Category Archives: Technoscience

What is the Grass? Watching How to Grow a Planet

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” st. 6

Grass short cell phytoliths in silificied epidermis from Late Cretaceous coprolites from Pisdura, India. Scale bar = 10 micrometers. (See http://depts.washington.edu/strmbrgl/StrombergLab_website/R_Poaceae_evolution.html)
Microscope image of fossilized grass found in a dinosaur coprolite (i.e., a fossil feces). This specimen dates from the Late Cretaceous, about sixty-five million years ago. Scale bar = 10 micrometers. (See the short post here, from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Washington University.)

Last Thursday night found myself mesmerized by a documentary on TVO about grass. Like, absolutely glued to the set with my mouth hanging open. Now, I’m sure you need a moment to back up off the edge of your seat, so take all the time you need.

StewartThis was the final episode of a three-part series from the BBC called How to Grow a Planet, hosted by geologist Iain Stewart. This episode, entitled “The Challenger,” follows Stewart from the ancient cloud forests of Kenya to a South African national park, from the mid-western United States to Senegal, and, finally, Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey.

I strongly encourage you to check out this series, so I won’t get into all the details here.  Suffice to say that “The Challenger” follows our hero as it battles trees for dominion over the vegetable kingdom on terrestrial Earth. It’s like Game of Thrones for the horticultural set. Things start to hit close to home near the end of the episode, when grass is held up as the prime mover of hominid evolutionary and cultural development. Continue reading What is the Grass? Watching How to Grow a Planet

Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice

Last week, Dissertation Reviews posted a review of my own doctoral thesis, Creatures of Artifice: Rodney Brooks and the Bioethics of Animated Machines. DR is a relatively new website (founded in 2010) that offers “friendly and uncritical reviews” of recently defended dissertations. What began as a fairly specialized forum for reviewing dissertations in Chinese history and Asian studies has quickly expanded to include research in science studies, bioethics, medical anthropology, and media studies, with the intention to keep growing. Continue reading Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice

Grindhouse Posthumanism

I have been meaning to get this post out since I first saw Ben Popper’s article for The Verge, Cyborg America, about “basement body hackers,” way back at the beginning of August. A new teaching assignment at Humber College as well as an ongoing editing contract have kept me from posting for the past months, however.

I embed the video here, but I also encourage you to read the accompanying article.

I sent the link around to a number of my colleagues after covering issues of technoscience and ethics in our classes. One of them sent me a message back, saying that, while Popper’s article is certainly interesting, he takes the “cyborg” practices to be somewhat outdated here. He points out, correctly, that a lot of transhumanist discourse now envisions human enhancements at the genetic and nano levels. Continue reading Grindhouse Posthumanism

Failed Sorcery at Menlo Park

Sam Van Olffen, Eve Future.  Many of Van Olffen’s images have become synonymous with steampunk and dieselpunk.  See more of his work at Blogspot.

The description that the fictionalized Thomas Edison gives, in Villers’ L’Eve Future, of the inner workings of the android Hadaly is entirely fabricated. It is a brilliantly imaginative bricolage of extrapolations based on Edison’s productions up to the early-to-mid 1880s (the novel was initially published in 1886).  The centerpiece of Hadaly’s design is a twin set of golden phonograph records that house the sum of her physiological and conversational behaviour.  In the novel, Edison is of course rather vague on the finer points of how this set up works in practice, at times suggesting that Hadaly would be able to respond appropriately to particular gestures and queries put to her, while at others he appears more modest in his claims, implying that her activities would run on a set schedule to which one would more or less become accustomed. Continue reading Failed Sorcery at Menlo Park

The Cyborg: More Humanist than Human

Painting by Fred Freedman, LIFE 11 July 1960.

Over at Cyberneticzoo, Reuben Hoggett has posted some great images and articles about the cyborg as it was conceived in the early 1960s by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. The above image appeared in LIFE magazine, in a write-up about the Clynes and Kline’s cyborg. A hilarious send-up of the cyborg, pictured below, appeared a few years later in Popular Science.

Popular Science, Oct. 1963.
Continue reading The Cyborg: More Humanist than Human

Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

“I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”

The hen electric, pregnant with the electric fetus. (The Empty Fortress 323)
I just finished reading the mammoth chapter on Joey in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self as part of my research for my paper presentation at SLSA 2012. It is a greatly expanded account of the case study Bettelheim presented as a Scientific American article almost a decade earlier in 1959, and offers much more detail about Joey’s treatment at the Orthogenic School as well as the psychic “rebirth” that marks the beginning of his journey out of his delusion.

The tale of Joey initially interested me because of his elaborate fantasy, according to which he believed himself a machine requiring elaborate apparatuses to remain alive.  The Scientific American article concentrates on Joey’s machine world, Bettelheim going so far as to suggest that this extraordinary case study “has a general relevance to the understanding of emotion in a machine age” (“Joey” 117).  It is this dimension of the story that establishes the broad topic of my SLSA paper, where I will primarily explore connections between children and machines.  But Joey’s story, as recounted in The Empty Fortress, closes the “cybernetic triangle” of animals, humans, and machines, with numerous references to nonhuman animals and a crucial role played by hens. Continue reading Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy