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In this article, we analyse a 2013 press conference hosting the world's first tasting of a laboratory grown hamburger. We explore this as a media event: an exceptional performative moment in which common meanings are mobilised and a connection to a shared centre of reality is offered. We develop our own theoretical contribution - the promotional public - to characterise the affirmative and partial patchwork of carefully selected actors invoked during the burger tasting. Our account draws on three areas of analysis: interview data with the scientists who developed the burger, media analysis of the streamed press conference itself and media analysis of social media during and following the event. We argue that the call to witness an experiment is a form of promotion and that such promotional material also offers an address that invokes a public with its attendant tensions.
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Public Understanding of Science
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DOI: 10.1177/0963662516639001
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P U S
The first bite: Imaginaries,
promotional publics and
the laboratory grown burger
Kate O’Riordan
University of Sussex, UK
Aristea Fotopoulou
University of Brighton, UK
Neil Stephens
Brunel University London, UK
Abstract
In this article, we analyse a 2013 press conference hosting the world’s first tasting of a laboratory grown
hamburger. We explore this as a media event: an exceptional performative moment in which common
meanings are mobilised and a connection to a shared centre of reality is offered. We develop our own
theoretical contribution – the promotional public – to characterise the affirmative and partial patchwork of
carefully selected actors invoked during the burger tasting. Our account draws on three areas of analysis:
interview data with the scientists who developed the burger, media analysis of the streamed press conference
itself and media analysis of social media during and following the event. We argue that the call to witness an
experiment is a form of promotion and that such promotional material also offers an address that invokes a
public with its attendant tensions.
Keywords
cultured burger, cultured meat, Dewey, in vitro meat, media event, promotional public, publics
1. Introduction
there is really a bite to it. (Hanni Rutzler)
the bite feels like a conventional hamburger. (Josh Schonwald)
it had a familiar mouth feel – like a bite of meat. (Schonwald)
there is really a bite so it’s meat to me. (Rutzler)
it is really something to bite on. (Rutzler)
Corresponding author:
Kate O’Riordan, School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9RG, UK.
Email: k.oriordan@sussex.ac.uk
639001PUS0010.1177/0963662516639001Public Understanding of ScienceO’Riordan et al.
research-article2016
Theoretical/research paper
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2 Public Understanding of Science
On 5 August 2013, the cooking and eating of the world’s first cultured beef burger was staged as a
hybrid science media event somewhere between press release, experiment and cookery show. This
article examines the event through an account of the context of in vitro meat, media analysis and
interviews with key actors. The launch of the burger can be understood as a media event compris-
ing promotional film, live studio event, webstreaming and social media. It took place in London’s
Riverside TV studios in front of a live audience and was streamed internationally. It was not the
first instance of laboratory meat production, or even tasting, but to date remains the most high-
profile and well-funded moment in the history of tissue-engineered meat, acting as a defining point
in the technology’s development.
We argue that the launch event invokes a ‘promotional public’ that mimics Dewey’s (1927)
political public – in that there appears to be a matter of concern, public address and affected
people – while emphasising the affordances and constraints of publics invoked through public
relations (PR) work. We demonstrate that the launch event is part public demonstration and part
experiment, offering the possibility for interested parties to gain familiarity with the technology.
It also offers a framing of in vitro meat as a world-changing technology that will do good. Media
events or rituals such as the burger launch gather audiences to share in public forms of consump-
tion where the audience is both part of the spectacle (Kellner, 2003) and evidence of the reality of
the event (Carey, 1989; Couldry, 2002). In the case of the launch event, the audience acts as evi-
dence of the significance of the burger through their gathering together and as an advertisement
for in vitro meat by witnessing its reality and advocating its use. This produces a public who
promote the burger by witnessing its reality, witnessing others gather and attending to it through
further media participation.
2. Promotional publics
Dewey (1927) argues that publics offer antagonism or antithesis to issues or forms of innovation.
Instances of public making are about people identifying themselves and their democratic substance
through exploratory action (Dewey, 1927; see also the editor’s introduction to this Special Issue).
Our distinct theoretical contribution – promotional publics – builds upon and contrasts to Dewey’s
political public. Our concept includes elements of an issue public (Marres, 2007), in our case a
speculative issue public, as the object remains experimental: it conjures perceived needs or issues
that might be. Unlike the more protean public of Dewey’s work, only one group of directly affected
people appear – those making the meat. All others invoked are indirectly affected, that is, consum-
ers of meat. Other potentially directly affected groups – animals and workers in meat farming – are
excluded from the address. As we demonstrate, this public is promotional because the address
offered is a synthesis of proposals for in vitro meat that enrols an incomplete patchwork of care-
fully selected actors. Except a number of keen in vitro meat proponents, this promotional public
does not arise from an affected public on the ground.
We offer the term promotional public, first, to acknowledge that the audience operates as a com-
modity – acting in some ways like an advertising board or human element of the brand (Lury,
2004) – and, second, to highlight the importance of taking this to be more than it appears. We fol-
low Shapin and Schaffer’s (1985) work on the role of virtual witnessing in making science by
unravelling the different kinds of witness involved and the dynamics of publicness. In the cultured
burger case, the audience is multilayered: those sat theatre-style in the studio as the burger was
cooked and eaten; those watching the live stream; those who watched televised edits; and those
who consumed the various media, online, in print or other forms. Studio audience members chosen
from those who applied were selected both to provide witnessing to the burger and to provide a
public, as the screening of the event – in front of a live audience – demonstrated both the making
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O’Riordan et al. 3
of a public and a laboratory grown burger. We offer a way of thinking about this kind of event that
avoids the cynicism attached to a reading of this as simply a publicity stunt. The event clearly has
promotional value and effect. However, the audience is not merely an extended advert but has a
public dynamic which exceeds the event itself. This invocation of audiences in the making of in
vitro meat is generative of publicness, as well as advertising; for this reason, we propose the term
promotional public to understand this dynamic.
