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Growing new architectures from Carbon Versus Silicon
by Sara Diamond
Sometimes the laws of synchronicity cannot be refused. Sometimes coincidences
can only be understood as future past. For many years, my online moniker was
"Carbon", source code Diamond, etched in Silicon.
I have a penchant for symmetry. It's a bad habit, especially dangerous when
applied to binaries. These usually require transformation not transcendence.
Still, I was delighted when two events on precisely the same topic, in two different
locations in the world, managed to elegantly overlap. In November of 2001, I
attended the founding conference of Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology
which occurred at The Banff Centre. Speakers outlined this complex field of
research, promising production efficiencies, tensile materials, heightened security,
and a massive multiplication of Moore's law of computational power, all bound
together by Arthur C. Clarke's invisible ropes, capable of tethering a space
ship to the earth.
I left that event a day early. I flew to Los Angeles to attend another conference,
this one created by DARnet
the University of California's new media research network. Lead organizer Victoria
hope was that it would address nanotechnology. Not surprisingly, it instead
focused on September 11. It was there that I first heard Dr. Jim Gimzewski [www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/gimzewski/index],
recently arrived from the UK to lead
a nanotechnology lab at UCLA.
He spoke about his struggle to find appropriate metaphors. I was compelled by
the physical nature of the research, rooted in chemistry, biology, and physics.
I was fascinated by this tactile science of the invisible. I was awed by the
sense of responsibility to nano effects that worried Jim and his strong commitment
Like art, science was returning to the tangible. Like art, science was relying on conceptual models that needed to be tested. This reminded me of data visualization, a science that values accuracy, yet always requires metaphor to make raw data meaningful. This was another symmetry.
Twentieth century science fiction had inspired nanotechnology research. Yet, with the exception of Gimzewski and Vesna's recent collaboration, I was amazed that an entire new wave of scientific discovery was underway that was so divorced from contemporary cultural practice. The one exception was science fiction panic culture, with Michael Crichton's Prey as its most articulate representative.
I vowed to myself to create an event at the Banff New Media Institute that
that would work the metaphors, look for potential connections, and fight out
the differences. I called the event Carbon Versus Silicon: Thinking Small,
Thinking Fast. [http://www.banffcentre.ca/bnmi/programs/archives.asp]
Here's an excerpt from the summit's introductory statement:
If the digital revolution brought a new era, then the nanotechnology revolution heralds even more change. For one thing, it returns us to our bodies, to technologies that are literally below and on the skin. Nanotechnology research and development is opening up vast new horizons in material sciences, medicine, biotechnology, genomics, and manufacturing, as well as computing, information, and communications technology. Where do the fields of silicon and carbon overlap? Where do they conflict in concept and methodology? Both spaces have the challenge of representing abstract concepts, and processes that cannot be seen. What social and cultural tools do we need to understand these shifts? How can artists and designers from the physical and digital domain participate in the carbon revolution? How can we manage new applications for these new materials, in wearables, in architecture? As humans, we have struggled with the limits of the speed of light, the vastness of the universe, the accelerated pace of digital technologies, and now with the expansion of the world inward, to a minuteness and complexity of scale difficult to imagine. How can we approach the responsibility to the unseen; what are the ethics of intervention?
UCLA and NINT became our partners. Leading scientists agreed to attend. The summit was spectacular, a conceptual roller coaster ride, sparkling with cutting edge curiosity. On the last day, we broke into smaller particle clusters. One group with a slightly ironic bent dubbed themselves "Amorphism and Visualization", and set about establishing laws for effective collaboration: For example, "Ryan's Law", drawn from the material sciences, proposed that "annealing removes defects and gaps which weaken the structure" - in other words, without cohesion a group will falter. Another group formation considered models for visually representing continuums, such as using multiple transparencies, positioning metaballs (blobby ellipsoids used in computer modeling to create complex organic shapes) to show layers, and representing quantum effects as waves not molecules. They bravely asked, "Is the visual the best source of information at the nano level? Is it more problematic than some other forms of representation?" There are all sorts of surprising effects that occur at nanoscale, and tactile interaction appeared interesting to them, because you can feel the differences when you try to manipulate things. They also suggested models of simultaneous space and time, pointing out that "bubble chamber events" needed to be represented as well as events that evolve over space and time. (Bubble chambers were originally developed as isolation chambers for particle physics research: for example, bubble chamber events showed the creation of positron-electron pairs by a photon in the Coulomb field of an electron.)
The "Nano Dream Home" cluster drew blueprints. They defined three axes applicable to nanotechnologies, suggesting that such science might alter existing responsiveness in the built environment, augment existing responsiveness of that environment, and/or insert forms of expression/communication/poetics into the environment. Home environments could be scaleable. Environments could be ubiquitous or interventional. For example, they might recognize their occupants or surroundings, and undertake intelligent action. They might facilitate fast, efficient rest. They might monitor, augment, and replenish health. The entertainment centre might be an adaptive, humorous space, able to sense your moods. There might be narrative systems embedded in architecture able to change the building's dimensions based on certain data, such as barometric readings. The house could be nano-organic. There could be an invisible double of the house. The environment might even record and play back memories.
Nano materials, this group supposed, should be able to "sniff" moisture, humidity, pressure, sound, temperature, lights, and electrical charges. They needed to be lightweight, soft, flexible. Examples included Nitinol (memory metal), nano-muscle and fibers, piezo-electric materials (actuators). Tool requirements included nano-scale wires attached to sensors, airborne particles (this latter raised concerns about breathing in fibers), and protein-based sensors.
This present incarnation of HorizonZero follows on the pleasant
dissymmetry of Carbon Versus Silicon. In particular, we've created
six cross-disciplinary teams made up of persons who attended the summit (and
a few other special guest artists like AElab). Each of these six teams has been
invited to visualize a chamber in their dream home of the future, or perhaps
its overall architecture or function, and then create an interactive media experience
to represent their vision of nanotechnology and the domestic. These Nano Home
projects will be launched with our second (April) installment of Issue
As the facilitation of these team projects has progressed, we have combined a series of laws, paying close attention to social chemistry: notably, the teams have been frank and open with one another (White's Law), capable of annealing (Ryan's Law), and small enough to deliver final projects (Theise's Law). We have stayed true to the recombinant nature of the original Carbon Versus Silicon event, calling up the views of scientists, artists, disability theorists, critics of science, and science fiction writers. As a result, within this issue are to be found the fundamental building blocks of knowledge and metaphor from which we might synchronize the space and time of the present with the future.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.