Black to the future: naša slijedeća priroda bit će tehnologizirana, ili je neće biti. Tehnologija je samo nastavak prirode drugim sredstvima. Divlja nova priroda buja autonomnim, nepredvidljivim bićima, genetsko-tehnološkim iznenađenjima. Tako je bilo i u početku "prirode". Tadašnja se, senzacionalno nova tehnologija zvala "život". Što je zapravo priroda? Jestivi zemljopis. Mijenjaju se samo kriteriji "jestivosti". Mislili ste da internet služi ljudima. Pogrešno. Već sada većinu prometa na internetu obavljaju neljudski aktori. Nova bića "jedu" informacije. Ljude također.
Evolucija je slijepa. No zato svašta može pojebati bilošto i roditi kojijeovokurac.
Ali, kao pravi samokritični fanatici, trebamo početi s radikalnom kritikom vlastite ideje. Ladies and gentlebots, John Zerzan:
Essay: Next What?In this essay, anti-civilization, anarchist philosopher John Zerzan critiques the concept of ‘next nature.’ He argues that rather than freeing us, our self-domestication through technology has created a disconnected, depressed and over-medicated population. Phenomena from global warming to workplace shootings are all symptoms of global human “progress” gone totally awry. If we abandon ‘technology’ in favor of ‘tools’, what are the next steps for humanity?
BY JOHN ZERZAN
Next Nature “refers to the nature produced by humans and their technology.” The prevailing attitude of Next Nature is “techno-optimism.”
What is the nature of this “nature” and what are the grounds for the optimism?
I’ll start by citing some recent technological phenomena and what they seem to indicate about the nature and direction of our technoculture. We’re already increasingly inhabitants of a technosphere, so let’s look at some of its actual offerings.
A virtual French-kissing machine was unveiled in 2011. The Japanese device somehow connects tongues via a plastic apparatus. There is also a type of vest with sensors that transmits virtual “hugs.” From the Senseg Corporation in Finland comes “E-Sense” technology, which replicates the feeling of texture. Simulating touch itself! Are we not losing our grounding as physical beings as these developments advance?
In some nursing homes now, the elderly are bathed in coffin-shaped washing machines. No human touch required. And as to the mourning process, it is now argued that online grieving is a better mode. Less intrusive, no need to be physically present for the bereaved! There is an iPhone application now available called the “baby cry app.” For those who wire their baby’s room to be alerted when she stirs, this invention tells parents what the baby’s cry means: hungry, wet, etc. (there are five choices). Just think, after about two million years of human parenting, at last we have a machine to tell us why our child is crying. Isn’t this all rather horrific?
On a less emotional/interpersonal plane, there are the new cars with GPS built in. “Turn here, turn there.” Simple skills like map-reading are eroding, and people are losing their sense of direction and their grasp of the geography of place. Our connection to the earth (e.g. recognizing landmarks) diminishes further in the dematerializing techno-world. Push a button and the sensor-equipped vehicle parks itself or avoids collisions. We can be inert, kill-less pods, along for the ride.
“Some new technologies like Facebook or mobile phones can actually help people to live a more natural, tribal existence,” proclaims Next Nature’s website. But how can one not notice that the more society is dominated by technology, the less “natural” or “tribal” our existence becomes? In the U.S., according to many studies, people are increasingly atomized and adrift. Levels of isolation are growing at a shocking pace. Since the mid-1980s, for example, the average adult has 50 percent fewer friends and visits friends less often. The number with no friends at all has tripled since the mid-1980s. We are connected to our machines much more than to others, or to the earth. Facebook “friends”– often individuals one has never even met – are a bitter joke.
Andrew Keen, a CNN writer, authored “How Our Mobile Phones became Frankenstein’s Monster” (February 28, 2012), about personal disempowerment and growing smart phone addiction. In a fragmented, isolated techno-scape, many cling to their phones as to life rafts; but the devices mostly connect nowhere to nowhere. Leaving aside the surveillance capability and brain cancer threat represented by mobile phones, they are more emblematic of an empty life-world than of anything “natural” or “tribal”.
There is a ton of research showing that Internet immersion is connected to shallow, no-attention-span thinking – the inability to think seriously or in-depth. It has been observed that children now make eye contact much less often, as a function of the number of hours they spend online. Ours is a more and more mediated, disembodied world in which the face-to-face aspect keeps declining, as does direct experience itself.
“A cultural project or phenomenon turns into nature when it becomes potentially or entirely autonomous and uncontrollable” (Next Nature FAQs). If nature means, in effect, technology, then nothing could be further from the truth than this statement. The technological imperative – its inner logic – is the opposite of autonomous and uncontrollable. Technology is born of, and always bears the stamp of domestication. From domestication of animals and plants – and of ourselves in the process – we entered and began to move ceaselessly along the path of control, within the ethos of domination.
The technological imperative – its inner logic – is the opposite of autonomous and uncontrollable.To tame or conquer is the hallmark of technology, as opposed to the realm of tools. Domestication began about 10,000 years ago; various commentators have called it “the worst mistake in human history.” Domestication was the shift away from what nature more or less freely gave us, to a colonization of nature. The earth was put to work, and so many negatives resulted from this fundamental turn: The objectification of women, a life of toil, organized violence, the systematic destruction of nature, and hierarchy, to name a few. Orthodox anthropology now posits that an egalitarian life of sharing was traded, not without huge resistance, for domestication and civilization.
Paul Shepard tells us that nanotechnology, cloning, genetic engineering, etc. were implicit in that first step: the move into domesticated life of ever-increasing control and domination. Not exactly autonomous or uncontrollable is the ensuing trail of technological systems. Not exactly free or wild. More control, and always more work.
Technology is never separable from culture, and this relationship is deeply revealing. A society’s technology is the physical incarnation of that society. The primary values and choices of a culture or society can be read in its technology.
In very early, non-complex societies we find simple tools, which express values such as equality and autonomy. Tool-based technology is visible, transparent, and accessible; anyone is potentially capable of fashioning, say, stone tools. Early technological processes imply other values such as playfulness, intimacy, and flexibility. In contrast, modern technology expresses, generally speaking, a near total dependence on experts, and standardization, coldness, lack of individuality.
Technology is never a neutral tool.Technology is never a neutral tool. It is rather a socio-cultural dimension, always political in the sense of representing choices – consciously made or not. And choices are not made consciously, by the way, when technology is thought of as neutral and non-political.
“Over time, the expanding influence of humanity on earth has replaced old nature with next nature.” This formulation makes it sound like a seamless, natural process because it leaves out the intervention of a basic social institution. Domestication changed everything, not some abstract “humanity.” It is social institutions, and their corresponding technologies, that specifically impact nature.
Take population, for example. There are two pronounced spikes in the human record: The first upon the arrival of domestication globally, and the second about 200 years ago, with the Industrial Revolution. These jumps in population growth, establishing ever-higher levels, correspond to the emergence of two social institutions. Some of us argue that the solution to unnatural population growth is to remove the two primary causal factors, domestication and industrialism. The call for more technology only adds to the problem, since both social institutions are necessary for the existence and growth of technology or “next nature.” “Evolution goes on” – but in a bad direction.
“We are certainly as opposed to species loss, habitat destruction, and global warming as anyone else.” But again, developing the techno-future is based on the systematic destruction of the unbuilt world, on global industrialization. What else enables it? The call for “increased diversity” is completely hollow. Not only are species, languages, and indigenous cultures being sacrificed; the general cultural homogenization is overtaking diversity. Increasingly, the malls, airports, apartments, etc., become identical in a globalizing world. Techno-industrial life grows flatter, texture-less, and standardized. Perhaps most important: Technology is the same everywhere.
Techno-industrial life grows flatter, texture-less, and standardizedIs it a coincidence that as the techno-culture crowds out everything else, we see growing pathologies in society? In the U.S., tens of millions of people need addictive drugs to sleep, to have sex, to counter anxiety and depression. Meanwhile the shooting sprees – rampage killings in schools, family workplaces, shopping malls – are daily occurrences. The emptiness and desolation are palpable, bringing continually worsening symptoms.
In today’s mass techno-society, community has all but disappeared. And without social bonds and solidarity, anything can and does happen. Virtual “community” is a mockery of actual, face-to-face community, where individuals can be accountable and responsible.
Technology is forever promising solutions. We live in an age where technology fills an ideological vacuum, as political ideologies fade in significance. But by and large, the solutions address problems that were created by technology in the first place––a fact we are not supposed to notice. (Think of diseases spread by intercontinental travel, oil spills, or nuclear power disasters, for instance — and even those diseases that did not exist prior to domestication, including virtually all infectious and degenerative diseases.)
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues in his “risk society” thesis that disasters are a built-in feature of complex society. Global warming, the biggest disaster of all, evidently is a function of the growth of global industry. The more factories, the higher the temperature. Again, just what does onrushing technology rest upon? There is an intimate connection between a mobile phone and the destruction, not of illusory “next nature,” but of billions of years’ worth of natural systems that have made life on earth possible.
Fredric Jameson wrote, somewhat famously, that “Postmodernism is what you get when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” Postmodern culture is indeed, in my opinion, a surrender of this kind: Let’s just accept the erasure of the natural world and go on from there. In IBM’s watchword: “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet.” We should accept the inevitable success of the cyber/cyborg/digital/virtual/ information technology juggernaut, not think about what “advanced” society is really advancing toward.
Postmodernism is what you get when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.But we know what the fullness of the technological project has brought us. Since Emile Durkheim in the 19th century we’ve known, for example, that modern industrial cities breed much higher rates of suicide and madness. Reams of empirical studies and a century or two of social theory have noticed that modernity produces increasingly shallow and instrumental relationships, amid a life-world that is barren and isolating.
Recently, a friend who is an emergency medical professional told me of calls received during the holiday season, from those who don’t have a health emergency. “I think I might be having a heart attack,” for example, in order to get a visit – in order to have some human contact.
Do we really want to push all this even further? Life, health, freedom and community need a different direction.
For thousands of generations we lived in band society. Before tribalism, this form of community – perhaps the only actual form that has existed – featured the face-to-face society that consisted of fewer than a hundred people. Mass society of course erased this, and so much more.
In a 1973 interview, novelist Kurt Vonnegut rejected the claims of modern techno-society, in favor of band society. ”Human beings will be happier…when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities. That’s my utopia. That’s what I want for me.” I, too, want to go in that direction. We need a new paradigm, a new vision, which would involve a radical decentralization, a move away from the ever more integrating world system.
Not alter-globalization, a new catch-phrase on the Left, but anti-globalization based on anti-authoritarian perspectives. More than that we need to start de-domesticating ourselves and re-skilling ourselves. Reconnecting with the earth in a literal sense. All of us are domesticated but we can start the process of transition. Toward immediacy, wholeness, vitality. It won’t be easy, but if a growing number becomes involved in such a move the ways and means can be found. I think that a growing number may be feeling the need for such a new direction.
There are no blueprints. We will figure out our paths when our goals can be seen and discussed. As we find each other, the necessary public conversation will begin and the effort to go forward together may ensue. No guarantees, but worth the liberating journey!
The Ecological HumanThe nature of humanity in the twenty-first century is, according to sociologist Steve Fuller, a ‘bipolar disorder’ beset with dualisms of identification such as divine/animal, mind/body, nature/artifice and individual/social. He notes that they have challenged our collective sense of identity as ‘human’, particularly though the operationalization of the mind/body question in new material configurations of metallic or silicon bodies .
In short, we are ‘becoming’ machines. Inventor Ray Kurtzweil and performance artist Marcel Li Antunez Roca both explore this notion in their projections about the future of the human body. Yet ‘emergentist’ philosophers and scientists have challenged the mechanistic model of matter since the late 18th and early 19th century. They propose another way of understanding the organization of matter , without resorting to the customary mechanist  – vitalist  dichotomy . Observations from the biological and chemical sciences demonstrate that substances frequently do not behave in a manner that can be explained as the simply ‘sum’ of their components. For example, the addition of an acid and an alkali creates salt and water, while the fusion of an ovum and spermatozoon produces a conceptus. These are transformational rather than additional processes, which resist simple, mechanical interpretations.
Charlie Dunbar Broad first characterized these ‘emergent laws’, which underpin our current understanding of complex systems . Recently, Jane Bennett has reflected on the human body through a political discourse that is imagined through complex systems . She argues that the active participation of human and non-human forces in events creates a new political theory of ‘vibrant materialism’ . Using Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘assemblages’  as framework through which materials and people can meaningfully interact, Bennett extends the realms of the ‘human’ into an ecological context. This changes the ordering of the body from being a mechanical system composed of discreet, uniformly ‘human’ parts, into a messy grouping of different bodies and actants. These can act as a unifying whole while coherently changing their composition by assimilating new actants, or re-ordering their composition, as ecosystems do. When human bodies are read through this political framework of ‘vibrant materiality’ they are not absolute structures, but dynamic ecologies that are arguably more fluid and shape-shifting than Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg’ .
A. Hans Scheirl’s animated film ‘Dandy Dust’ encapsulates the new kind of human body that Bennett implies. The main character is split in two individual selves – ‘Dandy’ and ‘Dust’ – that exist between multiple worlds and genders. As the film progresses the narrative is further complicated by the emergence of other characters that bizarrely arise from different aspects of the protagonist. Artist Shinito also explores the idea of shifting human/non-human bodies through a character that becomes infected and symbiotically transformed by a colony of slime mould, which integrates his body with an extended, living ecology.
Another artist, Jae Rhim Lee, proposes to complete the cycle of human ecologies in her ‘Infinity Burial Project’. She suggests that a unique strain of edible mushroom would be suitable to decompose the postmortem human body, and remediate the toxins that have accumulated in the individual’s tissue, taking them out of the food chain. Her work explores the best way to achieve this through the development of a decomposition ‘kit’ and a membership society devoted to the cultivation of decomposing organisms. Bennett uses real-world, physiological examples to embody the politics of ‘vibrant materiality’. For example, she describes the act of eating to explain how the human body is not a unitary entity but a group of participating systems. When these cooperate they result in transformation, which produces a greater effect than the sum of the individual performance of its actants.
Specifically, our food is transformed into active chemistry through the collaboration of our gut flora with secretions from our bodies. Digested chemicals then pass into our blood stream and create changes in our behaviour as different tissues assimilate them for example, by altering our mood, or even the way we smell. When undigested food residue passes through our bodies we can choose whether or not we continue to nurture an intimate relationship with it. We might decide to recycle the expelled residue and bacteria as compost, or to find use for it, perhaps as ‘wattle & daub’ for building material. Today the convention is to use modern sewage systems that prevent our bodily waste from re-entering our local ecologies.
Although ‘vibrant materiality’ may initially appear to have unlimited connectivity, it is actually constrained and edited by individual choices. People may alter the composition of their bodies by changing the ‘actants’ that constitute their unique human ecology by, for example, choosing to eat different foodstuffs that make them smarter, or happier. They may even nurture unique ecologies that confer an evolutionary advantage such as incorporating telecommunications devices into their living spaces that increase behavioural effectiveness. People may even decide just how far (through the agency of their associated ‘actants’) they can directly influence the ecology of the entire planet by recycling material, using renewable energy or growing food locally. In this context next nature may serve as a framework that enables people to use culture and technology to replace our current mechanical practices with ecological ones.
Photo via Image World.
1. Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0. What it means to be human past, present and future. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 9–780230–233430, p 5.
2. The nature of matter is relevant to the understanding of ‘human’ bodies as it is the shared substance of Nature from which all life arises.
3. The mechanistic view of the world was a consequence of Rene Descartes notion that the body was separate from the mind being comprised of a finite, material substance whose essence could be reduced into expression of solid geometry. Rene Descartes (1639) Meditations V, Oeuvres De Descartes, 11 vols., edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1983.
4. Vitalists believe that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. This is usually an ephemeral force such as, a fluid or ‘spirit’. The modern day equivalent to vitalism is ‘intelligent design’ in which ‘design’ is the equivalent to an ephemeral substance.
5. James Shapiro calls the modern version of these oppositional, irresolvable positions which typically occurs between ‘creationists’ (vitalists) and ‘evolutionists’ (mechanists) a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.
6. A system comprised of a (usually large) number of (usually strongly) interacting entities, processes, or agents, the understanding of which requires the development, or the use of, new scientific tools, nonlinear models, out-of equilibrium descriptions and computer simulations.” Richards, D., B.D. McKay, and W.A. Richards .”Collective choice and mutual knowledge structures.” Advances in Complex Systems. Vol. 1, pp. 221-236.
7. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham 2010.
8. ‘Vital materialism’ is distinct from ‘vitalism’ in that recognises the agency of matter without recourse to an ephemeral force.
9. Assemblages are informal groupings of diverse ‘actants’, a term used by Bruno Latour to describe a source of action that can be human or non-human, that create their effects through collaboration and emergence. Latour, B (1996) On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications, Soziale Welt47,4, 369-81.
1o. ‘A cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.’ Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. p.149.
Featured Page #02: Google NatureDuring the coming weeks, we will present a selection of our favourite pages from the Next Nature book. This week the second one in this series: Google Nature.
Imagine you are an intelligent alien from outer space that has just landed on Earth. Before you can mingle with the earthlings you’d need to learn their language. It seemed like a smart idea to start at Google image search. Just type in a word and you’ll immediately get a collage of images that show you what it means (by the way: this is also a helpful tip for the more visually oriented humans among us). Let’s start for example with the word dandelion. That teaches you a lot about the different phases of this flower and how it propagates!
So far so good, but things are rapidly getting more bizarre. For instance when you try the Beetle, or the Puma: both somewhat confusing. The Lion seems to be fine, that ‘s the meat-eating animal that jumps on other animals. Jaguar seems to be more schizophrenic again. Better avoid the Apple. The Blackberry, however, is peculiar. It’s not certain where they grow.
Cavemen Used ‘Facebook’ AlreadyScientists claim to have discovered a “prehistoric version of Facebook” used by ancient tribes to communicate with each other. After analyzing over 3000 rock art images in Sweden and Russia, Mark Sapwell and his team from Cambridge University concluded that the sites functioned like an “archaic related stories version” of social networks where users shared thoughts and emotions and gave stamps of approval to other contributions – very similar to today’s Facebook like.
Using analytical software the scientists compared the imagery over large areas – adding and taking off layers to create a sense of how people built on existing images. Carved from 4000 B.C. to 600 B.C., the rock art depicts people, animals, boats and hunting scenes. It was created by generations of semi-nomadic people, who lived more inland in winter to hunt elk, and then occupied areas closer to coasts and rivers to fish.
According to Mark Sapwell, a Ph.D. archaeology candidate at Cambridge University, the rock art sites were highly visible landmarks where passing travelers would take notice of the traces of people who came before them, adding their own mark on the world.
“The rock art we see today is the result of a culmination of many repeated acts of carving, each responding to each other over time. Like a Facebook status invites comment, the rock art appears very social and invites addition – the way the variations of image both mirror and reinterpret act as a kind of call and response between different packs of hunters across hundreds – even thousands – of years.” Sapwell said in a statement.
The rock art ranged from groups of a few images to entire panels with over 500 images. Larger clusters of images represented a greater response and conversation between people. For example, in earlier periods (around 4000-3500 B.C.), a silhouette style of elk image is almost always seen among large clusters and rarely in isolation.
“One exciting part of the study is that the preference towards these popular images change through time. A very big change at the images in Sweden is the shift from elk to boat images, as if the ‘topic to talk about’ shifted from land to water,” Sapwell said.
The shift is dated to around 2000-1800 B.C., a time when travel and long-distance exchange between communities become more important. Another remarkable find is the application of hybrid imagery (for example a half-man half elk, or half-man half-boat), which was tried out in the early periods, but became less popular from around 3500 B.C.
“So generally, what we see in these landscapes are very interesting cases where through prehistory, particular themes in everyday life become worth commenting on. A little like the fashions of Facebook comments, these topics are seen to fall in and out of favor,” Sapwell said.
According to Sapwell, the huge concentrations of rock images attracted much interest because their social importance was well understood by the people who made and read them.
“Like today, people have always wanted to feel connected to each other – this was an expression of identity for these very early societies, before written language,” Sapwell said.
Apparently we have been practicing social ‘liking’ and ‘commenting’ behavior for much longer than we realized. This may explain the success and rapid embracement of digital social networks like Facebook and Twitter, although we shouldn’t be surprised if in a few centuries, archaeologist will be studying the then abandoned Facebook ruins to learn about our lives and society.
Via Scientias, via Discovery News. Thanks Items.
Complexity and Evolving Synthetic SoilTwenty-first century society draws from a world that is less determined by objects and increasingly shaped by connectivity. The clear either/or distinctions that formerly informed experience are being replaced by a much more fluid understanding of the world. Identity is not fixed, but shaped by networks where people and ‘things’ can coherently exist in many states. This ‘complex systems’* view extends to the characterization of nature, which is made up of many interacting bodies. Some of these are human, others living and many other participating agencies that are dynamic, yet are not thought of as being alive. Yet the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms represent different kinds of organizing networks that are entwined and constitute our living world.
The study of complex systems has become an important scientific study that requires interdisciplinary collaboration to characterize their properties. Networks, which share patterns of organization, are at the heart of complex systems. This helps us understand poorly understood complex systems, such as metabolic networks, by making analogies with well-known ones, such as the Internet. Complex systems are usually represented as diagrams whose points of convergence, or ‘nodes’, represent the various participating bodies. The connections between these active sites are represented topologically to signify the interactions between them. Structural features of complex systems are revealed as secondary phenomena that appear as a consequence of the network interactions that give rise to them. Currently the mapping of complex systems is not deductive and cannot tell a researcher just how a network arose, or how it will behave in the future.
