Sara M. Watson: Welcome to MindFul Cyborgs. This is Sara Watson. I am joined [by] Klint Finley. Hey, Klint.
Klint Finley: Hey, how’s it going?
Watson: Good, how are you?
Finley: I’m good. I’m dialing in today from the Web 1.0 Conference in Portland.
Watson: Ooh, I’m so jealous. I wanted to be there.
Finley: Yeah, there’s some friends of the show around. Amber Case, Adam Rothstein, are floating around. So shout out to them.
Watson: Awesome. Is it as retro-tastic as I imagine it might be?
Finley: It depends on what you’re imagining, but yeah it’s been a lot of fun so far.
Watson: Well, thanks for taking time out from an amazing conference to join us for the recording. And we have a very special guest today, Deb Chachra.
Deb Chachra: Hi, Sara.
Finley: Where are you calling from today? I’m at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Watson: Nice. I also happen to be not in Singapore but in Massachusetts, so it’s nice to be on this side of the world for once.
Deb is an Associate Professor at Olin College of Engineering. You may know her as @debcha on Twitter. She also has a great newsletter called Metafoundry, which I think in our newsletter conversation a couple episodes back we name-dropped Deb as one of our favorite newsletters that we’ve been subscribed to for a while, along with Warren Ellis and a few other people.
Deb also happens to be someone who’s super cool and is really good at making cocktails. I have personally imbibed one and benefited from her skills. She also has an amazing vinyl collection. She’s just super cool. So it’s very awesome to have you here with us today, Deb. Thanks for joining us.
Chachra: Thanks. I’m happy to be here.
Watson: So, we have a lot of things we want to talk about today, I think, but maybe the first place to start is to get a little bit more background on what it is that you do as a materials science and engineering educator.
Chachra: Sure. My disciplinary background (so what my actual PhD is in) is studying biological materials. So I’ve done a lot of work studying mostly bone, looking at osteoporosis and treatment for osteoporosis, but also looking at how fluoride in the drinking water affects bone. That’s what I did my PhD work on.
All of that got sort of set aside for a little bit because I came to Olin college to help found the college. It’s a new school. We just graduated our first class in 2006. So I do a lot of research in other things, particularly engineering education. But I do like to keep my hand into the biological materials world.
So besides teaching introductory materials science as well as teaching about biological materials and teaching about materials for implants, I do have sort of a smallish research project that’s ongoing that’s looking at a type of plastic that’s made by bees.
Watson: Ooh. Tell us more about that.
Chachra: It literally I think got started by reading something on the Internet about cellophane bees. And I was like oh, what are these? And I went investigating. And it turns out that there’s actually a family or sub-families or bees called Colletes, and of these there’s a species that’s endemic to the Northeast called Colletes inaequalis. These bees dig underground tunnels that dig under their nests that they use basically to lay their eggs in. So they lay an underground nest, they line it with what looks for all the world like cellophane, they provision it with nectar and pollen, and then they lay an egg on it. And that egg. They do this in May in the spring, typically. Then, over the course of about a year, the egg hatches into a larva, it goes through various instars, and then the following spring it hatches and basically digs its way out of the nest and the wonderful cycle of life starts all over again.
The thing that was really Interesting to me is that these nest cells were plastic, but also the Northeast has terrible weather. It’s hot and it’s cold and it’s wet. So the plastic was essentially buried in the soil, but wasn’t degrading. It was actually protecting the content of the nest from basically moisture, but also bacteria and fungi. So it was kind of an interesting material. So some years ago, I got put in touch with Jeremy Rozen, who’s a senior researcher at the American Museum of Natural History who’s been studying bees since I think about 1958, maybe, and went to see him and started learning more about these bees and got put in touch with someone who knew where Colletes nested in the Boston area and went out and dug up a bunch of nest cells.
For me the super exciting part of that research was discovering that previous work had shown that the nest cells were made out of plastic, so something very similar to a polyester. What we ended up showing was that they actually lay down silk fiber first. In fact, we actually thought we were wrong because there’s not that many adult insects that lay down silk. It’s something that typically larvae do, so think silkworms. But the evidence is actually pretty clear, and there’s enough other adults that do it that we think it seems plausible that adult bees lay down silk first, and then they basically put the plastic on the scaffolding of silk.
