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Genetic Engineering and Technological Determinism of the Body

by Jason Lipshin

If Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings has accustomed us to thinking about both human beings and computers as “information organisms” (Galloway 106), the next logical step is, of course, to consider the body itself as a medium. Thus, in Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), we have a representation of these anxieties playing out in the field of bio-informatics and genetic engineering, in which “life itself” (Foucault) is viewed as an information technology. 

According to Alex Galloway’s Protocol: Or How Control Exists After Decentralization, a key event in this transition to an information, control society came in Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of DNA. It was at this moment, Galloway argues, that there was a confirmation of the special isomorphism between computers and human beings, as life itself was recognized to be measurable and manipulatable as information (Galloway 110-115). Thus, in Gattaca’s dystopian vision of genetic engineering, human beings have become programmable by virtue of their DNA, which has been accepted as the source code for human life. In the world of Gattaca, this programming “determines where you can work, who you should marry, and what you are capable of achieving,” thereby reifying all human experience into a mere effect of media; or the affordances of your bodily hardware. In Gattaca’s biopower regime of control, there is no opportunity for resistance against your origin or essential materiality, as your genes move “against the entropic force… conserving information” (Galloway 104) of desirable traits, while eliminating those which are undesirable (race being among the most conspicuously untouched topics throughout the duration of the film).

In many ways, this practice of seeing human beings as computers represents both a departure from and extension of Marshall McLuhan’s essay “Understanding Media,” as it flattens the hierarchy of importance between subjects and objects implicit in McLuhan’s concept “extensions of man,” but also takes as its foundational premise the notion that the medium is the message. This is, of course, not to say that the materiality (of human beings or computers) does not matter, but that to reduce the message only to the object can produce some rather nefarious essentializations, particularly when that medium is the human body.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. "The Medium is the Message" in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. CTCS 505 Course


Galloway, Alexander. (2004). Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print. 


Genetic Engineering and Gattaca

Genetic engineering sees "life itself" as an information technology in the trailer for Gattaca

from Gattaca (1997)
Creator: Andrew Niccol
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Posted by Jason Lipshin