The temporal properties of complex systems are complicated by the phenomenon of emergence**, but the kind of dynamic temporal changes that may occur can be grasped by studying a range of processes that can be broadly thought of as ‘evolution’. The particular structure that best embodies the transition from inert to living matter is the story of soil. William Bryant Logan notes that the earth was not born with soil but has acquired it over the millennia. Soils are a living web of relationships within complex bodies that will eventually grow old and die. Plants take root in the rich chemical medium and bind the particles together to attract animal life. Conversely, soil harbors fungi and bacteria that break down the bodies of dead creatures and turns them into more soil. The speed of this dynamic conversion process varies. In fertile areas it may take fifty years to produce a few centimeters of soil but in harsh deserts it can take thousands of years. Once soil is eroded, it is completely destroyed and is effectively lost forever.
The possibility of artificially engineering soils creates the opportunity to transform artificial landscapes into places that can attract nature. Gardeners already select rich combinations of loam, compost and fertilizer to produce blooming plants but these techniques do not evolve their infrastructures in situ. Rather they transport them from other areas of soil production.So, is it possible to create a matrix using a bottom-up, complex systems approach, where interacting networks give rise to a superstructure that performs the work of soil?
An experiment that explored the possible evolution of soil matrix was conducted during the Hylozoic Ground installation, an architectural installation by Philip Beesley, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, 2010. Iron, the favored mineral of Ruskin, was passed through reactive gels in a chemical process called the Liesegang Ring reaction, which occurs naturally under certain geological conditions. This dynamic process, driven by gravity and diffusion, produced layers of complex materials over the three-month period of the installation. The process of separating the homogenous gel into layers of different colors and thicknesses was the first stage towards creating an artificial soil.
Of course, much work still needs to be done before the gel could be functionally likened to a soil. It would, for example, need to contain air filled cavities, organisms and be capable of compost production. However, these first experiments suggest that sterile surfaces can be transformed into living, complex bodies through the interactions of multiple, interacting biological and chemical agents. This synthetic matrix could potentially provide a supportive, evolving infrastructure for a web of designed life forms and synthetic ecologies, where culture and technology connect through processes that are typical of next nature.
*Complexity Science considers the physical world to exist as the result of an interconnected set of networks, of complex and simple systems rather than as a series of objects that are hierarchically connected. Network connections are shared by different organizing systems through information flow where linkages are made and broken around sites of localizing activity. Complex systems do not acquire complexity but fundamentally possess it, exhibiting an optimized, elegant design, even when they are composed of only a few ingredients. Such systems cannot be broken down into components.
** Emergence is a term that proposes an alternative roadmap of organization between a mechanistic view of the world and a vitalistic one. In the late 18th century emergentists sought to describe the nature of vital substances that were composed of ‘inanimate materials’ yet in some sense continued to retain irreducibly vital qualities or processes. “All organized bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself. (Mill, J.S. (1882) A System of Logic, Bk.III, Ch.6, p.1) See also: O’Connor, Timothy and Wong, Hong Yu, “Emergent Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/properties-emergent/
Featured Page #01: HypernatureDuring the coming weeks, we will present a selection of our favourite pages from the Next Nature book. To kick the series off, we’ll start with a spread about hypernature; the enhanced version of nature.
Much of the so-called ‘nature’ in our lives has taken on an artificial authenticity. Engineered tomatoes are redder, rounder, and larger than the ones from our gardens. Domestic pets could not survive in the wild, but prosper by triggering our empathy. We have made fluorescent fish, rainbow tulips and botanical gardens that contain species from every corner of the globe.
Human design has turned nature into hypernature, an exaggerated simulation of a nature that never existed. It’s better than the original, a little bit prettier and slicker, safer and more convenient. Hypernature emerges where the born and the made meet. It presents itself as nature, yet arguably, it is culture in disguise.
Note from the editor: This spread is a perfect example of the relation between this website and our Next Nature book. Over the years, we have posted several stories about hypernature, but we never really pinned the term down. The editing process of the book allowed us to study it much better and come to a better understanding of what it is, and how it should be described. Which in return resulted in the thematic sections you can find on this website, like this one about hypernature.
Featured here are pages 124-125 from the book Next Nature: Nature Changes Along with Us. More information about the book can be found here.
Amsterdam’s Canals by Bacterial LightItalian architect Carlo Morsiani would like to take Amsterdam’s canals from dark, dank and filled with old bikes, to brilliant, blue, and presumably still filled with old bikes. Morsiani recently proposed adding bioluminescent members of Photobacterium to the city’s waterways. With the canals stocked with motion-sensitive bacteria, any passing boats or accidental swimmers would leave a hazy blue trail in their wake.
The idea is not entirely untenable – bioluminescent organisms congregate in such density in Vieques, Puerto Rico, that the bay has become a tourist attraction. Since these tropical organisms produce only weak light, Morsiani has a lot of genetic modification to work out before these bacteria can adjust to life in Europe. Add glowing canals to buildings coated with Photobacterium and transgenic streetlight trees, and we might never have to change a lightbulb again.
Story via The Pop-Up City.
A Clockwork ForestHas nature become a fairytale or do we want it to be one? In their installation The Clockwork Forest, artist collective Greyworld seems to opt for the latter.
The work of art consists of a giant golden key attached to a living tree in a forest, giving it a nice theme-park aesthetic. When the key is turned, the tree plays a fairy-tale-ish lullaby and the suggestion of a wind-up tree is playfully evoked. Close your eyes, and you’ll see goblins and unicorns running through the damp forest. It’s magic…
‘The forest is often the mysterious location of secret stories, of distant sounds from hidden camp fires, of secret meetings and unexplained sounds’, claim the artists. ‘In The Clockwork Forest, we have created the first chapter of an untold fairy tale. Just turn the key. The mechanical soundtrack will accompany your journey in to the forest.’
The whole thing feels a bit like a physical reenactment of the work Mastering Bambi by dutch artists Persijn Broersen and Margit Lucacs. It evokes wonder and I am absolutely sure both kids and grown-ups will love this beautiful installation. I also think that it is a good idea to celebrate a mystical, even magic relationship with our environment. Up to a certain level, I think it is even good to tell and re-tell fairytales. They are a specific type of stories that serve a certain purpose; set in a fictitious times and places, they tell us about good and bad through metaphors.
Only at a certain point, one must realize that they are just what they are: made up stories. The story this installation tells us is about how we have lost our connection with nature and how we should re-connect in a magical way. Ironically, it is told via a symbol of the mechanical age, emphasizing only how our natural environment has been replaced by technology.
Nature as a wind-up machine
The title of the installation refers heavily to Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. In this novel, technology (in the form of therapy) is put to use to control humans (in the person of the protagonist Alex) and therefore, to control nature. The result of this, as the novel brings forward, is a mechanized human being, a metaphorical clockwork orange. Would Greyworld see their Clockwork Forest as a representation of an instrumental vision of nature? Nature as a wind-up toy that does one very nice trick, but only the one that we want it to do?
WE NEED DESIGNERS AND ARTISTSOf course, nature is not to be toyed with. If we, humans, want to live happily ever after on this planet, we should revert our nostalgia for a nature that never existed and re-align nature with technology. And we can do that, because we are technological beings by nature. As opposed to a longing to go back-, we should invent technology that will bring us forward to nature. Yes, it will be rocket science. And a little magic here and there would come in handy.
TO INVENT FUTURE FAIRYTALES
TO INVENT FUTURE FAIRYTALES
But even more than rocket scientists we need designers and artists, those princess and princesses of progress, to invent our future fairytales. So that we can believe in Nature again, and finally get rid of those unicorns.
The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Suicidal?At Next Nature, we often argue that “our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonious is naive and up for reconsideration.” Paleontologist Peter J. Ward happens to agree. In a challenge to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life functions as nurturing, super-organismal “mother”, Ward argues that life on earth has a death wish that would do Freud proud.
Ward claims that, contrary to popular images of cataclysmic asteroids and volcanoes, most mass extinctions on earth were set in motion by microbes. 2.4 billion years ago, microscopic cyanobacteria emerged newly equipped with photosynthesis and triggered the Great Oxygenation Event. While great for aerobic organisms, it was fatal news for anaerobic life, which had up until then had free reign over the planet. The sudden release of oxygen is also likely what set off the Huronian Glaciation, a deadly “snowball earth” that kept the planet locked in ice for 300 million years.
Anaerobic microbes had their revenge during subsequent extinction events. Historically, whenever atmospheric carbon has risen above 1,000 parts per million (ppm), a super-charged greenhouse effect dramatically weakens the temperature differential between the poles and the tropics. Without pronounced temperature gradients to drive ocean mixing, only the top layer of the sea remains oxygenated. Anaerobic bacteria thrive below this zone, producing enough hydrogen sulfide gas to poison the entire planet. This poisoning may be to blame for the End-Permian event, “the mother of all extinctions“, when 96% of all marine organisms disappeared.
Humans, microbes though we’re not, are an element of the earth’s self-destructive tendency. If our Co2 emissions go above the tipping point of 1,000 ppm, as predicted by some upper-end IPCC estimates for 2100, we may trip an event identical to the one that wiped out the trilobites.
Interestingly enough, in the long run, it’s a carbon shortage that may spell the end of life, long before the sun vaporizes the oceans. In 500 million years, life’s insatiable need for carbon – the basic building block of every organism – could mean that atmospheric carbon might eventually drop below 10 ppm, the amount needed to sustain grasses. In terms of total biomass, evidence indicates that earth is already in its “old age”.
Life sprung from a happy coincidence of molecules. According to Ward, it will bumble around earth for about 4 billion years, and snuff itself out just as accidentally as it arose. So much for Disney nature.
Humans Caused Mass Extinctions Before There Were Even HumansHumans and other hominids have a reputation for bringing about mass extinctions. Homo erectus has been blamed for the disappearance of many African carnivores, our ancestors likely caused the Pleistocene extinctions, and modern humans are currently embroiled in the midst of the sixth great extinction event.
New evidence indicates that hominids have been causing significant extinctions far earlier than ever thought. Australopithecus afarensis, of Lucy fame, has been implicated in the disappearance of 23 species of carnivores that prowled Africa around 2 million years ago. Omnivores and small to mid-sized carnivores all bowed out at the same time tool-using A. afarensis showed up, leaving only hyper-specialized carnivores such as lions and hyenas.
Lars Werdelin, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, theorizes that Australopithecines were such efficient scavengers that they knocked out any species that relied on part-time carcass theft. Groups of A. afarensis with stone tools likely were enough to scare away civets or large, predatory otters that competed for meat. This finding is all the more the remarkable becuase Australopithecines’ brains and bodies were only slighter larger than those of modern chimpanzees. Human-style social living and tool use, it seems, have made us top competitors from the beginning.
Man-Made Coral ReefsLast week I had the pleasure of being the studio guest at the Earth Beat radio show. I was treated with examples of ‘artificial nature’ and asked to respond from a Next Nature perspective. Among them where these amazing underwater sculptures, created by Jason de Caires Taylor as a man-made coral reef to provide a habitat for sea-life and distract snorkelers from the vulnerable coral reefs elsewhere.
Listen to the entire Earth beat broadcast (mp3).
Images © Jason de Caires Taylor
Ronald van Tienhoven – Techno Animism
Once upon a time animism ruled people’s beliefs: both organisms and objects were imbued with a conscience. Artist Ronald van Tienhoven states that as technology closes the gap between organisms and objects, a new form of techno-animism arises.
Real Vanilla is Natural, But Natural Vanilla is FakeWhat most gourmands would define as “real” and “natural” vanilla flavoring is simple: Vanilla beans steeped in alcohol. But vanillin, the chemical responsible for vanilla’s taste and flavor, is a far more complicated beast. Chemically identical to real vanilla, artificial vanilla can be made from clove oil, pine bark, coal tar, bran, even cow dung. Until fairly recently, the chemical lignin, derived from wood pulp, was the most common way of synthesizing vanillin. Most artificial vanilla is now derived from guaiacol, a chemical derived from creosote or Guaiacum flowers.
The United States Food and Drug Administration has thrown a hint of confusion (and a note of lychee) into the cut-and-dry definitions of “real” and “fake” vanilla. Any flavor derived from edible sources can be labeled a natural flavor. Therefore, vanillin made from bacterial fermentation of corn or rice bran is a “natural” vanilla flavor – just not “real” vanilla flavor. However, vanillin made from cow dung, while natural in all senses, is not legally “natural”, because dung normally isn’t a source of food.
If this legalese has given you a headache, try some real/natural/artificial vanilla aromatherapy. Most people prefer the fake stuff anyway, if they can even taste the difference at all.
Via Edible Geography.
Can Life Be a Technology?In 2009 the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy coined the phrase ‘living technology’  to draw attention to a group of emerging technologies that are useful because they share some of the fundamental properties of living systems. The technologies fell short of being fully ‘alive’ yet they possessed at least some unique characteristics that are usually associated with ‘life’: Self-assembly, self-organization, metabolism, growth and division, purposeful action, adaptive complexity, evolution, and intelligence. Examples of this new field of technology include synthetic biology, attempts to make living systems from scratch in the laboratory , ICT systems exhibiting collective and swarm intelligence and robot companions.
‘Living technology’ may be an oxymoron, yet despite its innate contradictions, it does not propose an empirical measurement of the ‘aliveness’ or ‘usefulness’ of the systems it represents. Rather the term implies a fundamental change in the way we engage with our world. Indeed, the idea of living technology embodies a complex, non-mechanical approach to the process of problem-solving, which frames the expectations of its performance.
The technological concerns of living technology are allied with Martin Heidegger’s ecological view of technology. Heidegger regarded our relationship with nature through technological revelations as being more significant than any utilitarian function. He proposed that modern technology turns nature, and ultimately humans, into a standing reserve of resources . Living technology shares this ecological concern and suggests a more environmentally compatible kind of technology, which is more complex, interconnected and responsive than the machine-based devices that have characterized the 20th century.
Since ‘livingness’ embodies a unique set of properties that machines do not possess, such as robustness, flexibility, the capacity to deal with the unexpected and the ability to surprise, then living technology operates in fundamentally different ways than machines, particularly in the way that they are controlled and interacted with. Living technologies evade dualistic modes of operation (such as on/off switches) and hierarchical notions of organization, such as the pods described in David Cronenberg’s 1999 film ExistenZ, which depicts humans reacting and interacting with an organic, living videogame. Indeed, when it comes to living technology, it may not even be possible to see the control point, let alone figure out how to turn it off, shut it down or even remove it – so the expectations and engagements with them change. Additionally, the inherent complexity of these technologies affects more than just their organizational aspects, but their embodiment too.
In the science fiction story “The Universe of Things,” Gwyneth Jones (2010)  describes an encounter between a human being and an alien whose superior technologies are intrinsically alive:
“They had tools that crept, slithered, flew, but they had made these things… They built things with bacteria… Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything.”
In contemporary Western culture we are accustomed to being trapped in a world of dead, or merely passive, matter, which is constrained through the machine metaphor to serve our own purposes. Living technology empowers to engage with the inherent energies in the non-human world as ‘actants’ , which have their own powers, therefore enabling us to ally ourselves with them . Jane Bennett calls this property of the non-human world ‘vital materialism’, which is the recognition that “vitality is shared by all things,” and not limited to ourselves alone . Through vital materialism, we learn how to accommodate their nature and their needs, as well as our own. In other words, we discover how to exist harmoniously within an ecology of relationships, rather than thinking solely in mechanical terms.
However, living technology is not independent of human existence. It is not alive, and actually depends on interactions with humans for its context, functioning and survival. More life-like technologies increase our responsibility towards our planetary resources, and are a necessary step in our engagement with a more ecological way of revealing and creating influence in the world. The politics, ethics and implications of living technology are still emerging and are a recurrent theme for the discoveries of next nature.
Photo of quadrotors via Tech2.
1.Bedau, M., (2009). Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research, Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206.
2. Hanczyc, M. M., Toyota, T., Ikegami, T., Packard, N., & Sugawara, T. (2007). Fatty acid chemistry at the oil-water interface: Self-propelled oil droplets. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 129(30), 9386 – 9391.
3. Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, trans. William Lovitt and David Farrell Krell in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. by David Farrell Krell, Revised and expanded edition (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 287-311.
4. Jones, Gwyneth (2010). The Universe of Things. Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
5. Latour, Bruno (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press., p.159.
6. Harman, Graham. (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.Melbourne: re.press.
7. Bennett, Jane (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 89.
Is the Human Body Redundant?The increasing ‘liveliness’ of machines and accessibility to the virtual world has raised questions about whether it is possible to uncouple the mind from the body in through a host of different strategies. The basic idea is that if we are able to escape the ties of our own flesh then we can upgrade them and even replace them with immortal ones. Performance artist Stelarc has made some of the most extreme and enduring work on this subject. The artist characteristically depersonalises his anatomy and claims that it is not only an object that can be subjected to re-designing but is also ‘obsolete’. During his performances, Stelarc mentally ‘vacates’ his own body to prove its obsolescence, and claims that his body is no more than a site for redesigning and re-engineering the human form.
In my view, Stelarc’s work paradoxically highlights the profound importance that embodiment holds for being human. When Stelarc dissociates his mind from his body he demonstrates its sheer plasticity and robustness. The artist then recolonizes the body with robots, communications technologies and soft prostheses as proof of this inbuilt physical redundancy. Yet the machines he hosts are given context by the presence of a body – for in its absence, they are just a collection of machines devoid of meaning. Moreover, redundancy is a characteristic of complex systems, which are a form of organization that does not obey the Cartesian, dualistic laws that govern machines. The artist’s rejection of these qualities simply highlights that the human body is not a machine.
There is nothing liberating about having an anesthetized body, nor one that is functionally redundant. While Stelarc’s suspensions and performances demonstrate that we can temporarily ‘forget’ our bodies in order to explore a transcendent state of being, there are those who live in a permanent state of disconnection.
My interest in design and the human body began as a medical student during a visit to Anandgram (Village of Joy) leprosy hospital and rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Poona, India. I was assisting a surgeon to re-thread tendons in patients with critical loss of hand function. By attaching the healthy muscles of less important tendons, such as those in the fingers, to restore actions in more important ones, such as the thumb, important complex actions such as grip could be restored. These operations were performed in a simple sterile room without general anesthetic, because the Mycobacterium leprae bacillus had a devastating preference for nerve tissue, which led to paralysis of movement and sensory loss. In other words, the areas of the body affected by leprosy were insensitive to the pain of surgical incisions. This made for strange polite conversation with a fully awake patient, while assisting the surgeon perform complex surgery, in what was little more than a bare room.
Yet through this simple approach my colleague was able to help many patients, without the normal cost associated with employing an anesthetist for complex, deep and sometimes lengthy surgery. It was also possible to see just how effective the rearrangement of the patient’s anatomy would be by asking them to move their hand during the procedure. These visceral, restorative procedures were not confined to hand function but could be applied to other important muscle groups. One vital operation involved splitting a face muscle tendon and attaching it to the inside of the eye. This enabled people who had lost the ability to blink to be able to voluntarily do so by clenching their teeth. With intensive training, eye drops and rehabilitation, those who had undergone the procedure were able to consciously protect their eyes from drying and ultimately save themselves from blindness.
There was much work to be done since M. leprae prefers to infect nerves and soft tissues, starting at the extremities and working its way towards the body. Although the infection was treatable in its early stages, once the disease had set in it caused irreversible nerve damage and extensive tissue destruction, resulting in the physical ‘stigma’ of leprosy*. My colleague used his surgical skill and experience to re-site hand and facial tendons correctly, with the active cooperation of his patients, both within the realm of the operating theater and without. The Anandgram community created a supportive environment and provided active, intensive physiotherapy and much encouragement for residents to learn how to use, and to continue to use, their re-wired bodies. Following these interventions, some residents returned to employment by customizing the operating interfaces and altering their mechanical advantage industrial machines to suit specific impairments that could not be restored by surgery, such as loss of a limb **.
Despite their strange disfigurements and odd rearrangements, residents learned how to use their re-wired bodies again. Although I had been party to remarkably mechanistic interventions such as rethreading tendons and re-stitching them in unnatural places, it was clear to me that the simple re-wiring alone had neither affected nor restored each person’s physical integrity. From the moment the patient left the operating theater, their re-located tendon insertions tugged on their muscle groups, which sent signals to the brain that the entire body had been immersed in a novel reality. Each resident would have to work hard to re-tune their mind and body into a synchronous existence to restore and establish networks of interactions that spanned the physiological, anatomical, cognitive, social and environmental realms.
By focusing on their bodies, the residents of Anandgram became physically and socially reintegrated, and were able to re-create their being in the world. This amazing ability is something that all of us are able to do, such as when we train to increase our fitness, or start to recover from a debilitating illness, and is what makes us all truly unique. Our anatomy enables us to be who we are, no matter what that form may be, and allows us to possess qualities that machines do not have such as flexibility, robustness, the ability to renew or regenerate and the capacity to deal with ‘the unknown’. Of course, there are limits to our physical potential and instinctively, we want to push ourselves to our full potential, exceed it, or, like Stelarc, temporarily resist ‘being in’ our bodies. This is not a healthy space to inhabit for any prolonged period – indeed, it is a kind of death. Next nature views the human body as a powerful connector, that empowers and enables us to enjoy a many kinds of experiences and ways of being that do not separate mind and matter but embrace them as a seamless whole.
*The physical ‘stigma’ of leprosy such as depigmented skin patches, loss of digits, chronic ulcers, ‘lion-like’ facial deformity and blindness are only part of the affliction. People who contract the infection are also subject to psychological and social traumas, which compound difficulties and prevent people from seeking treatment early.
