From today, will start posting some of the outcomes from the Mutable Matter workshops. The workshops took place in Nottingham (2), Leeds (2), London, Milton Keynes (2) and Southampton.
I tried to recruit non-scientist participants, however, some participants had a background in science or a strong interest in it. Most participants were recruited from Open University alumni as well as Open University undergraduate courses and were between 26 – 65 years old.
But, first of all, what happened in the workshops?
A workshop was designed as a mixture of hands-on modelling and dialogue and was divided into four phases. In the first one, I showed participants ‘atoms’, or, rather, images of ‘atoms’ made with the help of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM). For this phase, I showed examples where atoms appeared round and ordered in more or less recognisable formations. I then asked the participants whether they could imagine making something with these atoms if atoms did look like this. Provided they had the facilities to do this – what would they design? The participants were then invited to symbolically realise some of those designs with materials such as plasticine, magnets, ‘slime’ and polystyrene balls.
For the second phase I, again, used STM & AFM images – this time using more ‘liquid’ looking ones to potentially question the first set of images. Again, I asked whether the participants could imagine designing something from what they saw.
The third phase focused on the forces and other conditions at the nanoscale and how they might contribute to a design and/or the imagination of this scale.
In the fourth phase, I introduced designs that scientists and graphic designers had come up with so they could be discussed or compared to the participants’ own designs.
Here are some examples of the kind of designs and stories that emerged in the workshops (mostly from the first phase). Some were intentionally humourous, but sparked off quite serious discussions.
1. A nano wound dressing that helps tissue to repair itself. One of two designs that related to nanotechnology’s use in medicine (the other one related to cancer detection).
2. A ‘designer atom’ (‘Labyrinthium’) that changes its properties according to how the electrons (represented by the polystyrene balls) are distributed. This model (as well as the ‘Mexican atom’ model) led to a discussion of copyright, patenting and other property-related issues.
3. This is an example of questions that related to ‘what is already there’ on the nanoscale that we may or may not know about, may or may not integrate into ‘nanotechnology’. The model represents a two dimensional plant or ‘nano fossil’.
4. Here, a participant imagined how the nanoscale is already present in and impacting our scale. The participant’s chosen example was ‘interconnectivity between species communities’: how knowledge about how plants work together at different levels could help us ‘invent’ new plant communities and help promote certain species. A follow-up discussion branched off into different, but related directions: how ecosystems work, how ‘communication’ happens between parts of ecosystems, the creation of ‘chimeras’ through technology and how influential humans are on the environment.
5. This model represented communication between ‘primordial building blocks’. The discussion of this model revolved a lot around how to imagine and think oneself into what is going on at this scale including the temporal dimension of this scale (what has been going on for billions of years). There were similar examples of struggling with the imagining of this ‘scale of life’.
Not all participants engaged in modelling. Different reasons were given for this. Amongst those were:
– accepting the method would signal complicity with the idea of nanotechnology which the participant was highly sceptical about
– already having made one’s mind up about the subject and not wanting or needing to further explore the subject
– ‘people do not learn anything from hands-on activities’
In these cases, discussions took place following the same phases, but without the modelling.