3. Approach and methods
We approach the launch through the media events literature, which draws on a tradition of under-
standing media as ritual (Carey, 1989; Hepp and Couldry, 2009, 2010), spectacle and event (Dayan
and Katz, 1992; Kellner, 2009). Media events are exceptional performative moments, in which
common meanings are mobilised and a connection to a shared centre of reality is offered. The turn
to ritual, and to event, is part of a body of work that seeks to understand media as material and
embodied. This positions media as enacted and experienced in everyday life and looks at the way
rituals materialise shared realities. Developing this, Nick Couldry (2002) suggests media events do
not just communicate and represent a centre of social reality; they are part of it.
Contemporary media events are structured by the conventions of reality television, which has
cut across most broadcast forms (Couldry, 2002). In these genres, the embodied experience of
participants becomes the index of reality (O’Riordan, 2010: 63). Public experiments and media
events both require techniques of liveness, here constructed through a relation to social media
and to the unpredictability of a live studio audience. The event drew on a tradition of cookery
programmes as popular culture and invoked an intercorporeal connection between people
through the emphasis on bite and embodied experience. We extend the media events literature by
bringing it into dialogue with work on public experiments and showing how the burger launch
combines both.
One author of this article, Neil Stephens, has been conducting documentary, interview and
observational analysis of the field since 2008. This includes extensive analysis of the scientific
literature, 42 stakeholder interviews and ethnographic observations at key meetings, including the
cultured burger press conference that is the focus of this article. Interviews were recorded, tran-
scribed and stored, and interviewees are granted personal anonymity. The majority of interviews
were conducted between 2010 and 2013. Ethnographic fieldnotes were produced, along with docu-
mentary and interview data, which were analysed thematically. Fotopoulou and O’Riordan con-
ducted a discourse analysis of the media around the event. This was linked to the ethnographic
observation. We order our analysis into three sections: (1) the planning: leading up to the event, (2)
the actual event: as transpired in the TV studio and (3) social media: Twitter and Reddit content
encompassing participants in the media event occurring that day.
4. Context
The terms ‘cultured burger’ and ‘cultured meat’ were foregrounded in the 2013 event, in place of
the scientific term ‘in vitro’ meat. The technology has a long history including diverse sites and
terminologies crossing science fiction, popular media, political and scientific discourses. Novel
meat forms and meat-like consumables form part of twentieth-century accounts of human futures
in and outside of science fiction genres, especially for those focused on space travel or over popu-
lated futures that may feature protein pills, vat food or, as in Soylent Green (1973), recycling of
humans for their own consumption. Winston Churchill (1931) supported the idea of growing meat
in an alternative medium to the animal, George Orwell (1939) expressed visceral disgust in
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4 Public Understanding of Science
modernity through the wrongness of a taste of meat and Margaret Atwood (2003) conjured an
account of horrific ‘ChickieNobs’. Mock and replacement meats also have a history in vegetarian-
ism and other contestations of existing meat forms. Most of these histories were not made visible
at the launch event, although some returned through audience and online discussions. Of these
histories, the Churchill reference is the one most frequently claimed by in vitro meat proponents,
and this featured again during the burger launch as an historical precedent tied to imaginaries
around climate change, food crisis and ecological concern.
The material conditions of possibility for this burger start with tissue engineering.
Laboratory work in this iteration began around the millennium when two different groups
started growing gold fish and foetal sheep cells, respectively: the NASA-funded group at
Truro College, New York, and bioart group, the Tissue Culture and Art Project, then based at
Harvard. The NASA group held a panel of testers who smelt and prodded, but did not eat, the
engineered tissue to judge how appetising it seemed (Benjaminson et al., 2002; Pincock,
2007). The Tissue Culture and Art Project staged a banquet in a Nantes Art Gallery in 2003
under the title ‘Disembodied Cuisine’ to eat the tissue in the presence of the frogs from which
it had been cultured (Catts and Zurr, 2010).1
In 2005, a Dutch consortium of universities attracted government funding to develop the tech-
nology through a set of PhD studentships. In 2009, the Utrecht group received further funding in
association with Wageningen University. During this period, other laboratories in Norway, Sweden
and the United States also started experiments. The most visible of these was Modern Meadow, a
Theil Foundation–backed start-up company developing three-dimensional (3D) printing technol-
ogy for leather and meat products. This publicised itself through media work, including a TED
(Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by founder Gabor Forgacs during which he ate a small
sample in front of a live audience (Forgacs, 2011). The community of laboratory workers remained
small throughout this period, perhaps no more than 40 people worldwide as they struggled to
secure funding and in some cases sufficient support from peers to be seen as worthwhile. Professor
Mark Post, who led on the cultured beef launch, supervised two students in the first Dutch consor-
tium, before continuing to work in this area with Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s funding for the
cultured burger and the promotional event (Krijnen, 2012). Making the burger involved taking,
from the neck of a cow, small quantities of muscle cells cultured to induce repeated occurrences of
cell division that result in a small quantity of muscle tissue. To produce the burgers for this event,
the procedure was repeated many times to create sufficient tissue, which was then bound together
with egg (Cultured Beef, 2013b).