So in essence what they’re making is fiberglass, it’s really a fiber-reinforced polymer that consists of plastic around a scaffolding of silk. So one of my former students went and continued this work on fellowship in the UK, and we’re now in the process of extending this work to look at other sub-families within this larger family to see across how many species does this type of structure in the nest cells extend.
Watson: Wow. Cool. That’s such a perfect example of the kind of wow factor or, “look at this totally fascinating and weird thing that happens in nature” that I I really like about your whole newsletter and Twitter. There’s always something totally random. Where do you find this kind of stuff?
Chachra: Mostly just sort of reading and having the sense of what I think interests me? But the one thing I want to say about the bees is that… So these bees are endemic to the Northeast, so if you have kind of sandy soil in your back yard around here, you probably have some of these bees, or you have bees that are very closely related. People are sort of familiar with honey bees, and people have been thinking about bees recently, but solitary bees, so bees that don’t live in colonies, are still not very widely known.
So the thing to me that’s sort of interesting about these is that these kind of bio-mimetic materials are all over and we’re just not very aware of them. These bees are literally beneath our feet. So there’s certainly biological materials that I think of as basically the charismatic megafauna of the biological materials world. Things like seashells and spider silk that are the subject of intensive research by labs that are funded by DARPA. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about, there’s a new North Face parka that’s being made out of synthetic spider silk, so spider silk that’s manufactured by bacteria. These are the things that are kind of telegenic and get a lot of play. But there’s an enormous world out there of biological materials that we mostly don’t even notice that are still sort of interesting.
So one reason why I’m interested in these bee nests is because they’re kind of a proof of concept of a bio-derived plastic that is quite resistant to degradation. If you think about if you’ve ever had used biodegradable cutlery, which is typically made of polylactic acid (PLA), it this sort of beige, matte-textured stuff. You’ll notice that if you start eating hot soup with a spoon, before you’ve finished the soup the spoon will be noticeably damaged. Which is fine for disposable cutlery. But we might be interested in having things that are an alternative to petroleum plastics that don’t degrade in short periods of time but can be broken down over a long period of time. And we know that these nest cells do eventually degrade because otherwise if they didn’t we’d be up to our eyeballs with all the nests that were created since the last Ice Age.
I think there’s a whole world of biological materials out there that most people haven’t spent much time paying attention to, and those really do fascinate me although as I said its only a part of what I work on these days.
Finley: Maybe we could back up a little bit and try to define what materials science is. It’s sort of not on a lot of people’s radar all the time.
Chachra: Yeah, sorry. It’s the curse of the scientist. It’s like, “Yes, everyone knows everything I know!” Materials science is the study of how typically the physical properties of materials relate to the underlying structure and composition, and then also how they’re made or the process of.
So the physical properties commonly used include things like mechanical properties, how strong or how stiff things are. But it can also include things like optical properties. It can also include things like electronic properties, so how do semi-conductors work. I like to think of it as lots of…basically the way we interact with the world, the way things behave when we interact with them, where do those properties come from? And those properties typically come from underlying atomic or molecular structure, as well as how they’re manufactured. And often, for example, in the case of semi-conductors extremely carefully manufactured so that they have the properties that we need to build transistors and circuits out of them.
Finley: Going back to what I was just saying about it not necessarily being on a lot of peoples’ radar, it feels like materials science has been on my radar a lot more the last couple of years and been getting a lot more press. You mentioned the spider silk parka. Graphene has been getting a lot of attention. Or is it just me? Does it seem like materials science is having its moment in the public eye, or is it just kind of a coincidence for me that I’m seeing all this stuff lately?
Chachra: I think I’m going to have to say yes and no. As you pointed out, I think that not many people know what materials science is per se. But I think certainly if you’re interested in design at all you end up noticing materials. I’ve described materials in the past as being basically the infrastructure of design. It’s the stuff that’s there that you just use and you don’t necessarily think about where it comes from. Or you think about how you can use it but you don’t really think about what the source of it is.
