Comixed Event Live Blog

Posted by chichi | Live Blog | Wednesday 28 October 2009 12.19 pm

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This is a live blog of the COMIXED: A NETWORKED CONVERSATION event at the Zion Arts Centre, Manchester.

Comixed is a “Networked Conversation” on a number of pressing issues affecting all of us:

Climate Change / The Digital Economy / Ageing / Food Security / Synthetic Biology.

Please read the ‘provocations’ we posted earlier on Climate Change, The Digital Economy, Ageing, Food Security and Synthetic Biology to find out what people thought about these issues before the event.

Please contribute by commenting below, especially if you were there and spot any inaccuracies or inconsistencies!

We want you to get involved.  You can follow us on Twitter and/or contribute using the #cmxd hashtag.  We are @ComixedMcr on Twitter, perhaps follow us?


And Erinma Ochu, Director of Manchester Beacon kicks off by introducing the event.  Welcome to Research Councils UK.  Most of the audience is students and academics. Post event audience stats: 43% of attendees were people from community groups, 40% academics/university people and 17% people from the business community.

Warren Bramley from four23 introduces first speaker, Martyn Amos who is discussing Synthetic Biology.

Martyn shares that he is working on an ESPRC-funded project at MMU researching synthetic biology.

Have moved away from ‘in vitro’ work to look at how living cells can be engineered to persuade them to do human-defined tasks.

Nano-Info-Bio describes the convergence of 3 incredibly important sciences: Nano technology, Informatics and Computer Sciences and Biology.

We will move from ‘Intel inside’ devices to hybrid devices that have human-engineered cells.  Applications:

  • – anti-malarial drugs engineered from bacteria
  • – bio-sensing: bacteria developed by scientists in Edinburgh to detect arsenic in drinking water.

Not rocket science, this is all happening now.  The constraint is ‘scientists facing perception of working with dangerous organisms’.

We’re taking bits of different organisms and joining them together to form an entirely new organism.  This has ethical and cultural implications.

Martyn Amos now plays a quote from Chris Eccleston in Russel T Davies ‘The Second Coming‘, as sampled by Orbital on their Blue album:

You are becoming gods.  There is a new master of creation, it’s you.  Unravelled DNA, created bacteria strong enough to kill every living thing. You think you are ready for that kind of power? You are not!

Hands up for anyone who thinks you’ve got it right.  Yes, there’s always one.  I can see it.  If you want the position of God then accept the responsibility.

Questions from the floor:

Q: What are the ethical questions?

Prince Charles’ stance on GM suggesting that GM crops would develop into scientific problems.   These accusations have plagued the GM food industry.

There are other private players in Synthetic Biology, however.   Craig Venter, one of the big ones is trying to do with Synthetic Biology what Bill Gates did with computer technology.  He is investing lots and is patenting all that he produces.

The other camp is the open source movement, the ‘open source wetware’ movement which follows the open source ‘Linux vs Microsoft’ paradigm by bringing others together. ‘We are the Ubuntu of Synthetic Biology’

Q: Is there a lot of ignorance about this?

Synthetic Biology is where top down meets bottom up, we are taking bits of biology apart and take them apart in the attempt to understand how it works and how to make it work in new ways.

‘What I cannot create I cannot understand’ Richard Feynman

Q: Bio remediation

Using bacteria to digest toxic metals.  Bacteria that flouresces in certain light.

Q: What is being done to prevent bio-terrorism?

Like with Ubuntu, if any one has the technology what would happen?  It would be much easier to get a tub of anthrax than use a genetically modified organism.   If I were a terrorist, I would not use this approach, as there are better ways of getting negative payloads.  Genetically modified organisms are relatively weedy.

Q: But wasn’t this the argument applied to ‘nuclear weapons’.

The key is openess.  If everyone is aware of a technology, it becomes less likely as a threat.  The 1982 virus that killed many in Siberia was recently recreated because in doing so we could understand it better.

People will be bio-hacking in their kitchens, this is already happening.  The open wetware movement feels that if this happens, at least we will be able to get ahead because everyone will be using it.

Q: Don’t downplay the effect of open source on synthetic biology

There is already a blurring in applications: you can have silver ions within socks for keeping them from smelling however already these silver ions are now polluting the water supply.

They (synthetic biology) can be an easy way of finding a solution that creates more problems.  In comparison, sustainable solutions are a lot harder and require a lot of political will, but more sustainable.

Who controls all this open source wetware?

A: The key word is ‘open’ not source.   We put the information back out there unlike Venter.

We are not doing nano technology, we are doing synthetic biology.  So applications like growing the materials for curing malaria can be done using vats of bacteria.  The alternative is to plant Wormwood plantations to cover an area the size of Vermont in the US.

Professor Jon Whittle is now talking about Digital Economy:

Digital Economy is a broad term defined by the Research Councils to reflect ‘modern information technology being used to make people’s lives better’.

An example of one of the things funded under the Digital Economy programme:

Project being led out of Kingston University based on a book called Nudge written by an economist at the University of Chicago.  The premise is that you can nudge people in society towards good or bad things based on how you present things.