Alongside Post’s work, other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also entered
the field. New Harvest, of which Post is on the board of directors, has become established as
the leading industry lobbyist providing a campaign footprint and limited funding for in vitro
meat technology. While still small, they have performed a key role in networking the scientists
active in the field. Beyond New Harvest, in 2008, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PeTA), an activist and animal ethics organisation, announced a US$1 million prize for the
first commercially viable in vitro chicken meat, before funding a 3-year postdoc research posi-
tion in the field.
These laboratory projects, the PeTA prize and launch of the cultured beef burger make in vitro
meat an intelligible object with a network of actors enrolled in its credibility. They invite publics
into this network through press releases from in vitro meat research, for example, the NASA ‘fish
food’ (Benjaminson et al., 2002), coverage of bioart, reports of the PeTA prize in 2008 and 2012
and repeated announcements that a burger would be launched culminating in the 2013 event. Media
attention is stimulated by these moments of direct address and is significant in generating interest,
framing the meaning of in vitro meat and inviting publics.
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5. Promissory narratives, imaginaries and ontologies
PeTA became interested because of the promise of reduced levels of animal slaughter and suf-
fering. This argument is also made by many laboratory scientists and designers working on the
topic (Hopkins and Dacey, 2008; Stephens, 2013). However, as Stephens (2010, 2013) has
argued, this is just one of the promissory narratives developed within the community (cf. Chiles,
2013). Other narratives include the environmental contribution, which promises reduced green-
house gas emissions and water, land and energy use (Tuomisto and Teixeira de Mattos, 2011);
contribution to human health in removing the antibiotics found in whole animal meat produc-
tion and in reducing the risk of interspecies disease transmission (Bhat and Bhat, 2011); tackling
global food poverty (Haagsman et al., 2011); capacity for innovative food products with differ-
ent forms to those available today (Datar and Betti, 2010); potential economic gain of a new
high-tech agricultural industry; and the capacity to produce meat in space (Benjaminson et al.,
2002).
Development and consolidation of these promissory narratives is an ongoing process. The
broader imaginary remains in flux as each promissory narrative is reconfigured and moves in
and out of favour with the community. The most striking example of change is the space travel
narrative. In the early 2000s, this was by far the most visible claim for in vitro meat. Ten years
later, only the original group working on the NASA project included space travel in their
rationalisation for in vitro meat. Newer entrants to the field, including Post, New Harvest and
PeTA, reconfigured the imaginary around the environment, animals, health, innovation and
profit. As we show, the promotional film in the burger launch reinforced these promissory nar-
ratives and articulated a public address to the effect that cultured beef is an innovative technol-
ogy offering solutions to world problems, identified as food production, population growth
and climate change.
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the relationship of the quality and quantity of food to the
health of both individuals and populations and the capacity to develop profitable and innovative
industries are all visible in the current public imaginaries, rendering them viable appropriations
for in vitro meat proponents. The attraction exists more broadly, as other actors seek to attach
these available public imaginaries to contestations of technoscientific developments, including
nanotechnologies (Cutcliffe et al., 2012), synthetic biology (Kronberger, 2012) and genetically
modified crops (Adam, 2000).
Promissory narratives of in vitro meat have to work harder than those of many technoscientific
innovations because they must also establish what in vitro meat is. As Stephens (2010, 2013)
argues, in vitro meat has been an as-yet undefined ontological object: its status is ambiguous and
contestable (Van der Weele and Driessen, 2013). Stabilisation requires either reconfiguration of
what counts as the provenance of meat or a new category of edible protein. The impact of this
ambiguity among Belgian, Portuguese and British publics during 2012 has been demonstrated by
Marcu et al. (2015). As we show, by summer 2013, the burger event overwhelmingly represented
in vitro meat as a knowable object, as (1) meat and (2) a kind of beef burger.
6. The event: Planning, actual and social media
Planning
In the spring of 2011, as word that funding had been secured was first announced, Stephens con-
ducted interviews with two key members of the team who would go on to produce the burger. Their
vision, and clear focus on the visual components, is evident in the following articulation of the
method and rationale for pursuing the project:
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6 Public Understanding of Science
One idea that we had, maybe about a year ago, was that we are at the very fundamental level [of IVM
research] at the moment and we need to get to a level where the real big money can physically see that it’s
possible to produce a meat analogue this way. Why don’t we use what we have where we are today, which
is we can grow in a petri dish very small muscle from satellite stem cells […] Why don’t we do this, say,
2000 [times], which takes a bit of time, and get someone to pick out all these little bits, put them in a mixer,
and make a sausage out of it. A very expensive sausage; it’ll set you back somewhere between 300,000 and
½ million Euros, but with this sausage, we can go to Sky News, we can go to CNN, whatever and say,
‘Look guys, this is a sausage and this is the first one in human history. It’s made from real meat and we did
not need to kill an animal to produce it’. A lot of questions attached […] but this is it. It’s physically on the
table so it is possible. This might trigger people with money because it’s, well that’s what we need, it’s
money and I don’t care who it is, if it’s Bill Gates or Paul McCartney or whatever but someone to really
see, literally see, that there’s a future behind this process.
The extract emphasises the physical and visual elements central to the media event, while the
core audience identified is made up of media organisations and possible funders. One clear shift
between this account and the 2013 London event is the move from sausage to burger. Informants
from the Dutch team say that the preference for a burger came from the funder, now known to be
Brin. They provide an account of the change based up the strong iconography of the burger as the
dominant American processed meat product, compared to a Dutch preference for the sausage.
Another core member of the Dutch team reiterated the focus on the visual and the relationship to
financial concerns while also developing a narrative on likely and appropriate time frames for staging
the media event. Brin’s identity remained a closely guarded secret, beyond his nationality and gender:
Right now I’m designing a programme to make a first product, make a first hamburger. Not really for
scientific purposes but just for showing the world that it is a genuine possibility and that we should allocate
resources to develop this. That’s the primary reason.
Interviewer: ‘I’m interested, you say you’re developing a programme, what do you have in mind, how
do you think that could be funded?’
Oh that’s what this private funder is going to fund, he’s going to fund the first €300,000 burger … I need
to hire dedicated technicians and I need to buy some equipment to get this going and also to have enough
people working on it so that it doesn’t take forever, especially these private funders don’t want to wait for
3 to 4 years. To be honest I don’t want to wait for 3 to 4 years. I want to have something in my hands in a
year’s time that we could show.
In practice, Brin and the team had to wait 2 years. While Brin’s identity was kept secret, the
1-year time frame articulated above was not, and it featured widely in press coverage. The state-
ment of this timeline required repeated reconfiguration as rumoured dates approached and passed
without event.
Actual
The burger launch occurred on the morning of 5 August 2013. It consisted of three distinct ele-
ments: First, screening of the opening film created by media production company The Department
of Expansion that featured Brin, Richard Wrangham (evolutionary biologist), Ken Cook (environ-
mental science/activism) and Post (tissue engineering science); second, cooking, tasting and dis-
cussion of the burger; and third, social media and coverage up to, during and immediately after the
eating. These three forms together combine promotional materials with demonstration of an exper-
iment and controlled witnessing.
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In tune with concerns of the moment, the promotional film presented cultured beef as a solution
to food, climate and ecological crises. The term ‘in vitro meat’ was not used in the film, with ‘meat’
used throughout. Brin referred to cultured beef as a technology ‘on the cusp’ of viability, and Post
referred to meat first defining it as ‘meat is muscle’ and then defining cultured beef as ‘meat just
not in a cow’. Brin expressed himself ‘not comfortable’ with intensive farming methods and excited
about investing in a transformative technology. Wrangham situated the burger by proposing that
meat is integral to human evolution, and remains so, but now, ironically, this is because meat pro-
duction has become a threat to the species by contributing to climate change and population/food
crises. Brin outlined three kinds of publics when he talked about going forward: vegetarians, peo-
ple who ignore the situation and those willing to do something new. The latter was offered as the
preferred subject position. Cook helped define these people who might be interested in supporting
change when he said that he thought there was ‘interest on the part of consumers for a different
kind of system altogether’. Wrangham also closed his final segment by urging action: ‘meat pro-
duction threatens the species, we have to do something’. The film included epic imagery invoking
the magnitude of the challenge and the need for change. All four speakers in the film aligned them-
selves with people who will change the world through action and with consumers who will demand
this change and thus legitimised and invited publics aligned with these subject positions.
Nina Hossain (a well-known British TV anchor) narrated and hosted the studio proceedings.
Richard McGeown (a celebrity chef) cooked the burger. Hanni Rutzler (food scientist) and Josh
Schonwald (author) tasted it and commented on their experience of eating, and thus stood in both
as part of the apparatus of the experiment and for public consumers (Figure 1). Post also provided
a bridge between laboratory and media publics, and the film and studio event by appearing in each
of these arenas and providing commentary. It was staged in front of a studio audience mainly
comprising press and media representatives with attendance from New Harvest, Singularity
University, Cardiff University and other actors in the broader in vitro meat network. During and
after, key participants and broader publics participated in social media including tweeting live
responses.
Within the first 2 minutes of tasting the burger, the word ‘bite’ was repeated five times by
Rutzler and Schonwald as they sought to find words to articulate the experience. The phrase ‘the
Figure 1. Screenshot from the studio event (left to right, Richard McGeown, Nina Hossain, Mark Post,
Hanni Rutzler and Josh Schonwald).
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8 Public Understanding of Science
mouth feel’ was repeated by Hossain and Schonwald. The meatiness of the product was further
stabilised by Post who commented that he is making meat for meat eaters, not a meat substitute for
vegetarians. He observed that vegetarianism was a good solution to the problems in vitro meat
might address, as did Brin in the promotional film. However, both Post and Brin said that not eve-
ryone will become vegetarian, and this theme linked the film and studio proceedings. During the
event, there was no mention of PeTA or New Harvest or other significant actors in the in vitro meat
community. This lack of reference to other actors, and resistance to addressing vegetarians, rein-
forced a pattern of mainstreaming or normalising in vitro meat as a normal meat choice. In the film,
Post outlined a future scenario where a consumer could chose, in the supermarket, between two
burgers. He conjured their existence through hand movements predicting:
Twenty years from now if you walk into a supermarket there will be two products that are identical, […]
one is made in an animal and it now has a label on it that animals suffer, it has an eco-tax because it is bad
for the environment. It is exactly the same as an alternative product that is made in a lab, the quality is the
same, it tastes the same, it is the same price or even cheaper, so what are you going to choose? (Mark Post,
Cultured Beef (2013a) promotional film)
This speculation reinforced the promotional film’s framing of the burger as a future solution to
environmental problems. It furnishes the imagined-possible with both an audience and a set of
beneficiaries by invoking a hypothetical set of affected actors and thus a potential or hypothetical
issue public (Marres, 2007).
The difference in genre conventions between the film preceding the cooking of the burger and
the studio event was marked. The sophisticated and visually engaging production techniques of the
film were consonant with corporate PR styles and were similar to other films in this genre.