Designers do spend a fair bit of time thinking about what materials to use, but they don’t necessarily think about why those materials have the properties that they have. And I’m more interested in the latter question than the former question. But one of the things is that it’s really impossible to do design without thinking about what the material you’re going to make something out of is. And then the second piece of it is that as more materials become available it really expands the possibilities for design.
One of my favorite examples of this is in the 70s, when you think about polyester clothing we sort of thought of it as very plastic-y and not very comfortable and that it would tend to get sweaty or wet because it didn’t breathe very well. And around the 90s (and it’s funny because I’m actually deducing this from the materials as opposed to from first principles) there was a rise in polyester clothing, particularly originally for technical use. I think my first polyester clothing was a t-shirt for running in made by Nike.
Basically it became possible to extrude out, to actually use spinnerettes, to make very fine fibers of polyester. And what that meant was that it was much more comfortable to wear, it was much more breathable, it could wick moisture away from the skin. So I think around the mid-90s I was doing triathlons so I had one t-shirt that was made of polyester that I could wear, that I could pull on over my wet swimming suit. And then I had my first Polartec fleece headband that I got for Christmas and I wore that for a run (I was living in Toronto at the time) and was just kind of astonished to come home…my ears were nice and warm and I could see the moisture beaded on the outside of the headband from my sweating during the run, but it was kept away from my skin.
Since then, of course, we’ve seen this rise of things like Patagonia uses recycled polyethylene terephthalate to recycle soda bottles to make fleece and Polartec and lots of performance fabrics that have actually gone from technical wear into kind of urban or streetwear now. So this whole thing has happened, but unless you’re paying attention you wouldn’t necessarily have noticed the fact that there’s all these new materials, all these new textiles, that are available and that they’re available because of advances in the materials processing of polyester and other synthetic materials.
So I would use that as an example of how changes in materials enable these kinds of advancements but we don’t necessarily see them, because we see the output, we see the products, and we don’t necessarily realize there’s a sort of underlying change in the materials behind them.
Watson: Klint, you were kind of touching on the fact that some of the attention to 3D printing might be a way that we’re starting to pay a little bit more attention to materials.
Finley: Yeah, that was another avenue. New materials are coming out for printing or that there’s this need for innovation there. So it seems like that’s driving more attention to materials, but also semi-conductor materials or the Internet of Things. The need to create new types of sensors and sensing materials that those depend on. But again, it’s hard for me to tell if that’s just the stuff I’ve been writing about for Wired or if the general public is seeing more of this stuff. But I feel like I see more stories about materials science just out in the world than I have before.
Chachra: As I said, partly I think it’s driven by people being interested in design. So whether that’s design in the more general sense or whether that’s 3D printing or whether that’s the Internet of Things, it’s really hard to talk or think about design without thinking about materials.
When the new iPhone came out, there was the video about how the gold was handled to make it hard. It was like, how do we make 22 or whatever karat gold have reasonably good resistance to being scratched? So Apple pretty regularly comes out with stuff that’s like, “Hey, these are the new materials that we use in our design that enable the design that you have, that enables the design of phones.” As I said, because new materials are such a driver of new designs, if you’re paying attention to new designs you’re definitely going to see new materials.
Watson: That was such a huge piece of the personalization aspect of, especially in the watch. It was all about which materials and which…almost fetishized videos, right?
Chachra: I’m sorry, I misspoke. It wasn’t the new phone, it was the gold of the new watch.
Watson: Right, yeah.
Chachra: And it’s funny because I watched the video and I was like, “Oh yeah,” I mean I’m sure that there’s chunks of it that are very proprietary in Apple’s stuff, but I literally teach the processes that they were using to my first-year materials science students. It’s sort of standard approaches to hardening metals, although I’m sure that Apple’s specific technique is proprietary.
Then of course the other thing is that it’s not necessarily new materials, it’s doing unprecedented things with new materials. My favorite example of that of course is the Gorilla Glass that’s used in phones, because that glass— It’s about strengthening glass by basically putting it into a bath of molten salts so that the ions in the salts then diffuse into and then embed themselves in the glass.