**This video that I made in 1992 explores the difference between inhabitants of Poona that enjoyed a normal life and compares it with those with leprosy. Some are begging in the streets, while others are receiving treatment at the Anandgram leprosy hospital, or employed in specially designed workshops in the community.
“That Was Then. This is Now”The wunderkammer – the traditional repository of natural history curiosities and cultural relics – has been updated by the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh, which opened the doors of its new museum this month. A curated microcosm populated by plant and animal specimens modified by man, this is the first synthetic history museum dedicated to documenting our Age of Anthropocene.
The museum’s curator, artist Richard Pell, has been painstakingly collecting examples of the ‘PostNatural’: “living organisms that have been altered through processes such as selective breeding or genetic engineering”. These organisms are not archived (unless accidentally, as Rich discovered) in natural history collections. Are genetically engineered Glo-Fish, Roundup-Ready maize and ‘biosteel’ goats post-natural organisms from the branches of the Synthetic Kingdom, or does their ‘true’ nature remain preserved?
Pell’s research has taken him on quite a journey through the living (and taxidermied) kingdoms, from the archives of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to dealings with Monsanto. Through the PostNatural taxonomy, the collection raises vital questions of intellectual property, genetic modification, scientific objectivity and as Pell describes in this interview, how we cannot forget that “the project of science is never divorced from the cultural context”.
Will Eugenics Become an Acceptable Strategy to Avoid Climate Change?Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of today and various scenarios, ranging from artificial trees, pollution trading, co2 capturing to geo-engineering, have been proposed to cope with planetary heating. Most of these existing strategies, however, focus on the altering our environment, but as global warming is inflicted by people, why not start at the root of the issue and change humanity itself to cope with climate change?
Recently New York University bioethics professor S Matthew Liao published a paper (PDF) in Ethics, Policy and the Environment arguing that one way to tackle the challenges of a rise in energy use is to modify humanity to simply use less energy.
The researchers argue biomedical modifications of humans so that they can reduce and/or adapt to climate change is potentially less risky than geo-engineering. They suggests a range of ways to achieve this, from creating an aversion to meat by giving diners a mild intolerance to it, to using gene therapy to create smaller children.
Although eugenics, the deliberate “improvement” of the genetic composition of people, has been in disfavor since its mid-20th century association with Nazi Germany, the researchers argue it “deserves further consideration in the debate about climate change”. Apparently radical problems require radical measures? Certainly next nature causes more next nature.
Via Wired. Download the entire paper (PDF)
Internet Traffic is now 51% Non-HumanSo you thought the Internet was made by and for people? Think again. A study by Incapsula, a provider of cloud-based security for web sites (mind you where this data comes from), concludes that 51% of all Internet traffic is generated by non-human sources such as hacking software, scrapers and automated spam mechanisms. While 20% of the 51% non-human traffic is’ good’, the 31% majority of this non-human traffic is potentially malicious.
The study is based on data collected from 1,000 websites that utilize Incapsula’s services, and it determined that just 49% of Web traffic is human browsing. 20% is benign non-human search engine traffic, but 31% of all Internet traffic is tied to malicious activities. 19% is from ” ‘spies’ collecting competitive intelligence,” 5% is from automated hacking tools seeking out vulnerabilities, 5% is from scrapers and 2% is from content spammers.
Presumably these numbers will only rise. Anthrophomorphobia ahoy!
Thanks Bruce. Via ZDNet.com.
Christian Schwägerl – Riding the Anthropocene
Christian Schwägerl, biologist, correspondent for Der Spiegel and writer of the book Menschenzeit, introduces us into the Anthropocene, a geologic term that marks the significant global impact of human activities on the Earth’s ecosystems.
Darwinian Selection of the Cowboy HatThe standard story of the cowboy hat goes something like this: In 1865, J.B. Stetson went out west during the California gold rush. He observed that bowlers, raccoon hats, and sombreros weren’t cutting it for men who spent their lives in the harsh conditions of the American West. Stetson went back home and invented “The Boss of the Plains”, a waterproof hat with a high dome, ideal for cowboy life. This story would check out if the original Stetson looked anything like a true cowboy hat. Which, with its flat brim, round top, and bow-tied ribbon, it does not.
Johnnie Hughes, author of On the Origin of Teepees, argues that the Stetson’s modern form was actually an accident of environment and human habit. The characteristic rolled brim and dented crown are the result of thousands of ranch hands picking up, folding, and sleeping on their hats. The wide brim, waterproof materials, and high crown were responses to a climate with blazing summers and frigid, wet winters. Just like the horse hoof, the cowboy hat was the unintentional result of a population of “organisms” adapting to a grasslands habitat.
It can be problematic to equate natural evolution with the development of manmade objects. Whether or not these changes can be compared to Darwinian selection depends on the intentionality of the design. Some, like corporate logos, superficially appear to evolve like living organisms in gradual, logical steps. However, each iteration of the design can usually be linked back to a conscious decision. Others are unintentional but non-adaptive. This Boo Berry cereal box, for instance, is more akin to harmless DNA transcription errors than natural selection. Finally, the Stetson hat is a true example of a manmade object that was shaped by actual, unintentional Darwinian selection to arrive at its “fittest” form. Proof that not all design is intelligent.
Story via the always excellent Radiolab. Listen to Contagious Ideas to learn more. Photo via Phila Place Blog.
Bacteria “R” UsThere is a domain of creatures that diffusively encircles an entire planet. There are so many of them that they occupy every conceivable ecological niche. Yet, despite their countless numbers they are so in tune with their local ecology that they have become an intrinsic part of it. Those that live in rural locations greatly outnumber those that inhabit strange cites, which are gregarious, smart and even have their own personalities. The cities consider themselves as being independent from their inhabitants, yet share their nutrition with them. They have a diurnal waste cycle that removes debris and also makes room for a new influx of city dwellers. Mature cities can even reproduce to make new ones that are immediately available for the city inhabitants to colonize.
Modern biotechnology has recently revealed that humans are immersed in a bacterial world. So much so, that an alien naturalist might consider humans as little more than smart city housing for bacterial colonies. While we think we are at the top of an evolutionary tree, it appears that our evolution is closely linked to, if not entirely dependent on bacteria. They have collectively made it possible for complex life forms to exist as they have produced our breathable atmosphere, our soil and even our rainfall. Although they have not been proven to possess a collective ‘mind’ they do have extremely sophisticated methods of communicating using linguistic qualities . They encircle the planet like a chemical Internet and hold incessant conversations using physics and chemistry.
Bacteria are resilient, agile and smart. Some can cure cancer, some eat poison, others can resist extreme conditions and still, we think of bacteria as being primitive life forms. Yet no matter how simple we think they are, they have incredible technological powers. Bacteria don’t use tools as such, since their technologies are extrusions plucked from their own bodies. For example, bacteria can give themselves new powers by self-modifying their genes to produce bioluminescence , swarming behavior  or architectural biofilms.
Bacteria outnumber our human cells 10:1. Yet they compose only 3-5 kg of our body weight since their cells are so much smaller than our own. In fact, our natural ‘microbiome’ is an essential part of our immune system, warding off bacteria’s more invasive relatives that might cause us harm. Through the new lens of biotechnology we are becoming aware that we share our most intimate spaces with bacteria, which has opened up newly discovered landscapes that are rich with technological opportunities. Jessica Green studies the bacterial profiles of our living spaces to improve our health and well-being, while Philips has proposed that bacteria could help us save energy by powering home lighting systems. Sonja Baumel has explored the idea of using bacteria to form a decorative garment around her body that responds to her surroundings like photophores, the bacteria-rich camouflage cells found on deep sea creatures.
Yet our relationship with bacteria is still more personal than this. Our own cells show contemporary and historic evidence that we are assemblages of non-human ancestors that include viruses, prions and mitochondria. This molecular entwining between humans and bacteria raises the possibility of augmenting the human body by manipulating our bacteria instead of our own flesh. Futurist Ian Pearson speculates that through advances in genetic technologies the human species will diversify and give rise to Bacteria sapiens. Yet we may already have passed that threshold, as we’re not in control of this newly discovered micro-miniature world that encircles us on a planetary scale. Next nature acknowledges the messiness of our biological origins and the ultimate connectedness of all species. It seeks to develop better communications between every life form – rather than engaging in an all-out antibiotic boundary war that we’re simply not going to win.
Photo of Sonja Baumel’s work via Scientific American and Ecouterre.
1. Jacob, E.B., Becker, I., Shapira, Y., and Levine, H.(2004) Bacterial linguistic communication and social intelligence, Trends in Microbiology, pp. 366-372.
2. Nealson, K. H. 1977. Autoinduction of bacterial luciferase. Occurrence, mechanism and significance. Arch. Microbiol. 112: 73-79.
3. Armitage, J. P. (1992) Bacterial Motility and Chemotaxis. Science Progres. 76:451-477.
Rachel Armstrong – Living ArchitectureAt the Next Nature Power Show 2011, Dr Rachel Armstrong argued we must move away from creating buildings as inert structures and develop architecture that repairs itself. Application of such living technology may help save Venice from sinking.
Nature Ludens: The Natural World at PlayAn ingenious Russian crow that used a lid as a snowboard to slide down a snowy roof persuaded millions of YouTube viewers that animals are not merely beasts of burden – they also want to have fun. Indeed, the natural world appears to be teeming with creatures enjoying themselves in all kinds of different ways, and wildlife experts even claim that bonobos and dolphins have sex for fun.
But how can we know this is the case? Aren’t we really just projecting our human values on to animals? After all, moods are subjective, so it’s hard enough for humans to communicate clearly enough to each other, even when they share the same language – let alone try to figure out what another species might be feeling. So, to keep things simple and empirically testable, the kinds of scientific experiments that have established the ‘feelings’ of animals have focused on responses to stimuli in which cause and effect are not at all complicated such as withdrawal from pain .
Unsurprisingly, this has produced a very limited model of scientifically ‘proven’ animal behaviour, since there are still no clearly identifiable behavioural markers of conscious experience that don’t involve language. We still don’t know how to unequivocally prove what animals may be thinking. We can only claim that creatures such as these fox cubs playing on a trampoline appear to be having fun, since we cannot be objective about what we observe. However, the work of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin and Patrick Heelan, among many others, questions the long-held view that scientific data are absolutely objective.
Perhaps there is room for subjectivity, or other qualities not traditionally explored by science, which may provide useful insights into the way that nature works. D’Arcy Thompson noted the effusive ability of nature to make patterns  and thought of biological form as the consequence of relentless, dynamic forces that are shaped by flows of energy and stages of growth without a pre-determined purpose. The appreciation of nature’s creative qualities, rather than its traditionally accepted functional diligence, suggests that there may be a frivolous, even excessive side to nature. This is lost when observations are reduced by the scientific method into discreet, measurable parts. Philosopher Dan O’Hara, who researches the drivers of novelty, proposes that invention is the mother of necessity, in other words, nature finds its own uses for things (William Gibson famously observed that ‘the street finds its own uses for things’) .
So, if there is a more ‘playful’ side to nature, from pattern generation to animal behavior, then it is possible that creatures are able to benefit from the rich diversity of experiences that nature has to offer and are equipped with appropriate behaviours for discovery such as exploration and play. For example, magpies are notorious for collecting objects – not because they are choosing the best building materials to make a nest with, but simply because they like them.
Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine offers a way forwards in articulating a more holistic, phenomenologically inclusive kind of science, which has been aspired to by thinkers such as Jan Christian Smuts, Vladimir Vernadsky, James Lovelock and Rupert Sheldrake. He proposes that the world is not simple or mechanical in its ordering, but complex and fundamentally creative. This science is still very young and controversial. It requires its own set of tools, methods and materials – to break free of the exclusive discourses of function and efficiency – before it can start to radically re-articulate our experience of the world. In the twenty-first century nature we are likely to see a re-characterization of nature as quintessentially creative, intrinsically playful and fun loving. These bountiful ideas will replace the rather puritanical, mechanistic model that we currently use and herald more ecologically compatible forms of human development. Perhaps some readers will already recognise these generous signatures – they are next nature.
Image of a beluga blowing a bubble ring via the Daily Telegraph.
1. Griffiths, D. P., Dickinson, A. & Clayton, N. S. (1999). Declarative and episodic memory: what can animals remember about their past? Trends Cogn. Sci. 3, 74-80.
2. Thompson, D W., 1992. On Growth and Form. Dover reprint of 1942 2nd ed. (1st ed., 1917).
3. Gibson, William (1981) Burning Chrome and Other Stories. London: HarperCollins. P 215.
Better Than Nature?At the turn of the millennium, miniaturized canines acquired the cherished status of living, designer handbag ornaments. These teeny tiny photogenic doggies, which had been shrunken from generations of in breeding, were snapped up by fashionistas who pouted alongside them in front of seas of clicking cameras.
In just a fragment of evolutionary time, today’s ‘to die for’ bio-couture has been genetically spliced with jellyfish signatures. These trophies are freer to roam and easier to find than their miniaturised predecessors, as they can glow under UV, or ‘black’ light. Although not all varieties can fit in a clutch purse yet, there is an impressive range of designer ‘glo’ organisms available in green and red (blue is possible but isn’t as impressive under UV light). Options include fruit flies, fish, mice, chickens, rabbits, pigs and cats (for glo-cats, see here, here and here).
Science justifies these media friendly creations in service of the greater public good. Yet these animals have great popular appeal that speaks little to their ability to fight cancer or other diseases. Despite their ‘freaky’ designer origins, glo pets are undeniably ‘cute’. Genetic modification is part of a spectrum of technological approaches offered by the new science of synthetic biology, which enable us to overcome the apparent lottery of nature. The fundamental ‘vanity’ at the heart of synthetic biology is that we can do ‘better’ than nature, but is this actually possible?
If nature is a cosmic force  then it simply sets the tolerance limits of what is possible. There is no ‘better’ than nature, since no matter how improbable, or artificially induced – it is a natural occurrence.
Janine Beynus, who pioneers the field of biomimicry, believes that nature ‘knows best’ and harnesses biological solutions to create novel industrial designs. She proposes that “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with”. Yet a non-interventionist approach to natural processes can result in ‘bio fatalism’. Simply waiting for nature to teach us and reveal all possible solutions restricts our immediate access to bio-inspired innovation. It is impossible to deduce all biological outcomes computationally, as the outputs are unpredictable, surprising and sometimes, even pretty freaky. Nature has no particular urgency that fuels its inventions. Humans, on the other hand, have a different set of rules.
If nature is the absence of humans  then the value placed on any creature (or any other natural phenomenon) as being ‘better’ than another, is entirely culturally defined. Also, this value isn’t reserved for unnaturally generated creatures since natural ‘mutants’ have traditionally been denounced as monsters . The difference between a miracle and the grotesque is down to the prevalent social values, as Mary Shelley’s fictional creature soon discovered. If, as synthetic biology asserts, it is possible to do ‘better’ than nature through intervention, then this claim needs to be justified in human-centered terms. To justify the importance of its research, the scientific community makes functional claims about its experiments proposing that unnatural interventions serve a greater social good such as relieving human suffering, or providing vital food and energy sources.
Any ‘objective’ comparison between the material performance of a natural and augmented system simply fuels speculative variations based on the same fundamental rule set, which does little to ground such an approach in a value system. Other validations to justify social worth are made on financial grounds such as monetary gains from trading patented genetically modified creatures. Ultimately then, if the outcome of intervening in natural systems is seen as being an intervention that can be justified in sufficiently beneficial human terms – then yes, there is a ‘better’ than nature.
It’s next nature!
Photo via She Said Pop.
1. The history of Western philosophy is discussed in Arthur O. Lovejoy (2001 ) The Great Scheme of Things, A study of the history of an idea. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University, 1933, Copyright 1934 and 1964. Reprinted 2001 by Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England, p. viii ISBN 0-674-36153-9
2. Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b.
3. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008)
4. John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, UK Printers Cox & Wyman Ltd., Great Britain
Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 
In Western cultures, nature is a cosmological, primal ordering force and a terrestrial condition that exists in the absence of human beings. Both meanings are freely implied in everyday conversation. We distinguish ourselves from the natural world by manipulating our environment through technology. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly proposes that technology behaves as a form of meta-nature, which has greater potential for cultural change than the evolutionary powers of the organic world alone.
With the advent of ‘living technologies’ , which possess some of the properties of living systems but are not ‘truly’ alive, a new understanding of our relationship to the natural and designed world is imminent. This change in perspective is encapsulated in Koert Van Mensvoort’s term ‘next nature’, which implies thinking ‘ecologically’, rather than ‘mechanically’. The implications of next nature are profound, and will shape our appreciation of humanity and influence the world around us.
The Universe of Things, by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (2010)  takes the idea of an ecological existence to its logical extreme. She examines an alien civilization whose technology is intrinsically alive. Tools are extrusions of the alien’s own biology and extend into their surroundings through a wet, chemical network.
The idea of existing in a vibrant, organic habitat is an increasingly realistic prospect as living technologies are now being designed to counter the ravages of global industrialization. These can even be implemented at a citywide scale. For example, Arup’s Songdo International Business District, in South Korea, is being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Incorporating rainwater irrigation and a seawater canal, this design suggests that the building industry is aspiring to use living technologies to revitalize urban environments via geoengineering. The Korean artist Do Ho Suh had proposed to build a bridge that connects his homes in Seoul and New York by harnessing natural forces and using synthetic biologies to literally ‘grow’ a trans-Pacific bridge.
The apparent science fictional nature of ecological-scale projects has prompted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to observe that the large-scale harnessing of ecologies might explain our current lack of success in encountering advanced alien civilizations. Schroeder explains the Fermi Paradox – the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them – by speculating that we have not yet encountered our cosmic neighbors because they are indistinguishable from their native ecology.
“Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.”
Despite our visions and desires for a more ecologically integrated kind of technology, the scientific paradigm, which underpins technological development, considers the world to be a machine. Ecologist Fern Wickson argues that humans are intertwined in a complex web of biological systems and cannot be included within a definition of nature where “an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill” and wonders whether there is a better definition of nature .
Changing the definition of nature is not the solution to Wikson’s conundrum. The scientific method is actually responsible for this paradox. If the problem of human connectedness to the natural world is to be resolved, then science itself needs to change. Modern science relies on ‘natural laws’ that use mathematical proofs and the metaphor of machines to convey its universal truths. In the 1950s Robert Rosen observed that when physics is used to describe biology, a generalization occurs that distorts reality .
Alan Turing noted in his essay on morphogenesis that mathematical abstraction couldn’t capture the richness of the natural world . Life is a complex system that is governed by a variety of unique processes that machines simply do not possess. Life responds to its environment, constantly changes with time and is made up of functional components that enables life the ability to self-regulate . Complexity challenges the epistemological basis on which modern science and industry are grounded.
So what does complex science mean for our relationship with nature? Are we separate from or intrinsically connected to the natural world? In a complex system we are both. Our actions through technology are intrinsically governed by the physical and chemical constraints of the terrestrial environment, yet we also possess agency and a capacity to modify our surroundings. But if we are connected to nature, then is Wikson right that our propensity to innovate through technology becomes a meaningless idea?
Science Fiction author and cultural commentator Bruce Sterling proposes a further play on Clarke’s dictum and wryly observes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from its garbage.”
You’ve got to hand it to Sterling – his observational powers are immaculate! Garbage explains how we can be connected to nature – but not in an unlimited way. We subjectively distinguish ourselves from the natural world by ‘editing’ our networks through the process of making garbage. We choose what is important to us by applying cultural, rather than material criteria, which does not lend itself to empirical measurement. Turing had already grasped the importance of personal bias in dealing with complex systems and devised the ‘Imitation Game’ to address the conundrum of intelligence, which evaded an easy empirical solution. This is now more popularly know as the ‘Turing Test’ and is now being used more widely to fathom complex systems and to identify ‘life’ .
Suppose then, that scientist observes distant aliens that are so highly advanced that their technology works in concert with the generative natural forces of their planet. Using our current empirical methods of observation, scientists will note the alien landscapes, but they will not be able to discriminate the meaning that is flowing within its organizing networks. Yet the flow and structure of information within the planetary terrain is of vital importance in establishing just exactly what is technology, what is garbage and what is ‘life’. The issue here is how can we ‘prove’ meaning? Currently we do not have the right tools, materials and methods that enable us to ask the ‘why’ questions that Aristotle was so fond of, and which could be most revealing in this context .
The development of living technologies and the cultural questions that Next Nature asks are important steps to be taken along the journey towards a more ecological kind of human development. Until complex technologies can be built and deduced from their meaning: Any sufficiently advanced civilization will be indistinguishable from its nature – and also from its garbage.
Image via Zeutch.
Clarke, A.C. (1973) Clarke’s Third Law, quoted from the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination in Profiles of the Future, Harper and Row, p. 21.
 Bedau, M., (2009). Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research, Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206.
 Jones, Gwyneth (2010). The Universe of Things. Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
 Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b. 2. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455263b.
 Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.
 Turing, A.M. (1952). The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, /Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, /Vol. 237, No. 641. (Aug. 14, 1952), pp. 37-72.
 Maturana, H. R. and F. J. Varela. 1980. /Autopoieses and cognition: The realization of the living. /Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
 L. Cronin, N. Krasnogor, B.G. Davis, C. Alexander, N. Robertson, J.H.G. Steinke, S.L.M. Schroeder, A.N. Khlobystov, G. Cooper, P.M. Gardner, P. Siepmann, B.J. Whitaker, D. Marsh,. (2006) “The imitation game—a computational chemical approach to recognizing life” Nature Biotech., 2006, 24, 1203-1205.
Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.
Broersen & Lukács – Mastering Bambi
Media artists Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács created a remake of the Disney classic Bambi from which they stripped all the inhabitants. The removal of the cuddly, anthropomorphic animals makes the utopian construction of the pristine wilderness visible. Movie starts after 1:50 min introduction.
Essay: Essay: Time Between Emergence and DesignPreviously, experiences of time emerged from nature as given – offering seasons, the rhythm of humans, plants and animals. Nowadays, people integrate nature-time, body-time, inner-time, clock-time, and global 24/7 systems-time. Human beings, in past, current and next natures, have to deal with emergence and design of time in order to survive.
By CAROLINE NEVEJAN
To think about how future new worlds are visualized, assumes that these images reveal how life in decades to come will be shaped. These visualizations offer insight into today’s imagination of next natures and next cultures to come. However, in these visualizations ‘time’ as a process of emergence and design, is often forgotten. This essay argues that time design is distinct in any next nature that will emerge.
Witnessing Spatiotemporal Trajectories
At the end of his life, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn1 concluded that in communities of practice human beings’ need to recognize other beings’ spatiotemporal trajectories to be able to share concepts and thereby develop language. In this statement he suggests that without understanding other beings’ movements through time and space no communication will be possible. This statement challenges today’s experience of global systems-time of millions of people who manage to communicate with people they do not know or see in the online world. Nevertheless in today’s experience the feeling of having ‘no time’ has become a common good. Reaching out to anyone anywhere seems to generate ‘no time’ as a result. Will human beings be able to overcome the loss of sharing spatiotemporal trajectories and share concepts in next natures to come? What time design requirements would be needed to facilitate a time design that will foster the emergence of communication and possible new language as well?
In the past 15 years systems-time has invaded and restructured many professional practices the world over and people have developed a variety of time designs to make the 24/7 economy work for them. Without formulating it as such, a widespread knowledge and experience of time design has emerged in businesses, organizations and personal practices too. In current interdisciplinary research at the Delft Technical University, four features have surfaced as being crucial in time design for human beings involved: integrating rhythm, synchronizing performance, moments to signify and duration of engagement. Hereunder these four dimensions are outlined with the awareness that more research in any of these will benefit future time design.
When working in distributed teams, organizing a shared rhythm is crucial for keeping communication and business processes in flow (2). Simple things, like one well-structured online meeting a week, generate trust and well being for all involved. When working in different time zones, adaptation to others at the expense of personal time has to be taken into account. In small businesses people benefit from the fact that distributed work on a day-to-day basis facilitates personal life styles for those involved. Finding the ultimate rhythm between people’s personal time given the work that has to be done, is crucial for success. Global 24/7 systems-time has expanded human experience of time fundamentally. It offers immediate connections to other places anywhere facilitating interaction and transaction anytime and affects social structures of finance, law, business and family life profoundly. Human beings, through a methodology of trial and error, find solutions to integrate different rhythms they are confronted with. Different kinds of time merge necessarily in personal, social and collective experience of time: nature-time, body-time, inner-time, clock-time and systems-time.
Human beings have to deal with emergence and design of time in order to survive.Nature-time has a huge diversity of scale in time designs. Long eras and short time spans, stretched rhythms and instant events are deeply interwoven. This is the environment in which human presence exists. Human bodies can only exist in one place and therefore human beings have partial perspective on nature-time as a whole. Human biological existence, the holder of body-time, is dependent on rhythms like day and night, heartbeat and breath. Human existence also contains a sense of psychological inner-time, which has hardly been investigated and yet underlies processes of growth and transformation and defines how social situations and events are perceived (3).
Many centuries ago clock-time was introduced to mechanically structure shared social time. In the variety of clock-times, nature-time was integrated. Whether the clock was made by use of the sun, by smaller and smaller radars or by digits in contemporary design; clocks made it possible to socially anticipate what will happen next. Clock-time always offers a local perspective on time because it is fundamentally connected to a specific region or place. Places are defined by nature-time offering seasons, climates and specific ecological systems that characterize a place. Clock-time and nature-time are integrated in local agendas take that into account the context in which the human body survives.
Integrating rhythm is part of any next nature that will emergeToday’s systems-time, based on algorithms operating on a global scale, is changing the planetary landscape profoundly. Where before systems were built on principles of mandate and delegation, systems have become participants in communities of people in their own right (4). Systems need clock-time to synchronize, but they are detached from nature-time. Like climate and weather, systems-time can also only be known through partial perspective, but unlike climate and weather, human beings can communicate in systems-time and many millions do so everyday. Above all the use and impact of systems-time is its immediacy. Human beings can travel to expand their experience and mental map of the place they live. Systems-time offers an expansion of connection in an instant, any place anytime. It fosters the experience of being in one place while bodies involved reside in different places. Just as nature-time profoundly challenges human existence, so does systems-time.
Nature-, body-, inner- and clock- time offer rhythms that are shared and structure social life. Rhythms cannot not integrate (5). Over several centuries humankind developed a conscious integration of rhythms, inventing work hours, school hours, lunch breaks, agendas, holidays and more. Systems-time is challenging the integration of rhythms, since it does not seem to have a rhythm of its own. In day-to-day experience individuals integrate systems-time to their benefit, but for organizations this is more problematic. Research into beneficial systems-time design has not been taken up yet. Integrating rhythm is part of any next nature that will emerge, even though it is not clear which rhythm will dominate human life in the end. Human beings need to recognize and integrate rhythms to survive: nature-time, body-time, clock-time, inner-time. Especially systems-time, which gains importance day by day, is hard for human beings to recognize even though systems participate in human society more and more.
In seeking well-being and survival human presence judges and anticipates what will come next. In meeting a new person there is a moment when the encounter starts. Bodies reach out through perception and from the first instance a careful tuning of presence emerges. Lots of tacit knowledge is exchanged in such moments of exploring doubt and hesitation. Granular perception offers instant negotiation resulting in synchronizing the performance of presence to establish common ground upon which interaction may proceed.
The tuning of body rhythms in this process is profound; already a piece of glass between two people sitting at the same table breaks synaesthesia between them (5). Sensory perceptions, simple emotions and more complex feelings influence processes of synchronization fundamentally. To facilitate synchronization social structures have invented gestures of encounter. The handshake is such an example. Body language is distinct in these moments; the possible recognizing of each other’s spatiotemporal trajectories is at stake.
Mediating granular perception is complex. Collaborating distributed teams cannot communicate a simple phenomenon like color, for example (6). Nevertheless, human beings do synchronize in mediated communication in the variety of media they use. In a phone call – where bodies are not present but the voice is – this negotiation happens through a switch between talking at the same time and silences that are just too long before conversation continues smoothly. SMSes need to arrive just in time and so on. On the Internet, digital handshakes have the character of ‘pitching one’s presence’ after a period of investigating an online environment (7).
And even during participation, the process of synchronization is continuously ongoing in social networks and mailing lists because community members correct each other all the time to protect the ‘tone of voice’ they have agreed upon. When not sharing physical interaction people synchronize through engagement in time, through pitching and judging performance, through social control. Synchronization of performance of presence will remain a feature as long as human beings want to interact in any next nature that may emerge. Synchronization between human beings and animals, ecosystems and larger technology systems is indispensable for interaction to take place.
Moments to Signify
Part of human existence is that meaning and signification are continuously generated in personal lives and in social structures that emerge through time. Emphasizing specific moments of transformation, of passage of time, highlights the process of time. It helps people to deal with time. Human societies have invented rituals and celebrations for specific moments in time through which meaning emerges for those involved.
Just as nature-time profoundly challenges human existence, so does systems-time.In personal lives signifying moments play an important role. Be it a private experience of becoming aware, or a collective celebration in which one partakes, these signifying moments produce identity and are fundamental for cultures to survive. Through orchestrating signifying moments, shared experience emerges and offers participants a perspective on their individual position in context of the biological, ecological, technological or social whole. In offering a perspective, it also produces this perspective, which is how cultures emerge and design at the same time. Creating ‘moments to signify’ is needed to create commitment for those involved (8) People need to share experience for ideas to become sustainable and materialize in the real world.
Special signifying moments offer unanticipated impact. In situations of trauma and tragedy the human mind accelerates. When bearing witness to moments of trauma, human beings dramatize to communicate impact (9). In these traumatic ‘imaginative’ moments inner-time dominates perception. Stories of trauma may even include perceptions of experiences that never took place. However, they reveal an inner experience of impact that needs to be signified to be able to communicate. Signifying moments are necessary for meaning to emerge. Offering a shared experience and/or offering an intense personal experience, they are fundamental for cultures to sustain. Any next nature that includes human life will be faced with the human need to signify. Moments to share the process of signification can be designed or will emerge. In these moments human inner time interacts deeply with surrounding rhythms and shapes culture.
Duration of Engagement
One’s short-lived presence on Facebook can be as authentic as a real-life land ownership spanning 80 years (10). Where authenticity used to be a property of being in one place for long stretches of time, in today’s world this notion is replaced by being engaged in an activity for specific durations of time. Duration of engagement qualifies participation, validates contributions and therefore deeply influences human lives. Consequentially, it is not enough to be just present any more. Individuals need to prove existence by constantly transacting (7). The formulation of ‘duration of engagement’ stresses the fact that there is a beginning and an end to activity. From simple time designs to more complex situations in which time emerges, people have to adapt to beginnings and endings continuously, just as birth and death are fundamental to human existence.
For human beings the transformation between the start and end of engagement is crucial to their well-being because it generates ‘empty time’ in between. In empty time, whether one is bored or not, feelings, emotions and a different thinking surface and human presence emerges. When such empty time is not granted, as in the Global Service Delivery model in the outsourcing industry in India in which people are monitored 24 hours a day, human beings’ well-being is seriously jeopardized (11). To generate empty time, robust structures of time design are needed (12). Only in moments of empty time can people experience the situation they are in and act on their well-being.
Communities of Practice
When accepting the proposition that recognizing spatiotemporal trajectories of other beings is fundamental to the ability to share concepts and develop language, any next nature that includes human presence will have to facilitate this recognition. In current nature, systems-time is especially challenging to the human mind. Its scale and speed can only be partially perceived and it does not seem to have a rhythm of its own. Human beings find solutions to integrate it anyway, but it is not a given that people will be endlessly capable of doing this. If next nature includes human presence it has to take into account that human beings integrate their own rhythm with the environment, synchronize performance of presence to be able to communicate and create moments to signify. Thus meaning emerges. Meaning in turn needs specific durations of engagement, with a beginning and an end, and has to include empty time to sustain human well-being and survival.
In the tension between emergence and design, human presence in past, current and next natures is shaped. The experience of time influences the experience of place, how we relate to each other and our scope of possible actions. Any next nature will also be defined by its time design in which integrating rhythm, synchronizing performance, moments to signify and duration of engagement will define how human beings will be able to create communities of practice in which concepts, language, social structures and cultures will emerge.
Photo from Curious Expeditions on Flickr.
1. KUHN, THOMAS S. 2000. THE ROAD SINCE STRUCTURE, PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS, 1970–1993, WITH AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL INTERVIEW, EDS. JAMES CONANT AND JOHN HAUGELAND. CHICAGO: THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
2 WILSON, REBEKAH. 2008. WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, INTERVIEWS BY CAROLINE NEVEJAN CONDUCTED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY OF TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & NL NET). HTTP://WWW.
SYSTEMSDESIGN.TBM.TUDELFT.NL/WITNESS/INTERVIEWS/RW/INTERVIEW-RW.HTML (ACCESSED 21-06-2010)
3 OLIVER, KELLY. 2001. WITNESSING, BEYOND RECOGNITION. MINNEAPOLIS/LONDON: UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS.
4 BRAZIER, F. & VEER, G.VAN DER. 2009. “INTERACTIVE DISTRIBUTED AND NETWORKED AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS: DELEGATION PARTICIPATION”. WORKSHOP PAPER ACCEPTED BY THE WORKSHOP HUMAN INTERACTION WITH INTELLIGENT & NETWORKED SYSTEMS, ORGANIZED BY THE 2009 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON INTELLIGENT USER INTERFACES, SANIBEL ISLAND, FLORIDA. (HTTP://WWW.IIDS.ORG)
5 KUMAR, SIRISH. PERFORMANCE AND THE FUTURE OF BROADCAST MEDIA LAB, PERFORMING ARTS LABS, UK. HTTP://WWW.PALLABS.ORG/PORTFOLIO/TIMELINE/MAY_2001_PERFORMANCE_AND_THE_FUTURE_OF_BROADCAST_MEDIA_LAB/ (ACCESSED 21 JUNE 2010)
6 GILL, S.T., KAWAMORI M. KATAGIRI W, SHIMOGIMA A. 2000. “THE ROLE OF BODY MOVES IN DIALOGUE”. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION (RASK), VOLUME 12 PAGES 89-114.
7 ABRAHAM, SUNIL. 2008. WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, INTERVIEWS BY CAROLINE NEVEJAN CONDUCTED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY OF TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & NL NET). HTTP://WWW.SYSTEMSDESIGN.TBM.TUDELFT.NL/WITNESS/INTERVIEWS/SA/INTERVIEW-SA.HTML (ACCESSED 21-06-2010)
8 SOLOMON, DEBRA. 2009. COLLABORATING IN A COMMUNITY: ARTWORK DEVELOPED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & THE NETHERLANDS FOUNDATION FOR VISUAL ARTS, DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE). HTTP://WITNESS.BEING-HERE.NET/PAGE/2112/EN (ACCESSED 21-06-2010)
9 OPHUIS, RONALD. 2009. METHODS FOR PAINTING. ARTWORK DEVELOPED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY OF TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & THE NETHERLANDS FOUNDATION FOR VISUAL ARTS, DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE). HTTP://WITNESS.BEING-HERE.NET/PAGE/2110/EN (ACCESSED 21 JUNE 2010).
10 HAZRA, ABHISHEK. 2008. WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, INTERVIEWS BY CAROLINE NEVEJAN CONDUCTED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & NL NET). HTTP://WWW.SYSTEMSDESIGN.TBM.TUDELFT.NL/WITNESS/INTERVIEWS/AH/INTERVIEW-AH.HTML (ACCESSED 21-06-2010)
11 ILAVARASAN, P.VIGNESWARA. 2008. “SOFTWARE WORK IN INDIA: A LABOUR PROCESS VIEW”. AN OUTPOST OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY, WORK AND WORKERS IN INDIA’S INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY, EDS. CAROL UPADHYA AND A.R.VASAVI. NEW DELHI: ROUTLEDGE.
12 FEIGL ZORO. 2009. MOVEMENT THROUGH TIME. ARTWORK DEVELOPED IN THE CONTEXT OF INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH WITNESSED PRESENCE AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING (FACULTY OF TECHNOLOGY, MANAGEMENT AND POLICY, TU DELFT & THE NETHERLANDS FOUNDATION FOR VISUAL ARTS, DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE)
Bonobos (And Maybe Baboons) Domesticated ThemselvesWhile evidence indicates that humans domesticated themselves, we’re not the only primates capable of self-domestication. Bonobos and baboons have shown they are just as capable of turning a kinder, gentler, and more cuddly culture into hardwired changes in their genomes.
Bonobos, aka the “sexy ape”, look a lot like chimpanzees and share the same forest habitat. It stands to reason that they should be similar in most other regards, but the two species are wildly different. On a physical level, bonobos have smaller skulls and canine teeth, but their greatest differences lie in the social realm. Bonobos are the laid-back lovers compared to the chimpanzee’s neurotic warmongers.
Bonobos spend more time playing and grooming than chimps. They have sex for just about any reason: so say hello, to solve conflicts, to celebrate finding food. A “bonobo handshake” is not how humans would want to start a business meeting. In the bonobo’s reduced physical stature and playful spirit, researchers have recently recognized the same changes that occurred when wolves became dogs, or when aurochs became cattle. But while dogs needed humans for domestication, bonobos have done it all on their own.
What distinguishes bonobos from their chimp cousins is food availability. Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare argues that bonobos have gorillas, or their absence, to thank for their peaceful lives. One million to two million years ago, the newly formed Congo River split the proto-bonobo-chimps into two populations. The northern population had to compete with gorillas for scarce food. This created an aggressive, scheming culture that eventually lead to Machiavellian lifestyle of the modern chimpanzee. The lucky southern population got to keep all the leaves and fruits to themselves. This abundance of resources lead to a culture of happy-go-lucky apes that, over the course of a million years, evolved into today’s bonobos.
If this process of speciation by culture seems far-fetched, a similar process has been underway for the last three decades in Kenya’s savannah. In 1983, an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis lead to a permanent change in the social structure of a troop of olive baboons. The dominant males in the so-called Forest Troop were the only baboons aggressive enough to venture to the trash heap of a tourist lodge and fight over scraps of meat tainted with tuberculosis. Every last one of the troop’s most aggressive members kneeled over dead from bad beef.
The survivors found themselves in something of a baboon utopia. Subordinate males and females were no longer subject to the violent moods and giant canines of the alphas. The Forest Troop spent more time grooming each other, and sat closer together when they were relaxing. The benefits extended all the way down to the most subordinate baboons, who showed significantly lowered levels of stress hormones.
This fascinating cultural shift has persisted for thirty years, even though aggressive, outsider males have continually moved into the troop. Though no active teaching takes place, the outsider males appear to learn the joys of non-violence all on their own, probably because females prefer to spend more time with companions that don’t bite.
As of now, there’s no evidence that the Forest Troop has changed genetically, or that it will persist given the pressure from other baboons. However, if the Forest Troop became geographically isolated, or if their culture could be transmitted to other troops, a million years or so might be sufficient to create a cuter, kinder monkey: the baboon version of the bonobo.
The case of the stress-free baboons may indicate that in the lack of savage competition for resources, highly social primates naturally gravitate towards what feels good. Maybe even early humans realized they’d rather spend their time talking, singing, and having recreational sex than ripping each other apart.
YearsGood old analog technology, now even better than ever before. Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck created a hyper-nostalgic record player that, rather than making music from vintage vinyl records, uses slices of woods to generate sound.
The player analyses a tree’s year rings for their strength, thickness and rate of growth as input for a generative algorithm that outputs piano music. Watch the video to enjoy the sound of a tree and appreciate the beauty and variety of nature from a whole new unexpected perspective.
Hidden Cities Emerge from the AmazonFamed for its jaguars, orchids, and horrifying parasites, the Amazon is just as famous for what it lacks: human presence. For many years, the prevailing wisdom has been that throughout history, the Amazon rainforest has only been sparsely occupied by nomadic tribes. However, new evidence of permanent and complex human settlement is emerging from the forest floor. The role of these geoglyphs, trenches carved into the ground 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, are largely mysterious, but they may share characteristics with the Nazca Lines.
Researchers first became aware of the geoglyphs in the 1970s. As deforestation accelerates, more and more of the gigantic geometric shapes are coming to light. These discoveries are helping to upend traditional notions of the Amazon as a primordial, pristine wilderness. Large portions of Amazonia may in fact be a second-growth forest that regenerated after European warfare and disease wiped out massive portions of the native population.
The first Spanish explorers to the region reported finding settled towns and cities with palisades, roads, and fortifications. Though their accounts have usually been dismissed as exaggerations, their descriptions may in fact provide an accurate portrait of a lost civilization. According to geographer William Woods, “If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it.”
Image via Google Maps. For a history of the search for civilizations in the Amazon, read Finding the Lost City.
Bruce Sterling – Next LiteratureAt the Next Nature Power Show 2011 American Science Fiction writer Bruce Sterling – ‘perhaps the sharpest observer of our media-choked culture working today in any genre’, according to Time Magazine – enlightened us with his vision Next Nature. According to Bruce the emerging of next nature also asks for a next literature.
A Fake Sun for Your 25/7 LifeThe earth operates on a 24 hour cycle, and so do humans. For most of history, we didn’t have much choice in the matter. However, in the absence of visual cues light sunlight, some research indicates that humans naturally stick to a 25 hour schedule. So why rely on the earth’s rotation to order our lives?
I-Weather is a website and app that cycles through blue and orange light for a period of 25 hours, 40 minutes and 7 seconds. The blue ‘day’ suppresses the hormone melatonin and promotes wakefulness. The orange ‘night’ has no impact on melatonin or other hormones, allowing users to work or to drift off as they please. I-Weather acts like an online sun,”creating the world’s first artificial climate to satisfy the metabolic and physiological requirements of a human being in an environment partially or completely removed from earthly influences.” It’s good for travelers, insomniacs, and anyone with a grudge against sunlight.
For a more practical way to regulate your circadian rhythms, check out F.lux.
In cities across Germany, Big Brother looks like a smiley face. The Fühlometer, a piece by Julius von Bismarck, Benjamin Maus, and Richard Wilhelmer, uses security cameras and sophisticated software to ‘read’ the faces of pedestrians, and then categorize them according to their emotions. The giant robot mirrors the mood of the city’s inhabitants, and perhaps encourages them to put on a happy face… or else.
Essay: Next Nature intro by Bruce SterlingThis project is about Nature’s brand image. One might surmise that “Nature,” being 100 percent all-natural, can’t have any brand image. The facts suggest otherwise. Try it for yourself: tell a friend that something seemingly 100 percent natural is actually “96 percent natural.” Not a great difference, apparently, yet a profound unease arises. That unease is the subject of the many provocative essays and remarkable graphics on NextNature.net
by BRUCE STERLING
The project is a study in why we feel uneasiness when the Nature brand is violated. It’s also about the exciting new-and-improved varieties of unnatural unease that have come to exist quite recently. It explains why this sensibility is spreading, and what that implies for who we are, and how we live with Nature.
