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Lucy McRae
Lucy McRae, "Compression Carpet"

The touch crisis: how we’re changing how we think about germs


TextGeraldine Wharry

Coronavirus has cemented an already existing fear of touch, germs, bacteria, and viruses in our modern society. As we move towards an over-sanitised future world, are we designing our own biological and psychological demise?

We are navigating a complex relationship with bacteria and viruses due to increased access to science and technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the epidemiological view of society to the mainstream. Now, we’re understanding human societies are perhaps less defined by their social practices, and more so that we are an interdependent biomass. As a consequence of the current pandemic, technologies, infrastructures, and designs for social distancing are being fast tracked at lightspeed. 

But biologists estimate 380 trillion viruses live on and inside your body. Our skin, the body’s largest organ, is populated by a microbiota defined as a set of “ecological communities of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms”. The microbiota community educates our immune system as Elizabeth Grice and Julia Segre explain in their medical report “The skin microbiome”. In his more recent article for Nature, Michael Eisenstein supports the theory the skin’s microbiome could be our best bet to fight pathogens. 

Where does this leave us when it comes to touch and the cognitive dissonance between creating a wellbeing and ecological global culture while infrastructures, products, and services are turning us into prophylactic societies?

NO SUCH THING AS THE HUMAN SELF

The most thought provoking notion is accepting “we have never been individuals” as explained in “How the microbiome challenges our concept of self” co-authored by Tobias Rees, Thomas Bosch and Angela E. Douglas. The report goes on to explain “evidence shows that our microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines.” 

What constitutes the self then if the human carries a multitude of entities and we are made of trillions of diverse microorganisms? Artist Anicka Yi, a fellow at the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute, collaborates with bacteria and microbes. In her video interview for Noema magazine’s “The Myth of the Self”, she proposes the Anthropocene (the human-influenced age) doesn’t even exist and that we live in the “Bacteriacene” because, from a microbiological perspective, the human doesn’t even really exist. 

The human microbiome forces us to rethink our understanding of ourselves as human: microbes and viruses are us. In his article for the Scientific AmericanViruses can help us as well as harm us”, David Pride explains scientists are now confirming the fact the human body is “a superorganism of cohabitating cells, bacteria, fungi and most numerous of all: viruses. As much as half of all the biological matter in your body is not human.”

Designers and artists are exploring the implications of our bodies being made of more microbiome cells than human cells during a pandemic. New media artist and curator Milad Forouzandeh who through the video project “Mosaic Rooms” collaborated with artists, curators and thinkers, explored the potential of art in the face of a pandemic. Sonja Baümel has spent the past decade exploring bacteria forming our body in her work, including her recent exhibition for the Centre for Design and Material Culture titled What would a microbe say?. She states “No matter how much we try to distance ourselves by sterilising and isolating our bodies from the multi-species world, we must finally accept that we are part of Nature, within a constantly adapting and fluid co-evolution.” Destigmatising bacteria is an important component of Baümel’s ongoing “Metabodies” project in which she collected in petri dishes hand prints from a couple after exercise, sex, and showering. The largest number of bacteria was present after showering, as our skin’s pores release additional bacterial protection when we wash, thus challenging our perception of how bacteria multiply. 

QUESTIONING A PROPHYLACTIC WORLD

Coronavirus has cemented an already existing fear of touch, germs, bacteria, and viruses in our modern society. A pandemic vocabulary around touch is taking hold with terms such as “selling survival” “anti-microbial” “anti-bacterial” “touchless” “social distancing” “design for distancing” populating the media. Other expressions such as “hyper purification”, “elevated personal protection”, “cleanliness credentials”, and “safe-to-touch” are becoming the norm as we design an era where decontamination is the gold standard. Touchless products and infrastructures promise to limit the spread of germs but the question is: are we in fact designing our own biological and psychological demise with zero touch tech, services, products, and spaces?

The problem we are facing is that advancements such as touchless tech in the home, travel and retail, hygienic packaging, track and tracing and other developments aiming to circumvent infections, are happening faster and sooner than we have developed an appropriate vocabulary and mindset. Before having even developed a methodology and philosophical approach to respond to new pandemic-related phenomena, we are stepping head first into what could be an over-sanitised future world.

“We are getting far too sterile,” states Kiran Krishnan in a report on the Hygiene Hypothesis. As a microbiologist and chief scientific officer for Microbiome Labs, based in St. Augustine, Florida, Krishnan explains “our immune system is comprised of tissue that requires activation by the microbes we’re exposed to. Think of the immune system as an army, with tanks and missiles but no general to lead them. That’s the role friendly microbes play in your body; they’re the general. The vast majority of microbes, 97 per cent to 99 per cent, are benign or beneficial, and they are the best protection to fight pathogenic microorganisms”.

