Border Sessions was held in The Hague on July 6-7, offering a full schedule of talks and workshops to scratch and sniff disruptive technologies, or “fringe tech” pushing the limits of science.
The Hague, special report
The Hague may not be the capital of the Netherlands, but the country concentrates its institutions in this pleasant and active seaside city. The vicinity is also prolific in high-tech research institutions and companies, specializing in additive technologies, space, computing, electronics, etc. So Makery enthusiastically responded to Waag Society’s invitation to interact with the speakers and workshop leaders of the Border Sessions festival at the Korzo theater right downtown. As its name suggests, the festival aims to cover a wide panorama of the latest disruptive technologies, or “fringe tech”, in just two days.
Hack The Hague
The very length of the festival itself is a problem, considering the density of the program. One might have suspected that two days would not be enough to discuss “fringe tech” or “fringe science”—techno-sciences on the border of currently established scientific disciplines, operating largely in speculative fields subject to refutation or controversy. We would have liked to see the debate spread out over a few days, with longer individual sessions devoted to discussing the philosophical and social issues of such and such a technology, if only to escape the endlessly “disruptive”, “humanistic” and “holistic” TED format.
However, this was indeed the formatted exercise that many speakers followed. Nonetheless, we appreciated the program’s five overlapping tracks: Advanced Human Settlements; Art, Makers & Digital Culture; Global Challenges, Social Alliances; Hacked Nature, Advanced Humans; Sustainability, Earth & Space Exploration.
Among the wide range of topics: gender issues in maker culture (featuring Hackermoms of Berkeley); the impact of self-driving cars on the environment; parallels between psychedelia and computers; open hardware for the humanitarian field; the Blockchain as DIY governance; robots for disaster areas, etc. Impossible to follow them all, and we even missed the first presentation, which sounded like fun: “DIY NSA – The Funny Side of the Dark Side of Big Data”, a project by Setup Medialab, who created dodgy devices that channel your reputation rating in the Uber economy (Uber, Airbnb, Blablacar, etc.) to discriminate you via your connected objects. As a result, your toaster just may burn your toast if your score is too low.
The space track caught our attention, as it was well nourished by the nearby European Space Agency (ESA) and European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, with the strong presence of ESA’s Melissa (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) program, which studies autonomous systems for feeding humans during long-term space missions.
While its French director Christophe Lasseur gave somewhat patronizing workshops catered toward short attention spans (“Who wants to be in the kitchen recipes group on the lunar station?”), Belgian biologist and artist Angelo Vermeulen gave a fascinating talk on closed habitats, food and biology in closed circuits for space.
Vermeulen has spent the last few years at Delft University of Technology researching his thesis on designing habitats for space and engineering participative systems. He talked about his experience as crew commander of the Hi-Seas mission, which tested living conditions on a station on Mars… simulated in Hawaii. He also presented his artwork, from his Seeker project to build “space stations” on Earth to his Biomodd series of symbiotic human-plant-computer systems.
Another memorable talk was by Ed Harwood, of the U.S. company Aerofarms, who presented the advantages of aeroponics. Unlike hydroponics, where plants are rooted in an inert substrate, aeroponics provides nutritious solutions through constantly misting the simply suspended roots. One can easily imagine the benefits of aeroponics in space, as this series suggests the next generation of food-tech, making The Martian obsolete.
Open environmental and medical analysis
The other red thread, “Open sourcing human enhancement technologies”, was led by Waag Society and Lucas Evers, the director of its Open Wetlab. Evers suggested various themes around biohacking (we’re still wondering why the festival felt the need to use such deterministic vocabulary as “advanced” humans…).
Irish maker Mikael Fernström from Softday presented the GOSH Manifesto for Global Open Science Hardware. Špela Petrič and Lucas Evers developed their work in DIY antibiotics for Biostrike, an initiative supported by Waag. Mary Maggic and Byron Rich continued to spread the good word about their Open Source Estrogen project (which we covered here). Jens Hauser from the University of Copenhagen concluded with biosemiotics, while the author of these lines moderated a short debate.
Špela Petrič and Mary Maggic also hosted the first workshop of the morning on DIY hormone extraction from participants’ urine. This participative and feminist workshop turned out to be an excellent way to understand the continuous communication between humans and the environment via their hormones.
As the festival went by all too fast, we missed a huge number of talks… Fortunately, all these lovely people (a mix of artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists) reunited at the beer garden for the open bar and DJ set. Speed dating turned to lengthy strategic discussions about the relative advantages of Holland, punctuated by sudden cheers from soccer fans.