Now, when Nature is slightly artificialized — say, by installing a park bench under a tree — we rarely get any dark suspicious frisson about that. The uncanny can only strike us when our ideological constructs about Nature are dented. We’re especially guarded about our most pious, sentimentalized notions of Nature. Nature as a nurturing entity that is harmonious, calm, peaceful, inherently rightful and all-around “good-for-you.”
This vaguely politicized attitude about Nature never came from Nature. It was culturally generated. Nature didn’t get her all-natural identity-branding until the Industrial Revolution broke out. Then poets and philosophers were allowed to live in dense, well-supplied cities, where they could recast Nature from some intellectual distance. Before that huge effusion of organized artifice, people lived much closer to the soil.
These farmers rarely spoke of “Nature” in the abstract. They were too deeply involved in a lifelong subsistence struggle with natural events, such as inclement weather, bad harvests, weeds, pests, and blights. They certainly never mistook their existing state of affairs for the Biblical Eden: their theological utopia in which Nature was always harmonious, calm, peaceful and good-for-you.
However, that was back then, and this is now. Under the emergent regime of Next Nature, the potential for Nature to behave in a sweet-tempered Mother Nature-ly fashion has been stripped away. The Dame is running an ever-mounting fever from climate change, and there are no humanly untouched landscapes anywhere on the surface of the planet. We’ve entered the Anthropocene Epoch, in which humanity and its instrumentalities are the most potent and influential geological force. Most available sunlight and soil goes for crops. The ever-increasing tonnage of human flesh outweighs all other wild mammals. Nature becomes a subset of culture, rather than vice versa.
We also have an exciting suite of new technical interventions – biochemical, genetic, roboticized, nanotechnological – which are poorly understood. They can all interfere radically in what we construe as the “natural order.” They change Nature faster than our ideas about Nature can change. The result is Tofflerian Future Shock with a leafy green tinge.
It’s unclear whether there is any tenable way, or even any further need, to separate “Nature” from “Culture” — on the surface of this planet, anyway. That commingled, hybridized, chimeric future is already here, and awaiting distribution — with operators standing by.
Next Nature is an investigative enterprise by a set of mostly Dutch researchers. Next Nature is haunted by Previous Nature, or rather, by the ghostly Gothic absences of a vanished Natural world. Next Nature also bears many premonitions about the seething, favela-like, feverish state of our planet tomorrow. Next Nature offers us few reassurances. It refuses to view Nature as a given, solid, static entity to be discovered, dissected and destroyed by human agency. Instead, Next Nature is a dynamic entity that is fated to change right along with us.
There is an ontological crisis involved in our ignorance of what the Earth was like before we humans altered it. It’s hard for us to establish a comfortable sense of our place in the world when the world itself is so outworn and bedraggled by so many previous human efforts. It’s degrading to work creatively on hand-me-downs: the writer whose page is a scraped-down palimpsest, the artist whose canvas is torn and worn, the architect engaged in endless renovations, the actress in thrift-shop clothes. That’s what it’s like for a civilization existing in a natural milieu that has been irretrievably damaged. And yes, that is our future.
Worse yet is to gaze with a fatuous satisfaction on a seemingly untouched sylvan scene, without realizing that the whole thing is a put-up job.
At its best, it can be a superb put-up job, such as Holland: a nation of artifice that still clings to a pretty myth of tulips, clogs and contented cows while, in some anxious corner of the Dutch psyche, the dykes leak endlessly and the laboring windmills creak in a fitful breeze. Next Nature is about the planet becoming Dutch: Nature made the world, but mankind made Holland.
At its worst, though, our ignorance of the human effect on Nature has Lovecraftian aspects. We become our own unnatural monsters, an eerie half-glimpsed force of archaic destruction. How many of the “primeval jungles” of Central and South America were cultivated places, once? How many alien species have been shipped around the planet by humanity, disrupting ecologies in ways we fail to see and don’t suspect? How many seemingly pristine landscapes have been transformed by fire and overgrazing? What have antibiotics done to the unseen bacterial world, and dissolved plastics done to the seas?
Could it be true that our scattered ancestors, equipped with nothing more than fire and pointed sticks, briskly wiped out all the Pleistocene megafauna? Did we cause an abject collapse of the natural order before we were even literate?
We are clearly culpable in the massive wave of extinction today — but could it be that human beings actually evolved in a mass extinction? Has that been our role in the planet since our species took shape?
Our tainted atmosphere proves that we’ll never see a pristine world again, but, in the meantime, we will also have to come to terms with the ever-lengthening human legacy. Our previous attitudes are no longer tenable; they are actively harmful to us and to Nature. We no longer have any way to leave a “Natural Reserve” alone, to be “reserved” and stay “Natural.” These relict biomes have been chopped up into unsustainable island fragments, and are severely stressed by rising temperatures, water shortages, invasive weeds and admiring tourists.
Abandoned areas of the planet can no longer “revert to Nature” as they once supposedly did. Instead, they must revert to Next Nature, becoming weird “involuntary parks” such as the Cypriot Green Line, a long, human-free strip of flammable weeds and weed-trees, junkyards and landmines.
Nor can we trust our means of technical control – our systematic, bureaucratic, commercial and analytical artifices. These artificial systems are not natural. Yet they can all manifest organic forms of behavior within a technological matrix. Our technology commonly manifests feral, eruptive, untamable qualities.
In what sense is an abject surrender to mysterious “market forces” any different than an abject surrender to the Mayan rain gods? The market is often seen and described as stormy, witchy, inaccessible, overwhelming in power — in short, as primal, wild and fearsome, a force of Nature. Not because markets necessarily must have those natural attributes, but because we’ve trained ourselves to propitiate a feral market after freeing it from government control. It’s common for Greens to boast that “Nature bats last,”and she does — but Technology bats as well.
When society is disrupted by a Chernobyl-scale event (leading to the world’s largest involuntary park), we have the moral luxury of searching for a human scapegoat — in engineering, in design, in a political system, or in “human error.” But technology is not merely about us: it’s also about laws of Nature. Entropy requires no maintenance. All technological systems must age and decay. Extreme “black swan” events cannot possibly be outguessed even in principle. Some level of “normal failure” in technological systems is as “natural” as the sun rising.
“Next Nature” cannot be fathomed without a similar study of Next Artifice, which this website carries out. We blind ourselves to the nature of technology by segregating certain classes of systemic behavior as “natural.” We also stigmatize technology by denying its “natural” aspects: its mortality, fragility, complex interactivity, and its utter dependence on sometimes fitful flows of energy and material sustenance. We rarely allow ourselves any tender, reverential, nurturing attitude toward technology. The mass extinctions of entire classes of objects and services go almost unnoticed. We can surely do better than that.
In conclusion, we may ask ourselves: in a world of Next Nature, what has become of “real” Nature? Where is the objective reality behind this clever study of natural imagery and social attitudes toward nature? Next Nature maven Koert van Mensvoort likes to quote Heraclitus — “Nature loves to hide.” How hidden is Nature? Is it possible that we have never seen Nature, but only our notions of Nature?
Here, I think, we can take some cold comfort in lifting our gaze to the stars. Despite what we’ve done to the surface of this planet, we’re still a speck on a rock. The planet has been repeatedly wrecked by asteroids — sudden mass extinctions that dwarf anything humanity has yet triggered. We have most of the lesser beings in our biosphere at our mercy (to the point where we know them better as corporate logos than as living entities), but we don’t run Nature or even as yet grasp its, well, real nature.
Modern astrophysics suggests — more than “suggests,” it asserts, with much painstaking accumulated evidence — that the Cosmos is mostly “dark energy” and “dark matter.” These two rather ineffable substances are, presumably, the realest things in the universe. We human cannot manipulate, control, pollute or industrialize “dark energy” or “dark matter.” They are Natural, and yet it seems that they will remain forever closed to any form of human intervention.
We can more or less get to terms with the edgy sensibility of “Next Nature.” It’s not beyond mankind to conceptualize ideas like the ones in this website, and even, eventually, domesticate them and even find them charming. Many of the ideas and images in NEXT NATURE are experimental probes, which may seem far-out right now, but which may some day seem as endearingly corny as the Sputnik.
However, Nature has never existed for our convenience. Our society is mentally light-years away from metabolizing the bizarre assertions of Dark Matter theory. A universe in which Nature is mostly Darkness is a Copernican-scale de-throning of everything we once thought was Natural. And that may be the objective truth. If so, then our notion of “Natural” is a foamlike four percent of a severely alien universe. In other words, Real True Cosmic Objective Nature is 96 percent Otherness, while we are, and always have been, the four percent adulterated whatever.
Quite an odd sensation, thinking that. We seem to lack an unease than can get any more profound.
So Nature clearly has her surprises in store. We have artificialized most everything we can grip, but there are still innumerable worlds well beyond our opposable thumbs. We can view some worlds other than the Earth, and we can measure them. Obedient to the Laws of Nature, they still remain serenely detached from us.
What we know of those worlds, we know by severely unnatural means. And only by unnatural means. There never was, and never could be, any entirely “natural” way to understand all of “real” Nature. There is no direct, intuitive, unmediated, “real and genuine” experience of the actually existing universe. As evolved beings produced by a biosphere, we’re not capable of perceiving reality unassisted. There can only be our technical instrumentalities. Our weak, decaying, flawed, falsifiable, even pitiable instrumentalities. But that’s how we learn what’s natural and real — through the unnatural.
There is a mental world in which these seeming oxymorons make good sound brisk common sense. Adjusting to demonstrable reality, no matter how mind-stretching, is generally a praiseworthy effort. It would mean a lot of change in our ideas of the Natural. It would mean a more fully-humane mental world which was less notional, less delusional, less self-indulgent, and more attentive to the genuine otherness of Nature. We’re not there – we may never get there, for we may lack the time, and the will. But we ought to go there, to the extent that we can.
This project will help.
Essay: Razorius Gilletus – On the Origin of a Next SpeciesIs the evolution of the single bladed razor into an exorbitant five–bladed vibrating gizmo the outcome of human needs, or is there another force in play? Say hello to Razorius Gillettus, one of the new species emerging from our technoeconomic ecology. Proof that evolution should be understood as a universal principle rather than a DNA-specific process. Yet if this is the case, how can we become responsible stewards of these new, non-genetic forms of life?
By KOERT VAN MENSVOORT
My first razor I got when I was fifteen. It consisted of two blades on a simple metal stick and I remember it gave me a really close and comfortable shave. In the twenty years that have passed since my first shave, I’ve used nine different models of razors. This morning I shaved myself with the Gillette Fusion Power Phantom, a rather heavy, yet ergonomically designed battery-powered razor that looks like a bit like vacuum cleaner and has five vibrating blades with an aloe strip for moisture. So what happened? A story about design, technology, market and evolution.
First, a personal disclaimer (in case you were wondering): Yes, I agree shaving technology was already sufficiently developed when I got my first razor twenty years ago. Actually already in 1975, shortly after the Gillette Trac II razor – the first two-bladed men’s razor – was advertised, its excessive design was parodied on the US Television show Saturday Night Live. The creators of the satirical television program played on the notion of a two bladed razor as a sign of the emerging consumption culture and made a fake commercial parody for a fictitious razor with the ridiculous amount of three (!) blades, emphasizing the consumer is gullible enough to believe and buy everything seen on TV. Of course, the comedians of Saturday Night Live could not know a three-bladed razors would become a reality on the consumer market in the late 1990′s. Let alone that they could have anticipated I would shave myself with a five bladed razor this very morning. Welcome in the twenty-first century folks: No we don’t travel in spaceships… but we do have five bladed razors!
Fortunately, it is still possible to buy brand new blades for my very first razor model today. These older blades are not only cheaper – they are sold in a box of ten pieces for less money than a box of blades fitting the latest model, which contains only four cassettes. The older blades are also more durable. And yet, in the years that have past since my first shave, I bought over a dozen different razors – I honestly have to confess I’ve bought some models of the competing brand as well. So, why did I buy this whole collection of razors over the years? Perhaps it is because I am the type of person who is keen on new things: I am a sucker for innovation.
Before we analyze my own behavior as a buyer, lets first study the razors. If we look at the development of razor technology over time, we can distinguish quite some similarities with an evolutionary development as we know it from the biological world: 1) Every new model builds upon the properties of the previous model. 2) Successful alterations are preserved in future generations, whereas unsuccessful alterations will fade out. 3) The shift from functional technologies, like a pivoting head, to seemingly functionless aesthetics of the newer models, that only change in color and have no other purpose than to stand out amidst the competing razor models, remind us of the exuberant tail of a male peacock. 4) The unique click-on systems for replacement blades on different models resemble biological immune systems withholding intruders from entering and feeding on your environment. 5) There even are different survival strategies being tested, which over time may even result in separate species – think of the parallel branches in the more recent models that come with and without a battery. Apparently the marketers aren’t sure whether electric or non-electrical shaving has the future and decided to gamble on both strategies – and yes I confess: I bought them both.
Now it may seem quirky, corny even, to consider the development of razors from an evolutionary perspective. After all these are industrial products assembled in factories. Yet I propose to look at them as the result of an evolutionary process. Now I already hear you oppose: “These razors didn’t evolve, people designed them! How can that be and evolutionary process?” Well, let me elaborate – and this is where we learn something on our symbiotic relation with technology. Indeed it is true that all the individual razors were created by engineers and designers, however, if we look at the design of the whole series of shavers as it developed throughout my shaving-career, it will be difficult to pinpoint one creator. Where is that one big mind, that ‘intelligent designer’ responsible for the transformation of the razor from a simple blade on a stick to a five bladed electric razor?
Obviously many designers and engineers have been involved in the creation of my razors over the years. No doubt these are all descent and friendly people – with good incomes too – but what more are these creators of the individual models than little cogs in the perpetuating Gillette Corporation? Calling them engineers and designers is arguably too much credit for the work they do, as they merely sketch up the next razor model of which one can already predict the ‘innovative’ new properties: it will be a slight variation on the current model with some added nanotech-sharpened blade, an extra moister strip, an anti-slip grip or perhaps even a custom customizable color scheme. The razor designers don’t have a lot of room for truly creative design work really. Its not like they are in a position to think deep on the meaning and origins of shaving, in order to reinvent how this ancient ritual can be improved upon. Like bees in a beehive their work is determined by the logic of the larger structure. The chair of that one great ‘intelligent designer’ steering the entire development of shavers over time is empty. The larger design gesture emerges from the closely interrelated forces of the consumer market, technological affordances and of course the competition – think of the Wilkinson brand that first introduced a four bladed shaving system, thereby forcing Gillette to answer with a five bladed system. Together these contextual influences constitute an ecosystem of a sort, which (again) closely resembles the environmental forces known to play a part in the evolutionary development of biological species.
EVOLUTION, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
Of course there are also arguments against this evolutionary view on the development of razor technology – so lets get both sides of the coin here. The most common objection is that “people play a role in the process, so it can’t be evolution.”
This reasoning is tempting, however, it also positions people outside of nature – as if we are somehow placed outside of the game of evolution and its rules don’t apply for us. There is no reason to believe this is the case: after all people have evolved just like all other life. The fact that my razors are dependent on people to multiply is also not unprecedented. The same is valid nowadays for many domesticated fruits like bananas as well as a majority of the cattle on our planet. Moreover, we see similar symbiotic relationships in old nature: just think of the flowers that are dependent on bees to spread their seeds.
Another objection might be that my razors cannot be the result of an evolutionary development because they are made of metal and plastic and not a carbon–based biological species. Underneath this argument lies the assumption that evolution only takes place within a certain medium: carbon–based life forms. A variation of this argument states that evolution only takes place if there are genes involved – like with humans, animals and plants. This way of thinking exemplifies a limited understanding of evolution, as it is a mistake to constrain it to a certain medium rather than to understand it as a principle. In fact the genetic system of DNA underlying our species, is itself also a product of evolution – DNA evolved from the simpler RNA system as a successful medium of coding life. There is no reason why evolutionary processes could not transfer itself to other media: Richard Dawkins already proposed ‘memes’ as a building block of cultural evolution, whereas Susan Blackmore suggested ‘temes’ as building blocks for technological evolution.
In the end, the question we should ask ourselves: are the environmental forces of economy and technology, at least equally or perhaps even more important for the shaping of razor technology, than the design decisions made by the ‘inventors’ of the individual models. I am pretty sure this is the case and hence I propose to consider the development of razors as a truly evolutionary process – not metaphorically, but as reality. The species it brought into being we will call: Razorius Gillettus. It is just one of the numerous new species emerging within the techno-economical system – and it is evolving fast.
TECHNODIVERSITY IS INCREASING
Once we agree to perceive the development of razor technology as an evolutionary process, lets zoom in a bit at our own role in the evolutionary game. How can we see our relation with Razoritus Gilletus and its numerous fellow evolving techno-species? Are we like the bees – who feed themselves with nectar from flowers and in return spread their pollen, enabling the flowers to reproduce – heading towards a symbiotic relationship with the technosphere, which feeds upon our labor & creativity, and in return gives us Razorius Gilletus? Should we take pride in our role as catalysts of evolution? Propagators of a technodiversity unlike the world has ever seen: the one and only animal that transfers the game of evolution into another medium? We can. Yet, as in every symbiotic relationship, we should also be keen on whether both parties are actually getting a good deal. And although I did buy all these razors and they have been providing me with an ever-smoother-closer shave throughout my life, I am not entirely sure about that.
INNOVATION WITHOUT A CAUSE
To many of what we call ‘innovations’ are merely directed at increasing the growth and wellbeing of the technosphere – bigger economy, bigger corporations, more technological devices –, rather than actually improving the lives of people. Indeed my latest shaver does shave just that tiny little bit more smoothly than the previous model. Yet, if you would ask me if the device has ‘innovated’ my life, I’d have to say no.
Let’s face it: the new shavers from Gillette are primarily created for the sake of Gillette Corporation: higher turnover, more profit, more shareholders value. Now that’s all not bad to begin with, as good business also provides people with good jobs and steady incomes, which allows them to live a happy live – and buy more razors. So far it’s a win-win situation. Yet, the production of all these abundant devices also uses an amazing amount of resources, putting quite some pressure on the biosphere – remember, that old nature that used to surround us before the emerging of the technosphere? We should not be naïve about the fact that corporations – I know they’ll tell you otherwise – do not intrinsically care all that much about the wellbeing of the biosphere. Being able to breathe clean air simply is not important for Razorius Gillettus, as it has a whole different digestive system. Clean air is merely a requirement for carbon–based life forms like algae, plants, birds, polar bears, and of course people.
CATALYSTS OF EVOLUTION
So how to continue? I am the first to concur that there is a certain luster in the development of Razorius Gillettus. The notion that human activity is causing the rising of such a peculiar new species and that we are now co-evolving towards a shared future is intriguing to say the least. I wonder what Charles Darwin would have thought of this. Perhaps he would have pointed at the serious risks involved in this evolutionary leap. Certainly, our awareness of our own role as ‘catalysts of evolution’ has yet to mature. It is a quite responsible job description we have got our hands on there. If we feel we are not fitted for the job, we could better grow our beards and return to our caves. We can do that, perhaps. At least some people have proposed we should do that, however, trying to turn back the clock of civilization would also be a denial of what it means to be human, or at least it exemplifies a cowardness towards the unknown. On the other hand, a purely techno-utopist attitude of ‘letting grow’ will expectedly also not be in the longtime benefit of humanity and our fellow biosphere–dependent species, as we run the risk of being outsourced altogether.
The mature thing to do in our position as catalysts of evolution is to develop a stewardship that focuses on maintaining a balance between both the declining biosphere and the emerging technosphere – between old nature and next nature. Towards an environment in which both can find a place and live in relative harmony. Now, I am not saying it will be easy. But if we are able to do that, we will have something to be truly proud of.
Essay: The World without TechnologyI remember the smoke the most. That pungent smell permeating the camps of tribal people. Everything they touch is infused with the lingering perfume of smoke — their food, shelter, tools, and art. Everything. Even the skin of the youngest tribal child emits smokiness when they pass by. I can hold a memento from my visits decades later and still get a whiff of that primeval scent. Anywhere in the world, no matter the tribe, steady wafts of smoke drift in from the central fire. If things are done properly, the flame never goes out. It smolders to roast bits of meat, and its embers warm bodies at night. The fire’s ever-billowing clouds of smoke dry out sleeping mats overhead, preserve hanging strips of meat, and drive away bugs at night. Fire is a universal tool, good for so many things, and it leaves an indelible mark of smoke on a society with scant other technology.
Besides the smoke I remember the immediacy of experience that opens up when the mediation of technology is removed in a rough camp. Living close to the land as hunter-gatherers do, I got colder often, hotter more frequently, soaking wet a lot, bitten by insects faster, more synchronized to rhythm of the day and seasons. Time seemed abundant. I was shocked at how quickly I could dump the cloud of technology in my modern life for a cloud of smoke.
But I was only visiting. Living in a world without technology was a refreshing vacation, but the idea of spending my whole life there was, and is, unappealing. Like you, or almost anyone else with a job today, I could sell my car this morning and with the sale proceeds instantly buy a plane ticket to a remote point on earth in the afternoon. A string of very bumpy bus rides from the airport would take me to a drop-off where within a day or two of hiking I could settle in with a technologically simple tribe. I could choose a hundred sanctuaries of hunter-gatherer tribes that still quietly thrive all around the world. At first a visitor would be completely useless, but within three months even a novice could at least pull their own weight and survive. No electricity, no woven clothes, no money, no farm crops, no media of any type — only a handful of hand-made tools. Every adult living on earth today has the resources to relocate to such a world in less than 48 hours. But no one does.
