Microbiome theory underscores the need for a diverse microbiome to be healthy. Microbial diversity has been dangerously declining both in humans and the environment at large, at least in the West. A healthy gut is one that features diverse bacteria, and a gut lacking in a diverse microbiome is at risk for a monoculture infection.
Culture can refer both to bacteria and to human collective truth. The need for a diverse microbiome is, for us, a potent analogy for the need for cultural diversity among people. For the next iteration of our Shareable Biome project, we are using decentralized Internet storage to pay homage to microbes that have been depleted by human culture. We also hope to draw attention to critical but fragile reservoirs of diversity on both of the ecological and cultural webs.
Open source culture gave rise to the Internet and is imperative for its survival, while monoculture is among the biggest threats to the future of both the microbiome ecology and the Internet. We reference the visual language of shrines to commemorate lost microbes and extend empathy to that which has been lost. We decided to store/archive the shrine on an open source ‘permaweb’ which is censorship resistant and able to store data for two hundred years or longer.E.g. Arweave or Interplanetary File System (IPFS), which allows people to back up data in a decentralized manner. Arweave’s economic model incentivizes efficient storage while saving money into an endowment that could pay for indefinite future storage. This is also facilitated by the cost of storage dropping by 30% a year.
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Cultures at Odds
The discovery of the first antibiotic is attributed to the date of September 28, 1928, almost a hundred years ago. The drug languished until it became essential in defeating the Rome–Berlin Axis during World War II; penicillin, not the atomic bomb, was the first superweapon. But antibiotics have since become overused—which has reduced their effectiveness against super strains of bacteria, while depleting our microflora diversity. A weapon to defeat a monoculture backfired by creating stronger infections.
“Culture” can refer to bacterial colonies as well as human achievement, both of which crave diversity to maintain healthy relationships.
Instead of embracing healthy biome sharing habits, we have created an antiseptic ideology of sterility—using antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers when we’re not even sick! Researchers argue that it’s not coincidental that we are seeing an epidemic of non-communicable diseases such as Crohn’s, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and maybe even certain forms of obesity and autism. Antibiotic treatment can create dangerous monocultures with the potential to perpetuate illness.
Microbiome theory suggests that the proper ecological balance is the key to keeping bad actors at bay. A disruption of our microbial balance can eventually lead to the loss of entire microbial communities; microbiome diversity in the West has already fallen by at least a third.According to Martin Blaser, the world’s leading researcher on H. Pylori bacteria ecologies in humans; we wonder if even more have been depleted due to isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
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“Culture” can refer to bacterial colonies as well as human achievement, both of which crave diversity to maintain healthy relationships. Online we are surrounded by monocultures with the potential to run astray, including information filter bubbles that can explode. We are now inundated with radical monoculture infections that threaten to fuel contemporary epidemics in both cultural and ecological domains.
Could a healthy balance of more transparent algorithms and people keep bad ideas in check?
While the Internet began as an adhoc decentralized network where a few participants could post anything they wanted, it has evolved to be more centralized as corporate media monopolies grow virtually unchecked. It’s becoming easier to censor or abuse content as governments and corporations join forces in what is essentially a germ theory approach to speech: wipe out a few bad actors or posts, and clean up the discourse. This approach can backfire and contribute to stronger cultural infections; bad ideas can mutate to escape censorship, filter bubbles can be inflated. We need an Internet that enables a healthy microbiome approach of keeping our cultural ecology varied. Could a healthy balance of more transparent algorithms and people keep bad ideas in check? Could open source, decentralized, and censorship resistant archives enable a kind of knowledge transplant pill, perhaps a form of education that helps people evaluate truth and fiction? There is still a need for respect and accountability, which can be challenging to achieve—but we believe a diverse and decentralized network is a more sustainable approach.
Participatory environments allow a many-to-many experience with the possibility for multiple individual interactions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Shared experience and playing together can help form and strengthen communities from the online to the enteric. About a year before the Covid-19 lockdowns, we staged a sharing ritual at the Science Gallery in London. A hundred members of the audience swabbed their own foreheads with the same swab, and had the microbe DNA sequenced to generate a data portrait of the group skin microbiome. Can you imagine that kind of radical sharing ritual after the covid pandemic?
What if we've overfocused on a few pathogens at the expense of appreciating the balance that naturally keeps those bad actors in check? Have we missed the forest for the trees?
