Shapers and Mechanists

There’s a series of cyberpunk short stories and a book written in the 1980s by Bruce Sterling called The Schismatrix. It centers around two major offshoots of future humanity that have chosen very different paths for their lives. The Shapers have embraced biological engineering to the extreme, changing organisms and themselves to adapt to harsh new environments and to eradicate diseases. The Mechanists have embraced digital/mechanical culture, building autonomous drones to do their work and enhancing themselves with electronic gadgets.

We live in a Mechanist world.

Mechanists triumphant

Consider how quickly we’ve embraced technologies that could be summarized as “digital” or “mechanical”. Smartphones are widely penetrant. Pervasive computing (e.g. the Internet of Things) is growing by the day. Software is a massive industry, with some companies worth more than entire countries. Robotic assembly lines work night and day. Your Amazon orders are compiled for shipping by a fleet of self-guiding drone-shelves. 3D printing of plastics is used to rapidly prototype parts. There are popular movements to enhance human abilities with chemical “nootropics”. Even food has been reduced to its minimal essential parts via Soylent. And we are so willing to pay for it all that we demand yearly updates to our favorite products. Mechanists have risen to the top without us even realizing it.

Shapers on the fringes

So where are the Shapers? Strikingly, biologics are at a technical high point but a social low. Vaccines save millions of lives but are viewed with suspicion. Antibodies made in cellular factories cure cancer but are pilloried for being too expensive. Engineered plants can prevent blindness, feed the world, and make drugs to combat Ebola, but are viewed with distaste. We’re starting to gain control over genomes themselves, from editing-in-place to the creation of entire chromosomes. There’s hope on the horizon to cure genetic diseases that have plagued us for millennia, but newspapers are fixated on designer babies.

A culture in shift?

But is the pillory of Shaper values changing? Are biologics starting to rise? There are some signs, from the small to the large. Home-brewing exotic craft beer is more popular than ever. Glofish are cute novelty pets. Biohackers self-organize clubs to learn how to clone DNA in their kitchens in cute “bento” labs-in-a-box. Books describe paths to resurrect extinct species. Wildly popular TED talks encourage microbiome self-maintenance. And patients with genetic diseases are eager to try gene insertion and editing therapies that are on the horizon.

Clash or convergence?

The Schismatrix series envisions the Shaper-Mechanist dichotomy as an epic struggle. The two world views vie for dominance through violence, both physical and political. Bruce Sterling injected many stereotypes you might expect into the cold Mechanists and the bio-controlling Shapers. In the real world, I don’t see it going that way. I think people take what works for them, no matter what type of tech. Biological technology had a long head start on digital technology (think animal/plant domestication vs the Babbage difference engine). Digital technology started a rapid acceleration relatively quickly, possibly because it’s built on designed systems. This is in contrast to biological technology, which is currently built on systems we discover in the world around us and adapt to our uses. But as we build more tools and eke out greater understanding of biological mysteries, we’re starting to see a rapid acceleration of biological technology. Will we embrace it the way we embraced mechanical technology? Will we use both together? I think so, and I think it will come naturally as these technologies present solutions to pressing problems.

Jacob Corn

Jacob Corn is the Professor of Genome Biology at ETH Zürich. Follow him on twitter @jcornlab.



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