Artist Willis Elkins “rescues” plastic detritus from the sea. His most recent venture, the Jamaica Bay Pen Project, retrieves sun-baked, useless pens from the shores of New York’s Jamaica Bay and reinvigorates them with fresh ink cartridges. Once consigned to the sea, Elkins gives these pens a second chance at a useful life. This project joins the New York City Lighter Log, Elkins’ previous effort to catalogue and preserve the various species of plastic lighters found on the city’s shores.
Elkins’ project is a reversal of our standard disregard for plastic junk. Instead of seeing it as disposable, the artist treats each object as a unique specimen worthy of preservation. According to Elkins, “[land]scapes that were once virgin territories of human exploration: staggering mountains, vast oceans, even the depths of space are now all being rediscovered and examined not for containing profound examples of what is natural, but what is not.” From landfill mines to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world is now overflowing with unnatural resources ready to be exploited.
Recipes from a post-fish world? Our peculiar image of the week was created by Nathalie Faber & Matthijs Immink.
While the Pacific garbage patch is often characterized as a dense, Texas-sized island of plastic, in reality it’s an area of 2,736 square km scattered with tiny, floating bits of plastic. Popular conception holds that the worst effect of this junk is that it strangles animals, or accumulates in their stomachs, leading to slow, painful deaths either way.
In reality, it’s much harder to suss out plastic’s impact on oceanic organisms. Fish and birds do eat plastic, and in large quantities. Bottle shards and cigarette lighters were found in the bellies of dead albatross chicks. However, it may be that for most animals, nurdles more or less harmlessly pass through their digestive systems. Scientists just don’t know. On the flip side of the plastic coin are ocean-faring creatures that are clearly thriving thanks to this novel material.
Peak oil, the point when petroleum extraction is at its maximum, may have already occurred sometime in the last few years. Not only affecting whether we drive a Humvee or not, engineer Debbia Chachra reminds us that peak oil also means peak plastic.
Not limited to water bottles and cheap toys, plastic is vital to medicine, industry, agriculture, and transportation. From the soles of your shoes to the carpeting in your house, it’s harder to find an object that doesn’t incorporate petrochemicals than one that does. “Plastic,” Chachra writes, “is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible.”
Plastic’s durability means that it winds up everywhere, welcome or not: In the bellies of albatross, in giant trash vortexes in the pacific, on beaches and in our blood. Although certain microbes may eventually evolve to eat plastic, the truth is that most of our plastic waste is going to stick around for thousands of years.
This resistance to degradation, Chachra argues, is a hidden asset. Millions of tons of petroplastic are buried in landfills, waiting for the day when the cost of excavating them becomes less than the cost of squeezing the last drops oil from the ground. Although we may develop workable alternatives, petroplastic’s killer combo of persistence, moldability, and sterilizability will make it valuable for centuries to come.
Chachra envisions a future where “cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene.”
Via Warren Ellis.
The uncanny valley, a phrase coined by Japanese robotic researcher Masahiro Mori nearly three decades ago, describes the uncanny feeling that occurs when people look at representations designed to be as human-like as possible – whether computer animations or androids – but somehow fall short. It turns out monkeys have that too.
In an attempt to answer deeper questions about the evolutionary basis of communication, Princeton University researchers have found that macaque monkeys also fall into the uncanny valley, exhibiting this reaction when looking at computer-generated images of monkeys that are close but less than perfect representations.
In this essay, anti-civilization, anarchist philosopher John Zerzan critiques the concept of ‘next nature.’ He argues that rather than freeing us, our self-domestication through technology has created a disconnected, depressed and over-medicated population. Phenomena from global warming to workplace shootings are all symptoms of global human “progress” gone totally awry. If we abandon ‘technology’ in favor of ‘tools’, what are the next steps for humanity?
Next Nature “refers to the nature produced by humans and their technology.” The prevailing attitude of Next Nature is “techno-optimism.”
What is the nature of this “nature” and what are the grounds for the optimism?
I’ll start by citing some recent technological phenomena and what they seem to indicate about the nature and direction of our technoculture. We’re already increasingly inhabitants of a technosphere, so let’s look at some of its actual offerings.
A virtual French-kissing machine was unveiled in 2011. The Japanese device somehow connects tongues via a plastic apparatus. There is also a type of vest with sensors that transmits virtual “hugs.” From the Senseg Corporation in Finland comes “E-Sense” technology, which replicates the feeling of texture. Simulating touch itself! Are we not losing our grounding as physical beings as these developments advance?
In some nursing homes now, the elderly are bathed in coffin-shaped washing machines. No human touch required. And as to the mourning process, it is now argued that online grieving is a better mode. Less intrusive, no need to be physically present for the bereaved! There is an iPhone application now available called the “baby cry app.” For those who wire their baby’s room to be alerted when she stirs, this invention tells parents what the baby’s cry means: hungry, wet, etc. (there are five choices). Just think, after about two million years of human parenting, at last we have a machine to tell us why our child is crying. Isn’t this all rather horrific?
Plastic is a part of the earth’s ecosystem, but it’s a part that no one wants. At Harvard, scientists are looking to replace single-use plastic bottles, plates, and cups with packaging that not only biodegrades, but tastes great. These so-called Wikicells are made up of liquid or solid food contained within an organic membrane that’s held together by electrostatic forces – the same forces that cause cling wrap to cling. In the wonderful world of Wikicells, the wrap around a cut of in-vitro beef could contain the sauce, or an ice cream cone could be made from actual cream. If the scientists get it right, we may soon have an edible way to stop using plastic bags and bottles that take 500 to 1,000 years to degrade.
Photo via The Way We See the World.
Protei is a sailing robot that’s designed to clean up oil spills without human assistance. After sailing upwind, the bot drifts downwind, zigg-zagging across the surface to absorb oil in its long, tail-like boom. Since Protei is self-righting, it will be able to operate even under hurricane conditions, keeping human crews out of danger from both high winds and toxic chemicals. The robots can be operated by remote control, or can be programmed to work together as an autonomous swarm.
Though it’s currently only a prototype, the eco-friendly, open-source Protei may some day radically change how we clean up the ocean. Though it was originally designed to sop up future Deepwater Horizons, modified Protei could possibly be used to gather plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
More photos after the jump.
Clothing giant H&M no longer uses real humans in its online catalog. The company has admitted that it pastes real models’ heads on computer-generated bodies. At least there’s a “racially diverse” example thrown in with the caucasian cyborgs. CGI humanity: For when even Photoshop can’t invent a perfect body.
Thanks to Stefan. Story and image via Jezebel.