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Blueprints for Tomorrow
Three opinions on the coming nano architectures
by Candice Hopkins, Gregor Wolbring, and Joanna Berzowska
Joanna Berzowska on how future nanotech might help us relive the past
Digital technologies enable us to capture, store, and catalogue an ever-increasing amount of information about ourselves, including digital images, video, and audio as well as text-based data such as emails, blogs, and Web browsing histories. In the future, pervasive computing environments will become a strong infrastructure to capture our experiences through networked ubiquitous sensors that record various aspects of our activities.
At the same time, scientists are receiving increasing amounts of funding to research technologies such as "remembrance agents" and personal digital assistants that will help us track our appointments, commitments, and important life details. One of the potential killer apps for wearable computing is a piece of software that will help the user remember people's faces and names, and retrieve details associated with previous encounters as well as other relevant information from the Web. Software research directions also include multimodal memory aids, context recognition, the modeling of lifestyle patterns, and personal storytelling. There are similarly many hardware research projects that look into ubiquitous sensor networks and wearable devices for personal event recording and computer supported cooperative work.
We have a strong need to keep up and stay on top in an increasingly information saturated world. We need to deploy increased memory storage and pervasive distributed computational architectures to ensure easy access to our stored information.
Nanotechnology promises to improve our lives by enabling enhanced functionality in everyday objects and environments. Augmented surfaces saturated with context-sensitive nanobots could record our schedules and remind us of urgent appointments through ambient media displays.
Assorted nanobots could also monitor our bodies and the things we say. Better than cameras, they could record and play back our memories, our precious moments lost in time. Scientists from Cambridge University have already demonstrated a nanotech memory device using technology close to the theoretical limit of electronic storage devices that can store and retrieve data with tiny amounts of power and incredible speed.
This memory-enhanced nanobot dust could monitor the position of our atoms in space with such subtlety that the playback could be almost tangible. We could feel past moments, and even experience them in a lucid corporeal reality. We would be able to literally relive the past. Perhaps future nanobots will also be sophisticated enough to sense and record our emotions and dreams for future playback.
These objects and surfaces could record our thoughts and our emotions, and also communicate our thoughts and emotions to others. We could literally communicate and transmit feelings and memories through our interior architectures.
The sheer amount of data and sensing infrastructure necessary to implement this vision presents many challenges to computer science. How can we extract useful knowledge from this data and use it effectively? How can we effectively present memories and knowledge to different kinds of users? How will we physically store such digital memories over long periods of time?
How will we address the potential for intrusive or subversive misuse of these objects? How quickly will these technologies that record and communicate our memories progress to become technologies of surveillance? How will we redefine privacy? How will we protect it?
Most importantly, when will I be allowed to forget that night I did not remember to begin with, but which my couch keeps reminding me of?
Joanna Berzowska is an Assistant Professor of Design Art and Digital Image/Sound at Concordia University. Her multidisciplinary work deals with electronic textiles, wearable technology, conductive food, and squishy interfaces. Joanna's work on "memory-rich architectures" is also featured elsewhere in this issue of HorizonZero as part of a team design project in the Nano Home of the Future section.
Candice Hopkins on how nanotech may help us realize the unrealizable
dream of Constant's New Babylon
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.
(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Picador Books, 1979)
In 1956 the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (later known only as Constant) began conceptualizing a new kind of urban environment, a project that would engross him for the next eighteen years. New Babylon was envisaged as "the worldwide city of the future", a place inhabited by futuristic nomads who, liberated from the physical and conceptual confines of labour, were free to be creative in the practice of everyday life. The city echoed this mobility: its structure continually shifted and adjusted to accommodate those who dwelled inside it. This state of continual change was also embodied in the deliberately inconsistent renderings of New Babylon: one of the most defining characteristics of this city was its inability to be represented.1 New Babylon is a city in constant flux; it exists at once everywhere and nowhere, situated neither in the past nor in the future.
