Double Bubble

Andrew S. Yang

Reviewed by Sandra Kaji-O'Grady and Lydia Kallipoliti

08 Mar 2020

David Vetter, in his bubble.
Source: The Baylor College of Medicine Archives

I stare at the frog eggs float­ing above my head, loom­ing large. They hang on a yel­low­ing and torn chart from the 1930s that illus­trates bio­log­i­cal­ly ide­al Rana embryos.1 The frogs start out as shiny black pen­cil dots in white spheres that are per­fect­ly still. Almost fea­ture­less and yet very much full of shape, these ear­ly embryos quick­ly devel­op a sense of front-to-back. They grow towards a ful­fill­ment that even­tu­al­ly allows them to break the glassy mem­brane and trade an exis­tence of float­ing for one of swim­ming free.

An educational chart of frog development. Salvaged from Duke University, it now hangs above my bed.
Paul Pfurtscheller, Kaulquappe, tadpole, Amphibia Anura, published by Martinus Nijhoff, circa 1930s.

When­ev­er I look at these qui­et, gelati­nous globes and the life grow­ing inside of them, I can’t help but think of the boy in the bub­ble. When I was young, that boy, David Vet­ter, was also young. In fact, we were prac­ti­cal­ly the same age. I have per­son­al mem­o­ries of David, although I didn’t know him per­son­al­ly. I had gath­ered them from the curved glassy sur­face of a tele­vi­sion; they are mem­o­ries of footage of David wear­ing a space suit with tubes stretch­ing behind him like the ten­ta­cles of a giant squid. Those images are con­fus­ing­ly mixed with oth­er vivid ones of David. Or not David, but Tod. Tod is a char­ac­ter played by John Tra­vol­ta in the TV movie The Boy in the Plas­tic Bub­ble based loose­ly and plas­ticly on David’s life.2

I grew up in a gen­er­a­tion of so-called latchkey kids” who were nan­nied by tele­vi­sion while both par­ents were away at work. TV was often called the boob tube” then not only for its abil­i­ty to feed chil­dren like myself a steady and seda­tive diet of images, but also because of its poten­tial to turn view­ers like me into a boob70s ver­nac­u­lar for idiot, which my old­er broth­er nev­er tired of using in place of my name. Idio­cy or not, I am sure I was not alone among kids my age for con­fus­ing real peo­ple and actors for each oth­er. What made that par­tic­u­lar con­fla­tion so easy was the fact that the real boy, David, and the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, Tod, were con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous. In the age before real­i­ty tele­vi­sion, pro­duc­ers opt­ed instead for dop­pel­gängers: while Tod in The Boy in the Plas­tic Bub­ble debuted in liv­ing rooms across the coun­try in 1976, David Vet­ter was in fact liv­ing enclosed with­in an authen­tic, germ-free bub­ble down in Texas. Hence, they were both dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same char­ac­ter in what felt to me like a com­mon story.

Young David in his bubble, attended by his doctor, Raphael Wilson.
Source: The Baylor College of Medicine Archives

Both David and Tod were born with severe com­bined immune defi­cien­cy syn­drome (SCIDS), a genet­ic dis­or­der that leaves a per­son with­out a func­tion­ing immune sys­tem. Because of this, both boys lived in iso­la­tion from all phys­i­cal con­tact with oth­ers. With­out immune sys­tems, their bio­log­i­cal iden­ti­ties were at unremit­ting risk because their bod­ies had no tac­it sense of how to dis­tin­guish Self from Non-Self in any somat­ic sense — a prob­lem, per­haps, of all dop­pel­gängers. David and Tod could be com­plete­ly over­come by the most banal infec­tion that the rest of us might hard­ly notice. A com­mon cold was a dead­ly disease.

Doc­tors had planned ear­ly on to car­ry out a stem cell trans­plant to seed a new and healthy immune sys­tem in David, but no one in his fam­i­ly was an exact enough cel­lu­lar match. The bub­ble, ini­tial­ly con­ceived as a tem­po­rary mea­sure, became an indef­i­nite one. For years to come, David was to remain iso­lat­ed in this way by mil­lime­ters of clear plas­tic. His par­ents had to resort to cud­dling him with long neo­prene gloves built into the wall of the bub­ble room.

