After a summer in Iceland, the US, and West Bengal, I’m (finally) back on solid ground. There’s a lot going on, so I’m thinking it’s best to get it all down here, in writing, before I wander off, distracted by other things.
Said summer was a fantastic experience, kicking off with a couple of days in Reykjavik – where I got to catch up with information activist Smári McCarthy, and was, at one point, woken by this. I saw a woman leave a live starfish at the reception of the changing rooms at an artificial thermal beach. Lacking appropriate day/night signals, I accidentally went for a hike at 11.30pm. From Iceland, I flew onward to Boston-Cambridge, to brunch with and cat-sit for the ever-excellent Deb Chachra.
From Massachusetts, it was down to North Carolina, for five weeks as a teaching assistant at Duke, as part of their TIP Programme, drilling gifted teenagers – both American and international – in the ways of technology foresight, innovation, leadership, and project planning. During my time at Duke, I helped Scott Smith formulate a set of four scenarios for 2025, mentored a Chinese student working on the hard sell for a state-supported ‘internet-of-water-sensors,’ saw Neko Case in concert; experienced temperatures upward of 40°C, slept too little, worked too hard, and was (briefly) an item in a scavenger hunt.
Recovering from Duke, I spent few weeks knocking around North Carolina and DC, hanging out with friends and colleagues, before grabbing a cheap video camera and joining Hilary Dixon, my internet pen-pal of 2+ years, for a super-dense two-week road trip, hitting Asheville and the Appalachians, Washington DC, Detroit, and Chicago, interviewing a smorgasbord of interesting futures-y people for a no-budget video about US regional identity, community, attitudes and expectations regarding the future. At the time of writing, I’m waiting for the final dregs of footage to sync to a Dropbox account, from which Hilary and I will begin picking and slicing. Keeping most of the details hidden for now, but many thanks, again, to those who helped and participated, in whatever form. We owe you.
I parted ways with Hilary in Chicago. As she headed back to DC, I continued west, to a Portland, for the start of a singular gathering of the internet tribes. Though addled by sleep deprivation and time zone distortions, enjoyed hanging out with host Adam Rothstein and chatting with a heap of spiky and interesting attendees.
From Portland, I flew down to Los Angeles, then back across to London, repeating my airborne ritual of listening to Stone Roses on the in-flight entertainment system while oscillating in and out of consciousness. Spending one night at my parents’ house in Sussex, the following day saw me taking another flight, to Dubai, and, from there, on to recently post-Communist West Bengal.
I was in Kolkata for a series of scoping workshops ahead of a PhD at Sussex’s STEPS Centre, focusing on the lived, everyday experience of climate-linked uncertainty in urban India. With my research forming only a small part of a substantially bigger project taking in work at a number sites across India, this was an opportunity for Sussex’s project team to touch base with their regional research partners, lock in some core themes and research questions, and make sure everyone was on the same page. Two days hashing out specifics in the hotel were followed by two days in the Sundarbans, a tidal mangrove swamp home to tigers, fiddler crabs, and any number of subsistence farmers still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Aila in 2009.
Being out in the field – however briefly and shallowly – and present for our team questioning entire groups of villagers about their experiences around climate, weather, politics and livelihood, was extraordinarily interesting. Ultimately, it gave me a bit more confidence around my capacity to stomach my own iteration of field research come 2014/15. It was also interesting to navigate the mix of state-subsidised mangrove plantings, tiny goats, satellite TV dishes, privately-sponsored water pipes, mobile phones, handicrafts, tiger-based ecotourism, and rice paddies.