New Babylon was conceived in reaction to the rigidity of the built environment at the time, a characteristic that Constant and others, following Georges Bataille, felt stifled society and was ultimately the "guarantor of social order".2 Having no formal training as an architect, Constant created a city that did not adhere to pre-scripted guidelines - he first realized New Babylon through models, and it was only after recognizing the representational limitations of the models that he began creating drawings and later diagrams (what he referred to as symbols) of the city from photographs. The photographs were cut and reassembled as clusters, sectors, and networks on blank sheets of paper, their empty backgrounds signifying the potential for the city to exist anywhere.
Mobile architecture represents one of the oldest forms of the built environment. The Plains Indians, for example, recognized the potentiality in placelessness: the most important feature of their homes was their impermanence. This impermanence meant that they could easily accommodate changing conditions, whether social or environmental. This geographical mobility continues to be viewed as a source of freedom today. Motor homes and travel trailers, first marketed in the 1920s, still function as an architecture of escape and contemporary artists like Andrea Zittel have appropriated this form in the belief that "perhaps the only real way to liberate oneself is to slip in between the cracks of larger authoritative systems".3
Constant's refuge in nomadic architecture coincides with what art historian Benjamin Buchloh identified as a return to "the various primitivisms of the earlier part of the twentieth century: the child, art brut, the non-Western imaginary" by Constant and his colleagues, members of COBRA, and later the Situationist International.4 Constant and his colleagues viewed these gestures, nomadism included, as subversive and considered itinerant life as a source of freedom.5 For Constant, architecture embodied the potential for revolution.
In the present climate, it is viable to ask whether architecture still embodies this potential. With the development of nanotechnology it may become possible to realize structures similar to New Babylon. One of the most immediate effects of nanoscience is on the material level: the properties of a material can change drastically when reduced to nanosize particles. But with this possibility also comes caution. What are the implications of realizing a project that was previously unrealizable? Is New Babylon revolutionary precisely because it cannot be built? These are questions that need to be addressed when considering the potential effects of nanotechnology on architecture. Given the possibility that material may be so transformed at this scale, our very idea of the "built" environment may be forever altered, which may in turn bring to light the very necessity of stability.
Candice Hopkins is the curator in residence at the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Alberta. She has an MA from The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY, and has organized exhibitions on the work of Faye HeavyShield, Elaine Reichek, Jimmie Durham, and David Hammons. Her writing is featured in the upcoming publications Making a Noise and Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture, both to be published by the Walter Phillips Gallery.
1. In relation to this, Thomas McDonough points out that "any model of this city falsifies the project in its emphasis on precisely what is meant to be invisible, a mere framework containing the varied, unplanned activities of the inhabitants." Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley (eds.), The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant's New Babylon to Beyond, Massachusetts: The Drawing Center and MIT Press, 2001.
3. Allan McCollum, Andrea Zittel in Conversation with Allan McCollum, in: Simone Vendrame (ed.), Andrea Zittel; Diary #01, Milan: Tema Celeste Editions, 2002.
4. See The Activist Drawing. COBRA, active from 1948 to 1951, was organized in response to surrealism. Its members, which included Constant, Asger Jorn, and André Breton among others, believed that play - the expressive, unmediated actions of children - could act as a model for political revolution. Members of the defunct COBRA, along with Guy Debord, would later form the Situationist International (SI) in 1957, and in doing so would redefine our understanding of political activism.
5. Constant's New Babylon project predates Deleuze and Guattari's Nomadology: The War Machine by nearly two decades.
Gregor Wolbring on nanotech convergence and the ethics of self-identity
Nanoscience enables the appearance of a new paradigm which sees different technologies converging at the nanoscale: nanotechnology, biotechnology and biomedicine, information technology, and cognitive science. The acronym NBIC, which stands for "Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno", indicates this convergence.