One issues being tackled is Climate Change.   A lot of people care about climate change but few have changed their behaviour to reflect this.

This project is trying to take a technological solution to this problem by trying to collect data about what your neighbour does in the community and then feeds that back to you.

By using technology the idea is to nudge people into taking action.  This is a funded project, it is reality.

Professor Jon Whittle then uses a simple exercise to help us visualise the future of digital technology:

Pick out a person in the room.  Imagine that in 30 years you can look at them and see what they are thinking.  You know their interest, whether they know anything about synthetic biology.

Prof. Jon says that a few months ago he used to be incredibly skeptical about Twitter but now thinks it is the future.

Our opinions will be written about that person.   In future I may receive a text about that person in the room stating that he/she shares your interest in ‘Michael Buble‘.

Ask yourself if this is a good or bad thing.

You can use this to shape society for the better.  Issues like Crime.  The police know where crime happens, they can produce crime maps but what they do not know is whether we feel safe in our neighbourhoods.

This would actually be useful information because if they knew that there was a place where people do not feel safe in their neighbourhood but are actually safe, the Police could then run ‘reassurance programmes’ in those areas.

This technology would impact politics as people would be able to vote MPs in based on what they need them to do immediately rather than what they hope they can trust them to do over 4 years.

Q: Someone disagrees on the use of Twitter.  What about mis-information?

The genius of human beings is that we have choice.

We can choose how we present ourselves on these social networks.   If social networks allows us to see into the minds of others, teenage girls would not be seduced by paedophiles presenting themselves as teenagers on social networks.

A: This technology is going to be built whether we like it or not.  Prof. Whittle argues that this is the crux of his provocation.  These things are going to happen anyway what we should do is try to understand them.

Q: The use of technology directed as a force for good is a great idea but not so sure how society can make it work.  Society has good and evil and Twitter and other social networks allow us to project aspects of ourselves to society.

We then aggregate all that information and bring it into society as we know it.

A: Prof Whittle argues that we are trying to understand how this technology affects society.

Second Life is a virtual replication of human life.  Where are we leading on to when we cut out the 70% of interaction that is down to body language?

How do we ensure that we don’t people understand these implications.  Moving away from the view of the internet as a ‘black box’ and ‘you’re just looking at websites’.  We need to educate people about the internet.

We need to move away from terms like ‘good/bad/control’ as they are objective terms.  As a musician I’m interested in peer to peer filesharing technology. It’s less about good or bad.

Too often we have used technology not because we need it but because we can.

A: Prof Jon Whittle responds with a number of examples:

A parent that takes his 14 year old to a concert is not so concerned about keeping them too close to them because they have a mobile phone.

The NHS have just approved the use of the Nintendo Wii for exercise and health benefits.   Previously no-one ever considered video games as a way of staying fit and healthy.

Professor Callum Thomas is now talking about air travel and climate change:

Aviation is only responsible for a small proportion of human emissions that contribute to climate change.  The problem is that the use of aviation is growing,  year on year whilst other forms of transport are reducing.

The new Airbus has fuel efficiency as a passenger moped however that plane will consume the same fuel as 250 cars.  The technology is getting better but not fast enough.

As a society we are enjoying the benefits of a global society, much of it down to aviation.  The challenge is do we indulge aviation or do we conserve it?

Do we through money into research and development that would deliver the hydrogen-powered planes that can get rid of the problem altogether.

In 2060 are you going to travel to visit family in the Caribbean or will you holiday in Wigan.

Q: Warren asks, what would his answer be?

Prof Thomas would like us to throw money into the research to fix the problem.

Environmental scientist in the audience thinks that air travel technology is flawed fundamentally.  Economically, it pulls money out of our economy.   Culturally, it undermines the idea of ‘multi-culturalism’ as many look at culture at being ‘culture elsewhere’.

Solutions: ramp up taxation?  Pump government money into alternatives.  The more privileged are already the ones on EasyJet flights and so taxation will not make a difference in reducing air travel for the rich.

A: Which has a greater environmental impact? Dropping H bombs on different parts of the world versus flying people half way across the world to meet other cultures?

We cannot argue that we have ‘different cultures’ amongst us as if your loved ones live half way across the world you have to ‘spend air miles’.

Q: How do you compare amount of fuel spent on air travel versus road transport?

Transport is responsible for a third of emissions however whilst 90% of people use their car daily, most people use their car once a year.

Q: Under-developed countries need flying doctors, h0w do you categorise essential vs non-essential air travel?

A: It’s not easy to do.  Being less UK-centric: what about our colleagues in Europe who rely on travel from Northern Europe to build their economies.  What also about African economies that are reliant on food export from their countries as a source of revenue generation?

We should widen these lifestyle questions to include the cost of cooling the servers that power Twitter and Facebook!

Kate Bailey now talking about Food Security:

Fo0d Security is about people having access to safe and affordable food.  Since World War II, we have enjoyed access to food in abundance however this issue affects the developing world.  In 2008 we had a food shortage, this hadn’t happened for over 20 years.

