- Website: http://cargocollective.com/pigeonandtonic
- Next Nature Researcher
On June 10, the digital currency Bitcoin lost 30% of its value in a few hours, dropping from US $28.92 to $20.01 per coin. Bitcoins are a largely untraceable form of money, relying on a peer-to-peer system for legitimacy, instead of a central authority like a government or Second Life’s Linden Labs. Gawker recently brought Bitcoins to mainstream attention in a report on Silk Road, a website where aspiring drug users can use the anonymous currency to purchase home delivery of any psychoactive from LSD to cocaine.
The Bitcoin Black Friday was the result of certain events that real life markets have learned to control for – a bank rush, where Bitcoin owners exchanged their Bits back to bucks en masse, and a market that stayed open despite rapid inflation over the last few weeks. Millions of dollars in Bitcoin investments were lost in the resulting crash. This fast-moving bear market goes to show that online events increasingly mimic ‘real’ events, and that the investors in digital markets could stand to crack open their history books. Virtual economies work the same as actual ones, although all money, by definition, is already virtual.
In 2009, undergraduates at the University of Cambridge worked with scientists and artists to engineer E. coli into E. chromi, a new type of bacteria that secretes a range of colorful pigments. The genetic ‘BioBricks’ responsible for color can be combined with other custom DNA sequences to achieve various useful effects. For instance, E. chromi could color feces blue in the presence of an intestinal disease, or turn red in response to arsenic in groundwater.
In future scenarios, the altered bacteria give rise to a new profession of chromonauts who search the earth for new organic pigments. The Orange Liberation Front, an imaginary Dutch terrorist organization, might even demand an end to patents on orange-generating genes. The above video, which won the Bio:Fiction prize for documentaries, is a fun look into some plausible (and less so) applications for a new piece of biotech. The technology used for E. chromi bacteria may open new areas for information decoration on a living canvas. Maybe transgenic humans will someday flush blue when they’re feeling down, or cover up an actual yellow belly when they’re being cowardly. I feel less enthusiastic, however, about rainbow-hued poop that marks every stomach bug.
The Center for PostNatural History doesn’t house the dinosaurs or dioramas of your run-of-the-mill natural history museum. Instead, it’s the first museum dedicated exclusively to the study and preservation of ‘postnatural’ life: genetically modified organisms, lab animals, and cloned livestock. While the CPNH has been organizing traveling exhibits since 2008, its permanent exhibition space is due to open in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2011. While there have been several art shows centered on bioart and transgenic life, the Center may be the most science-minded endeavor to tackle the fuzzy boundaries between nature and culture.
At the 2011 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, a photograph of a flesh-and-blood woman advertises a RealDoll, the life-sized sex mannequin made for people with a fetish for the uncanny valley. This image is a strange mix of the next natural phenomena ‘people becoming products’ and ‘products becoming people.’ The woman in the advertisement has been photoshopped to perfection, valuable and desirable precisely because she is a product. The doll, in contrast, is valuable and desirable because she is a person, or at least a convincing simulacrum of one. Is the doll meant be like the woman, or is the woman meant to be like the doll? There’s certainly a metaphor being boomeranged here, but I’m stumped as to which direction it’s flying. Peculiar image of the week.
Image via 88 Miles West.
While hiking in Trinidad, artist Nina Katchadourian was struck by the similarity of bird calls to car alarms. One inspires us to poetry, the other makes us groan and pull the pillow over our ears at night, but they’re both forms of auditory pollution.
Back in New York, Katchadourian fitted a ‘flock’ of three cars with recorded bird calls to mimic to the six-tone siren that echoes constantly through the city. Far from sounding like a bucolic forest, a ‘natural’ car alarm is just as rattling and irritating as the real thing. Not only is real nature not green, it’s downright annoying.
Lady Gaga is famous for fashion that exaggerates or obscures her body, but a few months ago, she made a foray into ‘actual’ body-modification. Gaga appeared on Jay Leno’s talk show wearing two pairs of pyramidal prosthetics on her face, along with cartoon-villain horns on her shoulders. Some sources speculate they were surgical implants, but it’s doubtful that Gaga would risk permanent scars on that million-dollar face; more likely the effect was the work of a clever makeup artist.
Body-mod enthusiasts like the artist Orlan or the Mexican ‘Vampire Woman’ Maria Cristerna may be practicing a form of beauty, but their beauty is predicated on shock. They are in opposition to the standard view of what is acceptable and attractive. In contrast, Gaga’s posthuman prosthetics may have more in common with the French hyperbodies in Erwin Olaf’s Le Dernier Cri.
