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Black Sky Thinking: The Technology of Nature

A graduate of Cambridge University, Rachel Armstrong completed her clinical training at the John Radcliffe Medical School at the University of Oxford in 1991 and in 2009 embarked on a PhD in chemistry and architecture at University College London. She now serves as co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) at the University of Greenwich, London, and as Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. In this essay, based on a late September presentation at FutureFest in London, Dr. Armstrong recalls the English soothsayer known as ‘Mother Shipton’ and the petrifying well in Yorkshire that has long been associated with her name. The ensuing thoughts on black sky thinking take us into the realm of ‘living architecture’ and her engagement with the worldship ambitions of Icarus Interstellar.

by Rachel Armstrong

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” Henri Bergson

They said she was a born a crone. An abomination, forged from leftovers that Nature would not claim – spat out as a bastard child in a damp cave by the River Nidd, as the very moon shunned her.

They said her stench was so rotten that she walked on a cloud of flies.

They said she turned water into stone.

They said these things and much more. And yet they went in droves, down to the Petrifying Well to see ugly Old Mother Shipton.

Figure 1

They all came, hoping to influence their fates, since the woman who defied the very laws of Nature could also see what the future had to hold – and so, enable them to take corrective, or aversive measures. Yet the powers of this sorceress were incompletely revealed for she was also the guardian to a technology that could match the potency of Nature.

Yet, not all the things they said about Mother Shipton were untrue. Today her miraculous technology lies unclaimed, lurking in full view, as a tourist attraction.

Figure 2

While the Enlightenment gave us a new set of tools that replaced our oracles and used the powers of science to enable different kinds of predictions, even these approaches had their limits, being less reliable as time passed, or as events became increasingly complex. Indeed, even in our highly technologized era our ancient anxieties are stirred when our current toolsets cannot clearly see the future.

Figure 3

We have recently come to regard these limits as singularities, which are technologically mediated events that introduce time and complexity into our reality so rapidly that they render our predictive methods ineffective. Indeed, it is said they threaten to “rupture the fabric of human history”. They include a range of anticipated incidents such as, the AI singularity (where machine intelligence exceeds that of humans), the Transhuman singularity (where our bodies are no longer naturally made), the Virtual singularity (where we upload our identities) and even the Escape Velocity singularity (where human lifespans increase so dramatically they disrupt our current notions of humanity).

Figure 4

But although these singularities may seem diverse, they stem from a particular kind of thinking, which originates from an Enlightenment worldview. This is set to ‘hard’ control the future that involves accurately forecasting events, so that we can better deal with, design, or prevent them from happening.

Figure 5

Yet, the inability to know exactly what happens next, does not imply Faustian bargains to evade grey goo scenarios as Bill Joy may claim, but anticipates disruption in our experience of reality. Through GPS, scientific instruments and the data processing powers of modern computing, a model of the world has emerged that has increased our awareness of new existential risks to our human culture. They indicate we face an era of great changes that are posed by Nature herself. Over the course of this century we are likely to witness flooding, dramatic weather patterns and resource shortages, which will reach tipping points where systems behave unpredictably and which we are currently powerless to predict or prevent.

figure 6

Nature does not obey the linear laws of machines but operates in complex, contextualised and irreversible ways, which exist beyond the singularity in places that we cannot see clearly. We may think of these conceptual opacities as the Black Sky, for which, we need a different toolset – this is Black Sky Thinking.

Figure 7

Black Sky Thinking is tactical, propositional and iterative. It draws existing threads of experience together and weaves a loose reality fabric from them. It then repeats the process until we can start to see the world around us again clearly and bump confidently up against its warp and weft, under new blue skies.

Figure 8

I’d like to talk about a particular singularity to offer an example of Black Sky Thinking – the Interstellar singularity, which occurs when humans leave the solar system. Our journey to the stars may be happening sooner than you think! Right now, Icarus Interstellar are catalysing the construction of a worldship in earth’s orbit within a hundred years.

Figure 9

I am project leader for Persephone, which is one of the projects of Icarus Interstellar, and responsible for the living interior to this worldship. This may be thought of a unique kind of Nature that supports its space faring inhabitants. But since this project will be realised in more than one lifetime, and also exists within an age of exponential technological change, it is difficult – if not impossible – to see how can we even begin to imagine how we might deploy the necessary technologies to construct the living fabric for a worldship that does not already exist.

Persephone indeed inhabits Black Sky territory.

Figure 10

My work addresses the unknown challenges of building a living environment for the worldship by harnessing the computational properties of matter that is powered by sub atomic networks, chemical relationships and flows of energy. These take place in parallel and operate in real time, so we can think of the natural world as a kind of technology and harness its potential using the techniques of Natural Computing. This term was inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the computational powers of nature and provides us with an alternative technological platform to machines, which helps us map and shape continually unfolding solution spaces.

Figure 11

The outputs of this approach propose a new kind of Nature with its own unique laws based in the physics and chemistry of the systems that underpin the worldship. So rather than extrapolating the consequences of conceptual models – Black Sky Thinking literally feels its way around the possibilities, by mapping and working with the nature of reality, without having to know the future. Persephone will shape her world from the bottom up through her soils, which may be considered as being a highly complex, self-producing Natural Computer.

