In this TEDx sponsored talk, Rachel Armstrong - co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture and Synthetic Biology at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL) – speaks about the dangerous relationship that we have developed with machines since the industrial revolution and ways we can break that habit. Along with her research on “living materials” and “synthetic biology”, Armstrong is looking for ways to rebuild the relationship between our reliance on machines and the systems of nature and our ecologies that are often neglected.
More on this talk after the break.
Rachel Armstrong argues that machines have shaped our reality to such an extent that metaphors for the operations of reality are often found in reference to the mechanization of our society. For example, “Cogs in a machine” is a commonly used to describe repetitive and mindless work. Even the way in which we speak about social constructs as “being a machine” in which we “play a particular role”. The industrial revolution and the combustion engine that made it possible are responsible for transforming our way of thinking about natural processes and increasing our reliance upon technologies that, as Armstrong emphasizes, are damaging to the ecosystems that exist in nature because they interefere with existing relationships in nature.
So Armstrong asks – What do machines give back to the ecological environment within which it intereferes? And her answer is that the systems currently in place simply take natural resources and produce damaging consequences to the environment. Her research responds to this dilemma – the fact that industries continue to produce the same damaging technologies in lesser quantities in a constant “dependancy and desire for industrialization”. But of course, “less of more of the same kind is not different” and the result is often the same. What makes Armstrong’s research so different is that the synthetic biologies that are being studied as a technology behaves like a living system and interacts with the natural systems around it in the same way. Armstrong goes on to describe an application of such a system, in particular protocells which are little fat cells that solidify carbon dioxide, in Venice, Italy – a city facing the consequences of rising sea levels with increased flooding causing chemical and structural damage to the architecture.
The technology that Armstrong describes works with the resources of the environment – the sun, the minerals of the water, the wooden pyles on which Venice sits – and converts these resources into a limestone that provides a more durable support structure for the foundations. “It grows underneath its foundations and prevents the city from being eroded”, in a relatively benign way and in a technological way that tries to connect back to ecological systems. Armstrong emphasizes the symbiotic relationship that this type of technology establishes with its environment – “it doesn’t just take … it gives back.”
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