Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals

Gábor Balázsi, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins Balázsi, Gábor, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins. 2011. “Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals.” Cell 144 (6) (March 18): 910–925. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.01.030.

In this review article, the authors discuss a range of research about cellular decision making, "whereby cells assume different, functionally important and heritable fates without an associated genetic or environmental difference" (910). While not well understood, the authors explain that cells from viruses, bacteria, yeast, plants, and mammals all respond dynamically to environmental cues. This includes a variation of cellular response within the same environment, thus stochastic response would also be driven by biological noise. Their consideration of viruses suggests that the term cellular response is a "misnomer," where "decisions are taken by more or less autonomous replicating systems that reside inside and manipulate the behavior of carrier cells" (912). The crux of their argument is that cellular decision making is a fundamental biological property that is highly dynamic and dependent on both the cell's environment and "intrinsic molecular noise" (922). The authors identify cellular decision making, along with "environmental sensing and cell-cell communication" as one of the "three key processes underlying pattern formation and development from microbes to mammals" (922).

This article offers a relational understanding of underlying cellular processes common to all creatures. It is an understanding that challenges strict DNA-as-code understandings of biological life. That these processes are relational and dynamic to the cell's environment would suggest a certain correlation with Simondon's individual-milieu dyad, one which is materially and situationally specific. However, the phrase “decision making” is arguably too closely aligned with cognition. I will use this essay, along with other essays on the dynamics of life in nonhuman entities to further arguments of Simondon's concept of individuation and his individual-milieu dyad.

Insect Media

Jussi Parikka In this book, Parikka examines insects, and our relationships to them, through the lens of media theory. Doing so, he claims, "reveals a whole new world of sensations, perceptions, movements, stratagems and patterns of organization that work much beyond the confines of the human world" (ix). Using what he terms as a neo-materialist approach, Parikka leverages the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Gilbert Simondon, Eugene Thacker, and Jacob Uexküll (among others) to examine the ways in which insects have inspired approaches to new media experiences in film, robotics, computing, animation, and art.

For instance, robotics offers an interesting ethological approach between robots and their environment, computer networking and graphics display different models and techniques of swarming, while artists have used insects not just as inspiration for creating new material experiences for their audiences, but also as subjects of study, and inspiration of alternative logics from which to make work. Parikka's approach brings to the fore the different ways that insects are interwoven into our cultural media practices. Art, biological sciences, computing sciences, cultural theory seem not different disciplines so much as an orchestrated movement—a swarm of interconnected workers moving toward the same goal.

Parikka's work holds a significant position within my own research. First, it is a model of analysis of a specific class of nonhuman entities, specifically focusing on the experiential components of insects in relation to an interdisciplinary understanding of media. Second, Parikka mobilizes arguments from a number of the theorists that I see important in my dissertation. Both his approach of an insect understanding of media and his analysis of critical theory offer tools through which I can approach my research to nonhuman experience.

The Strange Meshing of Impersonal and Personal Forces in Technological Action

Adrian Mackenzie Mackenzie, Adrian. 2006. “The Strange Meshing of Impersonal and Personal Forces in Technological Action.” Culture, Theory and Critique 47 (2): 197–212. doi:10.1080/14735780600961775.

Adrian Mackenzie picks up on his book, Transductions (see entry this section), examining contemporary forms of technological engagement, or action, through a specific Simondonian lens. Examining computer modding, botnets, Google desktop and other technologies, he proposes a corrective to understandings of technology as a deficit to human culture and critical theory. Instead, he suggests that technology is an important aspect of collective life, an excess of the individual that provides potentials and tensions from which individuals and collectives individuate. For example, Google Desktop, a software add-on that allows one to use Google's search algorithms to index and search one's desktop computer, shifting one's experience of personal information to an impersonal relationship: "[personal information] becomes something an individual searches like the Web, a space populated in principle by others" (199). That the software is open to development through others through Google's API (advanced programming interface), means that the software is "open to ongoing development by anyone" (ibid). Combined with the fact that one might have so much digital information on one's computer that search is the only way to find information, means that Google Desktop is a "problematization of information" (ibid). In other words, it is a problem open to individual and societal power relations; technology  carries within it sets of relations that overflow individuals and society simultaneously, producing new tensions, new problems, which require responses, or individuations. These individuations are not just material changes to our environment, new mediations between humans and the world, but also individuations of thought. Technology is part of culture, containing within it certain, human, preindividual aspects, but also bringing forth new forms in excess to that which is human—forms engendering new ideas.

Mackenzie work is important, as he is one of the few thinkers to analyze contemporary technologies through Simondon's ontology. Mackenzie shows how Simondon, who primarily focused on mechanical technologies, is still relevant today. Perhaps even more so, when considering the ways in which technology is relevant to collective individuation in society.  Mackenzie's essay does not examine invention, which is a primary way that Simondon discussed human individuation with technology. This leaves open serious tensions within contemporary technological culture, whose focus on innovation, rather than invention, is arguably at odds with Simondon's philosophy. I will use Mackenzie's work to examine the role of technology in new media artwork and the specific tensions, potentials these works engender.