Wrangham, for example, has appeared in films by the same company created as part of media
campaigns to promote the Leaky Foundation (e.g. The Bi-Polar Ape, 2010). Wrangham introduced
a hunter-gatherer narrative to argue that humans must have meat to evolve, providing historical and
temporal legitimacy for meat-based solutions. The everyday practice of meat eating was also
thrown into question by the film, which challenged existing meat production and consumption.
This sets up a political issue around which to gather publics and concern at the same time offering
a speculative role for the cultured burger, as possible amelioration.
The studio experiment was much clunkier than the promotional film and included a sense of
unscripted awkwardness and unpredictability. These features aligned reality television, as a genre,
with science as an experimental process. In both, an experimental apparatus is put in motion and
results are recorded, witnessed and interpreted. Although framed as a cooking show, the burger was
initially presented in a petri dish reminding viewers of its scientific status. The petri dish, Post’s
presence, the chef’s whites and even Hossain’s white outfit were reminiscent of the laboratory. At
the event, Post seemed a little unclear as to exactly when the burger eating commenced and Rutzler
and Schonwald also seemed uncertain as to when they should start eating. Thus, the anticipatory
moment to resolve the question ‘is it palatable?’ was slightly undefined. This added to the sense of
a live experiment conducted in real time with an actual sense of newness and unpredictability.
Nonetheless, the moments of the first bites remain significant and were the focus of media cover-
age following the event. The bite, taste and swallow invite the audience to empathise with the
cultured burger as a meaningful food product via the shared corporeal and ritual practice of eating,
in this case in witnessing others eat – as prevalent in television cookery programmes – that renders
the tasters’ embodied experience a key index of reality. The controlled eating conditions were
emphasised by the resistance of the studio audience to being excluded from eating the burger. This
was repeatedly brought to the fore in the question and answer session following the tasting with the
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audience attempting to force a vote on whether a journalist could also try the tasted (but not fully
consumed) burger. Here, the audience played a legitimising role as part of the apparatus and of the
results, through the invitation to witness the experiment and discuss the results and conclusion.
Audience participation in the eating would have threatened the performance of controlled condi-
tions and brought an unruly public into the frame. Through repeated requests to taste the burger,
the audience indicated that they were not completely enrolled in the structure of objectivity offered.
Social media
The Culturedbeef.net website came online in July 2013. The day of the launch saw a count down
on the Culturedbeef.net site and a build up of tweets, and references in the media, as people gath-
ered at the studios during the morning. Although in vitro meat featured as a theme in social media
before the launch,2 here we concentrate on only those discussions directly linked to the event and
initiated by authoritative figures of the broader in vitro meat network, as well as by lead actors in
the actual launch. Our account focuses on micro-blogging site Twitter and user-generated news
link website Reddit, on which votes promote stories to the front page working as a real-time trend-
making platform. In this way, we complement existing work from Laestadius (2015) and Laestadius
and Caldwell (2015) on reader comments on online news reporting about the cultured burger.
Media coverage (especially the Twitter feed) was playful about the term cultured beef through,
for example, jokes about cows that listen to Opera. It featured reflection on the form of the launch
event. For example, Richard Gray (2013) – science correspondent from The Telegraph – noted that
the studio event was ‘quite extraordinary’ and ‘very peculiar’, not because of the burger but because
of the elaborate production values of the event itself. He stressed the word ‘real’, but again not
about the meat, when noting that the event was in a proper TV studio, set up like a cookery show
and hosted by a real TV anchor. His comments highlight the genre blend, especially the entry of a
news anchor and transformation of press release into a reality genre, and thus also as experiment.
Mark Post engaged in multiple interviews that day; with the Financial Times Science Editor, Clive
Cookson (2013), he asserted clearly as his closing comment: ‘the public understand that there are
issues with meat production and this is a serious solution’.
The Twitter hashtag (#) cultured beef was used to distribute news from the live event. This
hashtag saw 91 uses from January until 3 August. On 4 August (the day before), there were 100
tweets using #culturedbeef. On the day, there were 3000, falling to 560 the day after and continuing
to decrease over the next few days. Of the 3000 tweets on the day, the majority were generated by
Cultured Beef, the studio audience and allies of the venture, and these promoted the event. There
were also critical and resistant comments on Twitter and Reddit with irony and anarchic humour
featuring as key strategies. Sites further away from the directed forums of Cultured Beef and New
Harvest, such as comments attached to online articles, were more unruly.3 Challenge, contestation
and indifference became more in evidence with greater distance from authorised sources.
Twitter and Reddit enabled interchange between actors in the in vitro meat network who were
excluded from the launch. New Harvest framed the Reddit commentary and appeared in this forum
as the authoritative actor in the network; references to Brin or Post attracted much less attention.
New Harvest, PeTA, bioethicist Peter Singer and scientist Richard Dawkins all weighed in with
supportive Tweets and links about in vitro meat and offered new points of engagement. Although
vegetarians were not invited as publics of the burger, many Tweets and Reddit posts reintroduced
the association, and comments from animal rights advocates echoed approval.
Isha Datar, from New Harvest, led the most populated Reddit thread with 1184 posts (Reddit
Archive, 2013; Figure 2). It primarily consisted of questions and comments about Cultured Beef
and responses by Datar. This thread was started immediately after the London launch event and
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10 Public Understanding of Science
registered nearly 2000 relevance votes on Reddit, reflecting the interest of the reading audience. As
is the case with other online discussions about in vitro meat, the thread turned to the plausibility of
developing human meat. The discussion was light and ironic; however, Datar resisted this associa-
tion and returned the conversation to themes that she could engage, for instance, discussions about
improving the scientific credentials of the launch. Suggestions included a comparison taste test
with a McDonald’s burger and the use of seasoning in the launch burger. The discussion diverged
from the main framing with three other themes: the uncanny, with comments such as ‘I’d pay good
money to eat myself’; the villain investor: ‘He’s trying to find an alternative to feeding Google the
humans it requires to function, before people start noticing their missing relatives’; and finally, the
theme of scientific inquiry as an expansion of existing morals with comments such as ‘Tumour
burger? Even people who eat Happy Meals might baulk at that’.