An early version of David Vetter’s multi-room plastic bubble habitat.
​Source: The Baylor College of Medicine Archives

In the TV ver­sion, Tod’s bub­ble grows as he does in a kind of archi­tec­tur­al meta­mor­pho­sis. By the time Tod is a teenag­er, his inner space expands from a cus­tom pre­emie incu­ba­tor into a mul­ti-func­tion­al room com­plete with dis­co lights. It is a lot like a 70s down­stairs rec room, but total­ly trans­par­ent. The door doesn’t have the stereo­typ­i­cal hand­writ­ten sign that reads Stay Out!” that TV nar­ra­tives insist­ed upon for all ado­les­cent char­ac­ters. That said, even though Tod’s room is see-through, it is equal­ly clear that it is a mem­brane designed to keep every­thing on the out­side. They feed Tod in the movie, although it is not clear how. On the oth­er side of anoth­er mem­brane, down in Texas, any­thing that enters the real­i­ty of David Vetter’s bub­ble is care­ful­ly ster­il­ized with per­acetic acid and moved through a sys­tem of steel cap­sules and air locks.3

Tod watching over his hamsters.
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Although the signs of a nor­mal boy­hood are there in his décor and his jokes, Travolta’s Tod does seem to float in his own jel­ly-like world — naïve and frus­trat­ed, well-pro­tect­ed and yet con­stant­ly at risk of per­il from the world beyond. The pet ham­ster in a plas­tic cage is the improb­a­bly unsan­i­tary prop placed in Tod’s bub­ble room, intend­ed to pro­vide the view­er visu­al metaphor for his con­fined con­di­tion. He grows up watch­ing the oth­er kids play by the lake out the win­dow. Peo­ple call him the bub­ble boy,” and there is no deny­ing it: he seems heavy and weight­less at the same time, eas­i­ly popped if poked, a quin­tes­sen­tial and yet oth­er­world­ly adolescent.

Of the man­i­fold mem­branes found in nature, none serve to iso­late com­plete­ly; rather, the role of mem­branes is to medi­ate. For a devel­op­ing tad­pole, the per­me­abil­i­ty of the sur­round­ing mem­brane allows for the pas­sage of oxy­gen and oth­er essen­tial mol­e­cules. For some­one like Tod, whose whole life seems at the mer­cy of every­thing else, the reg­u­lar use of an inter­com makes per­fect sense as a way to make the mem­brane more per­me­able. Even though sound trav­els well enough through the thin clear plas­tic, the inter­com is a means for him to main­tain some small mea­sure of con­trol over the exchange between his for­ti­fied world and the larg­er one he is sus­pend­ed in.

John Travolta’s “Tod” enjoying some time outside while inside in the film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976).
Sourced from

Still, the bub­ble­craft remains dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate. Halfway through the film, some­one comes for a vis­it who might help address this issue: the sec­ond man ever to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin (the real Buzz Aldrin!), vis­its Tod. Aldrin shakes his hand and says, You know I‘ve been look­ing for­ward to meet­ing you. I hear you have the record for the longest time in a com­mand mod­ule.” Aldrin hands him an odd sou­venir — a piece of paper from NASA that reads, To Tod, cham­pi­on space­man on earth.”

Giv­en that Tod, né Tra­vol­ta, builds mod­els of the Sat­urn V rock­ets that car­ried astro­nauts like Aldrin to space, the sen­ti­ment fol­lows a fair­ly patron­iz­ing kind of log­ic. How­ev­er, giv­en that NASA sci­en­tists not only helped design the her­met­ic bub­ble in which David Vet­ter actu­al­ly lived, but also cre­at­ed the squidy space­suit that he wore out­doors, in the world, this scene would appear to be a mean­ing­ful cin­e­mat­ic nod to the true sto­ry of the real boy. How­ev­er, like so many oth­er things in the film, it ends up being a strange pro­jec­tion into David’s unde­ter­mined future; for while Tod debuts a space­suit in the movie in 1976, David doesn’t actu­al­ly get a chance to wear one until 1977.4 With par­al­lel uni­vers­es can come time trav­el, and we observe the fic­tion­al boy’s tele­vised expe­ri­ences pre­empt­ing David’s lived ones by over a year. Tod even goes to high school in his suit. He walks around in this out­er space on Earth with his new friends, and they sit in a cir­cle on the foot­ball field. How do you go to the bath­room?” a class­mate asks. Oh, just like the astro­nauts do,” he some­what explains. Unlike any astro­naut, how­ev­er, he also alludes to his suc­cess­ful space trav­el with­out the suit. Have you guys ever heard of out-of-body trav­el?” he asks his new friends on the foot­ball field. Well, I do it all the time,” he con­fess­es, lots of dif­fer­ent places.”