That technique was developed in the early part of the 20th century. I want to say in the 30s, perhaps, maybe a little bit later. But certainly a long time ago relative to electronic development. It was a process that definitely made glass much tougher, so much harder to break. But at the same time it was a super-expensive process. So it really wasn’t until…was it the iPhone 3 or the iPhone 4 that was the first one that had glass on both sides? Basically the application for it didn’t come along until many decades later, where something that was high-value enough where those properties that really mattered were worth paying for. It really enabled the design of modern phones, but also modern screens generally, to have this glass that is much much much tougher than other types of glass. So Corning, which invented this glass, it basically was this enormous resurgence in the company to be this patent that they held, this glass that they developed, suddenly this glass that they invented became incredibly useful and valuable to them.
Finley: It seems like environmental and social concerns are also playing into people’s growing awareness of this sort of stuff. The term “conflict material” is in our collective lexicon now, and people really thinking more about rare earth minerals and things like that that are hard to get or that are very limited in the environment, and the need to replace those or think about those.
Chachra: And one of the things that’s kind of interesting about 3D printing is that it can be… So, people sort of thing of 3D printing as sort of the starting point for the materials. It’s like, “Oh we’re building something from the raw materials.” But of course the ABS or the PLA or whatever you use is also the endpoint of a global supply chain of materials. So you might be thinking of a reel of filament as the starting point but in fact it’s actually a sophisticated product in its own right.
But there are certainly people who are doing interesting things. I know there’s groups that are looking at, for example, recycling soda bottles and water bottles into filament and using those for 3D printing, particularly in places that don’t necessarily have access to the financial or other resources to buy filament. That basically reusing waste material is sort of fundamentally sustainable; that if you had these materials anyway you can reuse them for printing. So there is a fair bit of interesting stuff going on in that space of thinking about how do we repurpose plastic that’s already been used for 3D printing? How do we create materials for 3D printing that are sustainably sourced? Bio-derived materials are a good example of that.
But there’s also a fair bit of, “Oh, well we just buy the filament, that we made the filament.” And trying to get past that is something that a number of people are engaged in. And I think if you really want to think about 3D printing as a distributed supply chain, then I think it’s really important to think about the raw materials also being distributed and thinking about how to source the raw materials, both sustainably but also locally rather than part of a larger supply chain.
Finley: That’s a good transition to something else we wanted to talk about, which was an article that started out in your newsletter then was run by The Atlantic web site, which was “Why I Am Not a Maker,” I think that was the title of it, and how looking at who we as a… I guess we could say the broader tech and design communities, who we think of as makers and who we don’t. Maybe I should let you talk about it, but there’s kind of the sense of a guy 3D printing stuff in his garage is a maker, but the person at Foxconn who actually is building the 3D printer, or the miner who is finding some of the raw materials… Those sorts of people, we don’t think of them necessarily as makers. Or am I misremembering it?
Chachra: No, actually. I think you actually made an interesting point that was not in fact the primary point of the article but I want to pursue that as well. The general point of the article was that we value making. So making physical objects, whether it’s 3D printed or whether it’s craft, anything that’s a discrete physical object, we value that above doing work that doesn’t involve making, which usually involves working with other people and is often caregiving.
So basically anything where you actually make a physical thing ends up being valued more than doing anything that has to be done over again, for example keeping house or doing anything that involves working with other people like caregiving. By and large. In particular, historically these divides have been pretty strongly gendered, that caregiving was generally female and then actually making things, particularly making things for public consumption or to be sold or to be shared, were male-dominated. Most of the making that was done by women was only seen by their immediate families or possibly communities. Certainly nothing that their names were attached to.
One of the things that I see in the making movement is this idea of reaching for that type of validation, the validation that’s associated with making things. Whether this is crafters calling themselves makers or whether this is schools trying to have more maker culture, the idea is that you can align yourself with making because making is something that has been historically rewarded in a way that other activities haven’t, and in particular caregiving. So teaching, taking care of children and taking care of older people or people who are sick, has not been rewarded.