Since returning to the UK, I’ve moved to a shared house in Fishersgate, just west of Hove, where suburban sprawl meets a smattering of business and light industry. Within flailing distance of our house, there’s a gas-burning power plant, an unexpectedly high density of rooftop photovoltaics, a surf shop, wind-battered palm trees, boarded-up pubs, and a fully-functioning port. I’ll be here for the next year, at least, studying for an MSc in Science & Technology Policy as a lead-in to the PhD. My first term looks like an stimulating, if dense, mix of heterodox economics and political sociology of science, and, though it’s still early days, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
Outside of the classroom, over the next few weeks, you’ll be able to find me at:
- Informal Economy Symposium, Barcelona, Spain (12/10-13/10)
- Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict, and Security, University of Sussex, UK (18/10-19/10)
- 3D Printshow, London, UK (20/10)
Further out, come February 2013, I’ve been invited to speak at Lift 13, in Geneva. I’ll be talking about 3D printing, as part of a session on noise, spam, and acceleration – particularly as linked to the diffusion of technological innovations. My first big-audience presentation is a faintly terrifying prospect, for sure, though it’ll be awesome to meet fellow presenter Venkatesh Rao in the flesh, catch up with futures stalwart Noah Raford, and touch base with the rest of the Lift crew.
In terms of inputs, I’ve been reading some short stories by Haruki Murakami, Jake Dunagan on designer governance, and picking at chunks of Rory Hyde’s Future Practice. While waiting for our house to be connected to the internet, I finally got around to reading SITRA’s Recipes for Systemic Change; and now that we’re back online, I’m keeping a close eye on Quartz News. I’m resisting impulse buying a heddle loom, after accidentally watching a TV programme on weaving; swallowing the jealousy incurred by the deluge of other peoples’ photos from this summer’s Unknown Fields expedition; and proselytizing on behalf of James Burke’s brain-meltingly awesome dConstruct talk, ‘Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.’
In terms of outputs, I published a couple of deeply, deeply idiosyncratic counterfactual techno-geographical scenario sketches in the second volume of Emirati cultural journal The State, under the title “Chalice Flag, Hydroelectric Sublime.” I also have an uncharacteristically bombastic article in the September edition of Arc, ‘celebrating’ the Luddite bicentennial by taking a closer look at the peculiar ties between early-19th century machine-breaking, Alan Turing, and our very own economic crisis. Worth checking out, if I say so myself.
Education Innovation Science! Speculations Technology [future shock]
“Action stations!” here at Pickard Towers.
Emerging, bleary-eyed, from the other side of the 2012 Duke TIP Futures Institute, and before throwing myself back into the fray for a second session, I wanted to take a moment to flag my co-instructor Scott Smith’s after-action report – laying out some of the scaffolding and topics, student project details, and what we, as instructional staff, are taking away from the experience.
One of the most significant thinks I took from our fortnight together was the emphasis on non-market and informal innovation, including a closer look at those activities that sneak under the radar, or emerge from the struggle and foment at the bottom of the pyramid. Ultimately, it’s all about the next billion(s).
Combine that with this trailer for Kickstartered book-turned-media-channel The Misfit Economy (2013) …
… newly-certified crazy person Tobias Revell‘s final-year Design Interactions project, ‘New Mumbai’ …
… a kick-ass talk from IBM Research’s Steve Daniels on innovation under conditions of scarcity …
… and the fact that I’m starting a PhD in Sustainability & Innovation in the autumn, as part of a project on climate-linked uncertainty in South Asia … and, well, things start to get interesting.
Now, I suspect this is an attitude to innovation (and development) that we’ll see more and more, particularly as power begins to shift from America and Europe to the BRICSAM nations.
Best set of tools for the 2010s? Direct eye contact, jazz hands, and a heap of electrical tape. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations Technology [future shock]
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‘In 1982, we … could jam a screwdriver into the circuits because we faced no retribution. We could trip the computer and watch it fall, because it couldn’t respond in kind. Now, in 2012, we can be bullied and controlled. We awake to news of drones laying waste to those on our terror watchlist. We are virtually stripped naked at airport security. We are witness to car accidents, prostitution and murder on Google Earth. We are denied a loan because the formula says no. In short, the noose of technology has become tighter. We’re developing a grudge. And when we dislike, we mock. We photobomb the system. We parody. We use code to avoid the encoded.
