PopTech Blog

The retro futuristic Ghosts at the New Museum


Gianni Colombo’s “Elastic Space” (1968)

Recently opened at the New Museum in New York is Ghosts in the Machine, an exhibition which surveys the constantly shifting relationship between humans, machines and art. Last year’s trailblazing Talk to Me at the Museum of Modern Art celebrated and explored our brave new world of human-machine interfaces. Here, Massimiliano Gioni, helmsman of next year’s Venice Biennale, and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, offer in response a shadowy prehistory, full of strange fears and visions, from a time not long past when such communication could only be imagined.


Stan VanDerBeek’s “Movie-Drome” (1963-66)

Exciting rediscoveries on display include American avant-garde film-maker Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963-66): a dozen projectors emblazon the interior of a hemispherical tent – originally a converted silo – with a kaleidoscopic array of meshed multimedia images that prefigure the immersive experience of the web. Gianni Colombo’s Elastic Space (1968) offers an optimistic vision of what it might feel like to be inside a conscious machine: walking into a dark room, you are surrounded by a glowing three-dimensional matrix of cords, stretched by gently whirring pulleys, that seems to softly breathe.


Hans Haacke’s “Blue Sail” (1964-65)

The roughly 140 works, ranging from the buoyant, like Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail (1964-65), a bright blue chiffon sheet floating in mid-air, to the horrific, like the anonymously-made life-size reproduction of a torture machine from Franz Kafka’s short story, In the Penal Colony, take us on an elliptic journey across the 20th century from the mechanical, to the optical, to the virtual. It’s striking how the artists gathered here do not seem to have imagined that machines might be our way to each other – there is little foreshadowing of social media, and there are only oblique traces of the human to be found in the technological landscapes on display. You find yourself wondering if our design virtuosity has humanized the machine world, or if we are the future the past feared it might become.

Curator Gioni writes, “Men and machines live together in a ‘dream-like life’. It is this oneiric state, this magical union, that we explore in this exhibition."

For some PopTech glimpses of what dreams may come next, check out Desney Tan and Scott Saponas: Our bodies as the interface; Neri Oxman: On designing form; and Kelly Dobson: Machine therapy.

Images: Courtesy of the New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley

Image-wise: Earth as art

Small, blocky shapes of towns, fields, and pastures surround the graceful swirls and whorls of the Mississippi River, the largest river system in North America. Countless oxbow lakes and cutoffs accompany the meandering river south of Memphis, Tennessee, on the border between Arkansas and Mississippi. via

The U.S. Geologic Survey recently held a competition for their "Earth as Art" collection. Captured by the Landsat series of Earth-observing satellites, the land imagery provides a fresh perspective on the Earth's landscape by highlighting certain geographic features through color. As described by NASA:

During a span of 40 years, since 1972, the Landsat series of Earth observation satellites has become a vital reference worldwide for understanding scientific issues related to land use and natural resources.

Over 14,000 people voted on the images submitted to the competition and winners were recently announced. Two of the top five images can be seen here, but for all five picks, have a look at NASA's "Earth as Art" page.

What look like pale yellow paint streaks slashing through a mosaic of mottled colors are ridges of wind-blown sand that make up Erg Iguidi, an area of ever-shifting sand dunes extending from Algeria into Mauritania in northwestern Africa. Erg Iguidi is one of several Saharan ergs, or sand seas, where individual dunes often surpass 500 meters (nearly a third of a mile) in both width and height. via

Images: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/USGS

HT Very Short List

This week in PopTech: Local food, design laboratories and free mp3s

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • This week D-Rev: Design Revolution, which is run by 2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Krista Donaldson, was highlighted in Fast Co.Exist. D-Rev bringing state-of-the-art, user-centric products to empower the lives of the four billion people living on less than four dollars a day.
  • In food tech news, 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Erica Block's Local Orbit was featured on Xconomy.comLocal Orbit provides one-stop-shopping with an online platform that provides customized websites with e-commerce, management, and marketing tools to help streamline the local food supply chain.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Simon Rankin

Festival of movies and art to support the sharks

Whale shark

We seem to be sticking to an oceanic theme this past couple of weeks, with recent posts on whales and coral reefs. Maybe it's a result of our recent trip to Iceland. Or maybe it's because Shark Week is just around the corner.

The ocean continues to captivate us, this time in the form of a marine-themed film festival and art show, currently traveling down the West Coast of the United States. The project, entitled The Great West Coast Migration, was organized by the Japan-based international non-profit PangeaSeed, who works to raise awareness about the plight of sharks and the destruction of their habitat. PangeaSeed is partnering with the Beneath the Waves film festival, which aims to "encourage, inspire, and educate scientists, advocates, and the general public to produce and promote open-access, engaging marine-issue documentaries."  

Here's a little glimpse at what you might see as a very sad shark tries to find his missing friend along the coastal towns and waterways of the West.

The Great West Coast Migration - Episode Two from PangeaSeed on Vimeo.

The Great West Coast Migration played in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR earlier this month, and continues on the following dates and locations:

San Francisco – July 27 – 28: Spoke Art 
Los Angeles – August 2 – 4: LeBasse Projects
Costa Mesa – August 10 – 12: The ARTery 
San Diego – August 18 – 19: Space 4 Art

Image via PangeaSeed

Flashback: Dan Ariely on why we do what we do

Today on NPR's Morning Edition, host Ari Shapiro wondered how to interpret the influx of misleading presidential campaign ads, how to weed through quotes taken out of context, and if those ads were truly making an impact on voter opinions. He turned to behavioral economist Dan Ariely (PopTech 2010, 2009), who recently published The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves, for his expert opinion. 