So I think the gist of the article was not that I don’t think that making is valuable. I’m an engineering professor and I teach engineers, and a huge chunk of that particularly at Olin is teaching them how to design and make things. It’s that I think that we undervalue the people who are involved in taking care of other people and I’m sort of pushing back against the increased valorization of making in favor of no really, I would actually like to see us value caregivers, and value educators, and value teachers and nurses more than we do as a society. And as I said, I suspect part of the reason why they’re not valued as much is because these are gendered activities, things that are traditionally marked as female.
But the point that you just made, Klint, about making (3D printing something) versus making (working in a factory), I think that actually goes back to Ursula Franklin, who wrote probably—if I had to point to one book that’s probably the single most influential book on me, it would be her book The Real World of Technology, which is actually a series of lectures that were broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989, I believe.
She distinguishes between prescriptive and holistic technologies. A holistic technology is what we tend to think about when we think of artisans. People who have control over the whole process beginning to end, and are making decisions about what to make, how to make it, making decisions during the actual process of making itself. Whereas prescriptive technologies are those that are typically governed and ordered from above. The quintessential factory work or work where everybody sort of does their own component. I’m thinking of Adam Smith’s making pins, where everybody makes their own component and then together you end up with something. But that means that everybody needs to do their own piece of it to the specifications of some kind of oversight, so a person, a system, and so forth.
So when we think of making or makers, quite often we really just focus on people who are using holistic technologies. People who are making decisions about what they want to make from beginning to end, the sort of artisanal approach, and we do not think about making in the sort of prescriptive technology context, whether it’s creating the systems for making or whether it’s doing the actual physical labor of making. So yeah, I think there’s two distinct points there, and in general in our world being a holistic maker is still kind of a luxury. Not everyone has access to doing that kind of work.
Watson: The reason I really enjoyed that article is I think you’re doing something really important, which is pulling out the value-laden charges that are going on in this rhetoric about maker movements and the underlying neoliberal approach to valuing that kind of work, and what you’re kind of pointing at is how charged those terms really are. But it’s interesting because it also makes me think of how in this context of course maker’s very gendered in the male sense, but if you think back, homemaker is the fundamental female version of that, right? You are making a home. But whether that’s valued in the same way in the same language, it’s almost completely divorced from that kind of meaning.
Chachra: And historically it’s not like women haven’t been making things. They just haven’t necessarily been getting the external validation and cred for doing so. Just trying to think of an example, reading Little House of the Prairie as a kid—
Watson: Churning butter, and pies—
Chachra: And making clothes, right? And spinning wool and making sweaters, and basically women were making things all the time.
Watson: Including babies, by the way.
Chachra: Right, yes. And some of it is consumable. Things like keeping your family fed. But lots of it is permanent, like making sheets and clothing and the like. The idea’s not just who does the making, it’s who gets credit for it and what kinds of things do people get credit for?
Finley: And there’s also a class element to that insofar as the motivations for making are also sort of prioritized. Making your own stuff because you’re poor is unglamorous, but making your own computer because you’re a haxor is totally rad. Or making your own clothes because you’re part of the Etsy craft movement is really just seen and valued in a completely different way from making clothes at home or repairing clothes at home for purely economic reasons.
Chachra: Yeah and there’s lots of people, and certainly women, who are like, “The reason I make my own clothes is because I can’t buy clothes that fit my body or that I can’t find clothes that fit me that have the aesthetic that I’m after.” So it’s because they’re actually poorly-served by mass production, not because of any sort of commitment to making their own clothes. The choice is between being poorly-served or learning how to do this. And of course we valorize making in the developed world, but in developing countries making is not really an option. You need to do the most you can with what you have available to you.
Watson: And that almost gets back to the prescriptive vs. holistic division, right? The fact that we’re talking about makers now, it’s responding to the fact that we are part of this larger supply chain, major commercial way of getting most things. And that is all part of this prescriptive system. So it’s almost revaluing or reintroducing the value of holistic making in response to not being a part of that, not being a cog in the wheel.
Chachra: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s precisely about the experience of working with holistic technologies and holistic making, often in explicit contrast to prescriptive technologies, in explicit contrast to mass production.
