I went to a lecture some time ago and half way his talk the person giving the keynote put a black-and-white slide on the huge screen behind him with a quote that made quite an impact on me. The slide said “You are probably the most natural thing in this room.” This moment was the beginning of a journey in to the magical and complex relationship of Nature & Technology.
PART 1 : Intro
When I read the slide “You are probably the most natural thing in this room.” I literally started looking around. I looked at my hand that was practically melted together with my iPhone, my neighbour was typing away on his MacBook and I found myself looking around the room for a touch of nature but could not find one (or at least that’s what I thought). I felt like there was an almost impenetrable layer of technology and culture between me and the ‘natural world’. I felt quite estranged in that moment, like my roots didn’t reach deep enough. Was this feeling legitimate or was I becoming a hippie?
The keynote was part of a festival about all things pioneering in digital technology, so a lot of Blockchains, Artificial Intelligence, dancing robots and whatnot. But only this one talk, or actually this one slide haunted me for like two months “You are probably the most natural thing in this room” echoing in my head...
Do you know that feeling when you are trying to read a book or listen to a lecture (in college even) and a certain combination of words or a sentence suddenly starts forming an idea that comes bursting in your brain like a train filled with fireworks and with all the carriages exploding one by one. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! (With Katy Perry in the background) Inside your head one big aha-erlebnis party kicks off.
Seemingly unconnected meetings, words, ideas and remarks from the past months all of a sudden are falling into place in one big puzzle. As if the words you just heard were the key to unlock a whole new world of knowledge and ideas you hadn’t figured out yet. It’s like a part of your brain was encrypted without you knowing it and now somebody casually hands you the translation key! Swell! (If you don’t know this feeling yet, my condolences.)
This one sentence, this one slide made my brain sparkle. The next days and weeks I continued thinking about it, about the distinction between natural and digital, about the role of humans in digital and the role of biology in digital technology. Are our surroundings really moving further and further away from our natural habitat? How does the condition humaine respond to this distance from its origin.
Is it a threat or were human beings never such heroes in a natural environment anyway. (Remember The Revenant? Leonardo dies like 7 times just because of nature...)(Love you Leo!) After all, technology is a product of human imagination and intelligence. How unnatural can it be? What mutual benefit could possibly lie in the crossover between nature and technology or biology and all things digital?
This blogpost is a report of my brain’s fireworks on nature and (digital) technology.
Maybe it ignites you too?
How natural are we really?
I saw that keynote slide and my first reflex was that of the more classical technology philosophers or thinkers; I began to worry about this gap between me (or the humans) and nature.
What was the impact of this lack of nature? Were we deprived as a species, lost like orphans... Or was this not such a bad thing per se? Much ado about nothing? It is undeniable that technology has had an enormous impact on our lives, so how do we relate to that. I could continue to contemplate whether this much technology was too much to bear but that wouldn’t take us very far.
A more interesting hypothesis would be; considering we have all this (and in the near future much more) technology surrounding us, how can we use this in the most ideal way? I continued to wonder about how technology and digitization relate to nature and what impact one has on the other. Are there improvements possible? I believe so. Let’s first look at how we got here and then at where we want to go.
The need for technology
When we as humans are born, we are, to put it like a teenager, pretty much a bunch of losers. We can’t walk, talk or feed ourselves, let alone defend our families from danger. Thank God nature arranged it so that our mothers (or parents) believed we were incredibly cute and they felt responsible to look after us, at least until we can do so ourselves.
But even when we are all grown up and we can walk and swim and feed ourselves, we are still very ‘naked’ and weak compared to other animals who live unsheltered, in the rawness of nature. Our natural instincts are rather miserable to be honest. But, no worries, luckily our genius and imagination are inversely proportional to our lack thereof.
These qualities led to the emergence of science and technology, which didn’t go unnoticed. With technology I don’t just mean digital technology, but even the invention of the wheel or the microwave was good for a huge revolution in the culturization of our lives. It allowed us to move away from our naked and fragile (loser) nature. Technology made us evolve to a safe and comfortable, high quality life that not only eliminated the daily struggle for survival but even bought us ‘free time’. When you don’t have to worry whether you will have something to eat in the evening, if it will be poisonous or not or if something might eat you, you begin to have more ‘free time’ (as opposed to having to find out little by little). In other words, we obtained the luxury of personal development.
(Did you know that this is where the word school came from? ‘Scolare’ meant ‘free time’ in latin.)
So to arm ourselves against the brutality of raw nature, we invented all these ‘things’ that not only ensured a longer lifespan but even made our lives more comfortable. It gave us time to spend on other things than mere survival. This phenomenon didn’t end when we discovered how to make weapons or build shelter. Today still, almost every useful technological novelty unchaines a series of events in society: the washing machine contributed a great deal to the emancipation of women for example because all of a sudden they had all this ‘free time’ and were able to go out and find a job. The fact that the Germans had the first submachine gun in World War I gave them an extreme advantage in warfare and it changed the way we fought wars forever. With a machine gun you could kill somebody from a much greater distance and some might argue that this increase in anonymity made it easier to kill the so-called enemy.
