‘Free will is overrated. I do not make decisions outside the Universe and then plunge in, like an Olympic diver. I am already in. I am like a mermaid, constantly pulled and pulling, pushed and pushing, flicked and flicking, turned and opened, moving with the current, pushing away with the force I can muster. An environment is not a neutral, empty box, but an ocean filled with currents and surges.’1
As an avid non-fiction reader I have been wondering for years about the alarming titles in the popular science department. We live in an 'Age of Earthquakes'2 for instance, in a hybrid state of 'Next Nature'3 and the irreversible era of a 'Defiant Earth'4. Nature has run amok, culture has lost its way, everything is shifting.?Academia, the media and the arts are buzzing as well, with the Anthropocene, with Posthumanism, a Non-Human Turn and Dark Ecology5. Each of these words represents a way of thinking about, and interpreting, the need to face the changing dynamics of time and place, Earth and humanity, nature and culture, that is occurring right in front of our eyes. But when we face it, what do we see??We see the incredible complexity of matter that connects the smallest atoms to the most far-flung galaxies – and everything in between. We see ourselves, humans, no longer the measure of all things but simply things among other things; from bacteria, bicycles and supercomputers to plastic cups, forests and space stations. In the popular and influential writings of philosopher Timothy Morton this complex of things becomes a ‘mesh’ in which all living and non-living things are bound up together.6 But that is not nearly all: there are things, according to Morton, that are beyond our understanding. Things he calls hyperobjects7.?A hyperobject can be defined as an intangible thing, massively distributed in time and space, that concerns and impacts us all on some smaller scale but that is impossible to comprehend in its entirety. Climate change is a hyperobject for instance, or evolution, the internet, black holes and the biosphere.?In fact, Earth could be considered to be the hyperobject of all hyperobjects. Despite the beautiful NASA photographs of this marvellous small marble with its blue stretches of water, its brown continents and white veil of clouds, and despite our almost daily awareness of what we call globalisation, we are still unable to truly grasp the world. Moreover, the clearer it becomes that we humans are responsible for the far-reaching changes Earth is presently going through, the less capable we seem to understand it, leave alone control it in any way. This is the reason why we are looking for new concepts, why all the books I devour and all the provocative theories and visions so hotly debated in science, media and art – oh well, and even in politics sometimes – actually revolve around one single image: that of the world. What is the world? How can we know the world and, most of all, how do we relate to it? Underneath it all is the search for a still deeper, existential essence. What is being?
For ages, mankind have been labouring to unravel and fathom, as systematically as they possibly can, the natural phenomena of the world in order to use them to their advantage.
This is the foundation of the technology we surround ourselves with and the development of the natural sciences. A world without technology has become unthinkable, we are entirely adapted to it and without our technological tools, from hand axes and flint knifes to writing and steam engines to computers and CRISPR/Cas9, life on Earth would look entirely different. However, where the development of this technium8 progressed rather steadily for several millennia, we now find ourselves in a rapid acceleration caused by global industrialisation and worldwide economisation, lightning digital developments and fundamental discoveries in the field of biotechnology.
This acceleration is often epitomised as the Anthropocene. Derived from anthropos, the Greek word for man, this is another hyperobject. As far back as the early twentieth century, the Russian geologist Alexei Pavlov introduced the concept in geological circles. It took until 2000, however, before a joint publication9 of meteorologist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer succeeded to gain wider recognition for the Anthropocene as the era of irreversible and far-reaching human influence on Earth and its atmosphere.
'Without major catastrophes like an enormous volcanic eruption, an unexpected epidemic, a large-scale nuclear war, an asteroid impact, a new ice age, or continued plundering of Earth’s resources by partially still primitive technology [...] mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come.'
From then on, the debate about the Anthropocene is raging in numerous departments. How anthropocentric and ultimately arrogant the concept of the Anthropocene actually is, or isn’t. How we should learn to think ecocentrically instead of anthropocentrically and how we should put the Earth first. And whether it wouldn’t be more accurate to speak of the Capitalocene, as all trouble is intractably linked to global neoliberal capitalism, or the Plastocene because it is mainly plastics, from microplastics to plastic soup, that will be traceable in geological sediments as a lasting legacy of our infectious human presence on Earth.
