Tag: modernity

The Nature of the Copy

From the dead center of an all-white eye, a lone sapling rose two feet tall. Cyclical ridges and valleys, etched in bioplastic by an unseen watchmaker, encircled the solitary lifeform and separated it from the mottled, decaying plant matter that had been strewn about nearby with intention, detritus by design. Lying adjacent on the table-in-sylvan-drag, a digital tablet and paper pamphlets displayed the word Nucleário.[1] Nucleário and the five other prototypes exhibited at the 2018 Biomimicry Launchpad Showcase in Berkeley, California, were, according to the event’s online marketing, projects from a “new species of entrepreneur” who practices “biomimicry,” the “conscious emulation of life’s genius,” a refrain I would hear repeatedly during my fieldwork on contemporary chimeras of biology and design. “Genius,” a cultural category once reserved for the presence of spiritual inspiration, here refers to the technical creativity of a re-animated nature that designers attempt to imitate in new devices like Nucleário.[2] Under the solar-paneled roof of the David Brower Center, whose eponym served as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, teams from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and the United States had gathered to compete under the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which, this year, prompted designers to devise solutions for the mitigation and reversal of climate change. The prize: a cash award of $100,000 given by the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a new generation of sustainability innovators” through educational initiatives.[3] (read more...)

Infrastructure after disasters

On October 21, 1868, at approximately eight o’clock in the morning, a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault near Oakland, California shook the Bay Area. The earthquake caused a great deal of damage in the small towns near the earthquake epicenter, as well as on “made ground” in San Francisco. Outside of the affected area, citizens worried about what had happened. People looked for the latest news at telegraph offices, though some telegraph lines were damaged or inundated. When inquirers reached the telegraph offices, however, they were sometimes met with rumors and misinformation.  Some telegrams said, incorrectly, that San Francisco was destroyed and sixty bodies were recovered.[i] Similar news exaggerating the damage in San Francisco spread all across the state. So, while the telegraph promised that people would have more immediate access to events in faraway places, the existence of a telegraphic infrastructure did not guarantee that these assessments had any correspondence to truth. People also reveal how they believe infrastructure should work when public information infrastructures are used intensely, overwhelmed, or broken. The silent structuring work of infrastructures—so integral to modernity—becomes easier to “see” after disasters. (read more...)

Failure and the Future

There’s nothing quite as satisfying for the modern as an historical prediction about the future, or about a large transformational project, that has—inevitably—failed. Whether as specific as predictions of particular technologies (where’s my flying car?), or as general as claims that market solutions will erase social inequalities (capitalism will eventually end poverty!), critical scholars have demonstrated that faith in a progressive future is fundamentally a political and ideological project of the modern era. But this satisfaction with modernity’s failures alerts us to the fact that we never-moderns still have faith in one kind of prediction, which is precisely the prediction of inevitability of failure of such transformational projects and their promised positive futures. Indeed, one could say that what we call the end of the modern or of history was inducted in this affective mode: an ironic stance toward now-faded modernist futures, their hubris and hopefulness simultaneously exposed as illusions of a progressive but failed modernity. This is nowhere more apparent than in critical approaches to the human conquest of space beyond Earth. The recent negative publicity about Mars One is a case in point. Announced in 2012, Mars One’s founder, Bas Lansdorp, proposed sending privately-funded, one-way human missions to the Red Planet with volunteer crews, enabling the establishment of a Mars colony by 2029. Lansdorp has argued that such a remarkable goal could be achieved using existing technologies and could be funded by media rights to what, he argued, would be the solar system’s most-watched reality television program. Mars One and its volunteer crew selection process garnered enormous interest in the press, on television, and online, but its previous media-darling status is now on rocky ground due to the revelations of a mission finalist. As such, it now appears as yet another fantasy of universalizing capitalist relations, dashed on the shores of technological impossibility and capital’s internal contradictions, leaving capitalism (and the human species) to face its consequences firmly on Earth and begin its atonement at the dawn of the Anthropocene, that is, the current, human-impacted geological epoch of Earth. (read more...)