Archive | October, 2012
Gallery 11 Oct

It’s smelly, squishy and gross – let’s build with it! Christina Agapakis in Arc 1.3, out now

Gallery 10 Oct

Soon all the world will be a stage, says David Binder. In Arc 1.3, out now

In Arc 1.3: Christina Agapakis among the misfits and visionaries of DIY-bio

9 Oct

Synthetic biology promises to make life clean and tidy. Thank goodness, then, for the misfits and dreamers of DIY-bio, says Christina Agapakis…

Industrialised biotechnology offers us commoditised biology, simplified and sterilised, hidden in vats pumping out medicines and fuels. In food and agriculture, biotechnology leaves us with just a handful of species that we then process into the thousands of products you can find at the supermarket. A team of iGEM students I mentored for the 2010 competition asked whether iGEM’s standardised parts could instead lead to a garden, its plants modified to produce different colours and flavours.

Our team wasn’t immune from the iGEM trend towards gears and mechanisation (a friend, more cynical than I am, once suggested that iGEM’s primary output is actually logos with cells turning into gears). Still, we tried to include imagination, aesthetics, and taste in our engineering strategy, to make biotechnologies at the human scale. Food is not just fuel; it’s life, cuisine, and culture. Our bodies aren’t machines; they are complex biological systems, assemblages of human and microbial cells that grow and change. The genomes of the human ecosystem can be read and perhaps even rewritten, but they will still respond to our environment, to our food, to our culture, in varied and beautiful ways.

@thisischristina is a synthetic biologist, educator, and Scientific American blogger exploring the role of ecology, evolution, and design in biological engineering. She works at UCLA in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Art | Science Center.

Read more in Arc 1.3 a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details

Gallery 9 Oct

Justin Pickard attempts to derail the engine of human progress – with a little help from General Ludd. In Arc 1.3, out now.

In Arc 1.3: David Binder on the festivals that shape whole cities

8 Oct

A new kind of festival is weaving through the world’s great cities, and it’s not so much theatre, says producer David Binder, as a way of life:

For The Sultan’s Elephant, Royal de Luxe, working with Artichoke Productions, brought central London to a standstill with the story of a little girl and her friend, a time-travelling elephant. For a few days, they transformed a massive city into a community where endless possibility reigned. The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner wrote: “If art is about transformations, there is no more transforming experience… What The Sultan’s Elephant represents is nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people.”

We could talk about the huge economic impact festivals have on their cities. But frankly, for me, the numbers are the least interesting part of the story. A festival can bring a community into a new awareness of itself. It lets it express itself more vibrantly. So a festival’s impact reaches far beyond its actual time span. Festivals promote diversity. They set the neighbours talking. They create opportunities for civic pride, improve psychological well-being, and increase creativity. They make cities more liveable.

When The Sultan’s Elephant appeared, just nine months after the July 7 London bombings, a man from Manchester wrote: “For the first time since the London bombs, my daughter rang back home with that sparkle in her voice. She’d gathered with others to watch The Sultan’s Elephant and it just made the difference.”

David Binder has produced Broadway shows (33 Variations with Jane Fonda, A Raisin in the Sun with Sean “Puffy” Combs), off-Broadway shows (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, De La Guarda), festivals (The High Line Festival curated by David Bowie), and one-night events (IBM’s 100th anniversary at Lincoln Center). He is on the faculty at the Yale School of Drama.

Read more in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

Gallery 8 Oct

Hugging the machines: Mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman in Arc 1.3, out now

In Arc 1.3: Justin Pickard sets Ned Ludd loose on the banking system

7 Oct

Machines are poised to make us all redundant – but only if we let them, says Justin Pickard. Here’s an extract from his piece in Arc 1.3, out now.

In addition to its acts of machine-breaking and organised raids – the recourse of the desperate – Luddism had a powerful impact on popular attitudes, as protesters sought to undermine the authority of the magistrates and thief-takers with a tide of threatening letters, songs and bogus legal summonses. Straddling oral and written culture, the traditions of rough music delivered a clear message, according to Katrina Navickas: “The workers had lost faith in the legal process to protect them, and therefore mocked it and tried to make it their own.”

This is an impulse familiar to today’s digirati, many of whom still cling to the belief that information technology can at best transcend (or at least, offer a genuine alternative to) realpolitik, brute force and physical coercion. On 8 February 1996, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s John Perry Barlow issued A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from Davos, Switzerland: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

We had heard this sort of thing before. For Kevin Binfield, author of Writings of the Luddites, it seemed, for a time, that the various missives of General Ludd had opened the space for dissent – a space quickly filled “both by protesters in enlarging their demands for change and by the authorities in their attempts to come to terms with what seemed to them a many-tentacled underground conspiracy.” From the outside, this gave the Luddites the impression of being – like the social media-wielding movements of the Arab Spring earlier this year – far more organised and cohesive than they actually were.

Read more in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

Gallery 7 Oct

They left a dying earth in search of a new home – but their children got there first. Darren Hopes’ illustration for All Your Futures by David Gullen. In #Arc1.3, out now

In Arc 1.3: Sumit Paul-Choudhury says thanks for all the music

6 Oct

Time to break up the band – music doesn’t need us any more. In Arc 1.3, editor-in-chief Sumit Paul-Choudhury explains how, in less than a human lifetime, music learned how to outperform its listener. Here’s an extract:

Sound is just data, after all – and any data can be turned into sound. The laser whine of the big bang. The subterranean klaxon of a Japanese megaquake. The skittering of Twitter. The rolling melodies of the Higgs boson. If it comes as data, you can listen to it. Maybe even dance to it.

And then sound turns into objects.

Half a century after Nancarrow began punching his piano rolls, the Realitat studio in Mexico City turns classic albums into sculpted tubes: a reconfiguration of Edison’s wax cylinders, an extrusion of the vinyl record. Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina becomes a polyhedrally-faceted mountain range; Portishead’s Third a digitised sea urchin; Einstürzende Neubaten’s Jewels a contour-mapped spire.

In London, Animal Systems unveils Chirp, a system designed to help electronic devices share information over short distances through short snatches of melody that resemble cyborg birdsong. Sound is data, but music is instructions. (That’s why MIDI has so comprehensively outstayed its welcome.) If your phone can hear my phone, it can tell it to show you a picture, a web page, a document. Perhaps even to play another tune.

Let’s riff on that. My phone sings to your 3D printer; out comes a plastic toy. A wooden spatula. A working kidney. It sounds like conjuration: magicking something out of nothing but some enchanted melody.

A song is a blueprint is an object, all in one. The internet of things sings, and the songs are recordable, replayable and remixable. Music concrète indeed.

Read the rest of this article in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

Gallery 6 Oct

Simon Ings strums a lyre over the burning remains of Western civilisation in Arc 1.3, out now