Another subject of ongoing discussions is the exact start of the Anthropocene. According to Crutzen, it already began in the eighteenth century with the Industrial revolution, but others stick to the second half of the twentieth century, following the first nuclear detonations. Either way, both these relatively recent points of origin are quite unique in the sphere of hyperobjects, and even more to the domain of geology, the ultimate science of eons. Normally it takes significant climatological and ecological changes laid down in layered rock formations over millions of years before a geologic epoch can be acknowledged. And now the Holocene, which was on its way for little over 11.500 years, has been succeeded by the Anthropocene in a matter of centuries.
Given the importance of climate and ecology in the formation of the Anthropocene, it should come as no surprise that this are exactly the areas that we humans are increasingly trying to master by technological means. This is not just because lakes are turned into deserts by our doing, because the seasons have lost their biological clock or polar ice sheets are melting at an alarming rate. It is our ultimate dream to control our environment to the extent that we can make it rain on a specific day. This is even reflected in the way we name different, new things.
Take the metaphor of the Cloud we use for our digital network. In reality it is a mass of fibre optic cables on the ocean floor linked to large halls full of energy-intensive, heat-producing servers – quite the opposite of the soft and airy image suggested by its nebulous name. Yet the metaphor of the Cloud did not just come tumbling from the sky. As artist/writer James Bridle puts it in his recently published New Dark Age: '...the story of computational thinking begins with the weather'.10 He relates the story of Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician who found a way, during the First World War, to capture the first complete calculation of atmospheric weather conditions in a numerical process; the first computerised weather report without a computer. Obviously, Richardson wasn’t so much interested in describing the weather as in predicting it. In 1922, he contemplated the possibility in a paper titled Weather Prediction by Numerical Process11.
‘Perhaps someday in the dim future it will be possible to advance the computations faster than the weather advances and at a cost less than the saving to mankind due to the information gained. But that is a dream.’
With this dream he actually anticipated Vannevar Bush and his predictive As We May Think that is the inspiration for this sixth Guangzhou Triennial. And just like Bush’s ideas about the memex have been overtaken by the smartphones in everybody’s pocket, Richardson’s dream has long since become a daily reality. What is more, due to the unprecedented computing power now available to us, we think we might forecast not only the weather, but the future of the Earth in all its unpredictability as well, perhaps even control it – which takes us right back to the Anthropocene.
Of course, the power of prediction will not satisfy the true techno-utopians. Relying on geo- engineering and the Western dichotomy between man and the rest of the world, they are firmly convinced they will once control the weather, nature and Earth itself. No technological solution is deemed too megalomaniac, from sun blocking shields that orbit the planet and UV reflective foam covering the oceans to rain-inducing iodine clouds where desiccated farmlands could use a little extra water. Grounded in and building on the modernistic industrial worldview, they approach the protesting Earth as a machine that can be fixed at will. And in the unlikely event that things won’t work out, they usually have a rocket handy to start all over, somewhere in the universe, in line with so many Hollywood sci-fi scenarios. Except that they might not look back on that marvellous blue-white marble anymore, like all the astronauts before them.
The question remains, however, if we would ever be able to control the weather and the Earth when we continue on our present course. The answer, growing louder every day, is no. The technofix will not work. A nostalgic return to mother nature, however, has serious limitations as well, making it a very unlikely solution. Or as Australian professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton puts it: 'We can no longer withdraw and expect nature to return to any kind of 'natural' state. There is no going back to the Holocene. We may have acquired it foolishly, but we now have a responsibility for the Earth as a whole and pretending otherwise itself is irresponsible. So the question is not whether human beings stand at the center of the world, but what kind of human beings stands at the center of the world, and what is the nature of that world.'12
In short: not only do we create the Anthropocene and climate change, we know we do. We know our choices matter when we are grocery shopping, flush our toilet, start our car or when we go on a holiday. This everyday moral sense, which people fifty years ago were hardly aware of but is now being taught to children in elementary school, is inextricably related to the notion that we and the world are one, that there is kinship between all things, all humans and non-humans. It is a revolutionary insight, if not a paradigm shift comparable to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Copernicus’ revelation that the Earth is orbiting the sun. We know, and it won’t do just to learn to live with it: we must learn to act accordingly. Not just the politicians and the environmentalists, but all 7.7 billion of us.