The gravity of technology holds us where we are. We accept our attachment. But to really appreciate the effects of technology – both its virtues and costs — we need to examine the world of humans before technology. What were our lives like without inventions? For that we need to peek back into the Paleolithic era when technology was scarce and humans lived primarily surrounded by things they did not make. We can also examine the remaining contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes still living close to nature to measure what, if anything, they gain from the small amount of technology they use.
The problem with this line of questioning is that technology predated our humanness. Many other animals used tools millions of years before humans. Chimpanzees made (and of course still make) hunting tools from thin sticks to extract termites from mounds, or slam rocks to break nuts. Even termites themselves construct vast towering shells of mud for their homes. Ants herd aphids and farm fungi in gardens. Birds weave elaborate twiggy fabrics for their nests. The strategy of bending the environment to use as if it were part of your body is a billion year old trick at least.
Our humanoid ancestors first chipped stone scrapers 2.5 million years ago to give themselves claws. By about 250,000 years ago they devised crude techniques for cooking, or pre-digesting, with fire. Technology-assisted hunting, versus tool-free scavenging, is equally old. Archeologists found a stone point jammed into the vertebra of a horse and a wooden spear embedded in a 100,000 year old red deer skeleton. This pattern of tool use has only accelerated in the years since.
To put it another way, no human tribe has been without at least a few knives of bone, sharpened sticks, or a stone hammer. There is no such thing as a total tool-free humanity. Long before we became the conscious beings we are now we were people of the tool. Hunters increased the power of a spear by launching it from a long swinging stick (the atlatl) which literally extended their arm. In fact all tools are extensions of our biological body, just as the artifact of a beehive is an extension of a bee. Neither honeycomb nor queen bee can exist alone. Same for us. Evolutionarily we’ve survived as a species because we’ve made tools, and we’d perish as a species without at least some of our inventions.
Although strictly speaking simple tools are a type of technology made by one person, we tend to think of technology as something much more complicated. But in fact technology is anything designed by a mind. Technology includes not only nuclear reactors and genetically modified crops, but also bows and arrows, hide tanning techniques, fire starters, and domesticated crops. Technology also includes intangible inventions such as calendars, mathematics, software, law, and writing, as these too derive from our heads. But technology also must include birds’ nests and beaver dams since these too are the work of brains.
All technology, both the chimp’s termite fishing spear and the human’s fishing spear, the beaver’s dam and the human’s dam, the warbler’s hanging basket and the human’s hanging basket, the leafcutter ant’s garden and the human’s garden, are all fundamentally natural. We tend to isolate human-made technology from nature, even to the point of thinking of it as anti-nature, only because it has grown to rival the impact and power of its home. But in its origins and fundamentals a tool is as natural as our life.
Tools and bigger brains mark the beginning of a distinctly human line in evolution 2.5 million years ago. The first simple stone tools appeared in the same archeological moment that brains of the hominins who made them began to enlarge toward their current size. Thus hominins arrived on earth with rough chipped stone scrapers and cutters in hand. About a million years ago these large-brain, tool-wielding hominins drifted out of Africa and settle into southern Europe, where they evolved into the Neanderthal (with even bigger brains), and further into east Asia, where they evolved into Homo erectus (also bigger brained). Over the next several millions of years, all three hominin lines evolved, but the ones who remained in Africa evolved into the human form we see in ourselves. The exact time these proto-humans became fully modern humans is of course debated. Some say 200,000 years ago but the undisputed latest date is 100,000 years ago. By 100,000 years ago humans crossed the threshold where they are indistinguishable from us outwardly. We would not notice anything amiss if one of them were to stroll alongside of us on the beach. However, their tools and most of their behavior were indistinguishable from their relatives the Neanderthals in Europe and Erectus in Asia.
For the next 50 millennia not much changed. The anatomy of African human skeletons remained constant over this time. Neither did their tools change much. Early humans employed rough-and-ready lumps of rock with sharpened edges to cut, poke, drill, or spear. But these hand-held tools were unspecialized, and did not vary by location or time. No matter where or when in this period (called the Mesolithic) a hominin picked up one of these tools it would resemble one made tens of thousands of miles away or tens of thousands of years apart, whether in the hands of Neanderthal, Erectus or Homo sapiens. Hominins simply lacked innovation. As Jared Diamond put it, “Despite their large brains, something was missing.”
Then about 50,000 years ago something amazing happened. While the bodies of early humans in Africa remained unchanged, their genes and minds shifted noticeably. For the first time hominins were full of ideas and innovation. These newly vitalized modern humans, which we now call Sapiens, charged into new regions beyond their ancestral homes in eastern Africa. They fanned out from the grasslands and in a relatively brief burst exploded from a few tens of thousands in Africa to an estimated 8 million worldwide just before the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
A simulation of the 50,000 year BP population explosion in prehistory. From Atkinson.
The speed at which Sapiens marched across the planet and settled every continent (except Antarctica) is astounding. In 5,000 years they overtook Europe. In another 15,000 they reached edges of Asia. Once tribes of Sapiens crossed the land bridge from Eurasia into what is now Alaska, it took them only a few thousand years to fill the whole of the New World. Sapiens increased so relentlessly that for the next 38,000 years they expanded their occupation at the average rate of one mile per year. Sapiens kept pushing until they reached the furthest they could go: land’s end at the tip of South America. Less than 1,500 generations after their “great leap forward” in Africa, Homo sapiens had become the most widely distributed species in Earth’s history, inhabiting every type of biome and every watershed on the planet. Sapiens were the most invasive alien species ever.
Today the breadth of Sapien occupation exceeds that of any other macro-species we know of; no other visible species occupies more niches, geographically and biological, than Homo sapiens. Sapien’s overtake was always rapid. Jared Diamond notes that “after the ancestors of the Maori reached New Zealand” carrying only a few tools, “it apparently took them barely a century to discover all worthwhile stone sources; only a few more centuries to kill every last moa in some of the world’s most rugged terrain.” This sudden global expansion following millennia of steady sustainability is due to only one thing: technology and innovation.
As Sapiens expanded in range they remade animal horns and tusks into thrusters and knives, cleverly turning the animals’ own weapons against them. They sculpted figurines, the first art, and the first jewelry, beads cut from shells, at this threshold 50,000 years ago. While humans had long used fire, the first hearths and shelter structures were invented about this time. Trade of scarce shells, chert and flint rock began. At approximately the same time Sapiens invented fishing hooks and nets, and needles for sewing hides into clothes. They left behind the remains of tailored hides in graves. In fact, graves with deliberately interred burial goods were invented at this time. Sometimes recovered beads and ornaments in the burial site would trace the borders of the long-gone garments. A few bits of pottery from that time have the imprint of woven net and loose fabrics on them. In the same period Sapiens also invented animal traps. Their garbage reveals heaps of skeletons of small furred animals without their feet; Trappers today still skin small animals the same way by keeping the feet with the skin. On walls artists painted humans wearing parkas shooting animals with arrows or spears. Significantly, unlike Neanderthal and Erectus’s crude creations, these tools varied in small stylistic and technological ways place by place. Sapiens had begun innovating.
The Sapien mind’s ability to make warm clothes opened up the artic regions, and the invention of fishing gear opened up the coasts and rivers of the world, particularly in the tropics, where large game was scarce. While Sapien’s innovation allowed them to prosper in new climates, the cold and its unique ecology especially drove innovation. More complex “technological units” are needed (or have been invented) by historical hunter-gatherer tribes the higher the latitude of their homes. Hunting oceanic sea mammals in artic climes took significantly more sophisticated gear that fishing salmon in a river. The ability of Sapiens to rapidly adapt tools allowed them to rapidly adapt to new ecological niches, at a much faster rate than genetic evolution could ever allow.
During their quick global takeover, Sapiens displaced (with or without interbreeding) the several other co-inhabiting hominin species on earth, including their cousins the Neanderthal. The Neanderthals were never abundant and may have only numbered 18,000 individuals at once. After dominating Europe for hundreds of thousands of years as the sole humanoid, the Neanderthals vanished in less than 100 generations after the tool-carrying Sapiens arrived. That is a blink in history. As anthropologist Richard Klein says, “this displacement occurred almost instantaneously from a geologic perspective. There were no intermediates in the archeological record. The Neanderthals were there one day, and the Cro-Magnons [Sapiens] were there the next.” The Sapien layer was always on top, and never the reverse. It was not even necessary that the Sapiens slaughter the Neanderthals. Demographers have calculated that as little as a 4 percent difference in reproductive effectiveness (a reasonable expectation given Sapien’s ability to bring home more kinds of meat), could eclipse the lesser breeding species in a few thousands years. The speed of this several thousand-year extinction was without precedent in natural evolution. Sadly it was only the first rapid species extinction to be caused by humans.
It should have been clear to Neanderthal, as it is now clear to us in the 21st century, that something new and big had appeared — a new biological and geological force. A number of scientists (Richard Klein, Ian Tattersall, William Calvin, among many others) think that the “something” that happened 50,000 years ago was the invention of language. Up until this point, humanoids were smart. They could make crude tools in a hit or miss way and handle fire – perhaps like an exceedingly smart chimp. The African hominin’s growing brain size and physical stature had leveled off its increase, but evolution continued inside the brain. “What happened 50,000 years ago,” says Klein, “was a change in the operating system of humans. Perhaps a point mutation effected the way the brain is wired that allowed languages, as we understand language today: rapidly produced, articulate speech.” Instead of acquiring a larger brain, as the Neanderthal and Erectus did, Sapien gained a rewired brain. Language altered the Neanderthal-type mind, and allowed Sapien minds for the first time to invent with purpose and deliberation. Philosopher Daniel Dennet crows in elegant language: “There is no step more uplifting, more momentous in the history of mind design, than the invention of language. When Homo sapiens became the beneficiary of this invention, the species stepped into a slingshot that has launched it far beyond all other earthly species.” The creation of language was the first singularity for humans. It changed everything. Life after language was unimaginable to those on the far side before it.
Language accelerates learning and creation by permitting communication and coordination. A new idea can be spread quickly by having someone explain it and communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves. But the chief advantage of language is not communication, but auto-generation. Language is a trick which allows the mind to question itself. It is a magic mirror which reveals to the mind what the mind thinks. Language is a handle which turns a mind into a tool. With a grip on the slippery aimless activity of self-reference, self-awareness, language can harness a mind into a fountain of new ideas. Without the cerebral structure of language, we can’t access our own mental activity. We certainly can’t think the way we do. Try it yourself. If our minds can’t tell stories, we can’t consciously create; we can only create by accident. Until we tame the mind with an organization tool capable of communicating to itself, we have stray thoughts without a narrative. We have a feral mind. We have smartness without a tool.
A few scientists believe that, in fact, it was technology that sparked language. To throw a tool – a rock or stick – at an animal and hit it with sufficient force to kill it requires a serious computation in the hominin brain. Each throw requires a long succession of precise neural instructions executed in a split second. But unlike calculating how to grasp a branch in mid-air, the brain must calculate several alternative options for a throw at the same time: the animal speeds up, or it slows down; aim high, aim low. The mind must then spin out the results to gauge the best possible throw before the actual throw – all in a few milli-seconds. Scientists like neurobiologist William Calvin believe that once a brain evolved the power to run multiple rapid throw scenarios, it hijacked this throw procedure to run multiple rapid sequences of notions. The brain would throw words instead of sticks. This reuse or repurposing of technology then became a primitive but advantageous language.
The slippery genius of language opened up many new niches for spreading tribes of Sapiens. They could quickly adapt their tools to hunt or trap an increasing diversity of game, and to gather and process an increasing diversity of plants. There is some evidence that Neanderthals were stuck on a few sources of food. Examination of Neanderthal bones show they lacked the fatty acids found in fish and the Neanderthal diet was mostly meat. But not just any meat. Over half of their diet was woolly mammoth and reindeer. The demise of the Neanderthal may be correlated with the demise of great herds of these megafuana.
Sapiens thrived as broadly omnivorous hunter-gatherers. The unbroken line of human offspring for hundreds of thousands of years proves that a few tools will capture enough nutrition to create the next generation. We are here now because hunting-gathering in the past worked. Several analysis of historical hunter-gather diets show that they were able to secure enough calories to meet the US FDA requirements for folks their size. For example, the Dobe gathered on average 2,140 calories. Fish Creek tribe, 2,130. Hemple Bay tribe, 2,160. They had a varied diet of tubers, vegetables, fruit and meat. Based on studies of bones and pollen in their trash, so did the early Sapiens.
Thomas Hobbe claimed the life of the savage – and by this he meant hunter-gatherers — was “nasty, short and brutish.” But while the life of an early hunter-gatherer was short, and interrupted by nasty warfare, it was not brutish. With only a slim set of a dozen primitive tools humans not only secured enough to survive in all kinds of environments, but these tools and techniques will also afford them some leisure doing so. Anthropological studies confirm that hunter-gathers do not spend all day hunting and gathering. One researcher, Marshall Sahlins, concluded that hunter-gatherers worked only 3-4 hours a day on necessary food chores, putting in what he called “banker hours.” The evidence for his surprising results are controversial: much of the research (by others) was based on time studies of groups who were previously hunting and gathering and returned to this mode only for a few weeks to demonstrate their efficiency. And the measurements lasted only a few weeks. Surveys of other tribes’ yields gave daily calorie intakes of only 1,500 or 1,800 per day for their few hours of work. Furthermore the definition of what activities should be included as the work of food getting is not clear. For instance if a modern human goes shopping at a supermarket — to get food of course — is that classified as “work” time? Why not? Do the elaborate preparations for a community feast where food is exchanged, common to most forager tribes, count as food getting? All these variables shift the measure of how much work it takes to live as a hunter-gatherer with a low dose of technology.
A more realistic and less contentious average for food gathering time among contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes based on a wider range of data is about 6 hours per day. That 6 hour/day average belies a great variation in day to day routine. One to two hour naps or whole days spent sleeping were not uncommon. As one anthropologist noted, when foragers set out to work, “they certainly did not approach it as an unpleasant job to be got over as soon as possible, nor as necessary evil to be postponed as long as possible.” Outside observers almost universally noted the punctuated aspect of work among foragers. Gatherers may work very hard for several days in a row and then do nothing in terms of food getting for the rest of the week. This cycle is known among anthologists as the “paleolithic rhythm” — a day or two on, day or two off. An observer familiar with the Yamana tribe – but it could be almost any hunter tribe — wrote: “Their work is a more a matter of fits and starts, and in these occasional efforts they can develop considerable energy for a certain time. After that, however they show a desire for an incalculably long rest period during which they lie about doing nothing, without showing great fatigue.” The paleolithic rhythm actually reflects the “predator rhythm” since great hunters of the animal world, the lion and other large cats, exhibit the same style: hunting to exhaustion in a short burst and then lounging around days afterward. Hunters, almost by definition, seldom go out hunting, and they succeed in getting a meal even less often. The efficiency of primitive tribal hunting, measured in the yield of calories/hour invested, was only half that of gathering. Meat is thus a treat in almost every foraging culture.
Then there are seasonal variations. Every ecosystem produces a “hungry season” for foragers. In higher cooler latitudes, this late-winter/early spring hungry season is more severe, but even in tropical latitudes, there are seasonal oscillations in the availability of favorite foods, supplemental fruits, or essential wild game. In addition, there are climatic variations: extended periods of droughts, floods, storms that can disrupt yearly patterns. This great punctuations over days, season, and years mean that while there are many times when hunter-gatherers are well-fed, they also can – and do – expect many periods when they are hungry, famished and undernourished. Time spent in this state along the edge of malnutrition is mortal for young children and dire for adults.
The result of all this variation in calories is the paleolithic rhythm at all scales of time. Importantly, this burstiness in “work” is not by choice. When you are primarily dependent of natural systems to provide you foodstuffs, working more does not tend to produce more. You can’t get twice as much food by working twice as hard. The hour which the figs ripen can neither be hurried, nor predicted exactly. Nor can the arrival of game herds. If you do not store surplus, nor cultivate in place, then motion must produce your food. Hunter-gatherers must be in ceaseless movement away from depleted sources in order to maintain production. But once you are committed to perpetual movement, surplus and its tools slow you down. In many contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, being unencumbered with things is considered a virtue, even a virtue of character. You carry nothing, but cleverly make or procure whatever you need when you need it. “The efficient hunter who would accumulate supplies succeeds at the cost of his own esteem”, says Robert Kelley. Additionally the surplus producer must share the extra food or goods with everyone, which reduces incentive to produce extra. For foragers food storage is therefore socially self-defeating. Instead your hunger must adapt to the movements of the wild. If a dry spell diminishes the yield of the sago, no amount of extra work time will advance the delivery of food. Therefore, foragers take a very accepting pace to eating. When food is there, all work very hard. When it is not, no problem; they will sit around and talk while they are hungry. This very reasonable approach is often misread as tribal laziness, but it is in fact a logical strategy if you rely on the environment to store your food.
We civilized modern workers can look at this leisurely approach to work and feel jealous. Three to six hours a day is a lot less then most adults any developed country put in to their labors. Furthermore, when asked, most acculturated hunter-gatherers don’t want any more than they have. A tribe will rarely have more than one artifact, such as an ax, because why do you need more than one? Either you use the object when you need to, or more likely, you make one when you need one. Once used, artifacts are often discarded rather than saved. That way nothing extra needs to be carried, or cared for. Westerns giving gifts to foragers such as a blanket or knife were often mortified to see them trashed after a day. In a very curious way, foragers lived in the ultimate disposable culture. The best tools, artifacts, technology were all disposable. Elaborate hand-crafted shelters were considered disposable. When a clan or family travel they might erect a home for only a night (a bamboo hut or snow igloo) and then abandoned it the next morning. Larger multi-family lodges might be abandoned after a few years rather than maintained. Same for food patches, which are abandoned after harvesting.
This easy just-in-time self-sufficiency and contentment led Marshall Sahlins to declare hunter-gatherers as “the original affluent society.” But while foragers had sufficient calories most days, and did not create a culture that continually craved more, a better summary might be that hunter-gatherers had “affluence without abundance.” Based on numerous historical encounters with aboriginal tribes, they often, if not regularly, complained about being hungry. Famed anthropologist Collin Turnball noted “The Mbuti complain of food shortage, although they frequently sing to the goodness of the forest.” Often the complaints of hunter-gathers were about the monotony of a carbohydrate stable, like mongongo nuts for every meal; what they meant about shortages, or even hunger, was a shortage of meat, and a hunger for fat, and a distaste for periods of hunger. Their small amounts of technology gave them sufficiency for most of the time, but not abundance.
The fine line between average sufficiency and abundance matters in terms of health. When anthropologists measure the total fertility rate (the mean number of live births over the reproductive years) of women in modern hunter-gather tribes they find it relatively low – about 5 to 6 children in total — compared to the 6-8 of agricultural communities. There are several factors behind this depressed fertility. Perhaps because of uneven nutrition, puberty comes late to forager girls at 16 or 17 years old. (Modern females start at 13) This late menarche for women, combined with a shorter lifespan, delays and thus abbreviates the childbearing window. Breastfeeding usually lasts longer in foragers, which extends the interval between births. Most tribes nurse till children are 2 to 3 years old, while a few tribes keep suckling for as long as 6 years. Also, many women are extremely lean and active, and like lean active women athletes in the west, often have irregular or no menstruations. One theory suggests women need a “critical fatness” to produce fertile eggs, a fatness many forager women lack – at least part of the year — because of a fluctuating diet. And of course, people anywhere can practice deliberate abstinence to space children, and foragers have reasons to do so.
Infanticide also contributed to small families. The prevalence of infanticide varied significantly among foraging tribes. It was as high as 30% of children in traditional artic tribes (in the early 1900s), and zero in others, with an average infanticide rate of 21% among the cross-culture sample of tribes anthropologists measured. In some cultures infanticide was biased towards females, perhaps to balance gender ratios, particularly in tribes where men contributed more food to the family than women (which was not the norm). In other tribes infanticide was practiced to space births, as Robert Kelley says, “in order to maximize reproductive success, rather than population control.” In nomadic cultures mothers needed to carry not only their tools and household items, but also their small children. On frequent long migrations to find food a family had to carry all their possessions. For a pregnant woman to carry more than one small child would endangered the older sibling. Better for all to have children spaced apart.
Child mortality in foraging tribes was severe. A survey of 25 hunter-gatherer tribes in historical times from various continents revealed that on average 25% of children died before they were one, and 37% died before they were 15. In one traditional hunter-gather tribe child mortality was found to be 60%. Most historical tribes have a population growth rate of approximately zero. This depression is made evident, says Robert Kelley in his survey of hunter-gathering peoples, because “when formerly mobile people become sedentary, the rate of population growth increases.” All things equal, the constancy of farmed food breeds more people.
While many children died young, hunting-gather elders did not have it much better. There are no known remains of a Neanderthal who lived to be older than 40. Because extremely high child mortality rates depress average life expectancy, if the outlier oldest is only 40, the median age of a Neanderthal was less than 20. It was a tough life. Based on an analysis of bone stress and cuts, one archeologist said the distribution of injuries on the bodies of Neanderthal were similar to those found on rodeo professionals -– lots of head, trunk and arm injuries like the ones you might get from close encounters with large angry animals. Erik Trinkaus discovered that the pattern of age-related mortality for hunter-gatherers and Neanderthal were nearly parallel, except historical foragers lived a little longer.
