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Biology, Society and Machines

George Bugliarello

On January 6, 1998, a 100-year-old water main broke beneath Fifth Avenue in New York City. The rapidly escaping water eroded a crater that stopped traffic and many nearby businesses. Part of the surprise of this event lies in the multiple layers of infrastructure revealed below the street. But equally surprising is how intimately the vibrant, hurly-burly life of the city is intermingled with its devices and structures.

Figure 1. Water-main break on Fifth AvenueClick to Enlarge Image

Pulling back from this crater, one sees that these interconnections form the rich tapestry of modern life. Here is a city where more than seven million people live, representing all the world's races, cultures and classes. Their lives revolve around a plethora of machines, from cellular phones and pagers to those water and sewer systems, telephone and electrical conduits and busy subway tunnels revealed when you slice down into the ground. The environment of New York City has become so artificial that residents probably could not survive as individuals or as a society without machines. In many such modern cities, the lines between people, social structures and various forms of technology meld together seamlessly. I call this kind of interaction a biosoma, because it is an indissoluble combination of biology, society and machines.

Technology, the process that human societies devised to produce and use machines, is itself the quintessential biosoma. The outgrowths of technology include the ability to modify our biology through genetic engineering, to escape earth's gravity through aerospace engineering and even to wipe out much of life on earth through nuclear warfare. Nuclear warfare, in fact, provides a clear example of a biosoma, because it requires a combination of people to make the bombs, social constructs that bring one faction against another and machines, including the bombs themselves and devices used to build and deploy them. If we think carefully, virtually every human activity—agriculture, commerce, education, health care, industry and more—depends directly or indirectly on our interactions as individuals with society and machines.

Despite the prevalence of such bio-socio-machine complexes, we rarely consider their broad implications. Nevertheless, our future depends on understanding the different characteristics, potentials and pathologies of the three elements of a biosoma and the opportunities that a well-guided synergism can offer.

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