Such is the nature of science though: the more we find out, the more our ignorance grows. Because contrary to many people’s beliefs, science doesn’t revolve around facts or the truth, as paleontologist Henry Gee clearly states in the introduction to his book The Accidental Species: ‘science is the quantification of doubt’.13 In his own way, Timothy Morton acknowledges this feature of science, calling it asymmetry: ‘We know more than ever before what things are, how they work, how to manipulate them. Yet for this very reason, things become more, rather than less, strange. Increasing science is not increasing demystification.’14
Fundamental questions and profound doubt is all the Anthropocene seems to bring; doubt of ourselves and of the world we thought we knew. Doubt, caused by the growing awareness that we may set many things in motion but control very few, that we are just along for the flight and have nowhere to withdraw from Earth’s dynamics and turbulence. And we have to relate to it nonetheless; we want to relate to it. Apart from uncertainty, this also offers hope.
This shifting world view implies an equally shifting view of mankind. Just like the natural sciences are occupied with the ever-accelerating technology associated with the Anthropocene and all the ensuing uncertainties, the social sciences dive headlong into the new era by questioning the humanistic anthropocentric concept of man. Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists and cultural scientists, along with artists, film makers and designers, lay out scenarios positioning mankind and all their activities in the Anthropocene world, now and in the future. They do so, knowing that these scenarios are mainly built on the quicksand of doubt and speculation.
Maybe we should all learn to doubt more proficiently instead, to face the fact that all the certainties we once believed in have lost their ground. That we can’t arm ourselves against it with an improved storm insurance and a few drops of climate policy? Perhaps we should promote doubt to be the motor of our existence, and be open to the strange strangers we are bound to meet more often, according to Timothy Morton. We should dare to imagine and represent the new human beings Hamilton refers to. Simply because there is no turning back; we can’t deny what we know, can’t unknow what we know.
If there is anything artists and designers excel at, it is imagination and representation. Art, in any form, is absolutely essential if we want to allow new views of the world and mankind to take root in our minds. In fact, hyperobjects like the Anthropocene, the internet and evolution can only be comprehended in stories, in visualisations, in characters and scenarios; humanity can’t do without them. Along with Morton, Hamilton and Gee, thinkers like Bruno
Latour and Donna Haraway also open up our views by outlining new perspectives, often in a poetic, narrative way, that offer inspiration and starting points for artists to inoculate with their questions, images and stories. Stories that can be understood not only by scientists, but by all humankind.
In this way, they are consciously creating a new image of the world, or, even better perhaps, images of the world.?Call it worlding, a verb that goes back to Heidegger’s ontology and his standard work Sein und Zeit of 1927. In recent years, the concept appears in many domains, not just in philosophy but in cultural and digital studies as well, and even in the games industry. Worlding can be characterised as the creation of a world with all things pertaining to it. David OReilly’s Eye of the Dream is one of these worldings, based on Everything, his acclaimed 2017 video game, and the philosophy of Alan Watts that is partially informed by Buddhism. It shows a world as a continuous mathematical stream of things, human and non- human, floating, falling, swirling, without Earth, without gravity – a ballet of being.
Another form of worlding can be found in the work of Melanie Bonajo. Her video installation Progress vs. Sunsets, from a series of three, exposes how tonedeaf humans are for the non- human world. She lets children, unspoilt by adult thought, explain their view of nature and the animal world interlaced with wildlife and animal images she collects from the internet. In this contemporary fashion she presents nature and culture as one, drawing attention, in a more abstract sense, to the extinction of sincere feelings and alternative ways of thinking in our technocapitalist-driven world.
