Politics of the Machines: Lifelikeness & beyond – PoM Recap #1


What do synthetic cells have to do with programmed biosensors? What ideas about life are embedded in their development? What are the boundaries between the living and the non-living? How have these boundaries been reshaped in our current (post)digital condition? How can science and the humanities collaborate with the arts to address these complex questions? From April 22 to 25, c:o/re, in collaboration with the Politics of the Machines conference series, c:o/re co-organized an interdisciplinary conference to address these and many other questions.

Entrance of the Super C during PoM

The Politics of the Machines conference series was founded in 2018 by Laura Beloff (Aalto University, Helsinki) and Morten Sondergaard (Aalborg University, Copenhagen), and now counts Hassan Choubassi (The International University of Beirut) and Joe Elias (The International University of Beirut) as part of its executive committee. The conference series aims to open up open discussions on how perception is being reshaped through interaction with emerging technologies. Previous conferences in this series were hosted by the Aalborg University, Copenhagen, the Lebanese International University, Beirut, the Universität der Künste, Berlin and Beaconhouse National University, Lahore… Now interrogated under the scope of Politice of the machines, lifelikeness is a central interest at c:o/re and, as such, the theme of our last two lecture series and the last Call for Fellowships.

Beyond the limits of the living and non-living

Lifelikeness refers to the imitation of living behavior in technological development. Originating in the field of robotics and human-machine interaction (Abubshait, 2020), the concept has been expanded to refer to more recent developments in the fields of synthetic biology and artificial life. One way to approach the concept of likeness is to consider the concept of imitation as an operation of representation from the living into its modeling and operationalization in technology. This could be called a representational model. The representation can take place on the level of aesthetics (looking like a living thing) or of operation (having a function that only a living thing would have). In this perspective, many discussions on lifelikeness center on the question of how similar a technology should be to the living thing it imitates to qualify as life-like. The uncanny valley is a classic problematization arising in these discussions: if the technology is very similar to living, we may develop an aversion to the technical object instead of the expected sense of familiarity (Kim et. al., 2022: 628).

As cells have become machines (Landecker, 2007; Damiano et. al. 2020), the question of what it means to model life expanded beyond these classic interrogations. If life itself has become entangled with technological operations, and digital algorithms operate on the principles of living organisms, what exactly is being represented in the models that inspire new technological developments? Where is the life and where is the machine? Arguably, the model of representation or imitation may not be sufficient to explain the complexity in which the living and the non-living have become entangled. This disruption of the boundaries between the living and the non-living leads to questioning how social life is affected by technologically mediated decisions, and what kind of politics are necessary to deal with these new conditions of living. For example, algorithms in preventive technologies decide whose life is to be cared for and whose life is to be considered a threat to life (Amaro, 2022). Such questions and issues have inspired the title of the conference “Llifelikeness & beyond”.

The conference was organized into 11 tracks that addressed topics such as death in the age of the lifelike, more than human XR, models in the research of the living, the concept of the organism and environmental approaches to ecological engagement, and the multiple imaginaries of our bodies in our present. Discussions covered various topics such as: a redefinition of immersion based on experiences of radicalization in the conditions of an extended reality, how to decolonize the discourses that approach the environment, what is the sound produced by the environment and its microscopic invisible fields, the concept of the organism and its appearance in political and social explanatory models, the redefinition of the concept of death in the age of the lifelike, and many others.

Participants during PoM
From Enzymes to Magic

The two keynotes, by Hannah Landecker (University of California in Los Angeles) and, respectively Manuela de Barros (University of Paris 8), brought together the broadly multidisciplinary approaches of the conference.

Hannah Landecker during her keynote on “Distilled, Extruded, Suspended: Lessons in Lifelikeness from the Metabolism of Mass Production”

Hannah Landecker delivered an inspiring keynote entitled “Distilled, Extruded, Suspended: Lessons in Lifelikeness from the Metabolism of Mass Production”. Landecker looked at the history of the industrialization of metabolism in the twentieth century, a history of transforming ideas of synthesis through the market demands for rubber and oil. This lecture invited participants to rethink the technological transformation of our world, a world that remains invisible to us. Questions about the division between the synthetic and the natural, and how they shape our perception of the world – in this case through the development of an industrially produced taste – emerged during the Q&A session. We remark professor Landecker having presented her ongoing working, which will be part of the book American Metabolism (under contract with Harvard University Press), on which she is currently working.

Manuela de Barros held a keynote on “The Art of Links: Magic and Technology”

In her insightful keynote, Manuela de Barros highlighted the ways in which technology has been interfacing with the concept of magic since the Renaissance. De Barros also discussed how we form beliefs and expectations about what technology should provide to society, thus endowing it with a magical power to take care of social problems. She also encouraged revisiting animistic ideas of non-Western cultures, as helpful for reorienting the way the Western modernity inhabits this world. The talk inspired questions on how to approach non-Western worldviews, and how new forms of romanticizing these ways of life might do more harm than good in finding ways to live together. Such discussions are covered in de Barros’ Magie et technologie (UV Editions, 2017).

Algorithms of Late Capitalism, Dead people on facebook, and Workshops!

With an important concern for art and artistic research, the discursive program was accompanied by two workshops: Sibling-cenes: Building Narratives PostAnthropocene, facilitated by artist H C-(M), and Changed but equivalent: rewinding mental states in complex systems, facilitated by Lebanese writer Rayyan Dabbous. A performance playing with the concept of lecture performance by Chris Dupuis explored notions of death, as shaped by the existence of our digital persona. PoM: Lifelikeness & beyond also offered playing sessions of “Algorithms of Late Capitalism: The Board Game”, a playful critical engagement with internet literacy, developed by Karla Zavala Barreda and Adriaan Odentaal from the internet teapot, together with the many participants of a series of workshops in which the game was developed.

With about 130 talks and lecture-performances, 2 workshops, 1 performance, 1 exhibition and a board game, as well as an artistic event together with the arts and performance center PACT Zollverein in Essen. The conference brought together researchers from many different fields, from philosophy to biology and astronomy, from STS to art. It brought together, at RWTH Aachen, researchers from 30 different countries and 5 continents. With this series of blog posts, we hope to recapitulate some of the thoughts and resonances generated during PoM Aachen, and to further explore how to open boundaries of research beyond the division of living and the non-living.


Amaro, Ramon (2022). The Black Technical Object. On Machine Learning and the Aspiration of Black Being. London: Sternberg Press.

Abubshait, A., Weis, P.P. & Wiese, E. (2021). Does Context Matter? Effects of Robot Appearance and Reliability on Social Attention Differs Based on Lifelikeness of Gaze Task. Int J of Soc Robotics 13, 863–876.

Damiano L and Stano P (2020) On the “Life-Likeness” of Synthetic Cells. Front. Bioeng. Biotechnol. 8:953.

De Barros, Manuela (2017). Magie et technologie. Paris: UV Éditions.

Kim, J.S., Kang, D., Choi, J., Kwak, S.S. (2022). Effects of Realistic Appearance and Consumer Gender on Pet Robot Adoption. In: Cavallo, F., et al. Social Robotics. ICSR 2022. Lecture Notes in Computer Science(), vol 13818. Springer, Cham.

Landecker, Hannah (2007). Culturing Life: how cells became technology. Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press.

Would you like to gain further impressions of the PoM conference in Aachen? Then take a look at our interviews with Chris Dupuis and Karla Zavala Barreda and Adriaan Odendaal as well as our recap of the accompanying program of art and performances.

Photos by Jana Hambitzer

2 Comments on “Politics of the Machines: Lifelikeness & beyond – PoM Recap #1”

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