Matters (and metaphors) of life and death: How DNA storage doubles back on its promise to the world

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Canadian Geographer, 2022, 66, (1), pp. 37-47
Issue Date:
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For this special section on “geographies of the digital,” we explore how DNA-based data storage is touted as an alternative to traditional storage modalities and pitched by the data storage industry as a more efficient, stable, and long-term archival solution than that offered by current technologies. In analyzing how DNA is soaked in the language of sustainability, life, and longevity by those trumpeting the new technology, we situate emergent discourses proposing DNA as a remedy to energy-, water-, and land-intensive data centres and cloud storage. While DNA is not an “online” data storage technology, we show that the prospects of biological computation have altered the imagined futurity of cloud infrastructure. We then explain how DNA data storage works, and we complete the paper with three case studies—Microvenus, The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and The Arch Mission Foundation's Lunar Library—offering a critique of “the archive” as it is framed through these nascent scientific and technological discourses. In sum, we argue that DNA-based data storage is imbricated by an apocalyptic thinking, and that the temporality and timing of this technology speaks to growing, unevenly distributed, planetary anxieties.
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