Has this tree gone Pac-Man on the power lines? In truth, the slice through the side of the tree is the work of ‘utility pruning.’ Topiary was once determined on entirely aesthetic lines, be it geometric shapes in formal gardens or more whimsical forms of animals or people. Now, the inadvertent topiaries of electricity are a common sight: the oak split down the middle, the pine with its top lopped off, the elm with an entire side of branches shaved away. It represents a curious compromise. Rather than being cut down, the tree is permitted to coexist with the utility cables. Along with insects, lightning strikes, and wind, power lines are now an important factor in how the landscape grows.
Image via The Small Wave 2
In March, Mazda recalled 65,000 cars, not because of any structural faults in the vehicle, but because the engineers had inadvertently created the perfect habitat for a tiny spider. The yellow sac spider, capable of inflicting a painful bite, was inexorably drawn to build webs in the car’s evaporative canister vent line. The spider’s nest could restrict the line, raising pressure in the fuel tank and eventually leading to a crack. It may be that the species is attracted to the smell of hydrogen oxide in gasoline, or it could just be that the little arachnids think Americans need to do a better job of carpooling.
Arthropods have a distinguished history of gumming up our most precise pieces of technology. The first computer bug was a brown moth that got stuck in Harvard’s Relay Calculator in 1947. I remember battling the ants that took up residence in my laptop in the Philippines, and a quick Google search shows that computer-nerd ants are a common complaint. Technology may be designed for humans, but it’s used by the entire ecosystem.
Remember the gold farmers in China who put in eye-straining hours to earn virtual money in World of Warcraft? Gold farming has now made the leap to the country’s corrupt penal system. Along with back-breaking physical labor and manufacturing work in Chinese labour camps, some prisoners are forced to play massively multiplayer online games to accrue in-game credits. Inmates work in 12 hour shifts, and are beaten or tortured if they fall behind their quotas for the day. The virtual ‘gold’ is sold to players around the world eager to move ahead in the game. After games became jobs, it was inevitable that games would also become punishment.
Recent flooding along the Mississippi River has broken records first set 70 years ago. As always, it’s hard to attribute local weather to global patterns, but the heavier rainfall in the region is consistent with scientists’ predictions for global warming. While climate change may already be wiping out whole island nations in the South Pacific, it’s also indirectly responsible for a strange type of manmade atoll: the negative island. To greater or lesser success, some forward-thinking homeowners have constructed DIY levees to protect their houses from the overflowing Mississippi.
These tiny pieces of dry land are actually lower than the surrounding waters, going against the natural topographical order of higher-is-drier. Such single-serving levees can be seen as a sign of human hubris, the consequence of modernism’s belief that natural systems can be made rational, predictable, and safe. From another perspective, the anti-islands can be seen as a temporary river archipelago, an emerging next natural phenomenon. It’s a strange subversion of the modus operandi of suburban life: Don’t forget to stock the backyard feeder for the migrating fish, and remember to invite the neighborhood kids over for a stroll in the below-ground walking pool.
Images via Popsci.
The appliance company Bosch claims that its new technology keeps food so fresh that meat from the Ice Age (and presumably the Cretaceous as well) can be stored without incident for millennia. From a next nature perspective, we’re less interested in refrigerator advertisements than where we can find a freshly cloned deinonychus ’wing.’ If we doused it in enough spicy barbeque sauce, it might even taste like chicken. Peculiar image of the week.
And now for the sixth and final principle: Humane technology improves the human condition and helps people realize the dreams they have of themselves.
No matter what your government might be telling you, we probably don’t need better defense technology. Instead of killer robots and city-leveling bombs, we need tech that adds to the very best in ourselves- our health, our minds and our dreams for the future. Naturalist E.O Wilson’s notion of biophilia should not be limited just to humans. Technology should love life as much as we do.
Humane technology, as a concept, can be tricky to pin down. What is humane in one circumstance is irritating or destructive in another. A cell phone may be more humane than a landline, permitting the talker to wander around, free to conduct business or call home from the far side of the globe. But cell phones may be inhumane for precisely this reason. A Blackberry or iPhone can seem less like an indispensable fifth limb than a second mouth that just won’t shut up. A technology can never defined as entirely humane or entirely inhumane. There is no end point that makes a certain device ‘humane.’ We may not know it by how it looks, but we will know it by how it feels.
Principle number five: Humane technology doesn’t outsource people, but instead empowers them.
