Toward a Novel Technological Culture
* Article: The Nature of Biomimicry: Toward a Novel Technological Culture. Michael Fisch. Science, Technology, & Human Values 1-27, 2017
"Biomimicry is a rising popular ecology movement and method that urges the derivation of innovative and environmentally sound design from organic systems. This essay explores the notion of nature in biomimicry as articulated by the movement's founder, Janine Benyus, and the nature of biomimicry as practiced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media ecologist Neri Oxman. Benyus's approach, I show, promotes bio-mimicry as a science of nature in which nature is treated as a source for innovative design that can be emulated in technological apparatus. Such an approach is problematic, I argue, for its valorization of organic form, which results in both a rigid system of ethics demanding absolute separation of nature and technology. By contrast, Oxman's work, I show, pursues bio-mimicry as a technology of nature. In so doing, I argue, it mobilizes a neo-materialist style of interaction with organic materials that ultimately enjoins a radically different way of thinking nature."
Michael Fisch on Neomaterialist Design
"Viewed through Oxman’s work, biomimetic praxis is better described as a kind of inspiration that gives rise to a novel technical culture of nature. As such, innovative design is not something out there to be found in nature but rather something that emerges through inspirational technics of interaction with material nature. Biomimicry, in this regard, shares an ontological focus with what has been labeled “neo” or “new” materialism, which treats matter as animated. While building on traditional materialism, the “neo” of neomaterialism denotes a post-vitalist proposition whereby what animates matter is explained through theoretical physics rather than attributed to a spirit or essence.
At the same time, neomaterialism wants to move beyond the social constructivist under-standing of matter offered by Marx as well as think in non-dialectics terms that, in opposition to conventional historical materialism, allow for an emergence without the presupposition of a negative force. But at its core, neomaterialism is an ethical project that develops an alternative conceptual premise to civil liberal society that is founded on the valorization of reason and the agency of the autonomous rational subject who organizes nature into civilization (Coole and Frost 2010, 66).In pursuing this goal, neomaterialism recognizes that material things are active participants in the creation of order in the world. Neomaterialism thus echoes Latour’s call in actor–network theory (ANT) for the recognition of non-human agency. But neomaterialism also aims to go beyond Latour’s thesis, specifically by articulating an inherent ethics of material entanglements.
The neomaterialist argument is thus that matter displays self-organizing emergent properties that tend toward increasingly complex configurations and ecologies. As such, it demands that we acknowledge that human beings are merely participants in rather than masters over a complex ontological entanglement from which emerges a shared design for (human and nonhuman) lived reality. In other words, the argument is that there is a force of design irreducible to human intellectual reason. Design is understood rather as a system of organization that emerges from material itself. Ingold captures something of this approach when he suggests that materialism calls “for an alternative account of building, as a process of working with materials and not just doing to them, and of bringing form into being rather than merely translating from the virtual to the actual” (2011, 10).Design derived through human reason, according to this approach, appears as second-rate artifice in comparison to the complex self-organizing system that emerges from human and nonhuman interaction. This has important ramifications for thinking about ethics and social organization. Where liberal philosophy stakes its investment in the formation of social life con-tingent on an autonomous subject and rational mind, neomaterialism imagines the possibility for an inclusive social order in the absence of rational design. At stake is the idea of a nonnormative yet coherent ethical framework that is not the product of human design. It derives instead from a relational ecology of human and nonhuman actors. Yet neomaterialism ultimately falters in developing this point. While positing the important idea that matter is an active force in the creation of worlds and experience, it does not transform this idea into a system of ethics beyond suggesting that we need to pay attention to matter and the complexity of relations forming the world—thus falling back on an ANT model. Neomaterialism, as articulated by thinkers like Coole and Frost (2010), Ingold (2011), and Bennett(2010), stops short of realizing the radical implications of its insistence on form and matter as co-emergent phenomena. Not only does this insistence devalue the inflated Western philosophical currency of reason while making ethics a matter immanent to lived relations in and with the environment (rather than principles abstracted outside it), it also circumvents dualisms of nature and culture, organisms and machines."
After Benyus, Oxman was the second most anticipated speaker at the Biomimicry Summit. Combining fashion design with academic sophistication and flair, Oxman embodies her work. Born in Israel to well-known academic parents (her mother a world renown researcher in digital architecture), Oxman attended medical school after completing a degree at Technion, Israel’s leading technology institute. She later went on to do a degree in design at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and finally her PhD in design computation at MIT, where she founded the Mediated Matter Lab. Taking to the podium at the Biomimicry Summit with her team of graduate students, Oxman spoke for over an hour, moving swiftly through a dense distillation of her guiding conceptual philosophy before presenting three different phases of her work. Oxman described material ecology as an emerging field that treats mate-rials as living organisms. The focus of the field, as she told it, is to under-stand “the relationship between different materials, between matter and the environment, and between objects and other objects.” For Oxman, this has involved exploring the relationship between matter and form, which she sees as picking up on the question posed by Louis Kahn, “what does a brick want to be?” As Oxman explained in her keynote speech, “this means asking how can we help material be what it wants to be. And how can we be mindful of its properties?” This is not an entirely new approach, Oxman stressed, but rather a conceptual trajectory with roots in the 1850s, when the German architect and art critic Gottfried Semper wrote The Four Elements of Craft and eight years later Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species.
Biologists and architects were moving in a similar direction at the time, argued Oxman, looking at various species in the biological world but also species of materials and species of crafts and how to work on these materials. But the industrial revolution truncated this line of thinking, displacing it with the values that have come to dominate the society today and which have had a deleterious impact on nature. Those values specify that whether we are dealing with buildings, cities, wearable devices, cars, airplanes, and so on, we need to think in terms of an assemblage of components, each with its own particular function and material. The result is tremendous waste not only because of the number and quantity of materials involved in making the components but also because all the processes involved in producing the product are divorced from one another.
As Oxman put it in her keynote address:
- We have the architects or the designers that are forming the form and we have engineers that are doing simulations or analysis, whether structural or environmental, and we have the fabricators or construction workers who are fabricating the actual piece, whether a 3-D printer, laser printer or what not. So the whole process takes place after form has been preconceived and after the engineer has done the calculations.
Adopting what she calls an “an anti-disciplinary blueprint for how to think about thinking,” Oxman wants to replace this schema with what she under-stands as happening in nature, where the processes are “integrated and form is not preconceived but rather morphogenetic, emerging from the self-organizing and emergent complexity of matter.” Accordingly, form is thus not derivative of intellectual reasoning but rather a force of the lived material process and the environmental stimuli it encounters. The objective is for the production process to resemble more closely organic growth where, for example, as with growth of human bone, material takes shape in correspondence with the lived stresses and other performance criteria imposed on it. Key to implementing this approach at this point for Oxman is a system of computational form-finding whereby form is rendered from material through digital analysis of biological architectures. Also key is the 3-D printer, which allows for emulating biological growth through “additive manufacturing.” On two massive screens hanging to either side of the podium, Oxman displayed slides of objects produced in the initial phases of her work. This included avant-garde-looking chairs and wearable devices whose form had been determined by lived interaction with the bodies of their human users. Each project, explained Oxman, pushed the material and technique limitations of 3-D printing to produce a process more commensurate with organic growth. The ultimate focus of Oxman’s talk was a project entitled “The Silk Pavilion” that brings together the results of her early work. It is in this project that Oxman really begins to challenge the science of nature principle of biomimicry. The project, as Oxman introduced it, derives from looking at nature not merely as a model to emulate but as a “computational and fabrication platform.” In more tangible terms, Oxman framed the problematic behind the silk pavilion as the question, “If a Jacquard loom can design a birds nest, we ask can a Jacquard bird’s nest design a loom? In other words, we know that technology recapitulates biology but can we, in a thousand years, be so good as to have biology recapitulate technology, entering an age of singularity between technology and biology?” Oxman’s question is intriguing. What would it look like for biology to recapitulate technology? Moreover, since Oxman’s formulation of the question assumes human involvement in the process, how does the possibility of biology recapitulating technology embody the concern for ethics that Oxman implies is part of her work? That Oxman uses the term recapitulation in place of mimicry is crucial. To recapitulate is to summarize, or restate in the manner of a review, which suggests a very different mode of relation than the emulation that Benyus advocates in biomimicry. Whereas Benyus encourages mimicry as a kind of unmediated channeling(quieting one’s human cleverness), recapitulation suggests a relationship that is more analytic in its perspective and thus explicitly about mediation. In summarizing or reviewing, one is performing a certain cognitive labor that generates an object. Recapitulation, in this sense, recalls Simondon’s emphasis on analogy as a mode for thinking across the disparate domains of the physical, the organic, and the psychic (Combes 2013, 9-14). For Simon-don, thinking analogically does not mean simply collapsing the difference between otherwise incommensurate domains the way, for example, that Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic analogy worked to reduce the technological, the biological, and social to equivalent expressions of an adaptive function within an information system (Combes 2013, 10). The stakes and method of thinking analogously will become clearer in the course of my explication of Oxman’s work. For now, however, suffice to say that thinking analogously involves grasping the schema of an object’s emergence as a process with different limits and possibilities as a result of the specificity of the materials and organization of the given milieu. I use the term “grasping” here for its tactual connotations so as to underscore thinking analogously as something that transpires on an ontological level. By this, I mean that when thinking analogously, one puts oneself into a material relation with an emergent process such that one becomes able to recapitulate (that is to say, summarize) that process as an operation within a different milieu with different materials and organization and thus different possibilities and limits. This is not about abstracting and applying a design in the way that mimicry dictates. It is about traversing and inhabiting different milieux and their potential becomings simultaneously. There is nothing to say, moreover, that thinking analogically can only transpire in one direction, the way, for example, that Benyus’s biomimicry insists that everything must derive from nature. Thinking analogically presumes reversibility. Thus, Oxman is able to ask us to imagine an inverse relationship — biology recapitulating technology—which biomimicry must reject entirely as part of its premise of nature as a pristine preindustrial, premodern object. To recapitulate, then, mimicry makes one a slave to perfect reproduction and yet is never beyond artifice. By contrast, when one thinks analogically, one is in dialogue with difference to produce an innovative resemblance. Later in the question and answer part of the talk Oxman offered a picture of what thinking in an analogical mode looks like when addressing an inquiry regarding her participation in a current project at MIT aimed at mimicking geckos. “I often wonder to myself,” she confessed, “whether the best way tomimic a gecko is to design a gecko, copying the morphology of its limbs and skin. For me, the beautiful part of being inspired by a gecko is the moment when I stop mimicking and start editing to produce something entirely different.” It is precisely when “editing” commences that mimicry ends and thinking analogically begins. At that moment, Oxman is not “quieting her human cleverness” to channel an unmediated nature but rather explicitly deploying her cleverness to think about similarity and difference. Biomimicry’s prescribed apprenticeship structure to nature with its explicit pedagogical hierarchy becomes irrelevant. It is superseded by a materially driven dialogue (woven with inspiration) between Oxman, the gecko, and technology. The gecko at that point is not nature in the way that Benyus imagines it. It is a technologically mediated potential. The question then remains, how does all this bespeak ethics?"