Biomimicry

It began, as it often does, with a series of tweets:

@serial_consign: While I detest biomimicry, I have to say I am floored by representation of/thought behind “Growth Assembly” bit.ly/zmjLNU

@debcha: @serial_consign I don’t detest biomimcry. But I do hate any design fiction that is more or less completely uninformed by the science.

@serial_consign: @debcha I think taking cues from natural processes is interesting, but making objects/arch look like organic forms for sake of it is trite!

@debcha: @serial_consign Exactly. I despise ‘biomimicry as superficial aesthetic’ rather than ‘biomimicry as deep influence’.

At which point, I butted in with some questions, but I won’t repeat it all because I think we mostly got confused about terminology. However, @debcha did mention an important difference that I will repeat. She distinguishes “between ‘biomimicry’ and ‘bioinspired’ or ‘organic’ as an aesthetic description. [...] ‘biomimicry’ doesn’t mean it looks like something biological.”

And this is true. As Wikipedia will tell you (as it told me, because I know very little about the subject):

Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.

In other words, biomimicry is all about the functional aspects replicating natural patterns, not about the aesthetics: the “looks like”.

Now, I may not know much about this, but I have been thinking about it. For whatever reason, the cross-overs between nature and technology have been running think and fast of late. I was just reading this article this morning, which I actually believe I stumbled across within the same Bruce Sterling blogpost in which @serial_consign discovered the image he originally tweeted. Bruce calls it a meme, and if I was going to trust anyone on this, it would be him.

My question, that I posed a number of ill-designed ways, is this: what are we doing, in the differentiation between “works like” nature, and “looks like” nature? This is a judgement call, but an important one, because it is so specifically apparent. It isn’t just @debcha and @serial_consign’s personal tastes that makes buildings that look like seeds (for example) seem to be overblown sci-fi. Buildings that grew from seeds: I think we’d all agree that is pretty excellent. But buildings that just look like seeds: meh. Contrived? Weak? A little too Futurama? There is a defined difference there, and it is something that is easy to see.

Of course, there is a long history of futuristic architecture out there, and futurist design of all kinds. Whether it’s Googie, Modernism, or Brutalism, all of these aesthetics are meant to invoke a particular generic idea of a positive, future program. Even if the form is derived from a functional theory of that object’s mechanics (like the aerodynamics of Googie, the ergonomics of Modernism, or the efficiency of Brutalism), that aesthetic ends up taking on its own life apart from the function. We know this, because something can “affect” like one of these aesthetics, without actually being one of these aesthetics.

And if the word Skeuomorph just came to the tip of your tongue, you are quite the atemporal aesthete, aren’t you? Because, therein, is exactly the phenomenon we are talking about. “Works like” can produce a certain “looks like”, but then, even after the “works like” evolves in another direction, we keep the “looks like” our of habit or custom.

Bio-inspired, therefore, is perhaps the atemporal reverse of a skeuomorph. Because the “works like” is not technologically feasible as yet, it settles for the “looks like”. This is Bruce Sterling’s famous “astronaut luggage” example. (Can’t remember the keynote exactly, but I believe it was the well-known “Atemporality for Creatives” talk.) It works like this: you want to be a recreational astronaut, but aren’t the head of a global corporation? Well, just design yourself some astronaut luggage, and start using it. Sure, you might look a little weird carrying astronaut luggage on a boring old jumbo jet. But really, how exactly to our design signifiers work? What other way is there to show people that you’ve been to space? Are you going to whip out a moon rock to show off to everyone you pass in the street? And really, how weird is it to carry astronaut luggage? Is it weirder than the fact that the CEO of Cirque de Soliel has been into space because he came up with way to take a date to a pole dancing event for $100 a ticket?

So we have “anachronic” skeuomorphs, and we have “neochronic” skeuomorphs. The former lingers, and the latter presages. Even though, neither really “does” anything: it just “looks like” it does something.

Or do they?

