Artifice and Agency

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Your Final Exam

Here is your final exam. You must answer two questions from the following six. Do not choose two questions that focus on the same authors or works. Each of your answers should be approximately 3-4 pages long. You may spend as much time as you wish on the exam and you should use your texts to help substantiate your points. Stick to the questions and be sure to finish on time. You are to submit a physical copy of your exam to me on the last scheduled meeting of the course.

1. Discuss Hannah Arendt’s attitude toward the earth and toward artifacts in her discussion of “work” in The Human Condition and then either compare or contrast that attitude in what seems to you an illuminating way with the attitudes toward the earth and artifacts you find either in Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry or William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle (choose one).

2. Discuss what you take to be either the essential similarity or difference in the understanding of power offered by Michel Foucault in History of Sexuality and Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, and then apply the resulting insight about power to its treatment in some aspect of the work we read by Sterling, Lessig, or Bauwens (choose one).

3. Discuss what you consider to be some important strengths and limitations of using Arendt’s characterization of the political as a “space of appearances” as a way of understanding the emerging political significance of “cyberspace” as it was discussed in Harris, Lessig, Bauwens, or Benkler (choose one).

4. Discuss the notion of the commons as you consider it to be deployed in one of our texts on digital design as well as in one of our texts on sustainable design. What do you take to be a key similarity or difference between these notions of the commons and the uses to which the authors put the notion in their respective arguments?

5. Describe some contribution to the design politics of sustainability that you consider to be unique to Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and another that you consider to be unique to William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, and then discuss how the argument of each text would be enriched or complicated through the addition to it of the contribution available only in the other book.

6. Provide a reading of any one of Bruce Sterling’s arguments or proposals in Shaping Things in light of the readings in Barthes' Mythologies of Verne, Einstein, or the Jet-Man on the ideology of nature, progress, science, or technology.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I'm assuming everybody has either found the Benkler text online (in one of the many available different formats -- it doesn't matter which) or purchased the hard copy. Here's a link to one version of it. We're reading chapters 1-4 for tomorrow, remember, then the next four for next Tuesday and then the final four for next Thursday. It's a bit long, so I hope everybody is already well into their reading. Looking forward to tomorrow's discussion, see you then!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Readings This Week

From the online version of Lawrence Lessig's Code:

A jumping off point explaining what this wiki version of the volume is all about.

Code Is Law
What Things Regulate

A couple of brief a/v bits associated with Lessig and the Creative Commons might provide an interesting basis for more discussion as well. Try this one, and this one (don't ask me to vouch for the musical choices here, please).

For Thursday, read Michel Bauwens's "The Political Economy of Peer Production"

If you find it interesting, I encourage you to dip into the much extended version
"Peer to Peer and Human Evolution."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nothing like a scroller in nature, but is there something like a mouse? [Not 'my post', but a post]

I thought to post the following from the How would a Biomimetic Revolution come about? portion of the "Biomimicry Explained" section of
Echoing nature is where we actually try to mimic what we discover. Echoing nature will take a cross-fertilization of ideas. The technologists who invent products and systems need to interact with biologists so they can match human needs with nature's solutions. Task forces and formal societies would allow for periodic interactions, but for more permanent collaborations, we should design university departments in biomimicry.

I can also see using the Internet as a place to store our information. A giant database of biological knowledge would serve as an innovation matchmaking service. An engineer charged with designing a new desalination device, for instance, could easily review the strategies of the mangrove-a tree that filters seawater with its solar-powered roots.
In both instances, it seems Benyus is calling for a type of human involvement in science that is as instigator, rather than discoverer. The scientist sets herself a specific niche within biomimicrous scientific research and her interest in borrowing others' research, along with everyone else's niche, creates collaboration on a colossal scale. This colossal collaboration is analogous to Benyus' characterization of nature's evolution within massive timescales as a massive cross-breeding cognitive process, "genius". The new science is submission to the genius of the mass.

I see the spirit of this submission to a sprawling genius in her dedication of the book to the mentors of the Tangled Bank. Come to find out this means dedicating her book to both identifiable people and unidentifiable future people:
Welcome to the Tangled Bank, a version of the "Carnival of the Vanities" for science bloggers. A Carnival is a weekly showcase of good weblog writing, selected by the authors themselves (that's the vanity part). Every other week, one of our crew will highlight a collection of interesting weblog articles in one convenient place, making it easy for everyone to find the good stuff.
Anyone may be the author of the Tangled Bank from week to week, and so the Tangled Bank has no author. Mentorship from the Tangled Bank is far more idea than identity-based in that sense. (I think it's a pretty fascinating idea, over and above my rhetorical meditations here.)

Benyus' dedication to those 'mentors' is a submission to the collaboration with their ideas. The form of her ideational collaboration is as science writer. The following is Darwin's passage of the the tangled bank, quoted at the top of the Tangled Bank blog:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.
How far are Benyus and TB carrying the comparison of their scientific/rhetorical work to the work of nature's laws acting around them? How do we make sense of or how do we feel about "insects flitting, worms crawling, and birds singing" --these verbalizations of nature-- being collapsed into the causal phrase "produced by laws around us"? Is this a turn from expansive language to collapsing Law? It might be the great straddling of the human subjective and the scientific, especially to call pop-science writing biomimicry:
Together, we biomimics are setting out on a voyage to learn what nature's "long and enchanted roster" already knows. It's the way home, and I'm as eager as the geese to go.
Is this 'home' a different dimension of the interfaced reality of the notorious BIOT? Benyus' description of the internet as a store of knowledge of nature could be analogized to Sterling's characterization of the self/cross-referencing world of the spimes. The becoming like the goose could be like being the BIOT in the interfaced spime circus.