Kevin Kelly : Out of Control

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I am sealed in a cottage of glass that is completely airtight. Inside I breathe my exhalations. Yet the air is fresh, blown by fans. My urine and excrement are recycled by a system of ducts, pipes, wires, plants, and marsh-microbes, and redeemed into water and food which I can eat. Tasty food. Good water.

Last night it snowed outside. Inside this experimental capsule it is warm, humid, and cozy. This morning the thick interior windows drip with heavy condensation. Plants crowd my space. I am surrounded by large banana leaves — huge splashes of heartwarming yellow-green color — and stringy vines of green beans entwining every vertical surface. About half the plants in this hut are food plants, and from these I harvested my dinner.

I am in a test module for living in space. My atmosphere is fully recycled by the plants and the soil they are rooted in, and by the labyrinth of noisy ductwork and pipes strung through the foliage. Neither the green plants alone nor the heavy machines alone are sufficient to keep me alive. Rather it is the union of sun-fed life and oil-fed machinery that keeps me going. Within this shed the living and the manufactured have been unified into one robust system, whose purpose is to nurture further complexities — at the moment, me.

What is clearly happening inside this glass capsule is happening less clearly at a great scale on Earth in the closing years of this millennium. The realm of the born — all that is nature — and the realm of the made — all that is humanly constructed — are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.

That’s banking on some ancient metaphors. Images of a machine as organism and an organism as machine are as old as the first machine itself. But now those enduring metaphors are no longer poetry. They are becoming real — profitably real.

This book is about the marriage of the born and the made. By extracting the logical principle of both life and machines, and applying each to the task of building extremely complex systems, technicians are conjuring up contraptions that are at once both made and alive. This marriage between life and machines is one of convenience, because, in part, it has been forced by our current technical limitations. For the world of our own making has become so complicated that we must turn to the world of the born to understand how to manage it. That is, the more mechanical we make our fabricated environment, the more biological it will eventually have to be if it is to work at all. Our future is technological; but it will not be a world of gray steel. Rather our technological future is headed toward a neo-biological civilization.

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