Global population to rise from 6 to 9 billion by 2050.  Food supply needs to rise to meet that growth.  There is also the problem of access to land and resources for growing food.

In the UK, in coming years, we will have to be aware of the growing problem of food security.

How do we use technology to mitigate this?

We need to double production global but we need to reduce inputs: we need to increase volume of food but rely environmental impact.

Are we overly reliant on science?  Do we have to change our diet? What then would we be allowed to eat?  Do we start making decisions about whether we eat meat the production of which contributes 14-18% of emissions.

There are also tensions between the use of technolgy.

How do we as consumers have to change our behaviour?

Q: How do we start looking at controlling the population?

There are inherent ethical problems associated with that.  There is also a moral argument as we in the West enjoy the lifestyle that creates significant emissions, are we morally allowed to prevent the developing world from achieving the lifestyles we enjoy?

Q; What about social justice? Do we need to think about the impact of our behaviour on others?

How do you use a social and ethical environmnent to construct your discussion with society?

Q: In the West we forget that we enjoy the luxury of not having to ‘find’ our food.  Local food systems need to be looked at but it actually comes down to the individual.

In this issue, it comes down to the consumption level of the individual.   To go from lighting a fire to making a meal takes 5 hours, compare this to cooking a meal in the microwave in 9 minutes.

It’s about informing people about this.   We need to teach back wards and inform the public about the labour that is involved in food production.  We have cookery books instead.

Comment: In the West we don’t have to fight over food yet so it is wiser to solve the problem before we need to.  If we slow population growth we can solve the problem.

Comment: It’s actually not down to the individual, it’s up to the Government to restrict what people can or cannot do?

Prof Jon Whittle comments to state that it would be unfair to stop him being able to eat a mange in December if he wanted to.

A: Apparently, the agricultural systems we have in place are unsustainable and so that in the future mangoes may not be available in December.

Comment: Technology will not necessarily bring more happiness.  Someone who is maintaining a very fulfilled sustainable lifestyle states that we are overlooking the personal fulfilment that can come by low carbon living.

Very lively discussion about the ethical issues around air freighting mangoes.  Cannot keep up!

A: Be aware that developing countries that grow mangoes do so for an economic benefit so completely stopping this would not be helpful.

In addition, with technology making the globe smaller and more connected, we will increasingly rely on trade and so the issue is working out systems that support the cross cutting of issues that food security discussions generate.

Professor Remco Polman now talks on Ageing:

Prof Polman is now discussing his research on the impact of ageing has on social movement.  How do we increase the amount of time people can stay active for.

A 100 year old woman recently broke the world record for shot putting in her age category. What are the factors that allowed this woman to maintain a healthy life?

By 2056 30% of the UK population will be over 50 years old.

If people can maintain independence for longer, can we suggest that people work for longer?  Do we want people working at difficult jobs until their 70s?

How do we help people maintain their independence and remain healthy, particularly from a social activity.

In Holland, cycling is common place, in the UK it can be quite dangerous.  We should encourage people to cycle more as Manchester for example is very flat.

Another area that can be improved to accommodate an ageing population is in the equipment produced for use in gyms.

Most gym equipment designed for much younger people.

How do we assess how we change behaviour to accommodate easier access to local supermarkets for example.  Older people consume less food but will consume it for longer.

Q: Do we need to think of people as ‘older’ people? Do we not have a problem with these fixed ideas about when people make these transitions?  ‘Retirement age’ is a good example.

It was brought in to allow people to enjoy a short period of ‘end of life’ enjoyment.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have a retirement page.

A: Prof Polman says he also espouses a ‘life span approach’ to things

Comment: The tendency to define people based on their age is not wise.   One of Manchester City Council’s approach to aging is to create  an environment where we promote health and healthy aging and healthy living by getting things right for for young families and others.

A: Most cities don’t have an aging strategy.

Comment: The only other city in England that has a defined aging strategy is Camden.

A gentleman who has grown his food since ‘dig for Britain’ has a food budget for £6.  Perhaps one solution is to encourage growing of food rather than having to spend the time in the gym.

The important thing is to get working but retirement is very much about not having to work.

The demechanisation of agriculture is the issue.  Remember we only got into cities because of the need to use human labour into other work outside growing food.

A: There is still a need for volume-based agriculture that is more environmentally sustainable.  Science has to start providing the answers towards this.

Comment: We cannot convert older adults into being socially mobile enough to ‘grow all that they need’.  Enabling environments will enable everyone to get involved.  We cannot make everyone ‘superhuman’ so that they can do what they need to do. Society is diverse and so we need complex solutions to address this.

We have to address the different ways that people age rather than recommending that people age a certain way.

And that was it!

Please comment on any or all of the above.

Erinma closes the event by asking what are the things we can take away from the debate.

Are there going to be possibilities for research that come out of the unique opportunities provided by the unique city of Manchester that many of us live in!

Keep an eye on the blog over the next few days.

We had two illustrators attend the event and they will be creating some comics from today’s event, sharing the themes discussed in a more visual format.

We will be publishing the comics on this blog as they are produced.


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