Challenging Nature
published by Ecco/Harper Collins, 2006
Professor of molecular biology and public policy in the Woodrow Wilson school of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University
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In This Ring, a Designer Slugfest


Published: November 4, 2004


NO jaws were broken, no eyes blackened, but at the annual gathering of the Industrial Design Society of America here last week where the chatter usually revolves around the next big thing in cellphones and cars a few stridently held ideas about the farming of human genes took a beating.

As did everyone's eardrums.

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

BARE FISTED Industrial designers watch the action and cheer combatants, waiting for a verbal knockout as Lee Silver, left, and Philip Bereano tangle over biotechnology.

For one hour in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Oct. 29, two men, archrivals in the field of bioethics, pummeled each other (verbally, that is) in what has become known among industrial design insiders as a "fight club." The rubric borrows the title of David Fincher's 1999 film, in which Brad Pitt and Edward Norton play disaffected guys trying to become less uptight through violence.

In this version, the men squared off under a spotlight, in a small boxing ring in front of 100 or so gearheads, nearly spitting about advances in cloning, uses of stem cells, and who would furnish all those test eggs.

The organizer and host of the debate, Paul Hatch, a 35-year-old industrial designer, said he came up with the idea for it because designers think too much about design and not enough about anything else.

A product designed today is "going to be launched in a world that has already moved on since the thing was designed," Mr. Hatch said. Designers need to be like fortunetellers, he suggested.

If at the outset the designers seemed a world away from the issues of biotechnology and how they relate to fashioning a better corkscrew, within minutes many were shouting. As the battle progressed, the crowd grew louder and more animated.

In one corner was Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton. Professor Silver is an advocate for cloning and using embryonic stem cells in medical research.

"Biotechnology is using living things in design," he argued. "To design things that people can use."

In the opposite corner was Philip Bereano, a lawyer and technology policy specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle. He said that when it comes to medical research, there are more pressing issues, such as lowering the nation's infant-mortality rate.

"I hope that the designers here don't make as many mistakes, with as serious consequences, as biologists," he said.

Mr. Hatch devised the unorthodox format last year. That is when he drew a crowd of about 25 people, mostly fellow members of the industrial-design society's Chicago chapter, to a warehouse there. The two people in the ring then battled over "The Matrix." (Did it have a deeper meaning or signal the end of film as an art form?)

Since then, Mr. Hatch has staged "fights" for the industrial designer's association about consumerism, sex and violence, and legalizing marijuana. The rhetorical mosh pit here was his eighth, and he now keeps a mailing list of 450 people from various fields who want to know about the next fight.

"Some say it's the training ground for the new industrial designer," Mr. Hatch told the crowd from the ring. "When asked, some say, `Huh? Fight club? Why are we debating topics that are not about designing?' "

At this fight, Mr. Hatch introduced Mr. Silver and Mr. Bereano "two very, very talented fighters" and each jumped up into the ring. Neither fighter had known Mr. Hatch before the invitation to "fight." They had never met each other before either, but had publicly noted their differences.

"These two guys have crossed swords," Mr. Hatch said, while he explained the rules: there can be only one winner, chosen by applause, and there are no other rules.

Mr. Silver began by invoking Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, saying that the animal was not a "Frankenstein" monster, as some critics have said.

Mr. Bereano said: "Biologists are not omniscient. There's a lot of stuff about the gene, genomes, that they don't know about."

He attacked Mr. Silver's frequent refrain that cloning is inevitable. "No technology is inevitable," he said. "Technology is a result of social choices."

And so it went, with tempers rising, until Mr. Hatch jumped back onstage to end the fight. He banged a classroom bell on the stage. It was time to pick a winner.

Mr. Bereano got a healthy round of applause. But the rooting for Mr. Silver won the day.

The fight reached no conclusions as to whether any clones of the future would need a new type of bicycle or vegetable peeler. But designers in the audience seemed riveted.

"It was really compelling," said Michelle Swindell Berryman of Atlanta, a designer of electronic display equipment. "It polarized people."

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