Introduction: Data Made Flesh: The Material Poiesis of Informatics: Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell
Since at least the late 1940s, an apparently solid distinction between "information» and "the flesh» has enabled a wide variety of research programs, practical applications, and virtual landscapes. For example, the research program known as the Human Genome Project promises to extract an informational essence from human bodies for use by the practical applications ofgenetic engineering. Moreover, this distinction is essential to many elements ofpopular virtual landscapes from the body-teleporter technology represented in Star Trek to the more recent distinction between bodies and information in The Matrix. All of these projects and imaginings officially ground themselves on the distinction between immaterial, transcendent information and fleshy, unique bodies. Information, so this story goes, exists between elements, whereas bodies are the elements themselves. Information underwrites signs and syntax, whereas the flesh is the medium of cells and organs. Information, in short, operates through the metaphysics of absence, whereas bodies depend on the metaphysics of presence. 1
For much of the twentieth century, this seemingly solid conceptual wall between bodies and information has allowed us to separate these two aspects of modern life, but at the same time-and especially in the last few decadesit has become increasingly clear that this conceptual wall bleeds; bodies and information continually graft themselves onto one another in a number of different cultural domains. Even as geneticists describe genetic information as an "essence" that only contingently receives "expression» in bodies, the actual goal of genetic engineering is an ever-increasing array of precisely these corporeal instantiations.2 This confusion between "essence» and "expression» has been equally troubling to bioethicists, who have noted that the patent rights that have facilitated the massive expansion ofbiocommerce at the end ofthe twentieth and the start of the twenty-first century depend on this same distinction between "idea» and "expression,» but with the valence reversed: manipulated genetic n1aterial is patentable because it is the concrete "expression» of an (otherwise unpatentable) idea, or "essence:' Even in the video entertainment field, power and mastery are still imagined through the lens of the body. For instance, popular video games allow us to augment selectively body parts, skills, and physical
abilities, despite programmers' commitment to the idea of an extracorporeal existence in a "matrix" of information. In the arts, this confusion has been the source of a productive poiesis, as a number of the most provocative contemporary artists have begun linking computers and biological materials to create new forms of living artistic expression. Rather than remaining on their respective sides of the conceptual wall, "information" and "bodies" seem to function almost as ripples that pass from pools of liquid across one another; it is the difference between the pools that allows the ripples to propagate themselves, and intersect, in unique and interesting ways.