Stefan Helmreich 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

Stefan Helmreich, Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology and Program Head, MIT, one of the symposium conveners, spoke with CAST about digitality, past and present; MIT precedents for current work at the intersection of the digital and the material; and the unseen aspects of our material world.  


A Conversation with Stefan Helmreich


The theme “Being Material” is a response to Negroponte’s 1995 work Being Digital. Could you describe Negroponte’s premise? And the premise of the symposium conveners?

In 1995, as the World Wide Web was gaining traction in many people’s work and play practices, expanding their professional and public experiences of the Internet, there emerged a good deal of excitement about the possibility that social relations, financial transactions and media consumption would increasingly unfold in digital worlds, moving, to take Negroponte’s phrase, from the realm of “atoms to bits.” Economies and societies would become newly organized around what Negroponte called “the global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light.” In many ways, Negroponte’s claim was tremendously prescient, and much of what he predicted has come to pass.

At the same time, the material world — the world of atoms — is as vigorously present as it has always been, even as digital technologies have reshuffled how we do things like conduct research, compose music, elect politicians or organize protests. It is also the case that all of our digital technologies remain relentlessly material things — made of atoms of gold, silver, silicon, copper, tin, tungsten, phosphorous, antimony, arsenic, boron, indium, gallium and much more. Thinking about the digital through these elements and their combinations can point all sorts of ways: toward the transformative possibilities of active and programmable matter and meta-matter; toward novel ways of crafting, inhabiting and encountering cyborg bodies; toward imagining fresh fusions of biological and computational dynamics; and, of course, toward the economic relations that make the extraction of minerals for digital devices so worrisome from the point of view of environmental toxicology and environmental and social justice. Our premise with Being Material is to attempt the impossible task of speaking about all of these things at once.

Is there some concrete example you can point to that indicates where we are now in terms of digitality and materiality?

Think of how the efficiency of “mining” for Bitcoin, an aspirational form of digital cash, is dependent upon the cost of the electricity that powers the computers on which such mining is done, a fact that has made Iceland  — with its cheap geothermal and hydroelectric power — an attractive site for Bitcoin calculation and extraction. This convergence might be understood as emblematic of how, in our time, being digital depends thickly on particularly ways of being material.


Several of the sessions are anchored in MIT history and research. Could you explain a bit about the MIT precedents for current work being discussed at the symposium?

The most recent precedent is probably what Skylar Tibbits has spoken with you about — the innovative work that he and his colleagues have done on active matter, which examines and works with the self-organizing properties of matter, particularly matter that is far from thermal equilibrium. But we could certainly look much further back in MIT history to think of the work of figures such as mathematician Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, which he defined in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” and which he used to motivate researches into such technologies as the hearing glove, which meant to transduce sound into tactile sensation. Here, “sound” was decomposed into discrete segments — digitized, after a fashion — to be materially transposed into something haptic. MIT scientists have long been crossing boundaries between the abstract and material, making their abstractions material and their materials into fresh conduits for generating abstractions and theoretical innovations.



What topics will be addressed in the Invisible session? Who are some of the participants that you’ve invited? Could you highlight some of their work or discuss how it fits within this symposium?

Let me speak to the INVISIBLE panel. Our organizing question here is this: how do we see material things? For the purposes of our panel, we can break that question down, too, into a few subsidiary ones. When technologies of cloaking and new kinds of machine and robotic vision change the material capacities and possibilities of seeing — of who and what can see what when — how might this shape what can be considered visible and invisible? When material networks of monitoring, surveillance, and data capture are mobilized by governments and by citizens for a range of purposes, how does this torque the politics of seeing? And if material things often bear the traces of their conditions of production and circulation — as carbon footprints or toxic waste — how does this inflect our understandings of visible and hidden conditions of being material?

The panelists we’ve invited speak to these questions is various ways. George Barbastathis is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT who has done astonishing work to create an optical invisibility cloak, a calcite crystal system that may make it possible to hide objects in plain sight. Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen, explores and documents invisible infrastructures, ranging from secret corporate and government sites to networks that are increasingly known through technologies of machine vision. Lisa Parks is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT who writes on television, satellites, drones and infrastructures of surveillance. Michele Murphy, professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, is a historian of science who studies often-invisible ecological infrastructures, tracking, for example, the way environmental toxins are made visible or invisible. Her most recent work has been dedicated to rescuing scientific data about climate change as it comes under threat from anti-science governmental efforts of various sorts.

The panel conversation will be moderated by Sandy Alexandre, professor of Literature here at MIT. Alexandre writes on black American material culture — particularly literature and photographs — and examines how histories of black displacement, invisibility, and vulnerability haunt and energize the ways black lives matter now. She’ll frame the discussion with reflections on evidence — on what counts as evidence, depending on who is looking; and on what is hidden as evidence and why. We’ll be thinking, then, about the many meanings of seeing and un-seeing material in the age of being material.


Since the second day of the symposium coincides with the March for Science and many of the speakers and participants plan to march, could you comment on the urgency or importance of this event?

Sure. I think of it this way: BEING MATERIAL — and being digital, for that matter — demands that we be with science and engineering, both in the sense of standing with the scientific method and its results as well as in the sense of recognizing that all of us — scientists, artists, humanists, engineers — must be with one another, in support of reliable accounts of the material world, accounts crafted in cross-disciplinary solidarity, dialogue, and, as demanded, debate. We’re already doing that at MIT – in our labs, our research groups, and our offices. The symposium continues that spirit of collaboration.

But if being material is being scientific, artistic and humanistic — that is, being things that MIT is good at — it also looks to mean, for many of us at MIT, BEING VISIBLE in support of such alliances, especially as they may be under threat from funding cuts to the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Whether one wants to join in, witness, or even critique the March, it looks itself to be a potent experiment with BEING MATERIAL, BEING VISIBLE and BEING AUDIBLE, in alliance with science.


Posted on March 13, 2017 by Sharon Lacey