Rachel Armstrong: Beyond Sustainability #STU01

This presentation was given on monday, 14th of November 2011, 8 pm GMT, by Rachel Armstrong, @livingarchitect, architectural designer
Senior TED Fellow, Co-Director AVATAR, University of Greenwich.

Links to further reading below.


Rachel Armstrong, @livingarchitect



Thank you for inviting me to give this twitter ‘lecture a series of 25 x 140 character statements that aim to provoke discussion – We’re go!
1. Cities are evolved – not made.
This discussion is a brilliant idea. Congrats to STU, and good afternoon from California… @SvTwuni #STU01
2. Sustainability is not enough to drive positive human development. It has become a set of truisms about the present.
3. We must do more than nurture the status quo and embrace the inevitable change incumbent for our unstable earth.
@AlgaeNow Awesome – you guys embody the ‘new’ approach to design and engineering – thrilled you can join us! #STU01
4. The city is a moving target. This proves an insurmountable issue for industrial processes that make static objects.
From now @livingarchitect lecture-tweeting from @SvTwuni | The Swedish Twitter University with 25 tweets on: “Beyond Sustainability” #STU01
RT @algaenow: @SvTwuni Each city must take into account its natural environment within City planning. #STU01 <— Added hashtag :)
5. Industrial processes aren’t benign even using renewable energy. They channel earth’s resources one-way without returning useful material.
@SvTwuni indeed, projects like @ciclavia can help to raise public awareness and increase sustainable transportation usage. #STU01
@ozonist @algaenow Totally! But how can our current construction methods do this? Our world is imagined through machines?
6. ‘sustainability’ rewards ‘environmentally friendly’ industrial practices – a paradox. Less of more of the same isn’t a different approach
@AlgaeNow @ciclavia Do you have a link?? #STU01
What does Sustainability mean in the short term, “how can we move the public towards Sustainability in their own lives?” #STU01
@SvTwuni Aphorisms reflect suddenness in urban publics, a need to parse urban issues today and to ideate against static objects. #STU01
7. Biomimicry isn’t nature. It’s green lipstick on the industrial gorilla’s lips. It wants to be different to industrialization but it’s not
@AlgaeNow The word sustainability does not imply – going forwards – it aims to maintain the status quo … #STU01
@algaenow first we must define sustainability! #STU01
@SvTwuni True. The green chemistry agenda encompasses this. Many renewable alternatives are less than green #STU01
@jordangeiger Systems thinking systemic technologies systems design systems infrastructure & systems design! Objects are secondary phenomena
@svtwuni @AlgaeNow In the short term, sustainability needs to mean a net increase in primary productivity–globally. #STU01
RT @algaenow: @SvTwuni @CicLAvia http://t.co/kgn3o9eW also @tafarai who works with SNT and is on the Board of Directors at Ciclavia #STU01
@adamburk @algaenow Go ahead … define sustainability … or do you want to link to your definition of it ;)
8. Change is expensive. Most planning strategies are retrospective, not anticipatory. They respond to ongoing trends but do not drive them.
RT @algaenow: @SvTwuni agreed. Especially in regards to chemical solvents used in the Petroleum industry. #STU01
.@cerreyes @AlgaeNow Please use #STU01 for discussions.
@SvTwuni Systems and protocols too: digital, biological, legal and on, all bifurcating and attracting changes in our cities. #STU01
@AlgaeNow @SvTwuni @adamburk I also tend to divide my thinking based upon ‘short term’ and ‘long term’ sustainability… #STU01
9. Cities can’t be solved. They’re more than energy consumption – an entanglement of complex choices & systems. They demand our engagement.
@adamburk @svtwuni you are speaking in regards to supply/demand sustainability? We agree on this, especially pertaining to fuel… #STU01
@algaenow what are your definitions within those two frames (long and short-term)? #STU01
@SvTwuni We see ‘sustainability’ as an attitude. It’s going beyond thinking that “less is more”…but “less is enough” #STU01