The Reddit discussion provides further negotiation as to what the burger is and who its publics
are. Unlike the time-based discussion of the live event, the Reddit threads open up into cascading
discussions, instigated by Datar, but expanding in multiple directions that go beyond the control of
the New Harvest frame. Datar does not get drawn into discussions that stray from New Harvest’s
promotion of the burger. The comment
Why would you want to avoid using cancer cells? It seems like a natural answer to cell immortality.
Figure 2. Screenshot showing extract from Isha Datar’s thread on Reddit.
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O’Riordan et al. 11
can be understood as part of an engaged discussion rather than resistance; however, it received only
one response by Datar: ‘Saleability … (prob not a word but you get it)’, placing an emphasis on
legitimacy and commercial viability. At the same time, Datar’s response defines in vitro meat as
non-human and non-cancerous and invites publics to work with this definition. Datar’s response
can be seen as an attempt to stabilise the framing offered by the launch and also highlights the
limits of a promotional public. Where ‘saleability’ becomes explicitly visible, the discourses of the
market and those of scientific reason become entangled, and the scientific provenance of the burger
as a world-saving transformative technology potentially weakens.
In her response to questions about why the tasting was limited to Rutzler and Schonwald, Datar
commented,
Unfortunately I didn’t get a taste! Which is too bad cause I’m asked that question all the time. They wanted
to keep the tasters unbiased, which is good scientific practice ;). (Isha Datar’s post in her Cultured beef
AMA thread Reddit, August 2013)
Datar’s comment underscores the control over who got to taste the burger. The exchange fur-
ther highlights the framing of the event as public experiment, with Rutzler and Schonwald as
‘unbiased’ tasters.
7. Public experiments, control and unruly audiences
There are tensions between the different elements layered in this event. One tension is between the
‘wow’ factor of the spectacle of a world’s first and the mundane, every day of cooking and eating. A
further tension is in the stabilisation of the object as meat that can be tasted at the launch, and as merely
proof of concept, a promise of a commercial product to be materialised in the future. The bite and eat-
ing are at the centre of managing these. Legitimacy and success are secured through imagery, tasting
and public experiment. However, rather a lot of the burger was not eaten and very few participants ate
it. There had also already been a burger cooked the day before and used for publicity images, not fea-
tured in the public aspect of the ‘first burger’ event as it unrolled. This uneaten burger became an
exhibit in the Boerhaave Museum (Dutch Museum for the History of Science and Medicine), empha-
sising its public status as proof of concept and summoning a different kind of public, one that relates
to education and national heritage. Thus, important aspects of this event are what was not eaten, who
did not eat and the way the live eating was staged in a carefully controlled manner.
Resistant, sceptical and ironic commentary that circulated in social media around the burger
also indicates the extent of possible counter witnessing (Reno, 2011: 847) and capacity for this
kind of experiment to exceed the apparatus through which it was produced. However, there is little
evidence of a counter-public around the burger. Resistance and irony can also be seen as part of a
discourse of testing out the object. These are strategies used to indicate that commentators are in
the know about a technology, rather than necessarily effecting to undermine it. Although scepti-
cism and contestation were more visible in social media than other forms making up this event,
much of this remained supportive and engaged.
Public experiments in science have paradoxical elements. Collins (1988) points to the paradox
of drawing on publics in order to introduce the certainty of experience into matters of uncertainty.
The social dilemma of such experiments is that they also involve publics in the risks of experimen-
tation (Krohn and Weyer, 1994). They introduce the challenge of managing the evidence of experi-
ence (Reno, 2011) and its unpredictability and instability. In this context, the embodied experience
can be linked to clinical trials where ingestion, and recording results, provides proof of concept for
new drugs. It can also be linked to Latour’s suggestion that hybrid forums of science invoke new
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12 Public Understanding of Science
forms of scientific citizenry where people are engaged in collaborative experiments as co-research-
ers of science and society (Latour, 2004). The launch faces, with equal measure, the mode of evi-
dence making in cookery television and food critique, where the eating of food by specialist or
contestant offers proof of taste, texture or nutritional value. Ingesting proves the burger is edible,
and the witness connects the act to those who see it.
The emphasis on mouth feel, texture and bite invokes a fleshy feel to meat eating that connects
it to other bodies, extending the intercorporeal encounter not just to other humans but also to other
fleshy bodies, including the edible bodies of the current meat industry, offering a tantalising inter-
corporeality with cows. However, cultured beef suggests that people should reject the encounter
with cows that current forms of consumption offer and engage with and normalise eating ‘meat just
not in a cow’. This tension was played out in the Reddit discussions when participants made sug-
gestions about eating human meat or growing cancer cells for consumption. These lines of discus-
sion were ignored or side-lined by the promotional actors (Post, New Harvest, etc.). The publics
invited to the table of the cultured beef are a preferred audience of meat-eating people who care
about their food, care about world problems and want to be part of transformative change, either as
innovators or as consumers. Vegetarians are led away from the table. The publics that take up the
preferred subject positions offered by the launch event could be thought of as promotional publics
because they are only affirmative and partial – made up of an incomplete patchwork of carefully
selected actors. They do not arise from an affected on-the-ground public, in the Deweyian sense of
an unsolicited public,4 except for the very interested actors promoting in vitro meat.