And yet, sharing the right kind of microbes is becoming more essential than ever. There is a crisis of liver disease in Europe and declining diversity plays a huge role. King’s College Scientists identified declining bacterial diversity in the human gut as the key factor enabling antibiotic resistant bacteria (AMR) monoculture to thrive. It was the hygiene movement of the nineteenth century that initially gave us the ability to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria through such techniques as pasteurization. However, any environmental change, such as even partial sterilization, can have unforeseen consequences. The human microbiome includes the microflora living on our skin, in our mouths, in our guts, and in our lungs; holding hands and sharing toys encourages a necessary exchange of the bacteria and fungi. Just think of infants putting everything in their mouths, or adults sampling food off of each other’s plates. What if we've overfocused on a few pathogens at the expense of appreciating the balance that naturally keeps those bad actors in check? Have we missed the forest for the trees?
We have been struggling with our microbial relationships for as long as we can remember. The Bubonic Plague devastated Europe so badly that its trauma is still repressed in the West; to this day, we call kids’ scrapes and bruises “boo-boos” (or “buboes”, from bubonic bacteria). We naturally build immunity to disease through repeated exposure to small quantities of viruses and bacteria. Researchers have found that “[w]ith no recent exposure to plague, Europeans living through the Black Death probably represented immunologically naive populations with little to no prior adaptation to Y. pestis.” It seems that sharing microbes is also important for creating antibodies.
Because we’ve lived and died by our relationships within the microbial web, we’ve had to adapt and find new paradigms in order to thrive. Perhaps there are lessons we could draw from this ancient web of ecology to help us navigate the relatively new web of the net. Our Shareable Biome project is a collection of multimedia art projects celebrating diverse biomes and sharing communities. This publication includes the first iteration of our Shrine to Fallen Microbes, commemorating the microbes depleted over the last hundred years.
The first step in preventing further loss of diversity is to empathize with the lost beings.
The first step in preventing further loss of diversity is to empathize with the lost beings. Our first shrine features an homage to Bifidobacterium longum, which helps us digest breastmilk and is among the many bacteria in decline. Of course, there are microbes we’ve lost that we have no idea about. It would take a significant amount of resources to bring them back. How do we get a sense of the extinguished microbes and the cultural ecologies they enabled? Perhaps we could extrapolate their attributes using data we already do have. To that end, we decided to play with machine learning to imagine the microbes of the future.“One species that's disappearing is Bifidobacterium longum which is needed for digesting breast milk” – email to us dated 4/21/22, from Dr. Lindsey Edwards (Co-investigator and Research Director of the PROMISE FMT trial, King’s College, London).
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Our individual biomes are initially inherited from our mothers during the birthing process, skin to skin contact, and breastmilk (if breastfeeding is possible). By inputting prompts about endangered bacteria into Stable Diffusion, a text-to-image AI, we got back images that might help envision and commemorate those that were lost. The AI is trained on real bacteria image data, and perhaps one day can use more data to synthesize novel microbes to solve ecological problems and fill abandoned niches. Until then, the generator can help us to envision lost microbes in the context of the Internet. The starry sky imagery speaks to the idea of the dead being immortalized as stars—which are themselves long dead.
True sharing is necessary on the Internet because without diversity of ideas, a filter bubble becomes fragile and susceptible to monoculture infections.
Open source culture is resilient to censorship and authoritarian control because of transparency and decentralization. While the NSA or Congress may archive the Internet, much of this archive is either classified or vulnerable to a loss of funding and going offline (e.g. the precarity of archive.org). A more accessible model could be an open source ‘permaweb’. Arweave granted tokens for Shrine to Fallen Microbes, which could theoretically cover storing it for the duration of the Anthropocene.Two terabytes for at least two centuries, and possibly much much longer via the endowment.
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The emerging microbiome theory of health metaphorically feeds into the new net. True sharing is necessary on the Internet because without diversity of ideas, a filter bubble becomes fragile and susceptible to monoculture infections. We hope the shrine draws out playful connections between conservation strategies for both virtual and physical domains.
Artist duo Caitlin Foley & Misha Rabinovich find inspiration in naturally occurring systems such as rhizomatic networks of mycelium, the microbiome ecology, and emergent pink noise for the experiences they construct in their collaborative art practice. Among other things, they create installations, games, data visualizations, and happenings. They explore ways of collecting and filtering data to tell stories and aim to create artworks that provide unique opportunities for shared experiences such as sweating, meditating, humming, jumping, and worrying together. They are recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Immersive Scholar Award, NEFA Creative City Grant, and exhibited at such venues as the Science Gallery (London), EFA Project Space (NYC), the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival (NYC), Boston Cyberarts (Boston), Machine Project (LA), Torrance Art Museum in (LA). They have held residencies at places such as Flux Factory, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark, and Andrea Zittell’s Wagon Station Encampment which have helped shape their creative network and interests. More at caitlinandmisha.com and @oldcateyes.