Our current power politics are built on technology, which is why many clap with glee when masked jokesters hack corporate Web sites, when mustachioed avatars front takedowns of intelligence agencies, when former Russian spies do lad mag shoots and hackers get talk shows. We get a chance to see these tools of power corrupted against “the system.” Power structures 932, People 5. It’s an unfair fight, but we can sleep at night knowing the machine has a flaw, somewhere. Its vision is faulty, its logic not watertight. It wants us to be machine-readable, symmetric, processable. We laugh by wearing t-shirts with its own distorted machine graphics. We blast the glitchy, whomping distortions of its delicate audio circuitry. We use the physical against the digital. In 1983 we played tic-tac-toe against your mainframe. Now we loop images of your mistakes, alongside celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and kitten comedy. We know your secret formula.’
— Scott Smith, ‘Glitched Out,’ 23/04/2012
Cartesian Minefield Politics/Economics Speculations Technology
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‘I am fascinated by possibilities. There’s nothing I like better than seeing what can be, than perhaps transitioning those possibilities into this world. In the past few years I have honed my ability to see possibilities (and a process to make them real). I can see around corners, juggle variables and play a metaphorical shell game with data, research & time extrapolations to create a cone of plausability, mine the possibilities in and around it (wildcards fall on the edge or outside of them) and identify (sometimes multiple based on your valueset/variables) preferred futures.’
— heathervescent, ‘Reflections on Preferred Futures, Possibilities & Impossibilities‘
Politics/Economics Pop Culture Speculations Technology [reading list]
Been dipping in and out of Eli Parisier’s The Filter Bubble (2011), as part of a longer piece I’m working on. Had some rough thoughts and jottings I wanted throw out into the darkness:
- ‘Personalized search for everyone’ (Google’s stated mission, for a time)
- The filter bubble provides ‘a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Parisier, 2011: 9)
- ‘When the technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.’ (Parisier, 2011: 13)
- ‘Spain’s first gay retirement home passes its first hurdle‘ (The Guardian, 03/01/2011)
- ‘Something in the Air‘ (Frieze interview with Peter Sloterdijk)
- ‘State of Air‘ (BLDBLOG)
- Pillarisation (verzuiling) — ‘a term used to describe the politico-denominational segregation of Dutch and Belgian society … ”vertically” divided into several segments or “pillars” (zuilen) according to different religions or ideologies.’
- Doorbraak (‘breakthrough’) — ‘an attempt to renew the politics of the Netherlands after the Second World War.’
- ‘Openness and the Metaverse Singularity‘ (Jamais Cascio, 2007 — good on AR filtering)
- ‘Bridging Capital and Social Cohesion in an English village setting‘ (Roy Greenhalgh, 2008)
Starting to wonder if the our best chance of filter bubble-busting Doorbraak might have been something like ChatRoulette. Certainly, one of my highlights of 2010 was encouraging my neighbour to play guitar to a baffled Chilean dentistry student.
Academics Design Politics/Economics Speculations Technology [future shock]
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‘To both design and politics, futures affords some tools to crack open times-to-come as a far richer domain for discussion. It also offers the holistic systems-thinking and temporal reach that are necessary to move beyond ideology-driven argumentation about ‘the (singular) future’ into more systematic and multi-dimensional exploration. Politics, in its theoretical aspect, gives futurists and designers a sensitivity to power relations and a range of conceptions of the good and the just at the social level, and in its activist aspect, represents a tradition of exploring and concretely operationalising these ethics in the world. Designers give to futures and politics practitioners a much-needed dose of communications acumen and facility with media, along with a fusion of aesthetic (used here in the narrow sense) with the pragmatic; a necessary equilibrium between form and function.’
— Stuart Candy, ‘The Futures of Everyday Life‘ (2010)
Cartesian Minefield Design Material/Digital Speculations Technology [future shock]
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Presentation delivered at the APF V-Gathering, on 27th October 2011.
Notes, annotations, links:
- Our essay on ‘design futurescaping’ in Blowup: The Era of Objects
- Stuart Candy’s PhD thesis, ‘The Futures of Everyday Life‘
- Robin Sloan’s ‘Kanye West, Media Cyborg‘
Built Environment Fiction Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations Technology Writing [key texts]
photo credit: nicolasnova
I’ve spent most of the past month wrestling with the meaning and significance of this book; trying to work out what manner of beast it might be. A challenging task, with cascading revelations. To kick off, three observations:
1. Bruce Sterling is the Chairman – when it comes to his writing, I get all twitchy and excitable, with little possibility of critical distance.