The Reddit discussions indicate how audiences negotiate the plausibility of in vitro meat as a
technology and exceed the synthesis of the launch event. They reflect the complexity of social
acceptance and resistance. They indicate the meaning making and interpretative practices of audi-
ences who saw the live event and interacted with a key industry actor, New Harvest. This discus-
sion gives a sense of uninvited public engagement (Wynne, 2007) and unruly publics (Felt and
Fochler, 2010) who work outside the preferred discursive frames of cultured beef. They reframe
their concerns in darker and uninvited ways. This, in turn, reconfigures elements of Dewey’s
exploratory action. For Dewey, the problems that political and scientific endeavour seek to address
are caused by situations recognised as misaligned with habitual ways of living. In our case, the
unruly and uninvited publics are invoked by a sense that the proposed solution – the cultured
burger – is itself the object of misalignment.
8. Conclusion
Yes, but this is it. It’s physically on the table so it is possible.
The event established a specific constellation of promise, publics and ontological status. Through
this, in vitro meat was transformed temporarily into a knowable meat product: a beef burger.
Production of the burger was storied as an epic quest with world transforming possibilities. The
launch brought the epic scale down to earth through the everyday practice of cooking and eating
and also staged the experimental question of whether this innovation could be ingested as meat.
The event oscillated between real and imaginary, actual and possible; part press release, part public
experiment and part reality television event. The event itself played out across multiple media
forms and spaces, invoking both broad and specific publics. It used the embodied evidence of eat-
ing to provide the proof of concept and an imagined point of identification for a world in which
normal people can still eat meat and be part of saving the world. In doing so, the event asserts a
particularly formed promotional public, a related promissory discourse and an articulation of onto-
logical clarity over the burger’s meatness.
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O’Riordan et al. 13
The cultured burger thickened meanings and produced a culturally more robust definition for
the technology as a knowable reality. As a result, the ontological ambiguity of in vitro meat takes
a different form to the pre-cultured burger period. Before the press conference, there was no cultur-
ally available definition with the resonance to persist and bring together shared meanings. After
2013, the cultured burger and the media event around it provide a foothold, a reference point for
future sense-making practices about what in vitro meat is. This does not mean the ontological
ambiguity has been resolved but that it is mediated by this shared juncture through which subse-
quent divergent accounts can be articulated. As the Reddit threads show, this cultured burger nar-
rative can be contested and played with, engendering ontological ambiguity in new ways.
This intertwining of media event, public experiment, embodied evidence and imaginary draws
publics into the making of in vitro meat. Publics are constructed and amplified through the technol-
ogy of the event, invoked through offered subject positions and the embodied identification with
eating. They are enacted through the studio audience, viewers of the launch material and media
representation and discussions. To be able to ingest a substance as food is a powerful confirmation
of both the results of the experiment and viability of the product as meat and renders in vitro meat
an acceptable consumable in embodied and imaginary ways. Thus, the construction of publics
throughout this event situates publics and imaginaries in the making of the meat. It aligns the ques-
tion of testing its real palatability with imaginaries of environmental causes in a layering of mean-
ings materialising in the event. This is exploratory action as PR.
The address does not invite many who might be directly affected by the social conditions of
meat production, either depicting them as ranchers and non-human animals or diffusing them to the
extent of all meat-eating humanity. It takes out some of the realities that meat makes, while mate-
rialising real meat. Thus, we suggest that the term ‘promotional public’ is useful in understanding
this synthesis of promotional arguments together with an affirmation of cultured beef’s reality.
Cultured beef is a communication technology that brings publics into communion around environ-
mental issues of food production, but it does not mobilise directly affected publics of these issues.
As a communication technology operating in a networked media culture, it opens up to other pub-
lics, and new moral worlds as Driessen and Korthals (2012) suggest, and offers hope of a critically
engaged response. It also draws an invited public to verify the making of cultured beef through an
event, framed through a moral imaginary of technology innovators, investors and meat eaters, who
desire better worlds through technology, as narrated from the first bite.
Funding
The research leading to this publication has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh
Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under grant agreement number 288971 (EPINET). Neil Stephens’
involvement has also received the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). His work
is part of the Research Programme of the ESRC Genomics Network at Cesagen (ESRC Centre for Economic
and Social Aspects of Genomics). Neil Stephens’ work was also supported by the Wellcome Trust
(WT096541MA) and a visiting scholarship to CGS Centre for Society and Genomics in The Netherlands,
May to July 2011. This support is gratefully acknowledged.
Notes
1. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr worked under the name of Tissue Culture and Art Project from 1996 and
founded SymbioticA in 2000. Although exhibited in 2003, ‘Disembodied Cuisine’ was still presented as
a Tissue Culture and Art Project. See the SymbioticA history page at the University of Western Australia
(http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/home/history).
2. Active discussions expressed a multiplicity of voices, such as animal rights and civil society actors,
groups that promote scientific literacy and futurists.
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14 Public Understanding of Science
3. For example, Singer’s article ‘The world’s first cruelty-free hamburger’ in the The Guardian generated
355 comments (as well as 415 Tweets and 4000 Facebook shares). Many of these were ironic and scepti-
cal, with comments such as the following: managing population levels is a more central problem; more
processed food is a bad idea; this is a technological fix.