@adamburk mostly I’m talking about fuel usage. How in the short term we need to begin to establish renewable infrastructure. #STU01
@algaenow @svtwuni I think 1st in terms of ecological sustainability as the planet is the primary context for all other activities. #STU01
@adamburk also, we are focused on providing the consumer with machines that make renewable fuel oil on-site (at their home)… #STU01
Check out a Live twitter dialogue between forward thinkers on issues of Sustainability. @AlgaeNow @SvTwuni @adamburk #STU01 #SNT
@adamburk @AlgaeNow It’s the WAY that we achieve positive human development that matters … we’re stuck in the fist of industrial practices
10. Einstein advised that we shouldn’t look to the systems that created the issue for the solution – but we’re doing this in sustainability.
11. How can we imagine what lies ‘beyond’ industrialization when we depend so heavily on gadgets and even consider ‘life’ as a machine?
@algaenow thanks for clarifying that.1 re: fuel usage. #STU01
@tiffanyshlain It is – and we’re running right out of that when it comes to acting DIFFERENTLY!! #STU01
showcase your sustainable project to thousands and win expert support, email jilly@holler.co.uk #stu01
RT @tafarai: Check out Live twitter dialogue between forward thinkers on issues of Sustainability. @AlgaeNow @SvTwuni @adamburk #STU01 #SNT
@algaenow localized fuel sources is key. Awesome work you are doing! #STU01
@adamburk agreed, Tim Bentley, our CTO emphasizes distributed (on site) production. Big Oil uses oil to get oil to the gas station. #STU01
@adamburk @algaenow Since the earth is a system – how will we know when changes in our practices are effective? Where do we start? #STU01
#STU01 protocol to wait for all 25 tweets? Hi RA @futuresedge
@SvTwuni Increasing technological efficiency but keeping consumption patterns drives us to Jevons Paradox http://t.co/mTgjGAaA #STU01
12. Life possesses unique properties such as flexibility, robustness, unpredictability & can deal with the unforeseen.
@svtwuni @algaenow I’ll point back to the definition of sustainability being a net increase in primary productivity globally. #STU01
@futuresedge Wade in here Jamie!! #STU01 We know you want to!!!
@dpr_barcelona Therefore technologicaly speciation is vital – we have an industrial monoculture right now! Tx for this term BTW!! #STU01
@svtwuni @adamburk @algaenow we could also point to net decreases in atmospheric CO2 on the coin side. #STU01
@adamburk @svtwuni I think I see what you mean. Can you define ‘primary productivity’ – do you mean net, as a whole? #STU01
@adamburk @algaenow Productivity of what? Of industrial processes? Of natural resources? Of people? They all have different modus operandii
13. Technology is the way that the mind becomes embodied in the process of problem solving. Thinking differently generates novel technology.
14. Can the technology of life be harnessed in cities & elsewhere to produce evolvable systems that deal with ongoing environmental changes?
15. Living Technologies behave like living things but aren’t alive. They offer different problem-solving approaches to industrial systems.
@algaenow @svtwuni I mean that there is more “green” mass grown that destroyed from algae to sequoias. #STU01
16. Morphological computing, smart chemistry & synthetic biology are living technologies that work differently to machines.
17. When solutions need to change with time this poses a key design challenge – how is it possible to design with emergence?
#STU01 re:1 cities and places coevolution between humanity and nature – mediated by technology – gaian view ?
@algaenow @svtwuni primary productivity is an ecological term. #STU01
18. Long-term solutions are needed to generate the necessary systems & infrastructure for change – fundamental shifts take time!
@adamburk @svtwuni @algaenow Can I pose an unpopular question – where’s reduced consumption in this picture? #STU01
#STU01 ‘sustainability’ concept – woefully underdeveloped in (developed) world – deep responsibility for future generations over greening
@algaenow @svtwuni E.g. net increase primary productivity=more tree growth than deforestation globally. #STU01