2. Despite that, as a novel, The Caryatids (2009) is a conspicuous failure.
3. And despite this, I rate it as one of the most bold and important books of the last decade.
Caryatids? In classical architecture, a caryatid is a load-bearing pillar carved into a figurative sculpture of a woman. Something like this, from Athens’ Erechtheum:
Sterling’s caryatids are a set of clones, born of and raised by the ubicomp-obsessed widow of a Balkan warlord as tech support for a looming environmental apocalypse:
‘They had been the great septet of caryatids: seven young women, superwomen, cherished and entirely special, designed and created for the single mighty purpose of averting the collapse of the world. They were meant to support and bear its every woe.’ (pp. 18-19)
Personally, this conceit read as nothing so much as an inversion of what-I-knew of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which all the smart, productive people abscond, triggering societal collapse. In The Caryatids, collapse precedes the titular superwomen, who are created to hold up the world.
In this, Bruce sets up the conditions for a fascinating thought experiment, a microcosm of the whole structure/agency thing. When the girls’ ubicomp-mediated upbringing is interrupted in an attack by Balkan guerillas, the survivors scatter. Like light through a prism, the novel’s trio of genetically-identical protagonists allow Sterling to deploy a strange twist on the three-act narrative, with each chunk representing a single, stand-alone story, or point of inflection.
In embracing this structure, the novel reads like the bastard offspring of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Shell’s Signals & Signposts (2011) – some cumbersome and wholly unexpected mix of soap opera, satire, technical manual, and manifesto.
- The first clone-sister, Vera, remains in the Balkans, doing some heavy lifting on an environmental remediation project, under the banner of the Acquis: a post-geographic civil society group populated by anarcho-communist, exoskeleton-clad cyborgs.
- Mila, the second sister, marries into the ‘Family-Firm’, a South Californian mafia, taking in ‘real estate, politics, finance, everyware, retail, water interests … and of course entertainment.’ (p. 92)
- The final clone, Sonja, is a soldier-slash-field-medic in China, ‘the largest and most powerful state left on Earth.’ (p. 185)
Three takes on the apocalypse: cyborg environmentalism, Californian dynasticism, and Statism ‘with Chinese characteristics’. In The Spectre of Ideology (1995), Žižek notes how, from the inside, it often seems…
‘easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than the end of than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.’
In this, The Caryatids seems to have taken Žižek’s words as a direct challenge, with Bruce creating convincing, detailed visions of both. End of the world?
The Caryatids poses a scenario where, by 2060, climate change has resulted in a near-total collapse of state authority, leaving, as Doctorow puts it, ‘a slurry of refugees, rising seas, and inconceivable misery.’ The world as we know it is dead and buried.
Change in the means of production?
Well, none of the scenario-environments Bruce presents can realistically be seen as a continuation of the status quo. The Los Angeles chapter could, perhaps, be seen as a perverse iteration on start-up culture, but there seems to have been enough of a substantive change for it to represent something truly novel.
‘Brilliancy, speed, lightness, and glory‘ is a mantra we find repeated throughout the narrative, echoed by actors and agents from each of the political blocs. Within Acquis society, glory has been framed as the ultimate of virtues: ‘Glory was the source of communion. Glory was the spirit of the corps. Glory was a reason to be.’ (p. 47)
Seen against a background of environmental collapse, these Catholic values conjure some of Bruce’s earlier thoughts on something he dubbed ‘Gothic High-Tech‘:
‘In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible.
And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car.
But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders.
And you just grit your teeth and pull out the next one. A heroic story, but very Gothic. Something that belongs in an eighteenth century horror novel. Kind of the “man in the castle” figure.’
