Neri Oxman: The mythologies of the not yet

Neri Oxman, Director of the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, weaves a mind-bending mixture of science, literature, art, design and futuristic concepts.

Oxman’s thinking draws on ancient mythology and the natural world for inspiration. She describes her lab’s goal as “how to design products and tools with new technologies that mimic what we find in nature.” These products range from a chaise longue, designed with an algorithm that alternates softer and stiffer materials in patterns inspired by the human skin, to a pregnancy corset that can adjust to a mother’s body as it grows.

Oxman describes a fascinating Media Lab experiment that combined 3-D printing with the engineering genius of the silkworm. Her team super-glued a magnet to the head of a silkworm, and placed it in a cube with magnetic sensors. As the worm wove its silk coccoon, the sensors recorded its patterns, which were then fed to a robotic arm that could simulate the weaving with artificial silk or other material.

The project illustrates Oxman’s vision of “biology as a model for computation and fabrication.” “In the next 10 years,” she says, “materials will be the next software,” describing a move away from consumer electronics towards biology. Oxman further predicts the rise of “swarm manufacturing – the digital or social network, the same logic that Google incorporates in data, we’ll see in fabrication.”

After dropping a few more mind bombs —linking cubism to the theory of relativity, and recalling a 1960s experiment in which LSD-fed spiders produced webs she describes as “funky”—Oxman returns to mythology, concluding with “a blessing and a wish that we may all steal the fire from Zeus for inventing mythologies of the not yet.”