#STU01 http://t.co/DXnFQhIq a view: ‘Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.’
RT @jordangeiger: @adamburk @svtwuni @algaenow Can I pose an unpopular question – where’s reduced consumption in this picture? #STU01
@adamburk @algaenow It applies only to agriculture then? #STU01 @futuresedge
19. In order to design and build ‘the real future we need systems, strategies & teams of people to respond to constantly changing contexts.
@futuresedge #STU01 more Human Ecolocial than Gaia?
@jordangeiger @svtwuni @algaenow great ? good response by @theSOAPgroup @TEDxDirigo http://t.co/kzNCjTZf #STU01
RT @adamburk: @svtwuni @adamburk @algaenow we could also point to net decreases in atmospheric CO2 on the coin side. #STU01
@futuresedge Implies growth, expansion & change with time. Sustainability implies stasis like the coelacanth. Perfectly adapted! #STU01
@adamburk @svtwuni aha. Thanks for clarification. #STU01
@svtwuni @algaenow @futuresedge Not only agriculture if we are talking about living architecture! Also pertains algae, forests, etc. #STU01
RT @futuresedge: #STU01 ‘sustainability’ concept – woefully underdeveloped in (developed) world – deep responsibility for future generations over greening
RT @SvTwuni: Living Tech behave like living things but aren’t alive. Different problem-solving approaches to industrial systems #STU01
20. Biodiversity and other factors that constitute a mature urban ecology can’t be monetized using current economic & industrial frameworks.
#STU01 sustainability as term co-opted e.g as ‘greening’, as ‘SD’, as ‘making things less bad’ or as ‘technical responses’ to SEEP* problems
21. How do we create an economic system that justifies financial investments with returns >10 years away & where people/systems > products?
22. Real change is not easy. It requires commitment, practice & education but we need it urgently or we may soon face extinction scenarios.
RT @adamburk: @svtwuni @algaenow @futuresedge Not only agriculture if we are talking about living architecture! Also pertains algae, forests, etc. #STU01
@SvTwuni > Agree! We need evolving teams + systems rather than more eco friendly products #STU01
@Heiti_Ernits @futuresedge Interesting – who or what does sustainability apply to? #STU01
23. Open innovation, distributed manufacturing systems, crowd funding and open sourcing of ideas & inventions are possible change catalysts.
RT @SvTwuni: @futuresedge Implies growth, expansion & change with time. Sustainability implies stasis like the coelacanth. Perfectly adapted! #STU01
#STU01 sustainability – design and co-creation of flourising conditions for now & future generations – new ‘paradigm’ #futurity #futuregens
24. New solutions for our cities must engage and captivate the imagination of its residents that can act as sensors and effectors of change.
@svtwuni The economic system must account for its largest context–the ecosystem. Then accounting will be real, not fantasy. #STU01
#STU01 most ‘sustainability’ within current ‘cultures’ – ‘techno-market’ – and based in ‘engineering’ framing of ‘solvable problems’ – life?
Do no harm… We need a new Hippocratic Oath for daily action. RT @futuresedge: #STU01 sustainability as ter… (cont) http://t.co/zyynRyp7
@dpr_barcelona @SvTwuni can you give us some examples? I think of biotech as incorporating living systems to perform a work function.#STU01
RT @jordangeiger: Do no harm… We need a new Hippocratic Oath for daily action. RT @futuresedge: #STU01 sustainability as ter… (cont) http://t.co/zyynRyp7
RT @SvTwuni Open innovation,distributed manufacturing systems,crowdfunding+open source ideas-inventions as possible change catalysts #STU01
#STU01 6. ‘sustainability’ that is env-friendly likely not ‘sustainability’ or helping create a perma-culture; conditions for co-evolution
@jordangeiger @futuresedge It has become a set of truisms about the present & leaves us only to consolidate the status quo. #STU01
@jordangeiger @futuresedge we’re currently beyond “do no harm” being a viable option. We must regenerate. #STU01