Governments and academics see huge potential in the linking together of different technologies. The National Nanotech Initiative (USA) [www.nano.gov] envisions applications for NBIC in areas such as energy, environment, water, military applications, globalization, agriculture, space exploration, and health. Predictions herald the enhancement of human performance in areas including work efficiency, learning, sensory and cognitive capabilities, and individual and group creativity, with the latter facilitated by new communication techniques including brain-to-brain interactions and human-machine interfaces.1
The questions one begins to ask are: What do we want from NBIC? How might advances in NBIC influence our self-perception, our self-identity, and the quality of our lives? Following from these questions: What is the impact of NBIC on the self-identity of so-called "disabled" and "non-disabled" people?2
There are several possible theoretical formulations describing how disabled people may perceive themselves: First, they may see themselves as possessing an inherent medical problem, and therefore as being "subnormal", inherently deficient, leading to the desire to use NBIC to repair their bodies to match the physical norm (eg., giving prosthetic legs to amputees). We'll refer to this point of view as "medical identity"3, indicating the assumption that the disabled person's condition needs to be "cured" via new technologies.
Alternately, a disabled person may see his or herself as a particular "variation of being" who encounters problems due to non-acceptance on behalf of society, and who wishes to use NBIC tools designed to modify the physical environment in ways that do not require them to change their physical identity, their biological reality. We'll refer to this formulation as "social justice identity",4 which regards disability as a human rights issue in need of human rights remedies, and sees NBIC as a tool for adapting the environment and not the person.
Thus far the general assumption is that we can "fix" the subnormal only far enough to match the norm of the non-disabled person - in effect making everyone non-disabled and "normal". However, NBIC increasingly promises the potential to repair the disabled body to a level well above the norm (eg., super strong bionic legs might be given to amputees). But if disabled people can add new abilities to their repertoire, then non-disabled people might also want to improve themselves through NBIC enhancement. Indeed, non-disabled "transhumanists" already feel that NBIC may eventually be able to free them from the "confinement of their genes", and even from the "confinement of their biological bodies". We'll define this approach as an ethic of "transhumanist identity"5, which might conceivably lead to a rat race of abilities, productivity, and competitiveness between individuals - even nations or cultures - as well as a gradual creep toward an overall increase in norms across the board.
Present NBIC research focuses mostly on promising disabled people future medical solutions and, increasingly, on transhumanist solutions. Meanwhile, we see hardly any movement toward embracing social justice solutions, leading to a situation in which future disabled persons may be forced to choose medical/transhumanist options for lack of other solutions.
How might the social justice ethic manifest itself in the domestic architectures of the future? The project Mind Over Kitchen, developed by the author and artists Ruth West and Myron Campbell for the Nano Home of the Future project (see elsewhere in this issue of HorizonZero), demonstrates an NBIC product - a brain-machine interface used to control the functions of a kitchen - designed to benefit all people alike, without leading to an "NBIC gap" based on ability. It is therefore a clear attempt at "universal design".[www.design.ncsu.edu/cud] This would represent a "social justice" approach if the device was made optional or readily removable (which is arguably preferable), or perhaps a "transhumanist" approach if the interface was "non-optional" (a situation which has problems beyond the scope of this present discussion). But the worst application of NBIC would be the addition of technological features whose use in the home required certain physical abilities: for example, speech activated functions requiring vocal control. Rather, we should be striving to develop gadgets that empower the full range of human physical variation.
Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist and Adjunct Assistant Professor of bioethics at the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, and an executive board member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He is the founder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Bioethics, Culture, and Disability [www.bioethicsanddisability.org].
1. See: Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science, a report edited by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, Arlington: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Online version available at: http://wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies. See also the NBIC Convergence annual conference Web site: www.infocastinc.com/nbic/nbichome.htm
2. For a further analysis of these questions, see Science and Technology and the Triple D (Disease, Disability, Defect), by Gregor Wolbring: www.bioethicsanddisability.org/nbic.html
3. See: Gregor Wolbring, Disability rights approach to genetic discrimination, in: Judit Sandor (ed), Society and Genetic Information: Codes and Laws in the Genetic Era, Central European University Press, 2004. See also: Gregor Wolbring, NBIC, NGO society, and three types of disabled people, paper written for the conference Within and Beyond the Limit of Human Nature, October 12-16, 2003, Berlin, Germany. Available online at: www.bioethicsanddisability.org/boell.html