Biologizing the Infocene

An Interview with Michael Sedbon

“I try to highlight the tensions between our map of the world - the information we produce to describe phenomena - and the world itself. ”


Michael Sedbon is an interaction designer and artist based in Paris. His work explores digital networked technologies and systems through their convergence with non-human intelligence (plants, unicellular organisms, insects, bacterias, etc.). Through his practice, Michael interrogates the Infocene, a term he has coined to describe our current cultural era where Information is the force that has the biggest impact on human societies and environments. He holds a Master in Interaction Design and a Master in Digital media and Communication. Michael is the recipient of the Bio Arts and Design Award 2019. His works have been exhibited in multiple cities in both Europe and Asia.

CMD: Experiments in Bio-Algorithmic-Politics uses self-learning algorithms that test different market strategies of competition and collaboration to see which relations of production will allow a set of cyanobacteria cultures to thrive in the long run.

Your works build on the concept of the Infocene. Can you elaborate on this idea and how it comes to play in your various projects?

I try to highlight the tensions between our map of the world and the world itself. Our government strategies are increasingly dependent on data. In the making of these datasets, the technical and physical apparatus come into play as much as the strategy of data collection. Although these datasets are most of the time described as objective and rational, they are as biased as any other form of technical knowledge.
I design and build biological computers that make use of sensors to understand things about the environments and systems they live in (Weather information in Alt-C , Oxygen production and “Healthiness” of photosynthetic bacterial colonies in Cmd and electrical activity in unicellular organisms in Ctrl). They embed software that makes use of these data to make decisions, often in an attempt to manipulate the overall system.
I aim to bring a critical view of the collection, the potential use cases, and the power of data as a means to govern societies and ecosystems.

How has your concept of agency shifted through your study of biological systems and ecology? What differences do you see between machine and biological agency?

Agency is often looked at as the product of a motivation to act in a system, and the power that the effect of this motivation has on the system. In that view, the notion of consciousness and planning in the action is central.
What is of some interest to me is that we are currently shifting our world view to allow non-human agents and larger-scale events such as climate deregulation or population collapse to fit in our understanding of the world. And that goes by the production of non-human-centered cultures and knowledge in which we confer agency to new entities carrying actions sometimes deprived of planning (accident, chain reaction and feedback loops). In the meantime, we re-evaluate what can be considered conscious by actualizing concepts from other times (like Gaia) and by creating new metaphors.I became interested in plant intelligence and interspecies communication while researching Wood Wide Web 1.0. I realized how much the literature on these subjects was blooming in the past decades. Thinking of forests as peer to peer networks makes you reevaluate your assumptions about intelligence, computing and agency.
To some extent “Machine agency” refers to “Humans agency through their tools” and as we know, our tools have a very big impact on ecosystems and human societies. From there, it is also interesting to notice that some research tends to reduce biological things to machines in order to abstract them in ways aiming at predicting things like population growth or ecological impact. We extend our conception of machines to ecosystems and in doing so, bring an engineering approach to the underlying problems. With that in mind, considering machines as cultural things allows us to question the very notion of “function” embedded in “biological machines.”

You mention a new status quo granting non-human entities agency over political, economic and ecological systems at an unprecedented speed. Do you think recent biological and technological breakthroughs are marking a cultural paradigm shift in how we distinguish between life and non-life? How do artists and designers react to it?

To deal with some of the questions brought up by the development of artificial intelligence (in a broad sense including the questions of privacy, exclusion, automation etc...) and the global deregulation of ecosystems and climates, new legal framework and technological infrastructure will have to be developed. Events like New Zealand or the UAE granting a form of citizenship to rivers and robots, and therefore, granting them some rights and agency are participating in this paradigm shift.
In the meantime, we see grassroots initiatives like Terra0, a blockchain-based project whose goal is to provide a forest with a technical infrastructure (drones, sensors, network and smart contract) for it to be independent in the management and trade of its own resources. If this initiative remains human-centered (selling natural resources on a human market) it is interesting to think about possible emergent properties of such technological/algorithmic systems when it comes to decision-making processes.
This is definitely marking a cultural paradigm shift in how we distinguish between life and non-life. I think that looking at what we consider intelligent or having agency is a good prism to assess this paradigm shift. Some people talk about “Mineral intelligence” to mention the cognitive tasks executed by computers while others argue about whether or not viruses are alive but no one argues about their agency and power to control and disrupt systems.
Changing the terms of the life/non-life dichotomy might allow us to treat life differently and reconsider the mechanics of power in a non-human centered way, thus, helping us design more resilient and sustainable systems.

Alt-C, Michael Sedbon, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

What is your understanding of categories such as “synthetic,” “nature,” or “hypernature?” Do you see the natural world as becoming subsumed by the medium of technology, leading to a research-able and programmable “ecosphere?”

These are always tricky terms to define. In a broad sense, everything is natural or part of nature but making a distinction between things that heavily require human interventions to exist - like complicated materials or infrastructures - and simpler structures is relevant in assessing how easy it might be for non-human systems to cope with synthetic changes. In that sense getting hypernatural would mean designing systems and things that might easily be assimilated by non-humans or making a more clever usage of naturally occurring materials (and/or lifeforms) The old saying “the invention of the car is also the invention of the car crash” is a lesson to apply in all things designed. All innovations show some degree of danger for ecosystems through time. It would indeed be a safe approach to embed systematic quantification and assessment of innovation’s impact on ecosystems. To do so, implementing means of quantification with near to real-time response could lead to design practice that iterates over environmental factors. In that sense, an approach would be to use these research strategies to enable the ecosphere to program and control human-made innovations. We can definitely see that the natural world is being understood by the means of technology and things we’ll have to cope with (Anthropocenic problematics) are happenings at such a scale, and in interconnected manners, that being able to model the problems through large and relevant datasets seems crucial to be able to formulate appropriate strategies.

Many of your projects focus on making invisible processes more visible to the human eye. For instance, the fluctuations of an economic market or the electrical impulses sent as communication between plants. Do you see yourself acting as a cross-species facilitator between humans and non-humans (including machines)?

On the one hand, the technological backbone of our societies operates at a planetary scale and in speeds of the magnitude of the microsecond. Meanwhile, our activities have ecological impacts sometimes through decades. The pace of these events is hard to grasp through the human scope of experience but they are some of the great forces driving our lives.
It is pretty interesting to experiment with how these things can interact. Interspecies communication is a fascinating field and some research showcases how a lot of the information we need to understand the world is already collected and processed by animals, insects, and plants. We will see more and more technological projects focusing on listening to what’s already being said by other species. There are good reasons to hope that these projects will be less intrusive and hard to cope with for ecosystems while giving us a better understanding of the things we look at.