RT @dpr_barcelona: RT @SvTwuni Open innovation,distributed manufacturing systems,crowdfunding+open source ideas-inventions as possible change catalysts #STU01
@futuresedge Ahhhhh – co-evolution – big up to Richard Lewontin :) #STU01
RT @adamburk: @svtwuni The economic system must account for its largest context–the ecosystem. Then accounting will be real, not fantasy. #STU01
#STU01 ‘sustainability’ implies ‘dynamic balance’ within ecology and context… not stasis nor equlibrium rather acuity, agility & alignment
@adamburk This is especially crucial concerning the C02 content in our atmosphere, put there by us. We must take it out again. #STU01
RT @futuresedge: #STU01 ‘sustainability’ implies ‘dynamic balance’ within ecology and context… not stasis nor equlibrium rather acuity, agility & alignment
Great thoughts coming out of >Twitter University! Check out #STU01
#STU01 maybe #generativeurbanism ? or #regenerativecities or #settlement – from SD to #sustainablesettlement #theHarrisonStudio
@adamburk @jordangeiger @futuresedge Totally! But regenerative solutions are > 3-5 years away! Economy needs to change!
@futuresedge I like dynamic balance … do you have a reference to that? #STU01
Time short today – heading back to the Lab. Excellent conversation #STU01 thanks to @livingarchitect for the invite. Well met all!
@AlgaeNow @livingarchitect Thanks so much for participating! You’re an awesome team :) #STU01
25. Our cities must be more than sustainable – they must be evolvable.
@SvTwuni > Regarding economics we must revist Gorgescu Roegen> “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” http://t.co/WDJp7JbY #STU01
@svtwuni @AlgaeNow @livingarchitect thx for the conversations. i look forward to more. #STU01
@AlgaeNow @dpr_barcelona Synthetic biology has a range of possibilities. Investment is needed to develop & broaden this palette #STU01
@AlgaeNow @dpr_barcelona Smart chemistries such as, protocells also artificial chemistries e.g. artificial photosynthesis and synbio #STU01
@adamburk @AlgaeNow @livingarchitect Tx! So much for your invaluable participation! #STU01
@dpr_barcelona Tx very much indeed for participating … #STU01
RT @SvTwuni: @adamburk @AlgaeNow @livingarchitect Tx! So much for your invaluable participation! #STU01
@SvTwuni @AlgaeNow @ULGlobalCities > Agree! Protocells are a great example! Synthetic biology, green chemistry as promising fields. #STU01
RT @SvTwuni: @dpr_barcelona Tx very much indeed for participating … #STU01
@LizLuo Tx!! I haven’t published a recipe yet but it’s an oil carrier with calcium salt ground into the body. Lots of diff approaches #STU01
@dpr_barcelona Oooh! Tx for this! I’d not come across it! #STU01
@LillyLyle Tx for checking in!! Hope you enjoyed the discussion! #STU01
#STU01 ‘dynamic balance’ – Fritjof Capra #ecoliteracy
How short can be an hour! | Thanks @SvTwuni + @livingarchitect + all participants for such mind challenging lecture-tweeting #STU01
Beyond Sustainability – a lecture in 25 tweets by @livingarchitect Dr Rachel Armstrong. Join the discussion now @SvTwuni #STU01
RT @SvTwuni: @LizLuo Tx!! I haven’t published a recipe yet but it’s an oil carrier with calcium salt ground into the body. Lots of diff approaches #STU01
RT @livingarchitect: Getting closer to opening of the Swedish Twitter University on the subject ‘beyond sustainability’ please join us in an hour @SvTwuni #STU01
#STU01 ta RA for the 25 provocations: cities – the people/practices/governance & meta-governance must be ‘sustainability-minded’
@ArupThoughts Really enjoyed the ‘twitter university’ talk … really awesome experts participated too! We’ll collate feedback from #STU01
.@ozonist tweeting again: Thanks to @livingarchitect and everyone engaging in the discussion. This was incredible! #STU01
Everything will be archived on the blog shortly. The discussion may continue there, at #STU01 – or anywhere! Tank you for tonight! <3
Sharing to #STU01 > Life and Complexity in Architecture From a Thermodynamic Analogy. Nikos A. Salingaros [1997] http://t.co/1agWRNUu
@ozonist Thanks for such great initiative! #STU01
#STU01 tx basic pattern language….Affordable, do-able, repairable, ‘knowable’ – Basis of the “wisdom society” over the ‘knowledge economy’

