REFLECTION; nature altered, redesigned, and made to do new work.

By mei 8, 2024 Algemeen

There are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere. Transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless ocean currents, and the capacious cargo-holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, nowhere on Earth is free from humanity’s imprint. Pristine nature has permanently blinked out of existence.

The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. What is most startling is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. By means of various transformative technologies humanity may soon be able to re-design our surroundings comprehensively from the nano-level to the global biosphere and Earth System. A world designed means that a range of technologies will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism:

  • nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter;
  • molecular manufacturing that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome;
  • biological mini-machines that can outdesign evolution;
  • the relocation and resurrection of species;
  • climate-, geo- and ecoengineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.
  • microbial deployment of new-to-nature chemistries for refactoring the barriers between living and non-living matter.
  • traditional industry is an artificial metabolic system that fails spectacularly to do what natural metabolic systems do with ease: recycle.
  • to create the biochemistry needed for recycling industrial wastes, the use ‘chemo-robots’ inserted into an existing bacterial chassis to generate the desired metabolic reactions. Over time, the chemo-robots will force the instructions for the desired reaction into the bacterial blueprint, taking advantage of the fact that tweaks to metabolic biochemistry can drive changes in DNA.

Technological artifacts often serve to extend or augment existing human capacities or faculties. Technological artifacts are related to human behavior for many reasons: they affect human behavior: can change human experience; they have power to reduce and amplify human perception; can play a mediating role in the very relation between human beings and the world by altering sensory aspects of the body through amplification and reduction. Organisms are no longer strictly limited by their genetic inheritance. They can be altered, redesigned, and made to do new work. With these technologies, the living world can look more like a self-sustaining, self-maintaining tool for human use than it has ever looked before.

The bedrock laws of nature do not disappear, of course, but they become subject to a deeper kind of manipulation. The crossing of this line represents radically new territory for both our species and for the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes redesigned and ‘improved’ by geneticists and engineers. This remaking of the metabolism of the Earth strikes at the very core of how we understand our surroundings and our role in them.

This dream – even if it is only a dream – is extremely powerful, and pursuing it much further will change everything for us, including what it means to be us, in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.  If it turns out the technologies do work as hoped, the next question is whether unintended ecological ramifications will overwhelm the intended benefits. When technologies that disrupt long-established biological processes are deployed into complex ecological systems, surprising things happen. What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.

It is not about overcoming any particular limit should be forbidden a priori. The point is that because so many important ones are now (close to) being overcome we should pause and consider the wisdom of pressing on. One theme running alongside the exciting prospect of profound and unprecedented control over (or replacement of) natural processes is that some wildness will inevitably remain, however transformative the technology. All human artefacts, including the deepest of technologies, retain an element of unpredictable waywardness. The fantasy of total control, even over what we make in accordance with our best understanding, is just that: a fantasy.

It raises the philosophical questions about meaning and identity raised by the technological prospects. Technology changes society. Technologies change human behavior. Technologies bring forth new norms and responsibilities. Technology is a form of culture or a particular kind of culture. Culture or patterns of human behavior that have become sedimented in habits and traditions is the more general phenomenon. The technological form of life is part and parcel of culture, just as culture in the human sense inevitably implies technologies. There are profound effects of technology on human culture. This raises questions about the power of technology. Technology matters, because it is inseparable from being human, and how technologies have been incorporated into culture of difference. Technology might be instrumental, but is it just a neutral tool? And who is in control of technology? How does technology change the perception and experience of the world? And how does technology affect the forms of engagement and involvement with the world?

What does it say about humanity though if deliberately aimed at maximizing the extent to which our surroundings, and therefore our own nature, are subject to technological control? Ethical concerns are significant, but they do not exhaust the ethical terrain; these technologies do not just serve purposes; they also dramatically reset people’s expectations and transform relations with the surrounding world. As well as being instruments, technologies are mechanisms for social transformations, transformations of material, economic, and conceptual structures and will reshape how humanity interact with each other and change how they think. People no doubt will differ vociferously on whether transformations of this kind are desirable. What is essential to note, however, is that these issues are ethical to their core. They are, as aforementioned, about what relationship humans ought to have with their surroundings, when humans should intervene, and what kind of world they want to live in

Humanity has evolved, and our cultures, institutions and ethical systems, such as they are, have developed against a background of natural limits. Although human history has been constituted partly by progressively overcoming some of these limits, do we really want as fully synthetic a world as possible? In order to genuinely want this we would need to know what it meant. Reflection, including ethical and philosophical reflection, is called for then. The profound implications of the question of just how artificial and synthetic our age should be means it cannot be left to corporations and experts.

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