Maybe you could say that every technological step had some wanted and unwanted side effects. We started to erase human contact from warfare but also enforced gender equality. The accumulation of all these technological steps and their effects have led us to where we are now and it's these steps that created the ‘distance’ between us and nature or even between technology and nature.
(When I say that we no longer have to worry whether or not we will have food on the table every night, I am very much aware that not all humans benefit from this development today but this has more to do with a lack of (political) courage, will and a bunch of nasty human vices than a lack of knowledge about how to lift them to this level of life quality).
Ok, we talked about my brain’s fireworks, about how we are nature’s biggest losers and how technology pulled us out of this awful position. Maybe now we can talk a little bit more about the emergence and importance of technology.
When I was in elementary school I always loved history class, but I did often wonder why we had to learn so much about the prehistoric times, about the first hunter-gatherers who crafted tools and used them to provide lunch for their ladies. What was all the fuss about these sharp stones and sticks?
I have to shamefully admit that it wasn’t until a friend suggested to read the book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that I truly realized the impact these artefacts had on the history of mankind and how they still do. Their appearance and status may have changed since the prehistoric era, but everything we invent and create is still an artefact, even if it is a digital product. Artefacts are the result of craftsmanship and later of industrialization, technology and digital technology. It might not seem so but if you read the definition of an artefact, even an app can fall under that.
So the instincts we lacked to survive on this planet we made up for in creativity and craftsmanship by creating artefacts. These artefacts served various goals and had endless functions throughout history. So far so good. What surprised me was something Stephan Sagmeister said in a lecture some time ago: “You all know this image of the first hand axes, pointy drop-shaped stones that have one very sharp edge. They have a human-supporting function and are like the prototype of an artefact. Nothing new there.
The cool thing is that they are symmetrical and this for no clear reason other than an aesthetic one. If you want to slaughter some siberian sabertooth your hand axe really doesn’t have to be symmetrical, the tiger or his crane don’t care much about harmonious proportions.” This is really fascinating, it means that even then a species not even worth calling human augmented its natural reality by adding comfort (the axe) ànd beauty (making it symmetrical).
Now I dare to ask, if these guys were capable of creating this, knowingly or unknowingly, how un-natural can it be? Could it be safe to say that the emergence of artefacts, the surpassing of our survival mode through technology is not something that necessarily distances us from our nature, but is actually pretty natural.
Did you read what I just said? I said ‘from our nature’... I didn’t say ‘from nature’. I am pointing out an important nuance in my research here. Namely the distinction between Human nature and nature. The famous condition humaine and biology, two fairly distinct but not estranged parts of our present and past (and hopefully future). It seems to lie in our human nature to exceed our mere biological determinism by creating artefacts and arming ourselves against the brutalist side of nature.
Living the good life
As the busy bees we are we started inventing and crafting and developing and designing our world with the least friction possible. We have built houses, school, chairs, microwave ovens, iPhones, even airplanes and all the other things you see when you look around you that would improve our daily lives. But in following our human nature, to do so we have moved further and further away from our original state of being. We have put layer upon layer upon layer of ingenious technological improvements so that the soil and our mere biological nature became less present.
Still the need for technology stays, and it even increases with our ever higher demands for quality of life. We have become so used to luxury we are even giving up our precious ‘free time’ to work our butts off and compete with each other for shitty jobs to pay for it. All the needs and demands we feel and the solutions we came up with to meet them aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. A lot of them have a detrimental impact on nature, other species and in the long run on our biological health. As stated before, all technological novelties have an intentional impact on their surroundings and these have side effects, wanted or unwanted (Women’s emancipation vs. Easy killing in WWI)
Unwanted side effects make us go the distance
We slowly but surely moved away from nature due to our ever-increasing demands for comfort, towards a highly technologized society. But this technology, all these artefacts still feed on nature’s resources. Believe it or not but without the pure and brutal nature, none of the layers on top of it would be possible. I told you I wanted to find out how nature and technology relate to each other and that I had a feeling there was room for improvement. Well this is where we find a first imbalance in the relationship between nature and technology.
We are responsible for the current state of the planet and it will affect us. But the distance, the layer if you please, has made us blind to its concerns. Just like the machine gun made it easier to kill because the distance to the victim silenced our consciousness, technology and our constant need for more comfort and luxury has silenced our responsibility towards nature. And we became arrogant, as if we didn’t need nature anymore altogether. The effect of this evolution on the planet and on all the species housing it has become undeniable, even for us (except maybe by Trump, whose human nature might be debatable).
Like I’ve said in my introduction, I wondered if there wasn’t a more sustainable relationship possible between nature and the technology resulting from our human nature, a relationship with mutual benefit, because we are all intertwined and dependent on each other, soil and people, earth and the species living on it. This idea about a cross pollination between humans and nature appeared not to be all that new once I started to dig deeper. There is an idea of a more natural way of inventing and producing technology and it’s called Biomimicry. This no-brainer concept made me crazily enthusiastic. Once I found this, more and more examples started popping up, showing how well nature and technology could blend together. Let me share these findings with you before my post throws you into an epic depression.