Further reading

BMW Change Accelerator Series [5 articles on architecture for the 21 century]

ICON Magazine, Venetian Binds –on a new kind of sustainable approach for Venice

CNN – Cities as sites of carbon capture

ISSP (Initiative for Science Society & Policy) – supporting the architecture of tomorrow

Letter to Arup

Plus Ultra Tech Series (1 to 4) on Architecture & Synthetic Biology

Protocell AD guest edited by Neil Spiller & Rachel Armstrong

World Changing by Alex Steffen

The City & The City by China Mieville

Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life by Graham Cairns Smith

Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Imagination by Neil Spiller

People/Organizations to follow


Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today (Architect – Liam Young)


BioFiction (Bioethicist – Markus Schmidt)


Earth 2.0


Clear Village (Entrepreneur – Thomas Ermacora)


World Changing


Further discussions

Guillermo Santamaria over at Plus Ultra Technologies/30 steps is writing a series of incredibly rich posts on Rachel’s 25 tweets (this will be updated as new posts come up):

10 responses to “Rachel Armstrong: Beyond Sustainability #STU01

  1. Pingback: #STU01 – Rachel Armstrong: “Beyond Sustainability” | Svenska Twitteruniversitetet

  2. I would like to make a comment from my philosophical point of view, on the issue of living technology vs machinical technology.

    Conflating organism and machine has a long history. Among others, the mechanical and the early cybernetic versions of this idea are not in fashion anymore, but the more deleuzian notion of organisms and, really, assemblages of any sort as machines, are quite alive (haha) and kicking.

    Deleuze, especially in his collaborations with Guattari on Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, develops a very abstract conception of the machine, as a dynamic system of blocks, channels and transformations, regulations, of flows of energymatter. This machine concept can be applied to lions and zebras just as well as steam engines and computers. To Deleuze a living organism is a machine. No metaphor.

    Here we see at work a certain philosophical method of abstraction, taking individuated, concrete, actual, seemingly disparate things – like living organisms and mechanical machines – to higher and higher levels of abstraction (or “plateaus” if you like), until they appear as essentially the same: More or less complex regulators of flows of energymatter.

    This thinking has most certainly helped us to move at least a bit beyond the “modern constitution” of a nature/culture divide (Latour), and has probably opened our minds a bit to start imagining truly living technology and machinical organisms.


    One must note that this “abstractionism” only demolishes preconceived differences between the culture-machine and the nature-organism. It is not concerned with, for example, what we have to develop and add to the steam engine for it to really come alive. In the end I believe that living technology does not come out of a fundamental, abstract sameness between machines and living organisms, but is the result of very much an creative effort to go from dead, to biomimetic and on to living technologies.

  3. Hi and thanks for the comment and thanks to Rachel for the lecture!

    Firstly, just to sum up, I agree with Rachel’s conclusions, so to speak, just had issues with some of the points of ended up there; I don’t think, if one reads carefully history of technology, and not through the usual suspects, that there has to be such a strict opposition of living vs. machine. This relates to how machines have not always been understood as mechanic – a point I make in Insect Media, and other places.

