Grow Your Own Cloud is a project which explores the future of data storage, storing data nature's way, in the DNA of plants. By offering an alternative to data centres, we propose a new type of 'cloud' - one that is organic, rather than silicon, and which emits oxygen rather than CO2. The project seeks to uncover the scientific potential in this area to deploy these methods at scale, as well as imagine and convey the implications of this approach through constructing a speculative reality.
Exploring the link between two key topics of our time; data and anthropogenic climate change, we seek to develop new strategies and proposals which create greater consciousness around the effects of data storage, and which look at the earth as a system rather then patches of technology.
Through a speculative design process, involving field work, interviews, workshops and prototyping, we were able to imagine radical ideas to tackle the complex, interconnected issues that we were investigating. This process led to an art/science collaboration and the development of an idea to explore a more organic way of storing information, finding an elegant candidate for data storage in the world's oldest storage device - DNA.
To bring this to life, we transformed a flowershop into a decentralized data centre, and invited people to upload their data to the new cloud. The experience sought to use the everyday setting of the flowershop to transport people into a future where nature and data are no longer remote foreign entities, but local, familiar, and filled with valuable data.
By deploying scientific knowledge outside of the lab, and using artistic devices outside of the gallery, we were able to educate and engage people, spark knowledge exchange, unexpected ideas and dialogue on the future of data, biotechnology and our relationship with nature and technology.
Our appetite for data is insatiable. In a digital world, watching videos, taking photos or asking for directions, means more data flowing into an invisible cloud. Yet this cloud is far less fluffy than we think, occupying swathes of land to house giant data centres, and consuming huge amounts of electricity. Today, global data centres use more energy than the entire UK, and by 2025 they will use more than 20% of our Global Energy.
In a post-industrial age of information, data is the new oil, and companies that deal in data are the largest in the world. Just like oil before it, our demand for data has a serious impact on the environment. The greenhouse gases emitted by data consumption already rival the aviation industry, and look set to grow exponentially.
We're locked into a new consumption cycle, driving us towards a future of 'data warming.' Our ecological awareness might be rising, yet our behaviours and technologies seem to lead us towards the same outcomes. How can we intervene and draw attention to something as seemingly abstract and immaterial as data consumption, before it's too late, again.
Grow Your Own Cloud proposes an alternative, utilising the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology to store data nature's way, in the DNA of plants. This new type of cloud has the potential to store all of the world's data in just 1 kg of DNA. It works with organisms that create their own energy and stores data in a format that never grows obsolete, emitting life giving oxygen instead of CO2.
By creating a new materiality around data, the project looks past perceived reality by embedding one of the most highly valued commodities, data, within nature to not only prevent further destruction, but present new opportunities for the expansion of natural habitats and the regeneration of the environment.
Grow Your Own Cloud is a speculative exploration of data storage born during a research residency in Christiania, Denmark. Employing speculation as a device allowed us to address complex environmental and technological predicaments, through a process infused with object oriented ontology, and inspired by the close relationship that the inhabitants of Christiana have to nature. We were particularly keen to demonstrate alternative behavioural models and the opportunities they offer with respect to sustainability, as well as provoke ethical debates around data and gene editing.
With the theme of data in mind, our speculative process involved looking two decades forward, imagining a world of high-speed connectivity, swarming populations of connected objects, shrinking volumes of nature and critical pressure on energy supply. We used this future-casting to create timelines and alternative scenarios, from extrapolations of the status quo, to anarchistic models. Through workshops we uncovered a desire amongst citizens for data security, closed loops and privacy. Moreover we sought to explore the values they adhere to with regards to the integration of nature.
This led us, in the words of Eduardo Kohn, to "crafting tools out of the unexpected discoveries that we uncovered" as strange phenomena came to the fore, to amplify the world in which we live. Through research, we discovered biological data storage in DNA, finding the potential of this technology incredible.
Today this method is costly and inefficient, yet we began to wonder what the world would look and feel like if it were possible to use biological data storage in everyday life. While bacteria are the favoured option today, we found research around storing data in plants more compelling, particularly for the creation of diegetic prototypes since the emotional quality of plants creates a strong response.