This reassertion of a catholic-gothic sensibility is something I have explored elsewhere in relation to domestic and homeland (in)security. In Caryatids, Bruce links the catholic-gothic thing to science fiction’s origins in the romantic tales of Mary Shelly and her ilk. In the words of Vera’s confidant, aiming for something close to reassurance: “You can’t convince us that you’re the big secret monster from the big secret monster lab. Because we know you, and we know how you feel.” (p. 21)
We can see it in anxieties about the impact of new technologies on what it means to be human, with some kind of public broadcast of brain activity amongst the Acquis fundamentally changing the nature of sociality and group identity: ‘These were people made visible from the inside out, and that visibility was changing them. Vera knew that the sensorweb was melting them inside, just as it was melting the island’s soil, the seas, even the skies …’ (p. 26)
In this world, an individual’s relationship to technology is characterised by ambivalence, suspicion, and a wholly gothic dependence. ‘The Acquis and the Dispension hated China’s state secrecy, for they were obsessed with rogue technologies spinning out of control. Internal combustion: a rogue technology spun out of control. Electric light: a rogue technology spun out of control. Fossil fuel: the flesh of the necromantic dead, risen from its grave, had wrecked the planet.’ (p. 230)
This catholic-gothic tendency also manifests in the protagonists’ total and instinctive loathing for each other, a detail rooted in the uncanny self-annihilatory narratives of shapeshifters, body-snatchers and doppelgängers, and something Sterling leverages to great effect.
But this is, ultimately, a story of redemption; redemption and agency. It plays with some of the worst-case scenarios for the unfolding climate crisis, and then shows some ways in which, despite everything, humanity might be able to claw its way back from the brink. It’s one of several books I could cite that, post-2000, have begun to refresh our vocabulary of the future, with the potential to shift talk away from the simple-minded narratives of collapse and technological salvation – stories we use to absolve ourselves of agency and responsibility.
Working with a novum-packed narrative, Sterling focuses on the fallibility and inadequacy of the superstar, the wunderkind, and the auteur. Despite everything, this is a decidedly anti-heroic book. The clone-sisters are twisted fuck-ups. Deployed as ‘agents of redemption’, the weight on their shoulders leaves them febrile, erratic, and riddled with neuroses.
The real solutions are in the systems of participation; superstructures capable of supporting a raft of increasingly radical projects. In the words of Californian wunderkind Lionel, the answer is openness: such radical projects “need widespread distributed oversight, with peer review and loyal opposition to test them. They have to be open and testable.” (p. 252)
Chinese state secrecy isn’t the answer. Despite it’s pretensions, the can-do attitude of the Californian ‘military-entertainment complex’ falters, powerless, in the face of earthquakes and volcanoes. And the European techno-anarchists, however seductive their vision, are an ‘extremist group’ practicing ‘sensory totalitarianism’ to brainwash climate refugees.
Whatever the novel’s narrative flaws, the first chapter is worth the price of admission, as a near-perfect combination of worldbuilding, character and cognitive estrangement.
Overall? Compelling and transformative, shot through with veins of disarming sincerity, The Caryatids is part second-hand motorboat, part Viking funerary barge. Departing the harbour, it sputters and flames. Then it sinks.
But by that point, it’s already rewired your brain.
Some early, inchoate notes on design fiction.
Disclaimer: I’m not a designer, I just work with them.
Bruce Sterling (2009):
When science fiction was born from its radio-parts catalogs, design was also born as the streamlined handmaiden of industry. (…) But these two sister disciplines, born within the same decade and surely for similar reasons, soon parted ways. The sisters were distantly cordial; but they saw no common purpose.
Design, which is industrial, has clients and consumers, while science fiction, an art form, has patrons and an audience.
An ethics of design fiction?
I asked the question, and Adam answered with something that triggered a deep, visceral unease, for reasons I found hard to qualify.
~ not so much that he missed the point, as that he missed my point, hitting back with a diatribe on the complicity of design fiction in consumerism, as an annexation of fiction by corporate R&D and, more sweepingly, the market …
Not untrue, whatever my issues with his argument. At its least objectionable, we can see this tendency in Intel’s Morrow Project, and the strange feedback loops between Minority Report and the Kinect.