    As to your comments, Marcus, good points. I think however that the way you describe Deleuze’s machine is not entirely the way I see it. Firstly, the way Deleuze and Guattari (would be wrong to attribute it to Deleuze only) use machines is not to transport technology into the heart of the living as we understood technology. They are not saying that the world is technological in the sense we understood actual technologies that surround us — computers, televisions, microwave ovens, tractors. They are positing an ontological argument that is furthermore elaborated in Anti_oedipus of course, that is more about talking in relation to Lacan (perhaps the psychoanalysis best described as a mix of cybernetics+mommy and daddy-theory of Oedipus).

    Hence, the idea of abstract machine is not presumed on the idea that we first have concrete machines and then we abstract. What DG are saying that first, the world is abstract, and idea that in a whole different way is elaborated for instance by Massumi nowadays; abstraction does not lack reality, it is not a vague level of concrete, and abstract and concrete are not even opposite necessarily. Abstraction means movement and living.

    This per se does not elaborate details of the DG understanding of machines, but is important to note because it does not, as is implied, transport the idea of technology into the living — or such an idea would need much more qualification.

    So I guess what I am saying that we need to be much more detailed about these “conflations” because if you start reading carefully, these generalisations are not as straightforward — a very Latourian methodology of actually not starting from nature vs. culture in order to save their connection, but saying that — “look, we need to establish how such divisions were assumed in the first place? what are the institutions sustaining them? what are the practices sustaining them? can we find minor histories, genealogies, through which to question such?” What I am interested, as a media archaeologist of technological thought, is to excavate such minor histories.

    We also end up with perspectives such as: are there so many dead things we imagine? How about the dynamics of non-organic matter? The fact that even the most seemingly stable things are teeming with microlevels of action; and that even seemingly dead things for instance in nature — or waste — are actually teeming with molecular forms of life? This is where Luciana Parisi’s notes on living technological architecture become really interesting but that is for another discussions…


  4. Thanks for the great comment, Jussi! And thank you for adding some important points:

    Yes, the abstract machine is an ontological concept for DG. These kind of abstractions are real in a deleuzoguattarian ontology and the very aspect of the world that is life, creation, innovation. This abstract dynamic is immanent to the material world, and working at some spatiotemporal scale even on matter we (then falsely) call dead.

    What interests me though, is what is lost along the way, when one constructs such an ontology.

    I feel it doesn’t do any good when we’re talking about how to achieve for example living technologies, simply because what we are looking for and what we have to work with are things with certain properties: “flexibility, robustness, unpredictability & can deal with the unforeseen.”

    When we’re building, experimenting, hacking – whatever – we deal with individual objects that are able to juggle numerous properties that constantly shift in quality, at a level emergent above its parts, which in turn have (hackable) properties of their own.

    To create an evolvable city, for example, one has to look at these things as properties to build in, not as something that at some abstract level and spatiotemporal scale is already there. (Strawman of course, but just to my own position clearer, not to muddle somebody elses.)

  5. The whole arena of ‘living technology’ is up for grabs! The term was coined by the Initiative for Science Society and Policy in Denmark as a way of dealing with the increasing complexity and ultimately life-like properties of technology. This raises the point about what distinguishes technology from life? From a scientific perspective this is much harder to address than it appears philosophy proposes because in science and technology the rise of genetics in parallel with the age of computing has indeed meant that many similarities have been proposed and indeed, with time have become interchangeable e.g. genetic ‘code’ as if life is ‘programmed’. Mark Bedau takes up key points in discussing what ‘living technology’ means and what it means in societal terms. I take a very experimental view – I would like to build one. The Santa Fe Institute currently define life as being a compartment, heritable information and metabolism. In other words – a series of objects strung together. A machine. The perspective I’m trying to take is to design from a systems perspective which means that objects are secondary phenomena – the relationship between things is the primary driver. So when thinking about what I actually ‘need’ to build a ‘life’ it starts to go against what has traditionally been proposed – I’m not saying I”m right – it’s just the experimental approach I’d like to ‘test’ using a personal Turing Test for the ‘creation’ of life. This is that life needs: a high energy interface, architecture (spatial and temporal coordinates), a metabolism (to keep it away from equilibrium) and environment (context). These are very different principles from engineering a machine, the whole challenge of design with emergence is also something that we’re still trying to figure with from science and engineering … So when I make a distinction between life and machine I am setting myself some experimental goals and conditions that I can test in a material way. Phenomenologically the manifestations of life and machines are currently distinct though definitely the boundaries with ‘strange’ chemistries and materials are blurring … but they’re not the same since ontologically a machine is imagined from a world of objects and life is emerged from a system … But I very much welcome this discussion. It’s a very important one – particularly politically. If life is a machine then industrialists can say that they’re doing everything they can using ‘green’ strategies to do things differently – but this is where I have an issue – that the underlying process, even if more well intentioned – is still the same. Nothing has changed … and we need some fundamental paradigm shifts in practice, not just some floral tinkering around the edges.

