Biosphera Thesis Introduction

A shift of control

We live in a complex world. The powers that propels the society and the speed at

which changes are happening are constantly changing. In these recent years a shift of

control has come in the way people learn. We live in the Access Era, where people are

enabled to access multiple sources of information and documentation. Learning is part

of this revolution because people want to take charge of their own development. The

old paradigm of transfer of knowledge is broken, people can structure their learning

process, deciding modalities and timing, deciding the way they want to explore a

concept and how to relate concepts in their own cognitive grid. We register a shift in

the way old disciplines are presented and accessed by people: internet , satellite TV,

specialised review, journals.Moreover the control of your own learning is becoming a

necessity for the speed at which old jobs are converted into new forms of employment.

With these new possibilities offered by new communication channels and access

to information, people can increasingly take charge of the knowledge about their own

well-being and the well-being of the environments in which they live. In addition, this

new awareness produces a change of view in the way people perceive their role in the

world. In fact, with this shifts of control come shifts of responsibility and may emerge

a new awareness of one’s person responsibility in regard to environment’s pollution,

politics, social position. In this context, new representational strategies can translate information so people can understand it in their own ways and so, contribute to this changeover. This thesis, in fact, is just an attempt to look at simple tasks, like plant keeping, with these new eyes of knowledge construction. Here new strategies of representing plants

and their surrounding environment will be proposed. This work can be considered as

an attempt to use new technologies, new media to produce and support this shift of


From the outer world to the inner environment of one’s room

The goal of this thesis is not to concentrate on the big systems but on very concrete

examples in which informal learning can make the difference in the way people learn.

For this reason, during my work at MLE, I concentrated on the plant keeping activities

that everybody does in a house environment, trying to support the exploration of the

plant ecosystem as inscribed in the bigger house-room-ecosystem.

The room in which a person lives can be abstracted as a self-contained environ-

ment with proper dynamics and inhabitants. Temperature, humidity level and light

conditions are perturbed as in the outer world. People living in the room are also per-

turbing this environment: breathing, for instance, increases the humidity in the room,

the human body emanate heat, affecting the temperature levels in the room, finally

the light bulbs present in the room and/or windows can modify the light conditions.

Any pet living in the room is going to be part of its ecosystem. A plant is not

different form an animal, it has only different dynamics but is a living being: its

biology does not allow the plant to modify directly the temperature but, it influences

the humidity level and so, indirectly, the temperature conditions.

The health of the plant reflects the life support conditions of the room environ-

ment. If the plant is not healthy this may reflect a bad oxygenation of the room, or

severe conditions of light, heat and humidity. The is a concrete correlation between

the room-system and the plant-system because usually a room is 10-30 m2 , and walls

and windows provides enough insulation form the external world. Subsequently, as a

first approximation I considered a room environment as a self-contained ecosystem,

with its proper dynamics and i tried to simplify the exploration of the plant organism

inscribed in its world.

In fact, it is usually difficult to understand how the environmental variable affect

a plant’s life, or, at least, how to tune and control these conditions to provide the

best environment to our green friends. We know, from oral tradition, that we have

to give water to the plant and that we need to keep the plant warm and in the right

light conditions but this is usually it. Conversely, variables interactions are usually

complicated, sometimes also in good light conditions we do not get the best growth

results because the way the variables mix and influence the plant growth are difficult

to predict.

This thesis wants to intervene in this precise context, trying to provide a frame-

work, a technology and a toll which can help in the ‘variables affecting a plant growth’

exploration, in doing plant keeping and above all in constructing a personal knowledge

of these phenomena.

A plant’s world: limits of an interaction with a plant

When we interact with a plant we experience several dynamics which I consider

limiting the learning experience with the plant. Firstly, you cannot manipulate the

plant with too much energy because of its fragility. Is not possible, for example,

to shake the plant to throw the plant, etc., without causing severe damages to its

integrity. In this sense the manipulative experience you can have with the plant is

reduced (see [Eyster and Tashiro(1997)], or [Sowell(1989)]). Secondly, plant are slow

in responding to climatic/environmental changes. This reflect in the way a learner

may build cognitive connections between a perturbation on the ecosystem and the

corresponding effect on the life of the plant, which is the corresponding qualitative

and empirical approach of the exploration of the plant’s biology. Thirdly, a plant

is a complex world in its own. Lots of environmental factors concur to generating

non-linear forms of growth. Using empirical observation for grasping the underlying

laws and connections is usually not enough.

Several variables interact at the same time to generate the outcome of a plant’s

life. Model these variables is not an easy task for research and, moreover, for empirical

observation. Lots of simplifications are needed in order to concentrate on the core

concepts driving the growth of a living organism. Technology can can be at hand

in this simplification process, providing the computational power needed to isolate

conditions, speeding up processes, and taking track of the outcomes. This was the

attempt of this work.

A new media for exploring the plant’s world

One of the aims of the Biosphera and the DigitalSeed pro ject is to expand human

potential in the observation of a plant’s life. in fact, these microworlds i have de-

signed, support the learner, the user, during the observation of the plant, enabling a

comparison between different sets of inputs and outcomes into the ecosystem of the

plant. another mayor feature of this system is to speeding up the biological processes

of the virtual alter-ego of the physical plant for real-time observation, and finally

this technology allows the user to reverse processes that usually are unidirectional

for manipulation and exploration purposes. This kind of abilities are not possible

for the human abilities, so technology is considered through this work, as a tool for

sustaining human exploration, allowing new kind of enquiry.

Biosphera and DigitalSeed are new media, in the sense that support new human

abilities, the ability, for example, to observe invisible phenomena, to speeding up

biological processes and to make comparisons usually impossible to do. the purpose

of this thesis is also to provide a stimuli to the research in this field and to use

also these new media, these new technology as research tool, to study deeply the

cognitive experiences people have during their interactions with plant and the kind

of understanding they can gain with new tools supporting them.

An outline of this work

it is not my intention, in this work, to make claims about the scientific effectiveness of

the technology usage proposed in this thesis. Rather, this work has to be considered

as a report of a design exercise coming after two years of study and research at Media

Lab Europe. The proposed solutions, in fact, have not been tested longitudinally to

draw any scientific conclusions.

The second chapter illustrates an interaction scenario of the usage of the Biosphera

system, trying to give the reader some more example of how and when this technology

can be used and for which purposes. This chapter give me also the opportunity of

discussing a matrix of cognitive experiences the user can have while comparing plants

grown into the system from plants grown outside the system and combinations of


The third chapter will discuss the theoretical background of this work giving

support to current status of research behind any hypotheses raised. These sections

will analyse all the aspect of the human interaction with plants and research questions

and claims collected during the literature study.

The fourth chapter will illustrate the design of two implemented microworlds: the

Digital Seed and the Biosphera system, explaining how any technical solution chosen

is related to the theoretical study of chapter 3 and how the design is going to support

the hypotheses.

The fifth chapter will detail how the design proposed in chapter 4 is born from

the collaboration with several groups of children which have participated to some

design session at MLE, and how their ideas stimulated the design of the final ob jects.

In addition, this chapter will try to report the historical evolution of the pro jects

through several stages of development.

The last chapter will draw some conclusions of the entire work, with some space

for future development.

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