4. For further discussion of Dewey (1927) and publics, see the Introduction to this Special Issue.
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Author biographies
Kate O’Riordan is Reader in Digital Media in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of
Sussex. Her work is a critical media analysis of emerging science and technologies with a focus on knowledge
production, meaning making and public engagement. Books include Human Cloning and the Media (2004)
and The Genome Incorporated (2010).
Aristea Fotopoulou is interested in critical aspects of digital culture, emerging technologies and social change.
She lectures in media studies and innovation at the University of Brighton.
Neil Stephens is based at the Centre for Biomedicine and Society (CBAS) at Brunel University London where
he is currently conducting an ethnography about the development of robotic surgical tools. His work focuses
on biomedical innovation including biobanking and stem cell science.
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A 2020 report published by the think tank RethinkX predicts the “second domestication of plants and animals, the disruption of the cow, and the collapse of industrial livestock farming” by 2035. Although typical of promissory discourses about the future of food, the report gives unusual emphasis to the gains of efficiency and near limitless growth that will come by eradicating confined livestock and aquaculture operations and replacing them with protein engineered at a molecular level and fermented in bioreactors. While there are many reasons to disrupt industrialized livestock production, lack of efficiency is not one of them. This article examines to what extent this so-called second domestication departs from the radical transformations of animal biologies and living conditions to which it responds. Drawing on canonical texts in agrarian political economy, it parses animal bio-industrialization into sets of practices that accelerate productivity, standardize animal life and infrastructures, and reduce risk to maximize efficiency. It shows these practices at work through recent ethnographic accounts of salmon aquaculture and pork production to illustrate how efforts to override temporalities and contain species in unfamiliar habitats, in the name of efficiency, may be the source of vulnerability in such production systems rather than their strength.
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How do we engage with food through memory and imagination? This expansive volume spans time and space to illustrate how, through food, people have engaged with the past, the future, and their alternative presents. Beth M. Forrest and Greg de St. Maurice have brought together first-class contributions, from both established and up-and-coming scholars, to consider how imagination and memory intertwine and sometimes diverge. Chapters draw on cases around the world–including Iran, Italy, Japan, Kenya, and the US–and include topics such as national identity, food insecurity, and the phenomenon of knowledge. Contributions represent a range of disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. This volume is a veritable feast for the contemporary food studies scholar.
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Simple Summary The idea of cultured meat is to grow meat from animal cells with tissue engineering techniques. Cultured meat is an idea under investigation that will not be ready for the market for several years. It is also still open what it could or should be like. We argue that this openness offers the opportunity to explore different directions in which this idea could be developed. Feelings, critical thinking and the imagination all have important roles to play in this exploration. Abstract The development of cultured meat has gained urgency through the increasing problems associated with meat, but what it might become is still open in many respects. In existing debates, two main moral profiles can be distinguished. Vegetarians and vegans who embrace cultured meat emphasize how it could contribute to the diminishment of animal suffering and exploitation, while in a more mainstream profile cultured meat helps to keep meat eating sustainable and affordable. In this paper we argue that these profiles do not exhaust the options and that (gut) feelings as well as imagination are needed to explore possible future options. On the basis of workshops, we present a third moral profile, “the pig in the backyard”. Here cultured meat is imagined as an element of a hybrid community of humans and animals that would allow for both the consumption of animal protein and meaningful relations with domestic (farm) animals. Experience in the workshops and elsewhere also illustrates that thinking about cultured meat inspires new thoughts on “normal” meat. In short, the idea of cultured meat opens up new search space in various ways. We suggest that ethics can take an active part in these searches, by fostering a process that integrates (gut) feelings, imagination and rational thought and that expands the range of our moral identities.
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This chapter presents case studies of the incorrect use of scientific terminology found in curatorial statements and other bioart-related writings, which often confound developments in tissue engineering with molecular biology and other genetic-based subfields of the life sciences. It argues that careless use of scientific language only furthers the public misunderstandings of science, and all too often plays right into the rhetoric promoted by the biotech industries and other funding beneficiaries, which have lots to gain by equating the field of biology with the (sub-)field of genetics. The chapter cites the “ethical, cultural, and political importance of experiential engagement with life manipulation as it can be an effective methodology to confront the complexities and contest dominant ideologies regarding the life sciences.”
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While in vitro animal meat (IVM) is not yet commercially available, the public has already begun to form opinions of IVM as a result of news stories and events drawing attention to its development. As such, we can discern public perceptions of the ethics of IVM before its commercial release. This affords advocates of environmentally sustainable, healthy, and just diets with a unique opportunity to reflect on the social desirability of the development of IVM. This work draws upon an analysis of ethical perceptions of IVM in 814 US news blog comments related to the August 2013 tasting of the world’s first IVM hamburger. Specifically, I address three primary questions: (1) How does the public perceive the ethics of IVM development? (2) How acceptable is IVM to the public relative to alternative approaches to reducing animal meat consumption? and (3) What should all of this mean for the ongoing development and promotion of IVM? Ultimately, it is argued that there is a strong need for facilitation of public dialogue around IVM, as well as further research comparing the acceptability of IVM to other alternatives.
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In this essay, I document shifts in the political mediascape of the United States during the past fifteen years, focusing on the rise of partisan television networks and radio shows of the Left and the Right and the rise of alternative media and social networking that provided a wide diversity of opinion and critique of the dominant political and corporate order. I argue that this shift in the US mediascape helped elect Barack Obama, which in turn intensified contestation for and against Obama and the Democrats within contemporary US politics. I then indicate how Barack Obama used the media and media spectacle to successfully win the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections. I conclude with a discussion of how new and alternative media can help to promote genuine democratic debate and help disseminate the full range of information and ideas necessary to have a robustly democratic social order.