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IEET > Rights > Personhood > Life > Innovation > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Rachel Armstrong

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Can Life Be a Technology?

Rachel Armstrong
By Rachel Armstrong
Next Nature

Posted: Apr 15, 2012

In 2009 the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy coined the phrase ‘living technology’ [1] to draw attention to a group of emerging technologies that are useful because they share some of the fundamental properties of living systems. The technologies fell short of being fully ‘alive’ yet they possessed at least some unique characteristics that are usually associated with ‘life’: Self-assembly, self-organization, metabolism, growth and division, purposeful action, adaptive complexity, evolution, and intelligence. Examples of this new field of technology include synthetic biology, attempts to make living systems from scratch in the laboratory [2], ICT systems exhibiting collective and swarm intelligence and robot companions.

‘Living technology’ may be an oxymoron, yet despite its innate contradictions, it does not propose an empirical measurement of the ‘aliveness’ or ‘usefulness’ of the systems it represents. Rather the term implies a fundamental change in the way we engage with our world. Indeed, the idea of living technology embodies a complex, non-mechanical approach to the process of problem-solving, which frames the expectations of its performance.

The technological concerns of living technology are allied with Martin Heidegger’s ecological view of technology. Heidegger regarded our relationship with nature through technological revelations as being more significant than any utilitarian function. He proposed that modern technology turns nature, and ultimately humans, into a standing reserve of resources [3]. Living technology shares this ecological concern and suggests a more environmentally compatible kind of technology, which is more complex, interconnected and responsive than the machine-based devices that have characterized the 20th century.

Since ‘livingness’ embodies a unique set of properties that machines do not possess, such as robustness, flexibility, the capacity to deal with the unexpected and the ability to surprise, then living technology operates in fundamentally different ways than machines, particularly in the way that they are controlled and interacted with. Living technologies evade dualistic modes of operation (such as on/off switches) and hierarchical notions of organization, such as the pods described in David Cronenberg’s 1999 film ExistenZ, which depicts humans reacting and interacting with an organic, living videogame. Indeed, when it comes to living technology, it may not even be possible to see the control point, let alone figure out how to turn it off, shut it down or even remove it – so the expectations and engagements with them change. Additionally, the inherent complexity of these technologies affects more than just their organizational aspects, but their embodiment too.
In the science fiction story “The Universe of Things,” Gwyneth Jones (2010) [4] describes an encounter between a human being and an alien whose superior technologies are intrinsically alive:

“They had tools that crept, slithered, flew, but they had made these things… They built things with bacteria… Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything.”

In contemporary Western culture we are accustomed to being trapped in a world of dead, or merely passive, matter, which is constrained through the machine metaphor to serve our own purposes. Living technology empowers to engage with the inherent energies in the non-human world as ‘actants’ [5], which have their own powers, therefore enabling us to ally ourselves with them [6]. Jane Bennett calls this property of the non-human world ‘vital materialism’, which is the recognition that “vitality is shared by all things,” and not limited to ourselves alone [7].  Through vital materialism, we learn how to accommodate their nature and their needs, as well as our own. In other words, we discover how to exist harmoniously within an ecology of relationships, rather than thinking solely in mechanical terms.

However, living technology is not independent of human existence. It is not alive, and actually depends on interactions with humans for its context, functioning and survival. More life-like technologies increase our responsibility towards our planetary resources, and are a necessary step in our engagement with a more ecological way of revealing and creating influence in the world. The politics, ethics and implications of living technology are still emerging and are a recurrent theme for the discoveries of next nature.
Photo of quadrotors via Tech2.




1.Bedau, M., (2009). Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research, Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206.

2. Hanczyc, M. M., Toyota, T., Ikegami, T., Packard, N., & Sugawara, T. (2007). Fatty acid chemistry at the oil-water interface: Self-propelled oil droplets. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 129(30), 9386 – 9391.

3. Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, trans. William Lovitt and David Farrell Krell in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. by David Farrell Krell, Revised and expanded edition (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 287-311.

4. Jones, Gwyneth (2010). The Universe of Things. Seattle: Aqueduct Press.

5. Latour, Bruno (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Trans. Alan Sheridan and 
John Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press., p.159.

6. Harman, Graham. (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne:

7. Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 89.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.
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Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we have used the word “technology” to describe things/objects that humans devise, build and use. More and more, “technology” has become a synonym of “progress” and even, to a point, “future”. But we have always considered “technology” as a boundless entity. The non-definition of “technology” has always made me feel uneasy. We can’t accept to define a concept without defining its realm of action, where it makes sense, where it stops making sense. For a concept T, what lies outside its definition, what’s inside non-T, or ¬T.

Surely, we accept that living things are not part of the definition of T. But the boundary is not that obious. Surely, we don’t have absolute control over almost every technology we use, and we cannot describe completely, down to the laws of physics, everyday stuff such as an air blower or a magnet. So what about GM (genetically modified) food? Pure dog breeds? Using nematodes to fight grubs? The boundary between “nature” and “tech” is blurry ever since humans have started using tools and selecting dogs. Even ants use “technologies” for venting their tunnels, keeping mold away, etc.

Another blurry boundary lies within cyberspace. Let’s say we define an online universe with bizarrely twisted laws of physics, and offer the players an object-creation toolkit. We would end up with technologies that make absolutely no sense outside the (software) limits of this online world. Would these objects still be considered “tech” from an outsider’s point of view?

Most definitions of technology have implicit or explicit prerequisites. Just looking at Wikipedia’s general definition, we can get a pretty good outline of what is technology (in a classical way).
- a technology must serve a purpose (e.g. it exists for a reason, this reason is of human origin, can be understood by humans, and it is non-random/non-self-modifying)
- a technology is a tool, machine, technique, craft, system or method of organization (e.g. there is an implication of direct human control)
- a technology is used by humans or other animals (living things?) to control, adapt to, or modify their environment (e.g. it has a biological creator, is non-living, and functions as a “biological-environmental interface” at some level)
- a technology implies the transformation of natural resources (physical materials) into organized and controllable artefacts (e.g. a technology is the result of a transformation or a reorganization by a biological creator)

Then, we can consider the futurologists’ dreamy stuff. Self-replicating robots, nanotech, computronium, utility fog, non-supervised self-modifying algorithms, fabbers and nano-assemblers, non-messy transmutation, zero-point energy, etc. I would say that most of these “thingies” are slightly outside the realm of technology, or at least we would need to push the envelope a bit too far (in my opinion) to make them fit within our technological evolution. Perhaps we need to better define “human-made technology” and what is ¬tech, and Post-tech.

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