Figure 12

I have already conducted Natural Computing experiments using chemistries that are lively, and resist the decay towards equilibrium to grow structures like chemical worms and banded soil-like substrates.

Figure 13

Indeed, nature’s technologies are unlike those of machines. They are not made from a world of geometrically bound objects but are born from a dynamic field of possibility that is based on networks, relationships and flows. Such technologies are already so familiar to us that we take them for granted, as they exist beneath our feet. Indeed, our soils are the foundation of all civilizations. They occur spontaneously, acting as chemical transformers and give rise to fields of material probability, whose effects can be expressed in terms of land fertility. Soil technology may help us feel our way around a new kind of reality – not by consuming resources – but by endlessly transforming matter in complex entanglements of flow and metabolism that result in fundamentally life promoting events – ones that we can shape.

Figure 14

The story of Mother Shipton directly speaks to my work, but not because of her conceptually forged, bold prophesies that spoke of times when ‘men would walk and communicate underwater’ or women would wear ‘trousers’ to straddle transport as if astride a broomstick.

Figure 15

Nor am I drawn to the legend of a woman who embodies a complete deconstruction of our aestheticized views of Nature, which Timothy and Morton and Slavoj Žižek declare get in the way of dealing with the materiality of the actual world through our preconceptions.

Figure 16

I am drawn to Mother Shipton’s legend because of the very place she lived – as it harboured a natural computer. In Mother Shipton’s petrifying well, soft objects are turned to stone.

This has nothing to do with the anti-natural tendencies of a profane woman but may be attributed to the synthetic properties of elemental infrastructures. Nor are the features of the well simply a ‘natural’ phenomenon untouched by humans. They are carefully orchestrated by the drivers of our material reality, based in physics and chemistry, operating in conjunction with people who come to ritualistically place soft objects in the mineral-rich waters. Here the transformation begins. The soft object becomes saturated with water, which flows through the porous matrixes by capillary action and as the water evaporates from these permeable bodies, it leaves limestone-like deposits behind, like kettle scale.

Figure 17

The mouth of the well drips stone objects from its damp matrix, which are hung by threads that suspend the soft bodies between the ground and the air, where they await to be transformed into something more lasting –that enfolds sacrificial objects such as, teddy bears, lobsters, brushes and even John Wayne’s hat – into the fabric of the rocks.

Figure 18

These processes, as magical and unconventional as they may seem, exist today and embody a rudimentary framework for a natural computer. In its current form, the stone spinning web can be considered as a primordial prototype to harness, what David Glissen calls, ‘pre-natural’ forces and offers a glimpse of what this emerging technological field may hold. Such technologies may not only be developed through our increasing knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology and but may also be evolved into more sophisticated, computational matrices that function as artificial soils and may eventually bring worldships to life – or help us invent new forms of construction, repair and recycling for our increasingly resource constrained cities.

Figure 19

So, these unnatural life forms – hag and worldship – share something in common with all living things in that they defy the very odds of their existence. Yet they do not survive by submitting to the random lottery of evolution but are post natural hybrids that manipulate the fabric of reality by drawing its material threads together and shaping it through their own force and will as incessant acts of survival and growth. Using the technology of natural computing these post natural bodies spin firm fabrics out of elemental cycles and grow new worlds from the very guts of Nature and make claim to an existence that they do not assume as a given.

Figure 20

In full view, the drip, drip, dripping of the Mother Shipton stone web permeates and transforms the soft bodies carefully placed in its immortal well. Sometimes it spins this way – and at other times it twists that way. From time to time, strange and unexpected nodules bulge expectantly and in those prodigious moments that precede a decision, it seems that life itself may split the sac, and all is possible.

Figure 22

“The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.” Henri Bergson, Time And Free Will


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  • James D. Stilwell October 11, 2013, 11:14

    If Rachael Armstrong hasn’t read the Gregory Benford and Arthur C. Clarke novel, “Beyond the Fall of Night”, that time may come because the book delves into the presence of conscious forests, spaceborne life prospering between the planets, and hints that the entire universe is becoming a sentinent biological organism of which we are only a part…it’s ok to be a century or three ahead of the times…keep going…JDS

  • Alex Tolley October 11, 2013, 18:41

    After you strip away all the poetic metaphor, what I think is left is that
    many natural processes exhibit emergent behavior as exhibited by their structures which are not maximally entropic.
    This structure can be manipulated by changing the conditions. If we see such
    processes as being like cellular automata, then they can be described as “computing devices” as in Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”, and much earlier by Turing’s interest in biological pattern formation.

    It seems to me that materials scientists are exploring these avenues already,
    as Science seems to have at least one article about tailoring novel structures each issue.

    I tend to think that the more mainstream approach of the synthetic biologists is
    going to work better in creating novel biologies if they are needed for worldships, rather than experimenting with sub-living processes. They are already producing very early computation at the cell and colony levels. As this technology matures, it will become ever more controllable by design.