I wrote recently about how I get annoyed when I see the word “artisanal.” The main reason I get annoyed when I see it is because I feel that the word artisanal to me is explicitly linked to holistic technologies. So when it’s used, particularly used by companies that don’t have any transparency in their process, then it seems highly likely that they are not in fact holistic, that they’re likely to be prescriptive technologies.
So when McDonald’s says that they have an artisanal chicken sandwich it’s like yes, I believe that chicken sandwich was hand-made. I do not believe that it was hand-made by someone who had any agency over how they were going to make it.
Watson: Right. Well this is the same as the IKEA “this is hand-woven.”
Chachra: Yeah, and you see that a fair bit for mass-produced objects produced under prescriptive technology, and it shows that [there are] lots of things humans are actually still better at making than robots. And when I say better I mean cheaper, as well as better. So it shows that it’s actually cheaper to pay humans to make these things by hand. Everything from tamales at Trader Joe’s to iPhones that are manufactured by hand. Your iPhone is not artisanal.
Watson: Absolutely. Unless you have bedazzled it or etched it in some way to personalize it.
Chachra: That’s because you have the agency and the autonomy over what you’ve chosen to do, but I guarantee you that the person who actually made your phone had zero autonomy over what they chose to do with it.
Watson: Right. I’m curious what the response was from the maker community to this article. How much pickup did it get? Was there mansplaining going on about what people are doing in the maker movement?
Chachra: Predictably, people who identify themselves as makers… I did not intend it to be an anti-maker screed. I intended it to be sort of a pro-looking-beyond-maker screed. But people being people, certainly people who identified as makers read it as sort of an anti-maker thing.
What was much more striking to me was the number of people who contacted me to say, “You know, I’ve felt this for a long time and I really appreciate you articulating these ideas,” or “It’s really made me rethink how I think about making or the maker movement.” I think people perceive it as an unalloyed good and didn’t stop to think about why they thought it was an unalloyed good. And I think this sort of made people pause a bit and think about, “Okay wait. Why do we think that making is good and worthwhile?” Which is of course a really great question to have people asking themselves, particularly for things like— Obviously I have a vested interest in things like education, to think about why are we valuing this over other things that we could be valuing in our educational systems?
Watson: Another parallel piece that I think really pairs well with this that just came out recently, I think this week, also in The Atlantic (love The Atlantic) was Ian Bogost’s piece about the engineer in the tech industry. I think there’s an interesting parallel unpacking what it means to value makers and value engineers in this economy of technology, and he’s basically arguing that the title of the engineer is actually lessened in the tech space because programmers are not really necessarily serving the public interest as traditional conceptions of engineers have in the past.
It also runs parallel to a critique that I’ve had about calling the work that tech companies are doing as data science kind of giving the imprimatur of Science with a capital S or Engineering with a capital E to the work without necessarily the rigor that these institutions have had in the past. Deb, did you get a chance to check that article out?
Chachra: It crossed my path, but I didn’t actually check out the article itself. Although I would point out that engineering has always kind of served two masters. Less so science, but certainly engineering. And you know, I see this as I said being an engineering professor, there’s always this tension between the company that you work for and working for the public good. Yes, there are civil engineers who mostly work on public projects, but there’s lots and lots of mechanical engineers who work for car companies, or chemical engineers who work in oil companies.
I went to engineering school in Canada, and Sara I’m not sure if you saw or noticed this, but I wear a stainless steel ring on the pinky finger of my right hand. The reason why I do that is because in the 1920s, I think, one of the professors at my alma mater The University of Toronto decided that engineers needed something akin to the Hippocratic Oath, that they needed some formal recognition of the responsibility that they had to the public at large. So he wrote Rudyard Kipling (you know, poet of engineering) and asked him to design a ceremony for graduating engineers to under go that would be sort of parallel [to] the Hippocratic Oath, that would basically ask them to formally recognize the responsibility that they had to the public.
So Rudyard designed a ceremony. It’s technically secret. It’s a little white man-burdened, especially if you’re in a place like Toronto which is an incredibly diverse school and had lots of women in it. It sort of assumes you’re a white Christian male who’s getting an engineering degree. But one of the key ideas in it is that you have to be willing to blow the whistle on your employer. It very explicitly recognizes that there may be a conflict between what you’re doing for the person who pays your salary and what’s better for the world at large, and that you should be prepared. And you wear a ring on the finger of your working hand so you see it while you work. You should be prepared to do what’s in the public interest, even if it means going against the person who’s signing your paychecks.
