biobanks and to study how these imaginative spaces are constitutive to their material and social design in practice. The project will start by reviewing how the collection and use of bio-information in FIMM is presented and analyzes the idioms through which the different possibilities for its use are presented in practice: for example in the digital representation of the organic (“revealing the secrets of life”) through standardised bioinformatic packages, the use of this data in order to engineering of designer drugs or genetic therapies (“translational research”), and finally for systems biology and its claims of virtual modelling/reorganising life (“reprogramming the organic”). How do these genetic imageries (witnessed in terms such as “translational research”) relate to the practical material constructions of the national biobank at large – why are they built at all?

Second, biobanks require standardized bio-ontologies conditioned by database structures and particular semantics of programming representations of life. The research looks at the ways in which these databases are put together locally at FIMM, what kinds of digital techniques and tools are developed in, what information of organic samples are turned into digitalized forms of representation and finally, what kind of dissemination technologies (www/local DBs) are provided for the use of the data. The main question is what kind of programming (language) is required locally at FIMM for basic bio-information generation and its representation and how a “recontextualization of biology” is enabled between biological and digital (decoding, representing and recoding of genetic/molecular information) as well as between local and global use contexts.  This questioning enables an analysis of how the recontextualization of (Finnish) biology happens at intra- and extra-cellular levels in witnessed biomedical/scientific practices.

Finally, Given these developments and instead of seeing the role of biology (and the current biomedical fields) as solving the “mysteries of life” and the functioning of already existing entities, its societal mandate and praxis turn towards crafting new entities, thus producing the ‘new’ biological and hitherto unknown potentials within it. The urgency to study the shifting boundaries of ʻthe digitalʼ and the ʻorganicʼ forms of life stems from the intertwined developments put forward, on one hand, by the new technologies capable of genetically transgressing what once were thought of as natural boundaries between categories of living, such biological beings and their digital modeling. On the other hand simultaneous theoretical and technological advancements in a wide range of biosciences question boundaries within categories of living, such as the life/death border or what counts as genetic (programmed genetic material) and biological (non-programmable non-redundant vital matter, or ʻcell plasmaʼ) – new emerging bio-object abound. Thus, the third question meditates the ‘what’ consequences of these developments especially in terms of the elementary boundary crossings with the advent of new powerful techniques and infrastructures made possible by the digitalization of ‘life’. It asks how do these crossings relate to our cultural understandings, for example, of a) ‘life’,  not only as a stable ‘code of life’, but as vital materiality malleable, designable and globally sharable cellular ‘writing’ or instances of biomedia and  b) the idea of humans as ‘social animals’ in sharing their own DNA base-pair instructions to others. The latter is a curious configuration of biosociality, where the intra-cellular conditions of possibility mediate human sociality at an extra-cellular level aiming at changing that very organic condition of being –  a scientific enterprise literally opening up a path to a post-human (Finnish) future in its material, cultural and vital dimensions

The project is funded by the Academy of Finland.

Selected publications