Mortality rates expressed as percentage of the population who died in a stage of life. From “The Neanderthal’s Necklace”.
A typical tribe of hunters-gatherers had few very young children and no old people. This demographic may explain a common impression visitors had upon meeting intact historical hunter-gatherer tribes. They would remark that “everyone looked extremely healthy and robust.” That’s in part because most everyone was in the prime of life between 15 and 35. We might have the same reaction visiting a city or trendy neighborhood with the same youthful demographic. We’d call them young adults. Tribal life was a lifestyle for and of young adults.
A major effect of this short forager lifespan was the crippling absence of grandparents. Given that women would only start bearing by 17 or so, and die by their thirties, it would be common for parents leave their children in their tweens. We tend to think that a shorter lifespan is rotten -– for the individual -– and no doubt it is. But a short lifespan is extremely detrimental for a society as well. Because without grandparents, it becomes exceedingly difficult to transmit knowledge over time. Grandparents are the conduit of culture, and without them, culture stagnates.
Imagine a society that not only lacked grandparents but also lacked language –- as the pre-Sapiens did. How would learning be transmitted over generations? Your own parents would die before you were an adult and in any case, they could not communicate to you anything beyond what they could show you while you were immature. You would certainly not learn anything from anyone outside your immediate circle of peers. Innovation and cultural learning cease to flow.
Language upended this tight constriction by enabling both an idea to form, and then to be communicated. An innovation could be hatched and then spread across generations via children. Sapiens gained better hunting tools (like thrown spears which permitted a lightweight human to kill a huge dangerous animal from a safe distance), better fishing tools (barbed hooks and traps), and using hot stones to cook not just meat but to extract more calories from wild plants. And they gained all these within only 100 generations of using language. Better tools meant better nutrition.
The primary long-term consequence of this slightly better nutrition was a steady increase in longevity. Anthropologist Rachel Capsari studied the dental fossils of 768 hominin individuals from 5 million years ago, till the great leap, in Europe, Asia and Africa. She determined that there was a “dramatic increase in longevity in the modern humans” about 50,000 years ago. Increasing longevity allowed grand parenting, or what is called the “grandmother effect”: In a virtuous circle, via the communication of grandparents and culture, ever more powerful innovations were able to lengthened life spans further, which gave more time to invent new tools, which increased population. Not only that, increased longevity, “provides a selective advantage promoting further population increase,” because a higher density of humans increased the rate and influence of innovations, which contributed to increased populations. Capsari states that the most “fundamental biological factor that underlies the behavioral innovations of modernity is the increase in adult survivorship.” Increased longevity is probably the most measurable consequence of the acquisition of technology, and it is also the most consequential.
By 20,000 years ago, as the world was warming up and its global ice caps retreating, Sapien’s population and tool kit expanded hand-in-hand. Sapiens used 40 kinds of tools, including anvils, pottery, and composites – complicated spears or cutters made from multiple pieces, such as many tiny flint shards and a handle. While still primarily a hunter-gatherer Sapiens also dappled in sedentism, returning to care for favorite food areas, and developed specialized tools for different types of ecosystems. We know from burial sites in the northern latitudes at this same time, that clothing also evolved from the general (a rough tunic) to specialized items such as a cap, a shirt, a jacket, trousers and moccasins. Henceforth the variety of human tools would become ever more specialized.
The variety of Sapiens tribes exploded as they adapted into diverse watersheds and biomes. Their new tools reflected the specifics of their homes; river inhabitants had many nets; steppe hunters many kinds of points; forest dwellers many types of traps. Their language and looks were diverging.
Yet they shared many qualities. Most hunter-gatherers clustered into family clans that averaged about 25 related people. Clans would gather in larger tribes of several hundred at seasonal feasts or camping grounds. One function of the tribes was to keep genes moving through intermarriage. Population was spread thinly. The average density of a tribe was less than .01 person per square kilometer in cooler climes. The 200-300 folk in your greater tribe would be the total number of people you’d meet in your lifetime. You might be aware of others outside of them because items for trade or barter could travel 300 kilometers. Some of the traded items would be body ornaments and beads, such as ocean shells for inlanders, forest feathers for the coast dwellers. Occasionally pigments were swapped for face painting, but these could also be applied on walls, or applied to carved wood figurines. The dozen tools you carried would have been bone drills, awls, needles, bone knives, a bone hook for fish on a spear, some stone scrapers, maybe some stone sharpies. A number of your blades would be held by bone or wood handles, hafted with cane or hide cord. When you crouched around the fire, someone might play a drum or bone flute. The handful of your possessions might be buried with you when you die.
But don’t take this for harmony. Within 20,000 years of the great march out of Africa, Sapiens helped exterminate 270 out of the 279 then existing species of megafuana. Sapiens used new innovations such as the bow and arrow, spear, and cliff-stampedes to kill off the last of the mastodons, mammoths, moas, woolly rhinos, giant camels — basically every large package of protein that walked on four legs. More than 80% of all large mammal genera on the planet were completely extinct by 10,000 years ago. Somehow four species escaped this fate in North America: the bison, moose, elk and red deer.
Violence between tribes was endemic as well. The rules of harmony and cooperation that work so well among members of the same tribe, and are often the subject of envy of modern observers, do not apply to those outside of the tribe. Tribes would go to war over waterholes in Australia, or hunting grounds and wild-rice fields in the plains of the US, or river and ocean frontage along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Commonly, without systems of arbitration, or even leaders, small feuds over stolen goods, or women, or signs of wealth such as pigs in New Guinea, could grow into multigenerational warfare. The death rate due to warfare was 5 times higher among hunter-gatherer tribes than in later agricultural-based societies (0.1% of the population killed per year in “civilized” wars versus 0.5% in war between tribes). Actual rates of warfare varied among tribes and regions, because as in the modern world, one belligerent tribe could disrupt the peace for many. But in general the more nomadic a tribe was, the more peaceful, since it would simply flee from conflict. But when fighting broke out it was fierce and deadly. When the numbers of warriors on both sides were about equal, primitive tribes usually beat the armies of civilization. The Celtic tribes defeated the Romans, the Tuareg smashed the French, the Zulus trumped the British, and it took the US Army three centuries to defeat the Apache tribes and only then because the Army hired traitor Apaches to quell their brothers. As Lawrence Keeley says in his survey of early warfare in War Before Civilization, “The facts recovered by ethnographers and archaeologists indicated unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilized version. In fact, primitive warfare was much more deadly than that conducted between civilized states because of the greater frequency of combat and the more merciless way it was conducted…It is civilized warfare that is stylized, ritualized, and relatively less dangerous.”
From “War before Civilization“.
Before the singularity of language 50,000 years ago, the world lacked significant technology. For the next 40,000 years (four times as long as civilization has been around) every human who lived was a hunter-gatherer. During this time an estimated 1 billion people explored how far you could go with a handful of tools. This world without much technology provided “enough.” There was leisure and satisfying work for humans. Happiness, too. Without technology, the rhythms and patterns of nature were immediate. Nature ruled your hunger and set your course. Nature was so vast, so bountiful and so close, few humans could separate from it. The attunement with the natural world felt divine. Yet, without technology, the recurring tragedy of child death was ever present. Accidents, warfare and disease meant your life, on average, was far less than half what it could have been. Maybe only a quarter of the natural lifespan you genes afforded. Hunger was always near.
But most noticeably, without technology, your leisure was wasted. You had much time for repetitions, but none for anything new. Within narrow limits you had no bosses. But the direction and interests of your life were laid out in well-worn paths. The cycles of your environment determined your life.
Turns out, the bounty of nature, though vast, does not hold all possibilities. The mind does, but it had not been fully unleashed yet. A world without technology had enough to continue life but not enough to transcend it. The mind, liberated by language, and enabled by the technium, transcended the constraints of nature, and opened up greater realms of possibility. There was a price to pay for this transcendence, but what we gained was civilization and progress.
Those would disappear instantly if technology were to disappear. If a Technology Removal Beam swept across the earth and eliminated every scrap of invention from the world, and sent us into a world without technology – the bus ride no one wants to take – it would shake our foundations. Once the Beam pulverized all hunks of metal, metallic pieces, and slivers of iron and steel into rock dust, and vaporized all plastic, and of course zapped all electronics and modern medicines, and eroded highways and bridges till they disappeared into the landscape without a trace, then the first thing we’d want to do is re-manufacture some hand tools. But if the Technology Removal Beam prevented any constructed tools at all, humans, and humanity, would rapidly be endangered.
After the vast asphalt parking lots of suburban malls melted away, and the greasy blocks of industrial factories subsided beneath the dirt, and the endless sprawl containing hundreds of millions of homes vanished in dust, there would still not be enough bounty in the regrown wilds to sustain 6 billion foragers. For one, the hugely productive herds of megafuana that supported millions of earlier hunters are gone for good. We devoured their easy pickings 20 millennia ago, and removing technology won’t return them. For another the current global population of humans spread equally across all land mass on the planet, including the least hospitable areas of icy mountains and empty desert, would be 10 persons per square kilometer, which is several times more than the average density of sustainable foraging. Thus even a pristine environment could not support 6 billion Sapiens at the meager level of a hunter-gather.
Not that we’d last long anyway. Deprived of gun, spear, and knife, humans would no longer be the key predator. We in fact become prey. Any human lucky enough to eat well would become a desirable meal for newly revived packs of wolves and other alpha predators. The stress and inadequate nutrition of subsistence foraging would revert women’s fertility to its earlier low rate. The growth rate of Homo sapiens would head quickly towards zero. The entirety of the species would retreat to a few remote havens, much as gorillas and chimpanzees have done.
We are not the same folks who marched out of Africa. Our genes have co-evolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. In the same period we domesticated the dog (all those breeds) from wolves, and cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors. We, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. Our teeth continue to shrink, our muscles thin out, our hair disappear, our molecular digestion adjust to new foods. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are co-evolving with our technology, so that we have become deeply co-dependent on it. Sapiens can no longer survive biologically without some kind of tools. Nor can our humanity continue without the technium.
In a world without technology, we would not be living, and we would not be human.
Written by KEVIN KELLY. Adapted from What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, 2010.
Essay: Ecology – A New Opium for the MassesMarxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses the ‘naturalization’ of capitalism and how ecology became a new field of capitalist investment. He also argues that the ultimate consequence of recent developments in biogenetics will be the ‘end of nature’ – anyone cares to introduce the good man into nextnature thinking? According to Žižek ecological apartheid will divide our urban society. Capitalism is not in control of nature and due to techno-scientific interventions the essence of the ecological order will be lost.
Written by Slavoj Žižek, Via Lacan.com, via Volume.
Marco Cicala, a Leftist Italian journalist, told me about his recent weird experience: when, in an article, he once used the word “capitalism,” the editor asked him if the use of this term is really necessary – could he not replace it by a synonymous one, like “economy”? What better proof of the total triumph of capitalism than the virtual disappearance of the very term in the last 2 or 3 decades? No one, with the exception of a few allegedly archaic Marxists, refers to capitalism any longer. The term was simply struck from the vocabulary of politicians, trade unionists, writers and journalists – even of social scientists… But what about the upsurge of the anti-globalization movement in the last years? Does it not clearly contradict this diagnostic? No: a close look quickly shows how this movement also succumbs to “the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centered on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of ‘imperialism’.” In this way, when one talks about “globalization and its agents,” the enemy is externalized (usually in the form of vulgar anti-Americanism). From this perspective, where the main task today is to fight “the American empire,” any ally is good if it is anti-American, and so the unbridled Chinese “Communist” capitalism, violent Islamic anti-modernists, as well as the obscene Lukashenko regime in Belarus may appear as progressive anti-globalist comrades-in-arms… What we have here is thus another version of the ill-famed notion of “alternate modernity”: instead of the critique of capitalism as such, of confronting its basic mechanism, we get the critique of the imperialist “excess,” with the (silent) notion of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive,” frame.
So what is the problem here? It is easy to make fun of Fukuyama’s notion of the End of History, but the majority today is “Fukuyamaian”: liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally-found formula of the best possible society, all one can do is to render it more just, tolerant, etc. The only true question today is: do we endorse this “naturalization” of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain strong enough antagonisms which will prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are three (or, rather, four) such antagonisms:
In spite of the infinite adaptability of capitalism which, in the case of an acute ecological catastrophe or crisis, can easily turn ecology into a new field of capitalist investment and competition, the very nature of the risk involved fundamentally precludes a market solution – why? Capitalism only works in precise social conditions: it implies the trust into the objectivized/”reified” mechanism of the market’s “invisible hand” which, as a kind of Cunning of Reason, guarantees that the competition of individual egotisms works for the common good. However, we are in the midst of a radical change. Till now, historical Substance played its role as the medium and foundation of all subjective interventions: whatever social and political subjects did, it was mediated and ultimately dominated, overdetermined, by the historical Substance. What looms on the horizon today is the unheard-of possibility that a subjective intervention will intervene directly into the historical Substance, catastrophically disturbing its run by way of triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, etc. No longer can we rely on the safeguarding role of the limited scope of our acts: it no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will go on. For the first time in human history, the act of a single socio-political agent effectively can alter and even interrupt the global historical process, so that, ironically, it is only today that we can say that the historical process should effectively be conceived “not only as Substance, but also as Subject.” This is why, when confronted with singular catastrophic prospects (say, a political group which intends to attack its enemy with nuclear or biological weapons), we no longer can rely on the standard logic of the “Cunning of Reason” which, precisely, presupposes the primacy of the historical Substance over acting subjects: we no longer can adopt the stance of “let the enemy who threatens us deploy its potentials and thereby self-destruct himself” – the price for letting the historical Reason do its work is too high since, in the meantime, we may all perish together with the enemy. Recall a frightening detail from the Cuban missile crisis: only later did we learn how close to nuclear war we were during a naval skirmish between an American destroyer and a Soviet B-59 submarine off Cuba on October 27 1962. The destroyer dropped depth charges near the submarine to try to force it to surface, not knowing it had a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Vadim Orlov, a member of the submarine crew, told the conference in Havana that the submarine was authorized to fire it if three officers agreed. The officers began a fierce, shouting debate over whether to sink the ship. Two of them said yes and the other said no. “A guy named Arkhipov saved the world,” was a bitter comment of a historian on this accident.
2. Private Property:
The inappropriateness of private property for the so-called “intellectual property.” The key antagonism of the so-called new (digital) industries is thus: how to maintain the form of (private) property, within which only the logic of profit can be maintained (see also the Napster problem, the free circulation of music)? And do the legal complications in biogenetics not point in the same direction? Phenomena are emerging here which bring the notion of property to weird paradoxes: in India, local communities can suddenly discover that medical practices and materials they are using for centuries are now owned by American companies, so they should be bought from them; with the biogenetic companies patentizing genes, we are all discovering that parts of ourselves, our genetic components, are already copyrighted, owned by others…
The crucial date in the history of cyberspace is February 3 1976, the day when Bill Gates published his (in)famous “Open Letter to Hobbysts,” the assertion of private property in the software domain: “As the majority of hobbysts must be aware, most of you steal your software. /…/ Most directly, the thing you do is theft.” Bill Gates has built his entire empire and reputation on his extreme views about knowledge being treated as if it were tangible property. This was a decisive signal which triggered the battle for the “enclosure” of the common domain of software.
3. New Techno-Scientific Developments:
The socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in bio-genetics) – Fukuyama himself was compelled to admit that the biogenetic interventions into human nature are the most serious threat to his vision of the End of History.
With the latest biogenetic developments, we are entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself which melts into air: the main consequence of the scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized,” deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called “earth.” This compels us to give a new twist to Freud’s title Unbehagen in der Kultur – discontent, uneasiness, in culture. With the latest developments, the discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer “natural,” the reliable “dense” background of our lives; it now appears as a fragile mechanism which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.
4. New Forms of Apartheid:
Last but not least, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums. On September 11th, 2001, the Twin Towers were hit; twelve years earlier, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. November 9th announced the “happy ’90s,” the Francis Fukuyama dream of the “end of history,” the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search is over, that the advent of a global, liberal world community lurks just around the corner, that the obstacles to this ultra-Hollywood happy ending are merely empirical and contingent (local pockets of resistance where the leaders did not yet grasp that their time is over). In contrast to it, 9/11 is the main symbol of the forthcoming era in which new walls are emerging everywhere, between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
So what if the new proletarian position is that of the inhabitants of slums in the new megalopolises? The explosive growth of slums in the last decades, especially in the Third World megalopolises from Mexico City and other Latin American capitals through Africa (Lagos, Chad) to India, China, Philippines and Indonesia, is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times. It is effectively surprising how many features of slum dwellers fit the good old Marxist determination of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are “free” in the double meaning of the word even more than the classic proletariat (“freed” from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the police regulations of the state); they are a large collective, forcibly thrown together, “thrown” into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of any support in traditional ways of life, in inherited religious or ethnic life-forms.
While today’s society is often characterized as the society of total control, slums are the territories within a state boundaries from which the state (partially, at least) withdrew its control, territories which function as white spots, blanks, in the official map of a state territory. Although they are de facto included into a state by the links of black economy, organized crime, religious groups, etc., the state control is nonetheless suspended there, they are domains outside the rule of law. In the map of Berlin from the times of the now defunct GDR, the are of West Berlin was left blank, a weird hole in the detailed structure of the big city; when Christa Wolf, the well-known East German half-dissident writer, took her small daughter to the East Berlin’s high TV tower, from which one had a nice view over the prohibited West Berlin, the small girl shouted gladly: “Look, mother, it is not white over there, there are houses with people like here!” – as if discovering a prohibited slum Zone…
This is why the “de-structured” masses, poor and deprived of everything, situated in a non-proletarized urban environment, constitute one of the principal horizons of the politics to come. If the principal task of the emancipatory politics of the XIXth century was to break the monopoly of the bourgeois liberals by way of politicizing the working class, and if the task of the XXth century was to politically awaken the immense rural population of Asia and Africa, the principal task of the XXIth century is to politicize – organize and discipline – the “de-structured masses” of slum-dwellers. Hugo Chavez’s biggest achievement is the politicization (inclusion into the political life, social mobilization) of slum dwellers; in other countries, they mostly persist in apolitical inertia. It was this political mobilization of the slum dwellers which saved him against the US-sponsored coup: to the surprise of everyone, Chavez included, slum dwellers massively descended to the affluent city center, tipping the balance of power to his advantage.
How do these four antagonisms relate to each other? There is a qualitative difference between the gap that separates the Excluded from the Included and the other three antagonisms, which designate three domains of what Hardt and Negri call “commons,” the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act which should also be resisted with violent means, if necessary: the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of “cognitive” capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education (if Bill Gates were to be allowed monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual would have literally owned the software texture our basic network of communication), but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc.; the commons of external nature threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and natural habitat itself); the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity). What all these struggles share is the awareness of the destructive potentials, up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself, if the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons is allowed a free run. It is this reference to “commons” which justifies the resuscitation of the notion of Communism – or, to quote Alain Badiou:
The communist hypothesis remains the good one, I do not see any other. If we have to abandon this hypothesis, then it is no longer worth doing anything at all in the field of collective action. Without the horizon of communism, without this Idea, there is nothing in the historical and political becoming of any interest to a philosopher. Let everyone bother about his own affairs, and let us stop talking about it. In this case, the rat-man is right, as is, by the way, the case with some ex-communists who are either avid of their rents or who lost courage. However, to hold on to the Idea, to the existence of this hypothesis, does not mean that we should retain its first form of presentation which was centered on property and State. In fact, what is imposed on us as a task, even as a philosophical obligation, is to help a new mode of existence of the hypothesis to deploy itself.So where do we stand today with regard to communism? The first step is to admit that the solution is not to limit the market and private property by direct interventions of the State and state ownership. The domain of State itself is also in its own way “private”: private in the precise Kantian sense of the “private use of Reason” in State administrative and ideological apparatuses:
The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.
What one should add here, moving beyond Kant, is that there is a privileged social group which, on account of its lacking a determinate place in the “private” order of social hierarchy, directly stands for universality: it is only the reference to those Excluded, to those who dwell in the blanks of the State space, that enables true universality. There is nothing more “private” than a State community which perceives the Excluded as a threat and worries how to keep the Excluded at a proper distance. In other words, in the series of the four antagonisms, the one between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one, the point of reference for the others; without it, all others lose their subversive edge: ecology turns into a “problem of sustainable development,” intellectual property into a “complex legal challenge,” biogenetics into an “ethical” issue. One can sincerely fight for ecology, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, oppose the copyrighting of genes, while not questioning the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded – even more, one can even formulate some of these struggles in the terms of the Included threatened by the polluting Excluded. In this way, we get no true universality, only “private” concerns in the Kantian sense of the term. Corporations like Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favor among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell products that contain the claim of being politically progressive acts in and of themselves. One buys coffee made with beans bought at above fair-market value, one drives a hybrid vehicle, one buys from companies that provide good benefits for their customers (according to the corporation’s own standards), etc. Political action and consumption become fully merged. In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian fighting against poverty and diseases, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.
When politics is reduced to the “private” domain, it takes the form of the politics of FEAR – fear of losing one’s particular identity, of being overwhelmed. Today’s predominant mode of politics is post-political bio-politics – an awesome example of theoretical jargon which, however, can easily be unpacked: “post-political” is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and, instead, focus on expert management and administration, while “bio-politics” designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as its primal goal. It is clear how these two dimensions overlap: once one renounces big ideological causes, what remains is only the efficient administration of life… almost only that. That is to say, with the depoliticized, socially objective, expert administration and coordination of interests as the zero-level of politics, the only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilize people, is through fear, a basic constituent of today’s subjectivity.