So certainly there is absolutely a history of this sort of tension between what is the public good and what works for your company. And one of the things that marks professions as opposed to just jobs is that they are seen to have an element of working in the public interest and doing so in an ethical way. So engineering, just like medicine, has been good at putting understanding what the boundary of the profession is and recognizing that the reason why we have these boundaries is to say, “We work in the public good. We don’t just work for our employers. We work for these larger goals.”
I kind of think the ship has sailed on calling things engineering or not engineering, but I think even within engineering, if you work for a car company are you really working in the public interest? But at the same time I think a formal recognition that you have responsibilities that go beyond the company that you work for is— so rather than saying that software engineers shouldn’t be engineers, I would rather than engineers said, “Oh yes, if we’re going to call ourselves engineers, we need to take on these responsibilities to the public that go beyond just who we work for.”
Watson: Right. And I think that is part of Bogost’s point. Engineering has this rich tradition, as you so nicely shared that story about the ring. There is this history and kind of weight to the code of ethics or code of practice. But I think in software engineering that code of ethics doesn’t necessarily exist or isn’t quite so formalized or structured right now. And I think, as you suggest, if we’re going to call ourselves engineers or data scientists or whatever, we should hold ourselves to the rigor that we’re kind of benefiting from by calling ourselves that.
Chachra: And it’s the same thing with makers. If you’re going to call yourself something why are you choosing to do that? What sort of unpacking, what is sort of the virtue to doing that? And certainly calling yourself an engineer is about taking on that sense that it’s a profession not just a job and that it has concerns larger than just, “I’m just going to do my job.”
To me one of the things that’s really challenging, though, is that it’s hard enough to tell with physical objects whether or not something is done unethically or ethically. Like did we really cut corners on this to the point where it’s going to endanger people or is it going to be okay? And then of course there’s the VW thing, which increasingly seems like they could say, “Well it was just a software thing; it’s just a couple of people.” But it’s really hard to imagine that it could not have been a systemic decision, and the value or rather the impact on the public good seems incredibly clear of letting cars deliberately fail emissions testing. But I feel like in the case of software it’s much much harder to make decisions about what’s in the public good and what’s not in the public good.
Watson: Before we go, I wanted to talk a little bit more about some of your cyborg work, or overlap. At Cyborg Camp I think you were talking a little bit about the material science of cyborgs, of grinders and that whole community. Do you want to say a little bit more about that? Maybe just explain who grinders are and what they’re doing and how those interests overlap with your material science and engineering interests.
Chachra: Sure. First of all I should say that I am not a grinder. I have some number of piercings and tattoos, but I would not call myself a grinder. I’m not pushing the envelopes of what people can put in their bodies. Grinders are basically people who are doing this. They’re typically implanting things in their bodies that could either provide extended or different functionality.
The classic example of it is implanting a magnet, but it could also be things like there’s an embeddable version of the North Paw compass. It’s an embedded haptic device that tells you which way north is. It was originally designed (and I’m so ashamed that I cannot remember the person who designed it) by someone at NYU’s ITP program. The idea was that it was an anklet that you wear and as you walk in the city and you change direction, the side that was north would buzz. So it would basically give you an ambient awareness of which way north was, and there’s now an embeddable version of this. So that’s a good example of using an implant to provide you with a sense that you would not otherwise have, in this case basically a compass sense, an awareness of where north is.
Coming from a more traditional bioengineering/biomedical materials background, all of the stuff that I talk about and teach about in materials science is really about the averages. It’s really about what works for most people. It’s what the average response is. But what grinders are really typically interested in is what works for them. It’s a one-person experiment; you’re going to implant it in your own body and see what works. And different people have different responses and it’s probably a safe bet, for example, to assume that grinders have generally more positive responses to implants than on average because otherwise it would be a very frustrating hobby to be involved with.