A diagrammatic drawing of a frog egg 35 minutes after fertilization, in the throes of its cortical rotation.
Source: Roberts Rugh, The Frog: Its Reproduction and Development (Philadelphia, PA: The Blakiston Company, 1951), pag. non cit.
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Frog eggs have trav­eled to lots of dif­fer­ent places, includ­ing out­er space. If sent into zero grav­i­ty Earth orbit, it turns out they devel­op more or less nor­mal­ly.5 This is despite the fact that, in out­er space, the embryos skip cor­ti­cal rota­tion, a devel­op­men­tal step that sci­en­tists — for the pri­or 100 years — had assumed was absolute­ly cru­cial for tad­pole devel­op­ment. More specif­i­cal­ly, biol­o­gists believed that the grav­i­ta­tion­al force of our plan­et typ­i­cal­ly cues cor­ti­cal rota­tion, which turns out to be true, but that appar­ent­ly has noth­ing essen­tial to do with the prop­er for­ma­tion of the frog. Tad­poles in space devel­op and emerge from their jel­ly-eggs just as they do on Earth. The only thing they don’t do in the reg­u­lar man­ner is inflate their lungs. Why did­n’t the lungs inflate?” asks NASA researcher Emi­ly R. Morey-Holton. We don’t know the answers to these ques­tions, but we do know that air bub­bles were present in the tad­pole aquat­ic habi­tat on orbit. Pos­si­bly, lack of direc­tion­al cues or increased sur­face ten­sion between the air-water inter­face inter­fer­ing with pen­e­tra­tion of the air bub­bles may be involved in this inter­est­ing obser­va­tion.”6

Photographs of a frog egg forming its “grey crescent,” a region that emerges in the embryo because of cortical rotation. This “crescent” will help the seemingly homogenous sphere development an inner organization from which the morphology of the tadpole can start to manifest.
Source: Roberts Rugh, The Frog: Its Reproduction and Development (Philadelphia, PA: The Blakiston Company, 1951), pag. non cit.
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Inter­face or inter­fere. Does a boy raised as a space­man devel­op nor­mal­ly? Can he skip seem­ing­ly cru­cial steps and yet still swim free? As seen through the cel­lu­loid, it would seem so. Tod’s first kiss occurs across his plas­tic face­plate and is awk­ward but touch­ing. If things can touch each oth­er phys­i­cal­ly through mem­branes, then it seems they can do so fig­u­ra­tive­ly as well. The girl regrets that Tod didn’t have the space­suit when he was younger; Tod reflects on the pos­si­bil­i­ty and says a very unspace­man-like thing: I nev­er dreamed about going out, only peo­ple and things com­ing in.” It is all too clear that Tod is refer­ring to the well-known phe­nom­e­non of emo­tion­al osmo­sis. A gra­di­ent of feel­ing exist­ed across the mem­brane, an action poten­tial that only active dif­fu­sion into his bubble/​egg/​space mod­ule could resolve, affirm­ing his self­hood through the non-self. The ten­der teenage kiss is a nar­ra­tive rite of pas­sage that allows Tod to devel­op nor­mal­ly, no mat­ter how many steps he skipped along the way while floating.

It turns out that David even­tu­al­ly saw the Tra­vol­ta TV movie that fic­tion­al­ized his life, and it’s hard not to won­der what he thought about his body dou­ble in an alter­nate real­i­ty, the one who was act­ing as if he were trapped inside the bub­ble when he in fact was safe­ly out­side. In the fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of his own life that David watched on tele­vi­sion, Tod falls in love, grad­u­ates high school, and — at the end of the film — actu­al­ly breach­es his con­fines to ride away on the back of a horse with his girl­friend. David, how­ev­er, increas­ing­ly suf­fered anx­i­ety and emo­tion­al out­bursts as he got old­er. Walk­ing out of his house in his space­suit only sev­en times in his life, David’s deep fears about germs kept him vol­un­tar­i­ly inside. Despite his amaz­ing resilience, the bub­ble took a pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal toll on David, impact­ing his inter­ac­tions with care­tak­ers and those who loved him. To him, it must have felt like sci­ence fic­tion, which it was. 