It wouldn’t go too far to say that art and especially design have become specific forms of worlding. Design no longer floods the world, the world is design. Some even believe that design could be the glue that helps close the divide between art and science, although admittedly, that might be too arduous a task.
In the build-up to the 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial, curators Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley demonstrated an inspiring way to address our shifting concept of mankind. They asked themselves: are we human? and linked this directly to the question of what design is today. They wrote a small book full of possible answers, one of which is this: 'Design is a form of projection, to shape something rather than find it, to invent something and think about the possible outcomes of that invention. This endless reshaping and speculation about possible outcomes is uniquely human.'15
Evolutions of Kin brings together several works that implement this endless reshaping of the concept of mankind in appealing and radical ways. Take Arne Hendriks for instance, with his long-term design research project The Incredible Shrinking Man16, a serious thought experiment that investigates the implications of shrinking humans to a maximum height of 50 centimetres so they would better fit the Earth. It would solve all the current problems of the world in one fell swoop. And as impossibly speculative as it may sound, it is still based on significant anthropological and scientific insights. Indeed, Hendriks gives us the courage to think differently by no longer taking the omnipresent growth model as a guiding principle, but rather its opposite: shrinkage. And to embrace it and support it with knowledge and questions, even as we doubt.
The Symbiotic Autonomous Machines, SAM2 and SAM3 in short, made by design duo Arvid Jense and Marie Caye, also turn the world on its head. A SAM is a thing with a legal claim to self-determination and its own bank account that allows it to survive almost entirely
independently in the human world. It uses kombucha bacteria to produce a beverage that it can sell to people, acting as a small-scale automated food production system. SAMs are robots but not as we know them. They are hybrid entities, of both technical and organic nature, who can sustain themselves in an intelligent way. SAMs are certainly no replicants (machines that assume a human form) because the designers want to underline the idea that machines will first challenge economic principles before they truly start emulating human appearance or even consciousness.
Something similar applies to OSCAR, better known as The Modular Body by animator Floris Kaayk. Set up as an online science-fiction story, The Modular Body consists of 56 fragments in which synthetic biologist Cornelis Vlasman shows how he and his team, in some obscure independent laboratory, managed to build a modular living organism out of human cells. OSCAR proves that it is possible to create modular life, just like Mary Shelley had Victor Frankenstein build a humanlike ‘creature’ 200 years ago. What was a distant future at the time, now quickly becomes reality as stem cells are being reprogrammed, grown and printed into different types of human tissue. The boundaries between man and machine are becoming thinner and thinner.
And what to make of the avatars and artificially intelligent chatbots who populate the virtual world we created? How do they relate to our changing concept of mankind? Take Tay for instance, the Microsoft chatbot modelled after a hip 19-year-old American female who was so aggressively trolled on social media that she turned into a kind of ‘monsterbot’ and was hurriedly taken off-line within a day. The incident inspired artists Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman to make the installation im here to learn so :)))))) that critically examines the consequences of machine learning. But Tay’s fate demonstrated most of all how easily normal people turn into online monsters – the civilisation process is still far behind in the digital world.
‘We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,’ is one of techculture's most cited quotations17. Extending this thought leads to the conclusion that man, with the arrival of the Anthropocene, shapes the world but that the world influences and shapes man in its turn. And not just man, but everything being in and on it, in a never-ending cycle.
And as if that weren’t enough, we humans also want to preserve everything we do and make, all the information we share. Vannevar Bush still envisioned his memex as some kind of external memory but by now, DNA has been developed as the ultimate storage medium; a feat of genetic engineering that inspired the contributions of both Lynn Hershman Leeson and Charlotte Jarvis. Hershman Leeson made her own anti-body and stored her entire oeuvre in DNA as part of her highly-esteemed Infinity Engine. And Jarvis saved a unique musical composition to DNA suspended in soap, which she used to blow bubbles with so when a soap bubble pops on someone’s body, they essentially take the music home with them.