So the thing that spoke about at Cyborg Camp, and that I think is kind of an interesting space is the idea of grinding as citizen science. As I said, traditionally the way we get new biomedical devices out there is it gets developed by some company, and it goes through FDA trials that look for both its safety but then also its efficacy. So one, making sure that it doesn’t actually cause problems and then two, making sure it does what you’re actually trying to get it to do. And it’s an onerous process. I should point out that I am not anti FDA processes. I think it’s important that there is a large-scale system that is auditable and trackable and that actually determines that things are safe. But it takes an enormous amount of investment to do this.
On the other hand, there is a whole bunch of people who are now implanting things in their own bodies and moving forward, and what I would kind of like to see is more of that being systematized and shared so essentially soft of a grass roots building up of this body of knowledge about what things work and what things don’t work in a way that isn’t necessarily possible in the classic top-down FDA approach. So to me that’s kind of an interesting thing. And it’s hard, because a lot of this stuff is quasi-legal.
This is where I have the disclaimer. I am not a doctor. I am not endorsing any of this stuff that people are making their own decisions about what they’re choosing to do. But if people are going go to do it, then I would love to see more of it get shared. So from my point of view, part of that is actually having enough of an understanding of what the biological responses to implants are, or what are the quality issues with the materials, so that you can appropriately write about, document, share, what you’re doing. Because it’s hard to describe things if you don’t actually know what’s happening, because you don’t know what’s significant and what’s not significant. But actually having an understanding of the biological processes that occur with implants means that you’re in a much better position to describe what’s actually happening, which means you’re in a much better position to document them and share them with other people. And I kind of feel like if people are going to be doing this, then it seems like kind of a logical thing to do that and to share.
So here’s an example. My friend Quinn Norton implanted a magnet in her finger a number of years ago and she wrote this up for Wired. As part of the final exam for one of my courses, I give the piece that she wrote to my biomedical materials students and I ask them, “Okay, you’ve now learned about these biological processes. When you read Quinn’s report for Wired, tell me what you think is happening. What are the underlying processes? What are the biological processes that are happening that Quinn is describing?” Basically it’s a bit about putting those two things together, the formal knowledge of biomedical materials together with individual experiences that people have.
Watson: Yeah, that’s great. And it sounds very similar to the kind of scale and scope of what people are doing in the quantified self community, like trying to find a very personal solution and either test or set of factors to look at on an “n of 1” scale, but also sharing it out and sharing it as a practice and sharing it as a learning. Even if it’s not quite Science with a capital S, it’s something to share the practice of, I guess.
Chachra: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. And I think for similar reasons. Every person is different, every person responds differently, every person is motivated differently. We talked about makers and supply chains the sort of mass systems don’t necessarily respond to everyone. They’re things that works on average for people, but they aren’t necessarily the thing that works best for a given individual. So both the quantified self movement and the grinding movement are really about taking these systems that are generally made for large groups of people and figuring out, “What can I do within this realm that actually works for me.” So I guess what I’m advocating, and I know what you work on in the quantified self movement, is then how do we integrate what works for individuals and what can you learn from what people do as individuals that we can then think about more broadly.
Watson: And how does that feed back into the larger picture to have a better sense of the edges, right? Like, it’s not just about averages and standard deviations.
Chachra: Yeah, exactly. What are the edge cases. Because you know, sometimes something is fractal. You can have awful lot of edge for a given amount of area or volume. Just because it’s an edge case doesn’t mean that it’s minor or limited. The edge cases are often the determinant.
Watson: Absolutely. That seems like a good place to wrap up, the importance of the edge case. Deb, thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people find your work?
Chachra: Probably the easiest place to keep on top of what I do is my Twitter account, which is @debcha, and there’s a link that goes from there to my newsletter if people are interested in following my newsletter. Those are probably the two best places to keep on top of what I do.
Watson: That is where I follow Deb, absolutely. And we’ll definitely have a bunch of links in the podcast notes, a bunch of those articles and books and all of these good things that Deb has been talking about with us today. Awesome. Be well, guys.
Chachra: Great. Thank you.
A detailed examination of the Apple Watch materials videos at Atomic Delights, with explanations (and some speculation) about the processes shown.
Quinn Norton eventually had the magnet implant removed.