How healthy or humane is it to have an escalator to the gym? Humane technology should not aim to replace the human mind and body. Rather, it should be used as a tool to augment existing capabilities. The Cheetah Flex-Foot, a prosthetic foot and lower leg, integrates with a user’s existing knee and upper leg to enable comfortable walking and running. Users are at least as fast as those with flesh-and-blood feet, and may even be faster thanks to the mechanical efficiencies of springy metal. The initial design was closely modeled on the human foot, but evolved into a sleeker blade-like shape that’s more cheetah than person. The Flex-Foot is therefore not an exact replacement for the human form, but a way to radically re-imagine it.
Principle number four: Humane technology should resonate with the human senses, rather than numbing them.
If you’re an office worker or a video game fanatic, you may spend most of your waking hours staring at a screen, and not tasting, touching, or smelling much of anything. How much more engaging would the constructed environment be if we had squishy computers or scented information? This is the basis of information decoration, which attempts to expand the digital interface beyond the flat screen of a computer or cell phone.
Humane technology recognizes that humans are sensory organisms, made to live in a rich three-dimensional environment. Neurologists have counted between 9 and 20 difference human senses. It’s time we engage more than just the ones required to operate a computer. That blaring 7 AM alarm may be the norm, but it feels better to be awoken by the gradual glow of a sunrise-style lamp or pillow.
The third principle of humane technology: It should take human values as a cornerstone of its development.
Technology doesn’t have to be expensive or electronic to be humane. Think of it as the Occam’s Razor of humane technology. The simpler the solution, the better the outcome. For instance, the Hippo Water Roller makes it significantly easier for poor, rural communities to haul water from a lake or river back to their homes. Rolling water, rather than carrying it, reduces stress on the body and frees up time for other tasks. Taking human values into consideration for technology goes beyond basic humanitarian aims. The development of humane tech should consider the fact that any new device will be nested within a rich network of social actors. Designers needs to keep an eye on the societal and environmental ramifications of novel technologies and act accordingly.
See also the LifeStraw, Adaptive Eyewear and the dubiously world-changing One Laptop Per Child. These might not be the most Next Nature-esque technologies we’re featured here, but they’re certainly worth a ponder.
Our second principle: Humane technology revives human intuitions, in particular those we might have forgotten about.
‘Conventional’ technology aims to overcome our hominid instincts, bodies, and physiological process, but humane tech augments them. Humane tech might help us to recall intuitions such as food-gathering, social bonding, even natural movement. For instance, air-conditioning uses huge amounts of energy to cool a room, but fans, clever ventilation and our sweat glands may keep us just as comfortable.
Our feet are useful products of millions of years of evolution, but we deaden them in thick-soled shoes. Recent research indicates that barefoot runners have a softer, smoother gait than those who run shod, and may suffer fewer injuries. New shoe designs recognize that ‘barefoot is best,’ while trying to protect the foot from more recent human inventions: broken glass and slippery floors. Humane technology will help to return us to a more natural, physically attuned way of living. According to Marshall McLuhan, it’s back to the tribe for us.
All too often, technology frustrates us. It forces our behavior into constrained pathways. Even more insidious, technology can knock us out of alignment with our values, goals or health. While conventional tech creates new problems even as it solves old ones, ‘humane technology’ has the opposite effect. It is a partner, not a passive tool. It works with our bodies and instincts, not against them. This post is the first in a series that attempts to make a field guide or mini-manifesto for humane technology. To kick it off, here’s the first principle of the six: Humane technology should feel natural, rather than estranging.
Medicine can be hard to swallow, and vaccine needles makes even the bravest patients squirm. Is there a friendlier way to what’s good for us? Humane technology recognizes that humans are not one-size-fits-all. What works like a charm for you might feel like a curse to me. Humane technology should strive to replicate the walking leaf: so well adapted to the local conditions that you might not even notice, or mind, that it’s there. Just don’t be surprised if your doctor prescribes medical-grade sushi made from GM fish, or uses a painless needle based on a mosquito’s proboscis. The technology behind our advances might be mind-boggling, but the results should feel as natural as our own skin.
Designer Revital Cohen imagines a future where life-support machines are replaced with life-support animals. In this scenario, a transgenic lamb is allowed to frolic in the fields by day. By night, the lamb is hooked up to a renal patient to filter his blood. The artist presents a mutually beneficial relationship: the human lives as a parasite, and the lamb lives to be a medical device, not Easter dinner. While it’s an alien vision, it may be more humane than killing animals, engineered or not, for their spare parts. Read more »