David Vet­ter lived in the bub­ble that NASA made for him until the age of twelve. In that year, the stem cell trans­plant for which his fam­i­ly had hoped from the begin­ning final­ly took place, but it result­ed in an infec­tion that claimed his float­ing life. Bro­ken free from the bub­ble and the exper­i­ment, the tad­pole swims away.

Tod in his terrestrial spacesuit, apprehensive at walking into school for the first time. In the movie, it is Tod, inspired by watching astronauts on spacewalks, who comes up with the idea of the suit.
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976).
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By San­dra Kaji-O’Grady

Yang’s obser­va­tions about David Vet­ter and his dop­pel­gangers” point to the entan­gle­ment of med­ical research and pub­lic enter­tain­ment. David’s fam­i­ly sold their sto­ry to the media to sub­sidise the costs of his care. Research grants that sup­port­ed the med­ical team required broad pub­lic sup­port.7 Thus, a soli­tary boy’s life and ear­ly death became a pub­lic event, a sto­ry that could be retold and per­formed by oth­ers. Retreat to the iso­lat­ed safe­ty of a ster­ile bub­ble was act­ed out across mul­ti­ple com­mu­ni­ties. An epi­dem­ic of chem­i­cal injury syn­drome” saw suf­fer­ers con­struct­ing makeshift bub­bles” in cars and car­a­vans with plas­tic wrap, alu­mini­um foil, rub­ber gloves, and anti­sep­tic. The inhab­it­ed bub­ble made appear­ances in music videos for Kate Bush’s song Breath­ing” (1980) and Sim­ply Red’s cov­er of The Air that I Breathe” (1998). Artist Mori Mariko depict­ed her­self sus­pend­ed mid-air in a bub­ble over an alter­na­tive real­i­ty in her pho­to­me­dia series Eso­teric Cos­mos” (19961998). In 2008, Xavier Tril­lo, inspired by the film Boy in the Plas­tic Bub­ble,” launched a busi­ness spe­cial­is­ing in the cre­ation of portable spaces con­tain­ing pure air.”8 Bubble/​Pure Air is today­mar­ket­ed to the med­ical, phys­i­cal fit­ness, anti-aging, and cos­met­ic indus­tries as a portable space in which it is pos­si­ble to breathe 99.95% pure air in con­tin­u­ous regen­er­a­tion — free from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing par­ti­cles and bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal and aller­genic agents.”9 Bub­bles also made their way into leisure and tourism.10 One can be pur­chased for home as a self-con­tained liv­ing space for indoor/​outdoor use.”11

There is, though, a deci­sive break in form and func­tion between David’s iso­la­tor and the one inhab­it­ed by John Travolta’s char­ac­ter or these more recent dou­bles.” His was a clunky set of inter­linked rec­tan­gles weighed down by mechan­i­cal plant, tubes, and gloves and con­tained with­in anoth­er room — the hos­pi­tal in David’s ear­ly years, lat­er the fam­i­ly home. Its gen­e­sis lay in the germ-free ani­mal enclo­sures devel­oped in the 1950s for lab­o­ra­to­ry research. When plas­tic replaced rigid mate­ri­als, iso­la­tors retained their boxy form as it allowed effi­cient stacks and rows. Sci­en­tists involved in estab­lish­ing germ-free strains of rodents for exper­i­men­ta­tion were keen to add oth­er species such as dogs, cats, mon­keys, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows” believ­ing it nec­es­sary to study the germfree ani­mal species by species, vari­ety by vari­ety, and gen­er­a­tion by gen­er­a­tion.”12 David pre­sent­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to add humans to this list when he was born — with a high prob­a­bil­i­ty of genet­i­cal­ly-inher­it­ed SCIDS — at Notre Dame Hos­pi­tal, where Philip Trexler, one of the lead­ing researchers in germ-free ani­mal enclo­sures, was employed. Fix­at­ed on hygiene, lit­tle adjust­ment was made to the design of the iso­la­tor to meet the psy­cho­log­i­cal needs of a human child. 

