What is The Genetics Gym?
The Genetics Gym is a project exploring the consumer psychology existing behind technology driven contemporary human interactions. The project explores a hypothetical scenario in which a commercial pharmaceutical company allows consumers to ‘design’ themselves in any way imaginable using genetic technology. The experimental project attempts to uncover the psychology into the conditions that exist behind how and why we might want to change ourselves if we had the ability to do so. The project is part of a series of experiments exploring how Artificial Intelligence (AI) or a machine could be programmed to ‘read’ context specific genetic strength, or ‘subjective beauty’ within the signals and semiotics of the objects, design and imagery that we choose to illustrate ourselves with. This speculative design project represents a collaboration between my studio, UCL’s Human Genetics and Embryology department, and London College of Fashion’s Applied Psychology in Fashion department.
What motivated you to create it?
The Genetics Gym began in 2013 when I was studying on my master’s at the RCA with the question ‘Why do gay guys have such great bodies?’ More specifically, I wanted to understand why the motivations towards gym use, bodybuilding, steroid use and lean protein consumption exists at such scale within gay male culture. I wanted to explore how the existing identity and aesthetic trends within queer culture outlined as the ‘clone and the development of a masculine stereotype’ by Shaun Cole in of the 20th century, was now heightened by technology and social media platforms within the 21st century. These questions laid the foundations of a wider topic, by using insights into queer culture as a way into researching how the Internet, and more broadly designed technologies, are affecting consumer choices and perceptions of identity.
What an evolutionary psychologist might term ‘strong genes’, we call sexiness or appeal (Richard Dawkins 1976). When a person looks at someone and finds them ‘sexy’ or ‘attractive’, their brain is ‘telling them’ that if they were to reproduce with that person, they would produce strong, healthy, well-balanced offspring. Certain viewed imagery stimulates the brain’s responses to proportions, mathematics, colours and signals, operating the subconscious, hardwired perception of a ‘strong gene’ (Richard Dawkins 1976). The physiological / chemical reaction involves the sending of serotonin and dopamine, a brain format sugar or nectar, into the body system in calculated response to visuals specific to the individual. Beyond the remit of viewing images online (Buss 1989: 1-49), physical interactions lead to more complex sensorial interactions stimulated by pheromones, voice resonance, scent, personality (Zuckerman et al. 1991). However, this investigation observes only photographic based visual communication, as found within online interaction platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder, or Grindr. The project therefore explores the motivation behind self-initiated body design, by seeking to understand more about an individual’s subconscious perception of genetics, or genetic strength though image-based communication.
The concept of quantifying the brain’s perception of genetic strength becomes particularly compelling when we begin to imagine how designers might translate Dawkin’s theory of genetic strength into software linked to digital photography, in the realm of cybernetics (Wiener 1948). If we were able to programme a machine to read the conditions that affect perceptions of genetic strength, and frame the interaction within the understanding of genetic compatibility, we might programme a machine to identify something attractive, compelling or ‘sexy’. This development would ultimately depend upon how the data was accrued and how the software was designed, and by whom. However, the underlying principle of learning more about how the human brain reads beauty on-screen in the era of online affirmation is what inspired the Genetics Gym enquiry to explore how we might enhance the way we co-exist with designed technology. This work links to other research into the impact of technology-driven social behaviour, from framing forecasts in fashion, design, marketing and political trends through a blend of design, psychology, branding and computer science.
What questions are you hoping it might raise?
Within the relative complexities of cognitive disposition, sexual and gender identity, and within the mix of socio-cultural environments and commercial imperatives, humans, (observed through the characters I have imagined and otherwise) share similar needs to be loved, validated, and accepted (Maslow 1954). The desire, use and choice of the objects, products and images that we use to illustrate our identities will continue to play an important role in the way that we, as consumers validate and express our identities, and will increasingly be accessed via designed technologies. It becomes increasingly important that we start having these conversations to not only help set ethical legislations in place, but to open a multitude of different perspectives to come together and engage in a rich, multi-layered dialogue through art / design, that would otherwise be inaccessible. As we are still in the infancy of online communication etiquettes around what is acceptable, this ‘new alphabet’ of communication comes with a sense of urgency to be explored. Questions include …What would you change if you could design yourself in any way imaginable? …How is technology affecting the way that we perceive and validate ourselves? …How can we better design and use technologies to celebrate the colourfulness and diversity of humanity, not diminish or homogenise it? …How can we find ways to guide the developments of technology not purely for the gain of corporations, but towards the benefit of human existence? …What is the limit of applied technology before we become non-human? ….What do we want from designed technology, and how can we guide the evolution of humans and our culture as we continue to live with machinery, systems and services?