Skylar Tibbits Discusses “Being Material”

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1995 that “being digital” would have us entering a realm increasingly unconstrained by the materiality of the world. Two decades later, our everyday lives are indeed ever more suffused by computation and calculation. But unwieldy materiality persists and even reasserts itself. Programmable matter, synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing and wearable technologies capture the attention of engineers, scientists and artists.

“Being Material,” CAST’s second symposium, will showcase recent developments in materials systems and design, placing this work in dialogue with kindred and contrasting philosophy, art practice and critique. Panels on the PROGRAMMABLE, WEARABLE, LIVABLE and INVISIBLE will explore new and unexpected meetings of the digital and material worlds. – “Being Material” Conveners

Skylar Tibbits, Assistant Professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture and one of the symposium’s conveners, spoke with CAST about his views on the digital and material worlds, and some common misconceptions about digitality and materiality. Tibbits founded and co-directs the Self-Assembly Lab housed at MIT’s International Design Center. The Self-Assembly Lab focuses on self-assembly and programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing products and construction processes.  


A conversation with Skylar Tibbits  


How did the theme for “Being Material” emerge? To what degree did it grow out of the “Active Matter Summit”?

That’s a good question. I see it as a blending of the “Seeing/Sounding/Sensing” and “Active Matter” conferences. At “Active Matter” we had mostly scientists, engineers, some designers and a few artists. Mostly it dealt with the technical fronts of where active matter is emerging, what’s happening in that domain and how people are doing it. “Being Material” places that research in a much broader context.

And it obviously relates to Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. It’s saying that yes, in some ways Being Digital came true, as was predicted. But it’s very different from what we thought. Digital is material now. It’s not separate from material, as was originally assumed. Everything is digital, but we’re blending the worlds of the digital and the physical. That lines up very well with the work discussed at “Active Matter.” We were looking at how do materials become active? How do they transform themselves in all sorts of ways? How do they assemble? When do they become literally dynamic? And often that means digital.

The “Being Material” conference is still exploring ways in which the digital meets the physical, but from a much broader perspective, not only from the technical, the scientific and the engineering sides, but from a kind of historical, artistic, and philosophic angle as well. So we’re trying to bring many more people to the table to talk about the context in which this emerged and current applications in a variety of disciplines and to broaden the conversation.


You anticipated my next question. I was going to ask about your response to Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction about being digital. Can you elaborate on this digital-material divide, or the lack thereof?

Generally I think we all agree that the digital has kind of taken over, and everything is digital. It’s ubiquitous now, and it’s completely changed our lives. We all agree with that. But it didn’t create a separation from the physical. We’re not stuck in these digital, virtual worlds. It actually amplifies the physical, and the physical is now having all the properties of the digital. The physical is becoming digital. We’re kind of blending.

So in the digital world, we’re used to things like logic and sensing, actuation, error correction, reconfiguration, copy/paste, shape-shifting things. And that’s becoming the physical. The physical is containing information. It’s making decisions. Physical materials are transforming themselves. They’re assembling themselves. They’re replicating. They’re error-correcting and self-repairing. There are all these amazing things that the digital has brought to the physical that weren’t possible before.

And aside from the interest in digital materials, I think the digital world— computing and software and digital fabrication—has led to a renewed interest in physical materials. So it’s not only that they’re becoming what we call digital materials, there is also a renewed interest in materials themselves. We doubled down on our material interest instead of running away from it.


As you’ve mentioned, this symposium brings together artists, writers, engineers, material scientists, synthetic biologists, among others. What are some anticipated outcomes of this cross-disciplinary discussion? “Being Material” will really have this broad appeal for the general public, to people who are curious about this latest research. How do you think this discussion might benefit lots of people’s work?

With a conference, you have many different interesting goals. Collaborations are really useful and inspiring, and you hope that emerges. You hope that there’s a rich conversation and that people see a historical perspective and future scenario or the implications for this. Why is this important for many different audiences in many different contexts? How does this relate to a long lineage of things, and where does this fit in the context of other things? By making the subject more and more clear, it becomes more relevant for a wider audience. I think that’s useful.

It’s also helpful to have a framework. So in “Active Matter,” we were trying to define a field. There’s all these different people doing these different things, but they’re all related. And so we were trying to define that as a field. And I think this symposium can help create a description of that field and why it has emerged. Rather than connecting the different technical aspects to define the field, in “Being Material” we are creating a much broader and richer perspective on the field.


Since this event is for such a broad audience, what do you think people coming to the symposium should know about this area of research before coming to it? Or do they need to know anything about the subject coming into it?

We’re hoping to take what people think they know about the digital world and flip it on its head. The digital world is completely different from what most people think. And what people think they know about materials is completely different from reality. So what they think they know is not what the reality is for both of those worlds; the digital and material converge. Toward the end of the symposium, the digital world will probably become more physical to them, and the physical world probably will become much more digital. We’ll change people’s perspectives of what those two things are.

Another common misconception is that when people think, “I need to make something smart,” they often think about throwing computers at it and a kind of robot, like electromechanical devices, and a lot of energy and a lot of money and a lot of engineers and a lot of scientists, in order to make this device “smart.” In some of our research—and a lot of other people’s research— we’re showing that it can be actually less and less and less. More and more, elegant solutions end up resulting from pure materials that have these amazing capabilities that we haven’t seen before—elegant solutions that aren’t robotic, device-heavy “computers” or smart things, but they have all this smart stuff. And so it kind of changes our notion of what is digital? And what is a computer? And what is a robot? And what is smart? –when it’s just a simple material. It’s so simple that it’s hard to even realize how it’s possible.

If people come in and assume, “Oh, this is the digital, and I’m thinking about computers and robots,” I think they’ll be really surprised when we’re talking sometimes about textiles, bacteria, wood, plastics, fashion. These are not the things you think about when they’re digital. And then they’re going to have these amazing properties that will be shown. I hope people walk away with a different perspective on what digital means, that it is materials.


Posted on February 14, 2017 by Sharon Lacey