We sought to place this technology in a timeless, mundane, yet beautiful setting, providing a service where citizens can keep all important data, such as memories, poetry, stories and songs in plants and flowers. We therefore decided to work with the setting of a flower shop, transforming it into a futuristic, decentralised data centre.
To build realism and to better understand the methods required to create a plausible reality, the project involved close collaboration between the arts and science, with researchers at Copenhagen University playing a vital role in shaping the direction. By involving students researching plant genetics, the project was able to delve into the potential data storage properties of organisms. This collaboration made it possible to work in wet labs and explore real methodologies for biological data-storage in plants, devising three strategies for encoding data.
To bring this into reality, we transformed a local flower-shop, Blomsterskuret, Copenhagen, into a decentralised data-centre. Set within this environment, we explored plants and their unique data storage characteristics, introduced scientific concepts and new possibilities to unlock curiosity and provoke ethical considerations.
We sought to present a future which engendered an individual response from each person who encountered the project. This was achieved by taking each person on a creative journey to reflect on data practices, learn about life science, encounter an array of organisms, understand DNA encoding, and be educated on how to care for data, by nursing a plant.
We launched a website where people were asked to mindfully select data to encode, and upload, before booking an appointment to receive their encoded plant, removing their data from the distant privatised cloud and transferring it to something more intimate and tangible.
Upon their visit, each visitor received a personal consultation from a data-growth expert, who guided them through the data-to-DNA-to-plant encoding process, converting uploaded files like JPEGs and mp3s into ACGTs and synthetic DNA. We used data prescriptions to explore people's data requirements while educating them on the possibilities of using DNA based data storage, such as storage capacity, ultra-longevity and the ability to cross-pollinate or re-plant data.
Once visitors had selected a plant, they visited the on-site lab, where a data scientist was on hand to demonstrate three laboratory techniques that could be used to encode synthetic DNA containing data, to an organism like a plant. The data scientist used the visitors' prescription to decide upon a particular technique for data encoding, whilst explaining each of the possible techniques and their implications. Just before insertion, the client's files were deleted from our digital servers, providing the client with full ownership and privacy.
Next, a data florist advised clients on how to care for their plant, to ensure their data could bloom and grow. This information was captured using a data-care card that lived with the plant, providing plant information and care instructions.
Each visitor left with an encoded plant and a special download kit, allowing them to return a sample of their plant, which could be used to read their data back when required.
The aim of this experience was to immerse visitors in a new world of possibilities, inform them about a set of growing issues, empower them to think differently and leave them with a fresh perspective. The response was wonderful, both online with the experience fully booked, and extremely rich, positive and insightful feedback from everyone who visited on the day.
While the the physical reality of anthropocentric digital ecosystems fuel an eco-dystopian future of rural land occupied by server farms to support our growing data habit, Grow Your Own Cloud looks to challenge the seemingly inevitable, and counteract a computational system that is locked in a vicious cycle of expansion and destruction.
Through this work, we intend to inspire a world of new possibilities, scientific processes, and ethical considerations particularly around the implications of our current behaviours related to data, as well as the usage of genetic modification.
While as a species, we seem to be stuck in a strange loop, radical ideas and optimistic visions are required to create a platform for further investigation which fuel unorthodox use cases. The speculative process offers opportunities for this type of investigation to reach the general public, and in this project, the experience, artefacts and world built for Grow Your Own Cloud served to create a particularly effective discursive platform.
We offered a space for participants to fully state their considerations regarding ethics linked with data privacy, the genetic modification of organisms, as well as comment on current attitudes towards data and its impact on the environment. The topics and the manner in which they were presented naturally provoked a strong emotional and intellectual response from participants, with many expressing shock at the link between greenhouse gas emissions and data storage, disbelief at the state of the art of biotechnology, immense curiosity in the scientific processes and often unbridled joy on receipt of their encoded plant.
In addition, from the interviews and research we conducted during our immersive experience, it became clear that the project was an effective educational platform, where participants not only had a chance to engage with the science but also connect dots the between two previously abstract, yet very present topics in their life - data and climate change. Together, we uncovered the amazing possibilities that new breakthroughs in biotechnology offers, as well as the potential consequences.