The reason a doubt first entered my mind, and the reason I began asking such ill-designed questions of @debcha and @serial_consign, is that I’m not quite sure that “looks like” can ever really be apart from “works like”. And it’s not just an inspirational effect of the aesthetic. Sure, building a structure that looks like a seed might serve to somehow inspire a genetic engineer to figure out how to make a structure that grows from a seed, but the causality is specious at best. You would be much better off making sure children get a good math education if you would like to go to the moon, than simply building apartments that look like rocket ships.

And yet, everything must “look like” something, right? Just as much as it must “works like”. Think of an object: say, a lamp. Even if the lamp doesn’t look like a jellyfish, it has to look like something. Ought it to look like a platonic solid? A hat? A space ship? There is an aspect of aesthetic preference involved. If you really like icosahedrons, then you might make yourself a lamp that looks precisely like that. Or, if you really don’t care, you can just get the easiest lamp to find that seems to produce as much light as you want. Or if you don’t have much money, you might make do with a lamp you picked up on the street corner, which looks the best, because “free” is a pretty acceptable aesthetic decision maker.

And yet, the lamp will continue to look like something, even if you pick it out in the dark. You will be sitting in the room with that lamp, day in and day out, using it as a light source, and will be forced to look at it every time you turn it on our off. There is no such thing as “doesn’t look like”.

In which case, what is opposite of a bio-inspired lamp? A non-bio-inspired lamp? Okay. But it is still a lamp.

A lamp, as a light source, is always “inspired” by illumination. This is its “works like”. It’s function mimics incandescence, or florescence, by actually doing just that. It mimics the sun, and fire, and also the hearth. A lamp ought not to produce too much heat, or produce smoke (the benefit of electric over oil or gas), or be so bright that we can’t look anywhere near it, like the sun. In its functional design, it mimics certain functional characteristics which avoiding as many downsides as possible. And hence, every lamp will have a certain aesthetic. It will “look like” a lamp.

It may seem that I’m going around in circles, but I think that is the point. Even a modernist lamp, completely not bio-inspired, by being a physical object following physical laws in order to maintain its functional definition, will in a sense, be using biomimicry. “Works like” always informs a “looks like”. Aesthetics, then, are merely an effort to add additional “mimicry” inflections onto a functional element. A lamp will always function, to a certain extent, like a bioflorescent jellyfish. Whether, beyond this function, is further designed to look like a jellyfish even more than it already does, is beside the point.

Yes, I’m quibbling. Saying any lamp that illuminates automatically “looks like” a creature that fluoresces isn’t really accurate. Because a lamp could quite easily “look like” a rocket ship much more than a jellyfish, even if it “works like” a jelly fish much more. Unless we start using Titan rockets as mood lighting. (Aren’t philosophers a pain in the ass?) But figuring out what we actually mean by our genres identifications and functional chains of causality is all about quibbling. If we just go with our gut, we haven’t defined anything.

And yet, lamps still look like lamps, and lamps that look like sea creatures are still potentially cheesy. We define things as different, regardless of obscure similarities, because these noted aesthetic differences (also subjective differences, or semantic differences) in themselves become functional. Differentiating between a lamp that simply looks like a jelly fish, and a light source that actively bio-floresces is important, because one is a matter of style, and the other would be a scientific breakthrough. They are clearly not the same thing.

But here is the question I will end with: the distinction between biomimicry and bio-inspired aesthetics are easy to differentiate. But does the ease of distinction between form and function follow for other genres of design? For example: at what point is a Brutalist building not merely efficient, but simply Brutalist? At what point are aerodynamic fins not actually aerodynamic, but just look as if they were? Must we measure a building and complete engineering equations to decide if it is a skeuomorph or not? Must we use a wind tunnel to aesthetically judge cars?

Perhaps, it is not that bio-inspired design is cheesy. Perhaps we haven’t discovered what real bio-inspired design looks like yet. Because, once we do, perhaps only an expert could tell the difference.

Posted: January 4th, 2012
Categories: Ballast
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