The works of these artists and the many others participating in As We May Think, as well as the conceptions of the scientists they often collaborate intensively with provide increasingly convincing evidence that nature and culture are one, questioning man’s identity and unicity in the process. For too long, we have been inclined to see ourselves as exceptional creatures uniquely gifted with language, technology, creativity and consciousness. But, in the words of Henry Gee: ‘There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything
special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.’ Philosopher Graham Harman, the founder of Object Oriented Ontology18, better known as OOO, couldn’t agree more: ‘The world is not the world as manifest to humans; to think a reality beyond our thinking is not nonsense, but obligatory.’ 19?Once we truly recognise that mankind are not the measure of all things but, quite on the contrary, should constrain themselves in relation to all things, that is when a real change in mentality takes place. When mankind recognises their nature and their kinship with all that surrounds them, living and non-living, visible and invisible, human and non-human. When they realise how everything in and around them takes shape and is being shaped in a never- ending interplay of adaptations. Call it a form of evolution, not in a strictly biological meaning but in a physical, psychological and above all technological and cultural sense. Such an understanding might just make the Anthropocene a little less problematic.
I see how social scientists and philosophers as well as artists and designers increasingly confront and shape this challenge. They stretch the boundaries, blur the outlines and rediscover an experience once cast aside as magical or animistic, unmodern, that they value anew not for nostalgic or romantic reasons but for the wisdom it contains.
Just like Vannevar Bush and Lewis Richardson had the courage to dream up the digital future we are now living in. Just like Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour take us along in their post-human and OOO thinking, mapping out a few promising short cuts that may help us relinquish our anthropocentric fixation as we move towards an Anthropocene landscape where mankind can finally assume their proper role and responsibility. And just like the artists participating in As We May Think as a whole, and in Evolutions of Kin in particular, certainly have the courage to represent and question the shifting alternatives. In doing so they disentangle the distinction between humans and non- humans and make us experience things and the world in new and unexpected ways. This capability to reimagine, this narrative power, is What We Now May Think. It allows us to be, to think and to feel part of the Anthropocene world.
1 Timothy Morton, Humankind (Verso, 2017) p.189?2 Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes. A guide to the extreme present (Penguin Books Ltd, 2015)?3 ed. Koert van Mensvoort, Hendrik-Jan Grievink, Next Nature. Nature Changes along with us (ActarBirkhäuser, 2011)?4 Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Polity Press, 2017)?5 Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology, For a logic of Future Coexistence (Columbia University Press, 2016)?6 "All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more now about how life forms have shaped Earth (think of oil, of oxygen—the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by- product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural selection implies extinction." Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) p.29?7 The term Hyperobject was introduced by Timothy Morton in 2010 and elaborated in his book Hyperobjects Philosophy and Ecology after the end of the world (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).?8 Technium is a term coined by Kevin Kelly in his book What technology wants (Viking, 2010): "The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions and intellectual creations of all types.It includes intangibles like software, law and philosophical concepts. And most imporatant, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections." p.11-12
9 Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, The "Anthropocene" (IGBP Newsletter 41, May 2000) p.17-18
10 James Bridle, New dark Age. Technology and the end of the future (Verso, 2018) p.20
11 Lewis Fry Richardson. Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. https://archive.org/details/weatherpredictio00richrich
12 Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Polity Press, 2017) p.47
13 Henry Gee, The accidental species. Misunderstandings of human evolution (The University of Chicago Press, 2013) p.xii
14 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) p160-161
15 Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley, Are we human? Notes on an archeology of design (Lars Müller Publishers, 2016) p.10
16 Arne Hendriks, http://www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net
17 This was said by John Culkin who collaborated closely with Marshall McLuhan in 1967, but it often gets misattributed to McLuhan.
18 Object-Oriented Ontologie wordt ook wel afgekort als OOO, is een term van filosoof Graham Harman. In zijn boek Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Pelican, 2018) schrijft hij er het volgende over: "Object-Oriented Ontology dates to the late 1990s [...] Some of the basic principles of OOO, are as follows: (1) All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional. (2) Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. (3) Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual. (6) These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence and eidos. (7) Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science.
19 Graham Harman, On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno, and Radical Philosophy, published in The speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (re.press, 2010 ) p.26