    I would dearly like to see:

    …harnessing the computational properties of matter that is powered by sub atomic networks, chemical relationships and flows of energy. These take place in parallel and operate in real time….

    being applied to artificial intelligence so that machines could exhibit highly intelligent behavior with brains the size of grains of sand.

  • David Cummings October 11, 2013, 22:28
  • Jesus October 12, 2013, 4:42

    There was a spring in the rock, flowing across a flat surface, and trickling out over the edge were a number of tiny waterfalls. They poured down into the dank pool below, making a sonorous dripping noise, amplified into a hollow echoing by the concave wall of rock behind. The pool itself was black, with an illusion of greenness from the overhanging shrubbery. Its surface trembled continuously, while the unceasing water fell from above.
    Although the air in the valley was as warm as elsewhere, there was a chill quality given by the sound of the water. Unaccountably, I felt myself shiver, the nervous tic that brings an unexplained shudder, the feeling that is said to be like someone walking over your grave. The pool was beautiful in a simple way, but it had a presence I could not like. It was cluttered with incongruity.
    Hanging from the lip of the water shelf was a bizarre array of household items. There, in the flow of water, someone had dangled an old shoe. Next to it swung a child’s knitted jacket, bobbing as the water turned it. Then there was a pair of sandals, a wooden matchbox, a ball of string, a raffia basket, a necktie, a glove. They had a faint sheen of greyness, unclearly seen as the water poured over and through them.
    This juxtaposition had an eerie, unexplained quality to it, like a sheep’s heart nailed to a door, a token of ritual magic.
    Seri said: “They’re petrifying, turning to stone.”
    “Not literally.”
    “No . . . but there’s something in the water. Silica, I think. Anything
    hung in the water builds up a coating.”
    “But why should anyone want a stone shoe?”
    “That’s the people who run the souvenir shop. They put most of the stuff here, although anyone can leave something. The people in the shop say it will bring you luck. It’s just a novelty, really.”
    “Is this what you brought me to see?” I said.
    “Why, Seri?”
    “I’m not sure. I thought you’d like it here.”
    We sat down together on the grass, regarding the petrifying pool and its motley of domestic fetishes. While we were there, more people walked through the vale and visited the pool. They were in a group of about ten, with children running around and making a noise. They made much of the objects dangling in the falls, and one of the men was photographed leaning out over the pool with his hand in the trickling water. Afterwards, as they walked away, he was still pretending his hand had been turned to stone, as he wielded it like a rigid claw.
    I wondered what would happen if something living really was laid out beneath the falling water. Would it too acquire a veneer of stone, or would skin reject it? Obviously a human being or an animal would simply not keep still or stay long enough. A corpse, though, could probably turn to stone; organic death to inorganic permanence.

    Christopher Priest, ‘The Affirmation’.

  • Jamie October 12, 2013, 21:36

    Another enjoyable beautifully-written article by Dr. Armstrong!
    I think the world is very lucky to have people like Dr Armstrong thinking outside of the box and potentially shaping the future of humanity.
    Something that I freely admit is that there is more that I don’t know than what I do know – although I always base my opinions on scientific facts and strong feelings. So with this in mind, one of the great things about Dr. Armstrong’s writing is that although I may not fully grasp all of it such as the biological terminology, I learn things, such as how to write better or even little things like unusual words that my eyes have yet to grace until now!
    Biology is not even one of my greatest interests but Dr Armstrong is so inspiring that she makes people want to read about it, even if just to pick up non-biological ideas or inspiration!
    A real credit to Centauri Dreams! I’d just like to take this opportunity on behalf of all readers of Centauri Dreams to thank Dr. Armstrong for continuing to inspire people with her articles. Also to the site owners for allowing us the privilege of reading this fantastic lady’s work.

  • ProjectStudio October 26, 2013, 11:21

    “After you strip away all the poetic metaphor…” with all due respect, I believe that metaphor may be the main emphasis of the article. That is – when our analytical, logical, deductive approach begins failing us in the face of an unknown the power of metaphorical induction can still provides those traces, or in the author’s words, a loosely woven fabric, allowing us to follow their boundaries in the discovery of the new frontier. At its base, our logic and reason are really forms of more-or-less rigorous metaphor. In some theories, the conscious process itself consists of layer on layer of metaphor abstracted from our physical experience in a material space abstracted upward toward an interior space where our cognitive experience lives. Many of the concepts explored at centauri dreams, for example, such as advanced ‘propulsion’ concepts begin as nothing but metaphor. The ‘space warp’ is a good example of this kind of metaphor. The warp and woof of a fabric, familiar to the ancients in their weaving technology, translates well to consideration of the interwoven dimensions of curved space-time, leading to mathematical solutions positing exotic negative mass which could allow for the possibility of a space-time solution where such a means of travel could be possible. The metaphor suggests what we might look for in nature; i.e. exotic matter, to fill-in the boundaries with the substance of faster-than-light travel.

    How these types of metaphors might apply to the development of a living engineered biospheres is far outside my experience and beyond my imagination – I applaud Dr Armstrong in taking on this conceptual challenge.