The filmic and pop­u­lar ver­sions of the bub­ble trans­form this exper­i­men­tal death cham­ber into a buoy­ant, free-float­ing sphere. The appeal of the float­ing bub­ble is that it is a place to exercise/​exorcise anx­i­eties about the self and its bound­aries that emerge in the wake of new under­stand­ings about the immune sys­tem. Sci­en­tists had come to view dis­eases such as mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, lupus, and rheuma­toid arthri­tis as fail­ures of the immune sys­tem to rec­og­nize and tol­er­ate the body’s own pro­teins. The mil­i­taris­tic mod­el of the immune sys­tem as insu­la­tion against that which is for­eign is brought into doubt. Hence­forth, the immune sys­tem became an icon­ic myth object in high-tech­nol­o­gy cul­ture” (Don­na Har­away).13 Jacques Der­ri­da spoke of a gen­er­al log­ic of autoim­mu­niza­tion” at the lev­el of the soci­ety,14 and Peter Slo­ter­dijk made the immune sys­tem a cen­tre piece of his the­o­riza­tion of a spa­tial­ized mod­el of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, or sphere­ol­o­gy.”15 For Slo­ter­dijk, the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with spheres, from the womb to the globe to the celes­tial dome, defines our species. He writes, The sphere is the inner, dis­cov­ered, shared round shape that men live in as they become humans. Because to reside some­where always already means to form bub­bles … humans are those beings who put up cir­cu­lar worlds and look into hori­zons … Spheres are spa­tial cre­ations effec­tive from the point of view of immunol­o­gy …”16 The cre­ation of a self is the for­ma­tion of an insu­lat­ing sphere. No won­der this cos­mogo­nic motif abounds. But, we must inject a his­toric and eco­nom­ic note to Sloterdijk’s cos­mol­o­gy. The buoy­ant bub­bles of plas­tic dis­cussed here and in Yang’s essay do not shel­ter or con­nect us to place or each oth­er. Like oth­er arte­facts and oth­er selves, they are pur­chased, trad­ed, bor­rowed and dis­card­ed, just as we may pur­chase and trade breath­able air in the future. 


By Lydia Kallipoliti

A few days past the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions of 2016, NBC’s Sat­ur­day Night Live [SNL] broad­cast an uncan­ny resem­blance between the archi­tec­ture of utopia and the archi­tec­ture of media. In the satire, The Bub­ble: Estab­lished 2017,” Buck­min­ster Fuller and Sho­ji Sadao’s Dome Over Man­hat­tan” — an icon of weath­er and cli­mate con­trol shield­ing a select­ed pop­u­la­tion of New York City from pol­lu­tion — was trans­port­ed intact over Brook­lyn to illus­trate an elec­tron­ic bub­ble with social media con­trol to shield pro­gres­sive Amer­i­cans. Inside the Brook­lyn bub­ble, the elec­tions have nev­er hap­pened, and the vol­un­tar­i­ly con­tained cit­i­zens could live in a lib­er­al world with elec­tric cars, organ­ic prod­ucts, veg­an food, and con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er like­ly-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als; they were reas­sured that, whilst inside, they would hear noth­ing but the echo of their own voic­es. The bub­ble, there­fore, evolved from rep­re­sent­ing an archi­tec­tur­al typol­o­gy of shel­ter against pol­lu­tion and adverse cli­mate, to a vir­tu­al object that pro­tects insid­ers from lis­ten­ing to those voic­es com­ing from the out­side: those voic­es that each cit­i­zen has exclud­ed from their social media feed, albeit unwit­ting­ly. What you would hear inside the bub­ble were rever­ber­a­tions of the ego.”

SNL’s bub­ble is not just a satire. It depicts with acid clar­i­ty the social real­i­ty of the echo cham­ber,” which has been broad­ly dis­cussed in news media the­o­ries as a byprod­uct of our per­va­sive use of social media. The term describes an enclosed space of vol­un­tary con­tain­ment, like a bub­ble, where the sub­ject delib­er­ate­ly lis­tens to the echo of its own voice. With our dig­i­tal foot­print, the algo­rithms of Face­book and oth­er social media apps deter­mine a new­ly formed pub­lic space: a space of per­son­al­ized bub­bles, each care­ful­ly curat­ed and edit­ed. Our con­tact with those online cit­i­zens, who are either dis­tant or resis­tant to the game of lik­ing every­thing,” is dimin­ished and fades into the dark­est sides of data, a black abyss of infor­ma­tion that we have mar­gin­al­ized as irrel­e­vant or unwant­ed. So, each of us receives, and in return trans­mits, only our own thoughts and thus recon­structs a world­view of the self. The pro­gres­sive lib­er­als (myself includ­ed) enclosed in the Brook­lyn bub­ble are not only emo­tion­al­ly wound­ed from the elec­tion results, but are also in denial. As the jour­nal­ist Μostafa El-Bermawy observed in Wired mag­a­zine (2016), our vir­tu­al social dimen­sion has cre­at­ed indi­vid­ual eco-cham­bers in the form of self-enclos­ing bub­bles that deter encounter with the out­side. David Vetter’s frus­tra­tion with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of break­ing the bub­ble has been rein­car­nat­ed in a dif­fer­ent type of envi­ron­ment: one that is unre­lat­ed to phys­i­cal con­tact and the anx­i­ety of infec­tion, but very much linked to the idea of breach­ing the bound­ary of a safe­guard­ed space. The social bub­bles of Face­book and Google have designed for us the real­i­ty of our every­day lives, which to some extent is in its own right a vio­la­tion of collectivity.