Ariely had recently conducted a survey with a few hundred people online who were asked if they thought it was acceptable for their candidates to be dishonest if it furthered the candidate's overall agenda. His study found that both Democrats and Republicans were comfortable with the idea that their own candidates could be dishonest in order to get elected.

The NPR piece continues by describing how much this confirmation bias has pervaded our decision-making, and how that decision-making doesn't necessarily come from a rational place.

On the topic of what prompts our rational and irrational behavior, we're flashing back to Ariely's 2009 PopTech talk where he dissects the impulse to act irrationally. Perhaps it'll provide us with some insight this campaign season.

PopTech Editions II: The micro-everything revolution video playlist

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been highlighting pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution.

Today, we’re highlighting talks from the PopTech stage that look at micro-everything from, well, everything--from solar to design to insurance to computing and beyond. We've compiled these talks into one collection so they can be viewed all together or flipped through and watched individually.

PopTech Edition II: Micro-everything video playlist:

Check out the complete Edition .

This week in PopTech: Green buildings, Xbox swarms, and 3-D cell images

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • Tom Darden (PopTech 2010), executive director of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, was tasked to oversee building 150 affordable, green, high-design homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This week Fast Co.Exist announced the exciting news that Make It Right has completed its first Frank Gehry-designed home.
  • 2011 PopTech Science Fellow Iain Couzin was featured on CNN earlier this week for his research using the Xbox to study locust swarmsThrough his work on swarm behavior, Couzin attempts to understand how people, animals and even diseases manage to accomplish things in groups that would not be possible as individuals.
  • Computational neuroscientist and 2010 PopTech Science Fellow H. Sebastian Seung conducts pioneering research on the wiring of the brain and what it reveals about genetics, personality, and memory. This week Boston.com covered Seung and the launch of EyeWire, an online game that invites volunteer “scientists” to build 3-D maps of the cell networks that are crucial for vision. 

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Damien

Silja Ómarsdóttir on starting from scratch with Iceland's constitution

What better example of a country's democratic resiliency in the face of financial collapse than the move to toss its constitution and bring on a handful of citizens to rewrite it from scratch? University of Iceland political science professor Silja Ómarsdóttir was one of 25 people asked to revise Iceland’s most important document after the country’s financial meltdown in 2008.

In her PopTech Iceland talk, she explains how the citizens of Iceland reacted to the bank collapse (politely and when no action was taken, loudly) and the eventual response from the government, which included updating the country’s constitution. Ómarsdóttir details the constitution creation process and what it meant to overhaul the document, with considerable public input, in four months. She concluded her talk when she said wryly, “The next time I write a constitution, I would have a little bit of a break in between. By the time we finished, we were so saturated with our own ideas, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

The growing woes of coral reefs


In 2003 Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei quietly dispatched a centuries-old myth, when he said publicly that despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to see the Great Wall of China from space. The ancient world’s longest construction, awesome though it is, is the same dusty color as the hills it’s made from, only nine meters wide, and time-weathered. Optometrists have argued that to see the Wall from space with the naked eye, even at low orbits, you would need 20/3 vision, 7.7 times better than ordinary human sight.

The largest construction on the planet is not man-made, and it has no such problems being seen from space. Working in large numbers, and hardly ever taking a break, coral polyps built the Great Barrier Reef in its current form in about 8,000 years. Vast and beautiful, from space it dominates the view of the Pacific east of the Australian coast.

Recently, Roger Bradbury, a respected Australian ecologist, has written an op-ed in the New York Times that the Great Barrier Reef, and all the world’s coral reefs for that matter, are not just threatened, which we all knew, but doomed to destruction, within our lifetimes. He argues that because of rising levels of ocean acidity, overfishing, and water pollution, there is no hope. The only responsible thing is to allocate funds to plan for the aftermath of the reefs’ death and disappearance - not to save them. “It will be a disaster for the hundreds of millions of people in poor, tropical countries like Indonesia and the Philippines who depend on coral reefs for food”, he says. Reefs are home to one quarter of the world’s entire marine life, and perhaps as many as 9 million species.

We checked in with Ann Marie Healy, who has spent time researching the coral reefs of Palau for the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back to hear her opinion on the topic. She said:

After seeing the work of the most effective marine scientists and environmentalists, it feels clear that the survival of the reefs is still possible but only with very deep engagement from the people who live on them and use them every day. That means engagement not only at the top of the food chain—national governments and international organizations—but also from people who rely on reefs for their livelihood and cultural identity. Environmental change is inextricably linked with changing behavior and social norms.

Reactions to the piece from oceanologists, ecologists, and other scientists have been collected by Dot Earth. While there is disagreement about the inevitability of disaster, and whether or not this will all be over in the next few decades, the general consensus is that the outlook is grim. Human industry, as represented by such monumental achievements as the Great Wall, may prove, in the Anthropocene, the mightier force after all.

Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Joy Reidenberg: Neck-deep in whales

Joy Reidenberg, celebrated whale anatomist, often finds herself neck-deep inside a whale that's washed ashore, studying its innards to learn how it's evolved in the outside world. In the second talk we're highlighting from PopTech Iceland 2012, “Why Whales are Weird,” energetic, articulate anatomist Joy Reidenberg presents an unbelievable array of fact about the beloved mammal (Whales have a vestigial pelvis! They migrate the distance of half the planet)! They have mustaches!). She took us through the story of evolution using whales as a model, explaining that evolution is the process to mediate resilience and thus, survival.