No wonder, then, that the by far predominant version of ecology is the ecology of fear, fear of a catastrophe – human-made or natural – that may deeply perturb, destroy even, the human civilization, fear that pushes us to plan measures that would protect our safety. This ecology of fear has all the chances of developing into the predominant form of ideology of global capitalism, a new opium for the masses replacing the declining religion: it takes over the old religion’s fundamental function, that of putting on an unquestionable authority which can impose limits. The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite beings embedded in a bio-sphere which vastly transgresses our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately Sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a Mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate. While we cannot gain full mastery over our bio-sphere, it is unfortunately in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe.
It is this distrust which makes ecology the ideal candidate for hegemonic ideology, since it echoes the anti-totalitarian post-political distrust of large collective acts. This distrust unites religious leaders and environmentalists – for both, there is something of a transgression, of entering a prohibited domain, in this idea of creating a new form of life from scratch, from the zero-point. And this brings us back to the notion of ecology as the new opium for the masses; the underlying message is again a deeply conservative one – any change can only be the change for the worst – here is a nice quote from the TIME magazine on this topic:
Behind much of the resistance to the notion of synthetic life is the intuition that nature (or God) created the best of possible worlds. Charles Darwin believed that the myriad designs of nature’s creations are perfectly honed to do whatever they are meant to do – be it animals that see, hear, sing, swim or fly, or plants that feed on the sun’s rays, exuding bright floral colours to attract pollinators.This reference to Darwin is deeply misleading: the ultimate lesson of Darwinism is the exact opposite, namely that nature tinkers and improvises, with great losses and catastrophes accompanying every limited success – is the fact that 90 percent of the human genome is ‘junk DNA’ with no clear function not the ultimate proof of it? Consequently, the first lesson to be drawn is the one repeatedly made by Stephen Jay Gould: the utter contingency of our existence. There is no Evolution: catastrophes, broken equilibriums, are part of natural history; at numerous points in the past, life could have turned into an entirely different direction. The main source of our energy (oil) is the result of a past catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions. One should thus learn to accept the utter groundlessness of our existence: there is no firm foundation, a place of retreat, on which one can safely count. “Nature doesn’t exist”: “nature” qua the domain of balanced reproduction, of organic deployment into which humanity intervenes with its hubris, brutally throwing off the rails its circular motion, is man’s fantasy; nature is already in itself “second nature,” its balance is always secondary, an attempt to negotiate a “habit” that would restore some order after catastrophic interruptions.
With regard to this inherent instability of nature, the most consequent was the proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth’s change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity’s survival. This extreme proposal renders visible the truth of ecology.
The lesson to be fully endorsed is thus that of another environmental scientist who came to the result that, while one cannot be sure what the ultimate result of humanity’s interventions into geo-sphere will be, one thing is sure: if humanity were to stop abruptly its immense industrial activity and let nature on Earth take its balanced course, the result would have been a total breakdown, an imaginable catastrophe. “Nature” on Earth is already to such an extent “adapted” to human interventions, the human “pollutions” are already to such an extent included into the shaky and fragile balance of the “natural” reproduction on Earth, that its cessation would cause a catastrophic imbalance. This is what it means that humanity has nowhere to retreat: not only “there is no big Other” (self-contained symbolic order as the ultimate guarantee of Meaning); there is also no Nature qua balanced order of self-reproduction whose homeostasis is disturbed, thrown off the rails, by the imbalanced human interventions. Indeed, what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.
Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a vision of what would have happened if humanity (and ONLY humanity) were suddenly to disappear from the earth – natural diversity blooming again, nature gradually regaining human artefacts. We, humans, are reduced to a pure disembodied gaze observing our own absence. (As Lacan pointed out, this is the fundamental subjective position of fantasy: to be reduced to a, the gaze which observes the world in the condition of the subject’s non-existence – like the fantasy of witnessing the act of one’s own conception, the parental copulation, or the act of witnessing one’s own burial, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. A jealous child likes to indulge in the fantasy of imagining how his parents would react to his own death, putting at stake his own absence.) “The world without us” is thus fantasy at its purest: witnessing the Earth itself retaining its pre-castrated state of innocence, before we humans spoiled it with our hubris. The irony is that the most prominent example comes from the catastrophe of Chernobyl: the exuberant nature taking over the disintegrating debris of the nearby city Pripyat which was abandoned, left the way it was.
Against this background, one should also render problematic Badiou’s distinction between man qua mortal “human animal” and the “inhuman” subject as the agent of a Truth-procedure: man is pursuing happiness and pleasures, worrying about death, etc., it is an animal endowed with higher instruments to reach its goals, while only as a subject faithful to a Truth-Event does it truly raise above animality. The problem with this dualism is that it ignores Freud’s basic lesson: there is no “human animal,” a human being is from its birth (and even before) torn out of the animal constraints, its instincts are “denaturalized,” caught in the circularity of the (death-)drive, functioning “beyond the pleasure principle,” marked by the stigma of what Eric Santner called “undeadness” or the excess of life. This is why there is no place for “death drive” in Badiou’s edifice, for the “distortion” of human animality which precedes fidelity to an Event. It is not only the “miracle” of a traumatic encounter with an Event which derails a human subject from its animality: its libido is already in itself derailed. One should thus turn around the usual criticism of Badiou: what is problematic is not the quasi-religious miracle of the Event, but the very “natural” order disturbed by the Event.
So, back to the prospect of ecological catastrophe, why do we not act? It is too short to attribute our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our mind by scientific ideology, which leads us to dismiss the sane concerns of our common reason, i.e., the gut sense which tells us that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientific-technological attitude. The problem is much deeper, it resides in the unreliability of our common sense itself which, habituated as it is to our ordinary life-world, finds it difficult really to accept that the flow of everyday reality can be perturbed. Our attitude here is that of the fetishist split: “I know very well (that the global warming is a threat to the entire humanity), but nonetheless… (I cannot really believe it). It is enough to look at my environs to which my mind is wired: the green grass and trees, the whistle of the wind, the rising of the sun… can one really imagine that all this will be disturbed? You talk about the ozone hole – but no matter how much I look into the sky, I don’t see it – all I see is the same sky, blue or grey!”
And therein resides the horror of the Chernobyl accident: when one visits the site, with the exception of the sarcophagus, things look exactly the same as before, life seems to have deserted the site, leaving everything the way it is, and nonetheless we are aware that something is terribly wrong. The change is not at the level of the visible reality itself, it is a more fundamental one, it affects the very texture of reality. No wonder there are some lone farmers around the Chernobyl site who continued to lead their lives as before – they simply ignore all the incomprehensible talk about radiations. Do these farmers not behave like the madman in the old joke circulating among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other’s knowledge: a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back very trembling of scare – there is a chicken outside the door and that he is afraid that it would eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man”. “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know it?” The chicken from the joke stands for the big Other which doesn’t know. In the last years of Tito’s life, he was effectively such a chicken: some archives and memoirs show that, already in the mid-1970s, the leading figures around Tito were aware that Yugoslavia’s economic situation was catastrophic; however, since Tito was nearing his death, they made a collective decision to postpone the outbreak of a crisis till his death – the price was the fast accumulation of external debt in the last years of Tito’s life. When, in 1980, Tito finally dies, the economic crisis did strike with revenge, leading to a 40 per cent fall of standard of living, to ethnic tensions and, finally, civil and ethnic war that destroyed the country – the moment to confront the crisis adequately was missed. One can thus say that what put the last nail in the coffin of Yugoslavia was the very attempt by its leading circle to protect the ignorance of the Leader, to keep his gaze happy.
Is this not what, ultimately, culture is? One of the elementary rules of culture is to know when (and how) to pretend NOT to know (or notice), to go on and act as if something which happened did not happen. When a person near me accidentally produces an unpleasant vulgar noise, the proper thing to do is to ignore it, not to comfort him: “I know it was an accident, don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter!” We should thus understand in the right way the joke about the chicken: a madman’s question is a quite pertinent question in many everyday situations. When parents with a young child have affairs, fight and shout at each other, they as a rule (if they retain a minimum of decency) try to prevent the child to notice it, well aware that the child’s knowledge would have had a devastating effect on him – so what they try to maintain is precisely a situation of “We know that we cheat and fight and shout, but the child/chicken doesn’t know it.” (Of course, in many cases, the child knows it very well, but merely feigns not to notice anything wrong, aware that in this way his parents’ life is a little bit easier.) Or, at a less vulgar level, recall a parent in a difficult predicament (dying of cancer, in financial difficulties), but trying to keep this secret from his nearest and dearest…
And this is also our problem with ecology: we know it, but the chicken doesn’t know it… The problem is thus that we can rely neither on scientific mind nor on our common sense – they both mutually reinforce each other’s blindness. The scientific mind advocates a cold objective appraisal of dangers and risks involved where no such appraisal is effectively possible, while common sense finds it hard to accept that a catastrophe can really occur. The difficult ethical task is thus to “un-learn” the most basic coordinates of our immersion into our life-world: what usually served as the recourse to Wisdom (the basic trust in the background-coordinates of our world) is now THE source of danger.
One can learn even more from the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge – the expression, of course, refers to the well-known accident in March 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the “unknown unknowns,” the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns,” the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. In the case of ecology, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones which prevent us from really believing in the possibility of the catastrophe, and they combine with the “unknown unknowns.” The situation is like that of the blind spot in our visual field: we do not see the gap, the picture appears continuous.
If the Freudian name for the “unknown known” is the Unconscious, the Freudian name for the “unknown unknowns” is TRAUMA, the violent intrusion of something radically unexpected, something the subject was absolutely not ready for, something the subject cannot integrate in any way. In her Les nouveaux blessés (The New Wounded), Catherine Malabou proposed a critical reformulation of psychoanalysis along these lines. Her starting point is the delicate echoing between internal and external Real in psychoanalysis: for Freud and Lacan, external shocks, brutal unexpected encounters or intrusions, due their properly traumatic impact to the way they touch a pre-existing traumatic “psychic reality.” Malabou rereads along these lines Lacan’s reading of the Freudian dream of “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” The contingent external encounter of the real (the candle collapses and inflames the cloth covering the dead child, and the smell of the smoke disturbs the father on a night-watch) triggers the true Real, the unbearable fantasy-apparition of the dead child reproaching his father. In this way, for Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is “sublated,” internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the “psychic reality” is aroused through it. Even the most violent intrusions of the external real – say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions in war – owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, in death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc. Today, however, our socio-political reality itself imposes multiple versions of external intrusions, traumas, which are just that, meaningless brutal interruptions that destroy the symbolic texture of subject’s identity. First, there is the brutal external physical violence: terror attacks like 98/11, the US “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, street violence, rapes, etc., but also natural catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.; then, there is the “irrational” (meaningless) destruction of the material base of our inner reality (brain-tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, organic cerebral lesions, etc., which can utterly change, destroy even, the victim’s personality; finally, there are the destructive effects of socio-symbolic violence (social exclusion, etc.). (Note how this triad echoes the triad of commons: the commons of external nature, of inner nature, of symbolic substance.) Basically, Malabou’s reproach is that Freud himself succumbs here to the temptation of meaning: he is not ready to accept the direct destructive efficiency of external shocks – they destroy the psyche of the victim (or, at least, wound it in an unredeemable way) without resonating in any inner traumatic truth. It would be obviously obscene to link, say, the psychic devastation of a “Muslim” in a Nazi camp to his masochism, death-drive, or guilt feeling: a Muslim (or a victim of multiple rape, of brutal torture…) is not devastated by unconscious anxieties, but directly by a “meaningless” external shock which can in no way be hermeneutically appropriated/integrated.
For Freud, if external violence gets too strong, we simply exit the psychic domain proper: the choice is “either the shock is re-integrated into a pre-existing libidinal frame, or it destroys psyche and nothing is left.” What he cannot envisage is that the victim as if were survives its own death: all different forms of traumatic encounters, independently of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbol…) lead to the same result – a new subject emerges which survives its own death, the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity. There is no continuity between this new “post-traumatic” subject (suffering Alzheimer’s or other cerebral lesions, etc.): after the shock, literally a new subject emerges. Its features are well-known from numerous descriptions: lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment – it is a subject who is no longer “in-the-world” in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a form of life – his life is death-drive embodied, a life deprived of erotic engagement; and this holds for henchmen no less than for his victims. If the XXth century was the Freudian century, the century of libido, so that even the worst nightmares were read as (sado-masochist) vicissitudes of the libido, will the XXIst century be the century of such post-traumatic disengaged subjects whose first emblematic figure, that of the Muslim in concentration camps, is not multiplying in the guise of refugees, terror victims, survivors of natural catastrophes, of family violence…? The feature that runs through all these figures is that the cause of the catastrophe remains libidinally meaningless, resisting any interpretation.
The constellation is properly frustrating: although we (individual or collective agents) know that it all depends on us, we cannot ever predict the consequences of our acts – we are not impotent, but, quite on the contrary, omnipotent, without being able to determine the scope of our powers. The gap between causes and effects is irreducible, and there is no “big Other” to guarantee the harmony between the levels, to guarantee that the overall outcome of our interactions will be satisfactory. The problem is that, although our (sometimes even individual) acts can have catastrophic (ecological, etc.) consequences, the big Other prevents us from believing in it, from assuming this knowledge and responsibility: “Contrary to what the promoters of the principle of precaution think, the cause of our non-action is not the scientific uncertainty. We know it, but we cannot make ourselves believe in what we know.” This situation confronts us with the deadlock of the contemporary “society of choice” at its most radical. In the standard situation of the forced choice (a situation in which I am free to choose on condition that I make the right choice, so that the only thing left for me to do is the empty gesture of pretending to accomplish freely what is in any case imposed on me). Here, on the contrary, the choice really is free and is, for this very reason, experienced as even more frustrating: we find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge – as John Gray put it:
we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. New technologies alter our lives daily. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.It is thus not enough to vary the standard motif of the Marxist critique: “although we allegedly live in a society of choices, the choices effectively left to us are trivial, and their proliferation masks the absence of true choices, choices that would affect the basic features of our lives…” While this is true, the problem is rather that we are forced to choose without having at our disposal the knowledge that would enable a qualified choice.
The lesson is thus the old Lacanian one: there is no big Other. The first to get it was Job – after Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful, and the greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities (when God appears afterwards, he gives right to Job against the theological defenders of faith). The function of the three theological friends is to obfuscate the impact of the trauma with a symbolic semblance.
This need to discover a meaning is crucial when we are confronting potential or actual catastrophes, from AIDS and ecological disasters to holocaust: they have no “deeper meaning.” The legacy of Job prohibits us such a gesture of taking a refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony. When confronted with an event like the holocaust or the death of millions in Congo in the last years, is it not obscene to claim that these stains have a deeper meaning in that they contribute to the harmony of the Whole? Is there a Whole which can teleologically justify an event like the holocaust? Christ’s death on the cross thus means that one should drop without restraint the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts, the guarantee of historical teleology – Christ’s death on the cross is the death of this God, it repeats Job’s stance, it refuses any “deeper meaning” that obfuscates the brutal real of historical catastrophes.
And the lesson of ecology is that we should go to the end here and accept the non-existence of the ultimate big Other, nature itself with its pattern of regular rhythms, the ultimate reference of order and stability.
However, this lack of the big Other does not entail that we are irrevocably caught in the misery of our finitude, deprived of any redemptive moments. In his The Cattle Truck, Jorge Semprun reports how he witnessed the arrival of a truckload of Polish Jews at Buchenwald; they were stacked into the freight train almost 200 to a car, traveling for days without food and water in the coldest winter of the war. On arrival all in the carriage had frozen to death except for 15 children, kept warm by the others in the centre of the bundle of bodies. When the children were emptied from the car the Nazis let their dogs loose on them. Soon only two fleeing children were left:
The little one began to fall behind, the SS were howling behind them and then the dogs began to howl too, the smell of blood was driving them mad, and then the bigger of the two children slowed his pace to take the hand of the smaller… together they covered a few more yards… till the blows of the clubs felled them and, together they dropped, their faces to the ground, their hands clasped for all eternity.One can easily imagine how this scene should be filmed: while the soundtrack renders what goes on in reality (the two children are clubbed to death), the image of their hands clasped freezes, immobilized for eternity – while the sound renders temporary reality, the image renders the eternal Real. It is the pure surface of such fixed images of eternity, not any deeper Meaning, which allows for redemptive moments in the bleak story of the Shoah. One should read this imagined scene together with the final shot of Thelma and Louise: the frozen image of the car with the two women “flying” above the precipice: is this the positive utopia (triumph of the feminine subjectivity over death), or the masking of the miserable wreck the car IS in reality at that time? The weakness of the final shot from Thelma and Louise is that the frozen image is not accompanied by the soundtrack depicting what “really” went on (the car crash, terrible cries of the dying women) – strangely, this lack of reality undermines the very utopian dimension of the frozen image. In contrast to this scene, our imagined filmed scene from Semprun would fully assert the Platonic duality of temporal empirical reality and eternal Idea.
What this means is that, without shame, in conceiving art, we should return to Plato. Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city – a rather sensible advice, judging from my post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams (the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic being only one among them). If the West has the industrial-military complex, we in the ex-Yugoslavia had a poetic-military complex: the post-Yugoslav war was triggered by the explosive mixture of the poetic and the military component. So, from a Platonic standpoint, what does a poem about the holocaust do? It provides its “description without place”: in renders the Idea of holocaust.
Recall the old Catholic strategy to guard men against the temptation of the flesh: when you see in front of you a voluptuous feminine body, imagine how it will look in a couple of decades – the dried skin, sagging breasts… (Or, even better, imagine what lurks now already beneath the skin: raw flesh and bones, inner fluids, half-digested food and excrements…) Far from enacting a return to the Real destined to break the imaginary spell of the body, such a procedure equals the escape from the Real, the Real which announces itself in the seductive appearance of the naked body. That is to say, in the opposition between the spectral appearance of the sexualized body and the repulsive body in decay, it is the spectral appearance with is the Real, and the decaying body which is reality – we take recourse to the decaying body in order to avoid the deadly fascination of the Real which threatens to draw us into its vortex of jouissance.
See also: Ecology without Nature .
Essay: Humans Are the Sex Organs of TechnologyWritten by Kevin Kelly, published in The Technium.
I claim that technology has its own agenda. What is the evidence that technology as a whole, or the technium as I call it, is autonomous? Because without autonomy, one could argue, how can something have its own agenda? I have three parts to my answer.First, I believe that a system can have an agenda even when it depends upon another system to remain viable. Let’s take the human mind and human culture. Obviously humans are animals, and just another creature of evolution. As a mammal, we must obey the rules of biology. We are part of the trajectory of living tissue: our flesh must breathe, metabolize, mate, excrete, and eventually die. The agenda of our bodies is exactly the agenda of any other animal body.
But we also claim that we are different than animals, and our effect on the earth seems to be proof of this. We build very large structures (cities) unlike any other in scale. The skyscrapers of termites and the reefs of coral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers and concrete reefs of New York, even relative to their size. We have transformed the surface and eliminated other species at a scale way beyond other species. We mess with the climate on a scale few individual species can. And of course we have made many new objects and “organisms” – which no other creature has. It is clear that humans have their own agenda, which the rest of biology does not have.
Yet, human mind and human culture would die if all animal life (including human animals) would die. Human minds are dependent on the system of animal life. So by your logic, human minds could not have their own agenda. But we do. Why? Because the autonomy of human culture operates in a different sphere than animal life, even though it is “dependent” on it. In the same way, the autonomy of the technium operates in a different level than human animal life, even though it is dependent on human life.
Second, technology is still young. The concept of “technology” was not invented until 1829, and most of what we call technology just arrived on earth this century. We consider a two-year old baby to be alive and “autonomous” even though it is dependent on its parents to remain alive. We know that our children will eventually leave us and become autonomous parents of their own, but while they are our children they need us, even though they have their own agendas. Technology is our child. As humans, we are parents to all technologies, nurturing them, hopefully training them to be on their own.
Thirdly, eventually technology will far more autonomous than it is today. Right now not only are we the parents of the technium, we are also the sex organs of technology. From technology’s view, we are the mysterious walking-around glands that reproduce them. They may be able to operate on their own, but they need us to reproduce them. This is already changing. Most computer chips in the world today are designed in part by other computer chips. Most robotic devices are manufactured in part by other robotic devices. As we improve chips and robots, there is no reason to believe that at some point computers will wholly design some other computers, and some robotic systems wholly manufacture other robotic systems. The next step seems inevitable: technology will reproduce itself.
I have to agree that right this minute there is no autonomously reproducing technology, and there is no autonomously sustainable technology. Instead we have an infant technium, that like a baby, has its own demands. Even a small child will quickly train its parents to meet its wants as well as its needs. It uses its weak powers to gain resources (food, attention, permission) in order to grow. If we stand back far enough we can see that technology tends to create an environment that favors the growth of yet more technology. Technology rarely makes it harder to make more technology. The technium is geared to keep expanding the technium. Technology has trained us, its parents and its gonads. Technology makes humans wealthier, with more leisure to consume, which leads to more technology. The more technology we make, the more we need to make to keep it all going. This positive feedback loop is exactly the kind of self-preservation strategy a system with its own agenda would develop.
Technology cannot reproduce itself without our help at the moment, but it is expanding, growing more complex, and smarter. Most importantly, the technium is evolving faster every day. While it depends on us, we are increasingly dependent on it. Like any child, it has its demands. So far, humanity as a whole is in denial that it even has a child.
Read more at The Technium. See also Marshall McLuhan Playboy Interview.