In the ear­ly 2000s, the archi­tec­tur­al typol­o­gy of the bub­ble and the dome was silent, if not non-exis­tent, both vir­tu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. The col­lec­tive visu­al imag­i­na­tion piv­ot­ed on the con­cept of the net­work. The writ­ings of Gilles Deleuze, and specif­i­cal­ly his mul­ti­di­men­sion­al depic­tions of the rhi­zome, offered to an eager audi­ence of young archi­tects the visu­al ana­log of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an inter­con­nect­ed world, a wide, thick mesh of ideas cast over the plan­et. The struc­ture of the spi­der web — so beau­ti­ful­ly nar­rat­ed in Mark Wigley’s Net­work Fever” (2001) — evi­denced ideals of uni­ty, con­nec­tiv­i­ty, and man­age­ment of plan­e­tary net­works; it visu­al­ized our desire to co-exist con­nect­ed, simul­ta­ne­ous, and inter­twined in geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant environments.

What then inspired con­nec­tiv­i­ty, cohe­sive­ness, inter­ac­tiv­i­ty, and vir­tu­al cohab­i­ta­tion has been replaced by indi­vid­u­al­ized, enclosed bub­bles nur­tured by ongo­ing oper­a­tion of the world wide web. The archi­tec­ture of dig­i­tal media is thus the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this par­a­digm shift. Arguably, it is based not sin­gu­lar­ly on our rela­tion­ship with media and the forms of dis­sem­i­nat­ing one’s work, but on rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the space that is pro­duced as a result of our dai­ly prac­tices. Now that glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion is mun­dane, our sense of sat­is­fac­tion can be grat­i­fied online instant­ly, phys­i­cal dis­tance is no longer a lim­i­ta­tion, and the web is a vital sur­vival need, each sub­ject has vol­un­tar­i­ly seclud­ed the ego into a bub­ble: the real­iza­tion of the per­son­al space that is con­sti­tut­ed and aug­ment­ed with each like.” In this set­ting of egos­pheres,” as Peter Slo­ter­dijk would argue, we are cul­tur­al­ly in sus­pen­sion; up in the air. Each being is vac­il­lat­ing with­out touch­ing its neigh­bor or belong­ing to a col­lec­tive. The dan­ger of social media is there­fore the eupho­ria of a false sense of democ­ra­ti­za­tion based on the quan­tifi­ca­tion of accep­tance and the dis­place­ment of orga­ni­za­tions that tru­ly sup­port social cohesion.

In cel­e­brat­ing this kind of extreme inte­ri­or­i­ty, rein­forced by the allure of envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance, we are spec­ta­tors of a new urban expe­ri­ence: the net­work has giv­en way to the cloud, and the bub­ble is the inci­den­tal by-prod­uct of the cloud. The bub­ble, albeit unwit­ting­ly, ris­es as a con­trol mech­a­nism that detach­es us from civic engage­ment. The bub­ble also begs a sim­ple ques­tion: What is the urban expe­ri­ence in this time of vol­un­tary con­tain­ment? A new breed of psy­cho­geo­graph­ic drifters is roam­ing on their cus­tomized itin­er­aries as their phones instruct. In this new ter­ri­to­ry, where every­thing is hyper-con­nect­ed, the sub­ject becomes increas­ing­ly con­tained. Every echo becomes a world.