Whatever else it may be, design fiction is propositional.
So, is there room for a propositional ethics of design fiction?
Turning our eye to the role of design under conditions of post-Fordism, collapsonomics. The role of design outside the market. The role of design in foresight, and of foresight in design.
Scott Smith (2011):
A common characteristic of these creators is a facility to take a nascent technological capability and bend it around a moral, ethical or social issue, intentionally or as by-product, and thereby provide a useful thinking space to model implications and consequences. They continually ask questions about what it means to attempt to put emotion into technology, and by doing this, they create and explore hundreds of mini-scenarios of a human-technological future. Whether you agree or disagree with particular views of how these futures may unfold, the questions need asking, if only to provide a better sense of the direction(s) we wish to pursue.
‘Be the change you can, and simulate the rest’ (Stuart Candy, 2011)
Simulation is a big word.
As ever, the opposition isn’t virtual/real, but real = virtual+actual.
Without framing or labelling, seeded in the real world, such objects and material scenarios blend awkwardly into their surroundings. Fiction passing as truth. The closet of the (un)real.
So, when I talk of an ethics of design fiction, I’m really asking: to what extent is this thing we call design fiction built on deceit? What of consent? Is this even a problem?
Here, I turn to Jane McGonigal’s PhD thesis, This Might Be A Game – where she briefly touches on the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) as a case study for the performance of credulity.
This pioneering short film is an anchor the oft-repeated origin myth of film studies, in which, startled by the sudden appearance of an approaching train, a significant chunk of the original audience were reported to have screamed, fainted and fled the theatre.
A parable on the dangers of immersive media … and a myth soundly demolished by film historian Tom Gunning.
‘Gunning rejected the idea of an audience cowed by the cinema’s then unprecedented illusionist power, proposing instead that spectators were engaged in a sophisticated, self-aware suspension of disbelief. By feigning belief during their first filmic encounters, Gunning suggested, viewers framed their own experience, willfully playing along with the director. (…)
Today, as a result of Gunning’s work, the vast majority of film scholars reject the once-prevalent notion of panicked, passive, and hyper-receptive audiences. They recognize, instead, that the earliest filmgoers were playful and intentional participants in the creation and maintenance of cinematic illusion.’
Alternate reality games as the performance of credulity. Conspicuous consumption as the performance of affluence.
Could we unhitch conspicuousness and consumption? A world of Potemkin products; after the Potemkin village.
A bright green, propositional design fiction?
To paraphrase Bruce: When will you be more environmentally friendly than your dead great-grandfather?
When all you consume is Potemkin products, made mostly of stories? When your furniture is future fab-feed? When your possessions and keepsakes have been digitised and uploaded to the cloud, continuing to be felt in your life as the imprint of so many semiotic ghosts?
What can we say about thinking in public?
Design fictioneers as Sloanean media cyborgs par excellence, subsisting in those places where reality is at its thinnest.
The nascent role of the ‘in-house bard’ and the cult of the auteur.
Performativity, as ‘that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.’ (Judith Butler, 1993)
The disproportionate agency of certain non-human actants, when those actants are films, gizmos, hoaxes, or exhibits.
That uncanny sense of not being able to work out whether or not something is real, of not being able to feel out the joins between fact and fiction. Whispers of ontological uncertainty.
What, after all, is produced by design fiction?
Affect, belief, desire, conversations, discourse, fear, unease.
The technological imaginary?
If they’re actually enacting the future, should design fictioneers have to work under a warning label? A kite mark, disavowing the reality of said artifact or film clip. A footnote, aknowledging the lack of a supporting material substrate.
And if not, why not?
Exquisitely shot footage, part of ‘Solar Sinter’, a final project from RCA graduate Markus Kayser. How’s that for sense-of-wonder?
((Echoes of Magnus Larsson’s bacterial dune-cement, Rachel Armstrong’s limestone-secreting Venetian protocells, Cesar Harada’s oil spill cleaning robots, and Project LiloRann. Apparently, our century’s mega-engineering is molar, scalable, and crowd-supported.))