    I don’t know if you’ve come across Dan O’Hara @skeuomorphology … I’d love him to join in … and I’m completely happy to be completely demolished by philosophy experts … at the end of the day I have to build stuff … aiming for continued improvement …

  6. Extremely interesting, Rachel! (And I do believe the issue is philosophical even when adressed in a scientific context… :) )

    To me life is a set of qualities/properties of an object that can only be attained and sustained in some constant interaction between the living object and its environment. These interactions do indeed make up systems, eco-systems that are objects in their own right. Being plugged into a more or less selfregulating system (mind the cybernetic pitfall)is what enables life as a quality to be reproduced, even across generations.

    Now, I think there’s a fundamental issue here, whether one wants to design a living technology – I’m grabbing it! :) – or the system it’s supposed to live in or be a part of.

    The non-living machine is plugged into a system that provides it with energymatter as a function of that system. The relationship between ecosystem and living machine (or organism) is not reducible like that. I believe this is precisely why a living organism can be able to adapt, anticipate, survive in a constantly changing context. The (evolving) system emerges from interaction between living organisms that are autonomous in their existence, but dependent on their umwelts to reproduce life-properties.

    I think this contingency is important to explore, when looking for a distinction between technology and life.

  7. Just a short comment, as traveling and bad internet signal.

    I like Rachel’s pragmatic approach, but want to underline that all pragmatics, all bulding, designing, speculating by design is philosophical already.

    This was interesting: “but they’re not the same since ontologically a machine is imagined from a world of objects and life is emerged from a system ”

    However, a lot of work in studying technology insist on other things too; machines are not reducible to being objects, we need process and time-critical approaches; we need to account for machines as part of any environment, assemblage, and that life emerging from a system has been the key thrust to so many technological emergence ideas.

    Anyhow, I think this is an interesting formulation from Marcus: “The non-living machine is plugged into a system that provides it with energymatter as a function of that system. ”

    Indeed — instead of thinking either the definitions of what is alive, what is not, perhaps the pragmatic approach when building – whether cities or machines — should be something that accounts for the energy-matter transformations of various actors, heterogeneous assemblages consisting of non-organic and organic parts…humans and non-humans.

    thanks for the nice ideas, both of you, and to Rachel for a nice lecture!

  8. Thank you, Jussi! And Rachel too! You’ve given me lots to work on. :)

  9. Thanks both for extremely stimulating observations …

    Okay – pax – there is indeed a philosophy of science underpinning what I am up to but I don’t use it self-consciously. I find it hard to step outside of the way that I am thinking and have never been able to reference my own peculiar take on it according to the great scientific canons of thought and proces .. whether Bacon, Descartes, Newton or whomever is most responsible for the current modern experimental approach which definitely has its limitations … and blind spots … and its unknown unknowns …. which is why changing framing away from the convention in an experimental practical manner is a challenge – because it’s so easy to revert to the convention & status quo … particularly when you’re working within a system that you’re trying to change (noting Bucky Fuller here on stepping outside of a system to create a new one being the way to bring about change and thereby rendering the former system obsolete) ….