Our con­stant expe­ri­ence of being con­nect­ed yet detached allows us to affirm our­selves by aug­ment­ing our con­tain­ment as some­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inte­ri­or­iz­ing and exte­ri­or­iz­ing. Yet, our new com­mu­nal exis­tence with pub­lic space can­not be based exclu­sive­ly on medi­a­tion of data. As cit­i­zens and cre­ative thinkers, we need to think beyond the bub­ble. As a famous movie line sug­gests, open your eyes” to the bub­ble inside which you are vol­un­tar­i­ly con­tained. Then, devel­op an erot­ic yet resis­tant rela­tion­ship with your bub­ble. In that way, it might be pos­si­ble to pen­e­trate the bub­ble and imag­ine oth­er ways of being, even to imag­ine some real grounds of hope beyond the mar­ket com­mod­i­ty of a dig­i­tal­ly enhanced euphoria.



I sal­vaged this edu­ca­tion­al chart from the trash at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in the mid-1990s.


The com­plete movie The Boy in the Plas­tic Bub­ble is avail­able for free through the Inter­net archive, http://​www​.archive​.org/​d​e​t​a​i​l​s​/​T​h​e​_​B​o​y​_​I​n​_​T​h​e​_​P​l​a​s​t​i​c​_​B​ubble.


Detail from the tran­script of the PBS Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence doc­u­men­tary The Boy in the Bub­ble”: http://​www​.pbs​.org/​w​g​b​h​/​a​m​e​x​/​b​u​bble/.


The spacesuit’s offi­cial name was The Mobile Bio­log­i­cal Iso­la­tion Sys­tem.” It had an accom­pa­ny­ing 54-page user’s manual.


Ken­neth A. Souza, Shaun D. Black, and Richard Joel Wasser­sug, Amphib­ian devel­op­ment in the vir­tu­al absence of grav­i­ty,” Devel­op­men­tal Biol­o­gy 92 (March 1995): 1975 – 1978.


Emi­ly R. Morey-Holton, type­script of The Impact of Grav­i­ty on Life,” text even­tu­al­ly pub­lished in Evo­lu­tion on Plan­et Earth: The Impact of the Phys­i­cal Envi­ron­ment, eds. Lynn J. Roth­schild and Adri­an M. Lis­ter (Ams­ter­dam, The Nether­lands: Aca­d­e­m­ic Press, 2003). Accessed Octo­ber 13, 2009, at www​.mains​gate​.com/​s​p​a​c​e​b​i​o​/​S​p​t​o​p​i​c​s​/​h​y​_​r​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​/​h​o​l​t​o​n.pdf.


About US $200,000 was grant­ed annu­al­ly in research grants from the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health (Amer­i­can Med­ical News 20, 1 (1977): 9 – 11).


Zonair3D: Our His­to­ry,” http://​www​.zon​air3d​.com/​e​n/zon… (accessed Octo­ber 14, 2014). Updat­ed link: http://​www​.zon​air3d​.com/​e​n​/​h​i​s​tory/.


Bubble/​Pure Air: How it Works,” http://​www​.zon​air3d​.com/​e​n​/​p​r​o​d​u​c​t​s​/​b​u​b​b​l​e​-​p​u​r​e​-air/ (accessed Octo­ber 142014).


Con­sumers can stay overnight in the Bub­ble Hotel found­ed in 2010 by Attrap’Rêves in France or the Bub­ble Lodge in Mau­ri­tius: https://​www​.attrap​-reves​.com/​e​n​/​s​l​e​e​p​-​i​n​-​a​-​b​u​b​b​l​e-cc/ (accessed Octo­ber 302014).


Cocoon 1, by the Nordic Soci­ety for Inven­tion and Dis­cov­ery (NSID), is man­u­fac­tured by Micasa. A sim­i­lar prod­uct by Mon­i­ca Forster, Cloud,” is dis­trib­uted by Offect. See Nordic Inven­tion home­page: http://​www​.nordicin​ven​tion​.com/​c​o​c​o​o​n​.html (accessed July 152014).


James Reyniers, The Pure-cul­ture Con­cept and Gno­to­bi­otics,” Germfree Ver­te­brates: Present Sta­tus, Annals of the New York Acad­e­my of Sci­ences 78: 1 (1959): 9.