There isn’t a straightforward answer or prediction in the face of a global pandemic as we fight our way through keeping the world’s population safe and restarting our economies. But the question is what collective culture are we creating? Collective intelligence is a sociological concept describing how we work together and produce culture together as societies. Collective intelligence can also describe a phenomenon observed in bacteria, animals, social movements, the internet, and other examples such as how crowds navigate city streets. How can we come together to provide methodologies and mindsets that reflect our natural interconnectedness and collaboration with viruses, bacteria, and germs? 

Could forging ahead with filtering bacteria and microbes out of our lives prove to have unforeseen negative effects for human health and psychology? Zach Bush, a physician specializing in endocrinology and hospice care, as well as a thought leader on the microbiome as it relates to health, disease, and food systems, states in his podcast interview with David Johnston for Endless Vital Activity “We are the weapon of mass destruction”. This points to the sobering notion that perhaps the biggest threat is not viruses, germs and bacteria but the human production of a future that is touchless and sterile. With science-based knowledge in hand, and if we consider ourselves a progressive society shifting to regenerative and “earth first” practices, why are we creating a binary approach to bacteria, germs, and viruses?

The concept of rewilding and letting nature take back control is one ESSE skincare uses as a founding value along with the idea of “wild science”. This method claims to return the skin’s microbiome to its balanced and “wild” state through green chemistry, also called sustainable chemistry. By creating the environment for the skin’s natural microbes to flourish, Esse’s range aims to help restore its ecology. Further exploring the idea we cannot separate ourselves from a microbial and everchanging “wild” environment, speculative designer Marion Lasserre imagined the future of our relationship with our microbiota, where people voluntarily infect themselves with the help of a biotechnological nose device. The tribe called “Microhack” are microbial activists. Could it be that the most rebellious and wild thing we could do in the near future is fight to preserve viruses in a bid to save the original nature of humanity? 

THE TOUCH CRISIS

There is an increasingly popularised conception that safety is associated with sterile environments and stopping the novel Coronavirus has required radical separation of humans. But as a society, touch is a language we cannot afford to forget and we are facing a touch crisis for a number of reasons, ranging from a love affair with our screens to fear of diseases. A study by The New England Journal of Medicine found the novel Coronavirus can be detected on plastic for up to 72 hours among other figures on how viruses inhabit man made surfaces. This points to hygienic packaging becoming a priority for brands and when it comes to the beauty industry, hygiene will be a key concern for years to come as paranoia over what we touch is expected to continue.

What would happen in a future where we have to relearn touch? Immersive design studio Bompas & Parr in their Fluid Landscapes project speculate on a future where people might struggle getting used to touch again post-pandemic. Their solution: the Haptics Museum, where people would be encouraged to interact with objects and other humans as they navigate “a sensory stimulating experience, we hope this will encourage others to fall in love with touch again.”

Before the Covid pandemic, artist Lucy McRae in her work “Compression carpet” sought to address society’s view that physical interactions are erasable and can predominantly take place in the digital world. She explains “this symptom has led us to a crisis of touch, demanding interventions that cater to society’s physical and emotional needs”. More recently with her “Solitary Survival Raft” she explores isolation and fear of the unknown and explained her job is “to be that of an interpreter” translating our uncertain world’s signal. 

As we strive to create stability, our living spaces are becoming a playground for speculation with some scenarios advocating ways of living that further isolate us as individuals. In her piece for the Intercept and the Guardian, author, journalist, and academic Naomi Klein, known for her best-selling book the Shock Doctrine, states: “something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.” 

The Roman Catholic priest, theologian, philosopher, and social critic Ivan Illich set forth the view that the new technological order he wrote about as far back as the 1970s was in fact preparing the path for a “brave new biocracy”. What he hadn’t foreseen was how touch and our relationship with viruses would evolve 50 years later and the question remains, are we asking the right questions and willing to resist the touchless germ-free future presented to us?

SHARING AGENCY

Finding a vaccine, restarting the world economy, and preventing another outbreak require intense cooperation. Our technological capacity can confront the challenge on a global scale. But there are limits to innovation and industry if we do not see culture as where true evolution is birthed. Data from one part of the world can help fight the virus in another part whilst contact-tracing apps can limit deadly virus outbreaks. But technology is not in the driver seat of greater cooperation. This would be a temporary expedient with permanent features that would undermine the indelible fact human form is a multitude of assembled parts ranging from microbial to data. Our very notions of fixed physical human boundaries are collapsing but if given the opportunity to build new, we will have to rethink agency because if touch and viruses become fully contained and controlled, who will we be? Perhaps the future is one where we collaborate with viruses as diverse entities rather than annihilate them.

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