    So … as I said before there are plenty of analogies between the way that machines and life are described … but i will go back to the distinction that I personally use which is, life is firstly the result of systems – its building is therefore more like a recipe than a parts check … Jussi – you noted that machines need other things too and listed systems for intelligent or living operations – but these are secondary phenomena conferred on the objects … the objects are assembled first, then the systems are emerged through refinement – or whatever process is used to create these outcomes ….

    Fundamentally machines are objects. Secondarily they operate through systems.

    Life is fundamentally a system, which secondarily manifests objects – this underpins the spontaneous capacity of highly evolved living systems to reproduce … machines can’t do this … because their systemic nature is secondary ….

    i would also argue that the living technologies are hovering in the liminal space between machine and life. The boundaries are not distinct and there will be – and are – paradoxes. Indeed the ISSP (Initiative for science society and policy) does not even agree amongst itself what living technology is .. but I think this is a product of our new age of thinking in systems rather than in Cartesian hierarchies … I think that this has been forced on us as a general cultural condition by experiencing the everyday complex interactions that are possible through the internet so that now our world is not a simple either/or binary distinctions but consists of and/and/and/and relationships …

    Complexity has become familiar – yet it is amazingly difficult to describe and USE as a method!!

    Whilst machines are a way of thinking about the world through objects … life is a way of thinking about the world through systems … and when we are able to design and engineer with emergence and unconventional forms of computing (which are all native to the world of complexity) we will build things in different ways – this is living technology as I understand it … There is a great book that was published with many different expert takes on what living technology is … http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Technology-Questions-Mark-Bedau/dp/8792130291 … My own chapter was really an early exploration of this phenomenon and it’s still emerging in my own methodological approach to the way that I experiment …

    Although we’ve had decades of complexity we still don’t know exactly how to design and engineer with its principles – when it comes to building stuff … we resort to machine thinking – because we actually don’t have another equally successful approach to making in this industrialised world (I don’t count Information Technology as it is immaterial and its nature changes when it becomes embodied as it is currently embodied through metal. And this is changing DARPA is definitely looking at morphological computing – smart bodies, which when they grapple with the design and engineering of them will be living technologies). But we need an alternative method of making that will allow a speciation of technology so that we can use many different approaches knowing how much top down and bottom up design is necessary to create optimally evolved solutions – and agile ones that can engage in iterative ‘material conversations’ with their contexts … chemical/physcial exchanges, hyper cycles & metabolisms.

    Current computer software is really looking for a much better body to work in than the machine (Turlif Vilbrandt from Uformia talks about this wonderfully – he notes the rate limiting performance of hardware) … and so far we’ve not got NBIC convergence (Nano Bio Info Cogno – Roco & Bainbridge 2004) … but when we do there will be a whole host of agile technologies (not just agile information architectures) that can underpin a new way of making – some of it will engage with machines but I think that they will be distinct e.g. through the nature of their work, their ‘control systems’ and engagement with environment …

    As we inhabit a complex way of viewing the world the new solution spaces that it offers for innovation will become apparent but we’re at the earliest stages of the journey. I don’t think we’ve even got the right terminology to properly unpack complexity but we’ll get there. And it is not necessary to do away with machines – we just need a whole range of other ways of creating technology – which in my view – is a mind set. Technology is the way that the mind becomes embodied in the process of problem solving … It’s not a thing …

    Things … objects … get in the way … they form impermeable barriers and resist change … this is not what is needed right now when we’re in the middle of a global ecological crisis cause by massive scale industrial processes with their first pass metabolisms and hardware that strips the earth of its rare minerals …

    But machines have their place ….

    Though this is not what ‘life’ does …

    IMHO :)

    Thanks again for the stimulating comments … hard to reduce to 140 characters! :)

  10. Pingback: Plusultratech.com on Rachel Armstrong’s #STU01 event | Svenska Twitteruniversitetet

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