Don­na J. Har­away, The Biopol­i­tics of Post­mod­ern Bod­ies: Con­sti­tu­tions of Self in Immune Sys­tem Dis­course,” in Simi­ans, Cyborgs, and Women: The Rein­ven­tion of Nature (New York, NY: Rout­ledge, 1991), 205; Emi­ly Mar­tin, The End of the Body?,” Amer­i­can Eth­nol­o­gist 16 (1989): 121 – 140: see p. 126; Rober­to Espos­i­to, in Tim­o­thy Camp­bell, Inter­view: Rober­to Espos­i­to,” trans. Anna Papa­cone, Dia­crit­ics 36 (2006), 49 – 56: see pp 5354.


Jacques Der­ri­da, Rogues: Two Essays on Rea­son, trans. Pas­cale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stan­ford, CA: Stan­ford Univ. Press, 2005), 124.


Peter Slo­ter­dijk, You Must Change Your Life, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cam­bridge, Eng­land: Poli­ty Press, 2013), 449.


Peter Slo­ter­dijk, Spheres. Vol­ume I: Bub­bles, Micros­pher­ol­o­gy [Spharen I: Blasen, Edi­tions Suhrkamp Frank­furt, 1998], trans. Wieland Hoban (Los Ange­les, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011), 28.


Andrew S. Yang is an artist work­ing across the visu­al arts, the sci­ences, and his­to­ry to explore the nat­u­ral­cul­tur­al. His work has been exhib­it­ed from Okla­homa to Yoko­hama, includ­ing at the 14th Istan­bul Bien­ni­al (2015), the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art Chica­go, (2016), the Spencer Muse­um of Art (2019), and the Smith­son­ian Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry (2020). Yang’s writ­ing and research can be found in Art Jour­nal, Leonar­do, Bio­log­i­cal The­o­ry, and Anten­nae. He is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go and a research asso­ciate at the Field Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry. In the spring of 2020 he will be the inau­gur­al artist-in-res­i­dence at Yale-NUS Col­lege in Sin­ga­pore. www​.andrewyang​.net. Email: ayang@​saic.​edu.

San­dra Kaji-O’Grady is Pro­fes­sor of Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Queens­land, Aus­tralia, where she teach­es design. She was the Dean and Head of School at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Queens­land from 2013 to 2018, and she pre­vi­ous­ly held sim­i­lar roles at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Syd­ney and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy, Syd­ney. Kaji‑O’Grady’s research on the expres­sion of sci­ence in lab­o­ra­to­ry archi­tec­ture cul­mi­nat­ed in two recent books: Lab­o­ra­to­ry Lifestyles: The Con­struc­tion of Sci­en­tif­ic Fic­tions (MIT Press, 2018), which she co-edit­ed with Chris L. Smith and Rus­sell Hugh­es, and Lab­O­ra­to­ry: Speak­ing of Sci­ence and its Archi­tec­ture (MIT Press, 2019), co-edit­ed with Chris L. Smith. Her essays have appeared in numer­ous, impor­tant jour­nals, includ­ing The Jour­nal of Archi­tec­ture, Jour­nal of Archi­tec­tur­al Edu­ca­tion, Archi­tec­ture The­o­ry Review, Archi­tec­ture Aus­tralia, Archi­tec­tur­al Review Aus­tralia, Arti­choke, Object Mag­a­zine, and Mon­u­ment, among oth­ers. Kaji‑O’Grady earned B.Arch. and M.Arch. degrees from the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Aus­tralia, a grad­u­ate diplo­ma in Women’s Stud­ies from Mur­doch Uni­ver­si­ty, and a Ph.D. in Phi­los­o­phy at Monash Uni­ver­si­ty. Email: sandra@​uq.​edu.​au.

Lydia Kallipoli­ti, Ph.D., is an archi­tect, engi­neer, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and edu­ca­tor with degrees from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and MIT. She is cur­rent­ly an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at The Coop­er Union, hav­ing taught pre­vi­ous­ly at Rens­se­laer Poly­tech­nic Insti­tute, where she direct­ed the MS Pro­gram; Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty; and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Her work has been exhib­it­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly, includ­ing at the Oslo Archi­tec­ture Tri­en­nale, the Lon­don Design Muse­um, the Dis­se­ny Hub Barcelona, the Istan­bul Bien­nal, the Shen­zen Bien­nale, and Store­front for Art and Archi­tec­ture in New York City. She is the author of the award-win­ning book The Archi­tec­ture of Closed Worlds (Lars Muller, 2018). Email: lydia.​ka@​gmail.​com