On Hybrids

RISD Industrial Design Thesis
2015 — 2016

This project merges ideas from biology with practices from industrial design in order to sketch case study forms that serve as a collective lens through which to speculate on the similarity, difference, hybridity, entanglement, agreement, and conflict of biological and technological beings in the world. See all the work at the project website: on-hybrids.eli-block.com.

Thesis advisors: Dr. Claudia Rebola & Dr. Nicole Merola

The origins of life on Earth are a true biological mystery. While much research has been and continues to be devoted to studying early life, from the very first fossils to novel synthetic organisms enlivened by complex chemistries in the lab, there exists no definitive answer to the question of our beginning. And so life is slippery and elusive. Like many phenomena, it exists on a spectrum, with inanimate objects on one end and the truly alive on the other. But the murky question still remains: when does dead matter become alive? Both specifically and broadly, the natural sciences have identified three traits that an entity requires in order to be classified as living and be able to evolve: a body, a metabolism, and a heritable information transmittance system. Upon some reflection, it can be seen that combinations of these three attributes classify everything in our universe—from the distant stars to the computer on which I type this document. The question of life’s contemporary origins is thus ongoing. And yet, seldom are the abundant, designed objects of our everyday lives categorized based on their own liveliness. Objects are designed with function, purpose, and utility, but never with the complete suite of attributes that define evolving life. And so it becomes the job of the designer—that agent removed from the life of the object she designs—to evolve matter into fitter and fitter forms—forms that can serve their users well, better, and so on. Here lies the pitfall of the designer: the creator’s fundamental divorced-ness from the objects she produces. The contemporary design process can thus be conceptualized as a form of mediated evolution. Ultimately, the process of mediated evolution is laborious, and while it is able to match the throttling pace and extreme efficiency of modern industry, it steals agency from things.

And so this project drives at exploiting the lack of alternatives to a mediated evolution for objects. The project exploits the dearth of concrete design proposals to address the problematic and unsettling uniformity of design practice within the technological world, but also the dearth of conceptual thinking about alternatives to the human-centered design model.

Through a shifting, nonlinear creative practice, this project drives at building a research methodology robust to confusion, a report open to change, and a vision unhindered by practicality all from a series of case study objects responding to and investigating the solar system of ideas orbiting biology and product design. Collectively, this suite of case studies in turn serves as a functional, purposeful, utilitarian product, which, through its own use, simultaneously and paradoxically breaks the cyclical tie between functional, purposeful, utilitarian design and the modern human designer and closes the loop between product revision and evolution by cutting out the removed creator otherwise known as the evolutionary mediator.

Applying biological thinking to industrial systems—but especially evolutionary biological thinking—allows one to consider an untapped, fundamental alternative to the contemporary design paradigm. At present, humans imagine, define, and build their own world (often atop the world of other living things). At present, humans mediate evolution and thus indirectly subjugate non-humans. In the end, applying evolutionary thinking—about ways of actualizing objects by providing a route through which they can design themselves—drives at a unique breed of speculation that opens the door to radical futures—radical futures that may serve to refine, confound, or destabilizing contemporary thought surrounding matter, objects, things, non-humans, non-human animals, and living systems more generally. It is the role of the industrial designer to push the boundaries of designing for mass production, aesthetic appeal, and utility. In this specific case, leveraging biological thinking to stretch the industrial design paradigm flings it into a state of uncertainty, where it is both broken and more complete. In this hybrid, resonating thought–state, it is essential to examine elements of our world critically in order to evaluate the moral rights and meta-significance of objects dead, alive, and possibly somewhere in between.

Thesis text excerpt from the On Hybrids publication.

Eli Block © 2018