THE FUNDAMENTALLY AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF TECHNOLOGY
Technology and/or Nature: Denatured/Renatured/Engineered …
In our high-tech world, do we live at the end of nature? Is the technosphere replacing the biosphere? Can humans control their genetically inherited Pleistocene appetites in an Anthropocene Epoch? Living on an engineered planet? Would this fulfill human destiny or display human arrogance, failing to embrace our home planet in care and wonder? The future holds advancing technologies to create unimaginable futures, but do not want to live a de-natured life, on a de-natured planet.
We are powerfully reshaping human existence: the degradation, if not destruction, of large parts of the natural world, and unprecedented technological development. At the nexus of these two trends lies technological nature—technologies that in various ways mediate, augment, or simulate the natural world.
By pushing Earth’s climate and biosphere out of the dynamics of the Holocene humanity is at risk of moving our planet outside a safe operating space for humanity by altering important feedback loops, potentially producing abrupt and irreversible systemic changes with impacts on current and future generations
The merging of distinct technologies, processing disciplines, or devices into a unified whole creates a host of new pathways and opportunities. It involves the coming together of different fields of study -particularly, engineering, physical science and life sciences, nano, info, cognitive and biosciences -through collaboration among research groups and the integration of approaches that were originally viewed as distinct and potentially contra dictionary. This convergence is a blueprint for innovation. Advances in information technology, materials, imaging, nanotechnology, optics and quantum physics coupled with advances in computing, modelling and simulation, have already transformed physical science. Convergence is not a one-way street; biological models are simultaneously transforming engineering and physical science. Advances in biomaterials and viral self-assembly are just a few examples of this reciprocal relationship.
Numerous technologies are improving at an exponential rate and disrupting every sector of the industrial production system. This technological progress has the potential to create extraordinary increases in our societal capabilities. An entirely new system of production is emerging that will decrease dramatically our dependency on resources and the environment by an order of magnitude or more, increasing the robustness and stability of those societies that embrace it. As a result, ecological disruptions, inequality, and many of the other serious problems society faces today can be solved.
WE HAVE MADE ENORMOUS TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS SINCE THE DAWN OF INDUSTRIALIZATION, BUT IN TERMS OF WHAT IS POSSIBLE – THE LIMITS SET BY THE LAWS OF PHYSICS – WE HAVE BARELY BEGUN.
We are now entering a period of extraordinary technological disruption – change at a speed and scale far beyond that which any civilization has experienced before. Whereas disruptions historically have been relatively slow-moving and isolated, the 2020s will see disruptions affecting every sector of the economy concurrently. As has always been the case, the catalyst for disruption is the extraordinary improvement in a number of key technologies that each have the potential to impact multiple sectors of society. These technologies are converging in different combinations in different sectors to enable extraordinary improvement in the costs and capabilities of new products and services. As disruptions unfold and reinforce one another, their impacts will ripple out across society, profoundly changing our world.
Generalized automation, robotization, big data, AI, algorithmic governance and all the other socio-technological innovations enabled through digitization, have been put into the service almost exclusively of capitalist valorization, engendering the generalized toxicity of the technical milieu of the spirit that terrorizes our age of nihilism. However, all these innovations can in principle be re-forged into instruments for a new system of global ecological awareness and transforming the current toxic milieu serving the nihilistic needs of capitalism into a therapeutic, curative arsenal for the constitution of a new, care-taking industrial economy. Such a non-competitive but cooperative economy, where care becomes the very center of the economic ‘value chain’.
Already in the Early Anthropocene, we are part of a post-natural world in which anthropogenic and natural effects on the Earth system are ever more intertwined and inseparable, evolving ever more synergistically with humans. A post-natural world? It’s hard to accept. But our footprint is everywhere and expanding. There is no longer any nature separate from us. On this increasingly hybrid planet, the venerable distinction between what’s natural and what’s human becomes less and less viable. Iconic landscapes confronts us with previously unimaginable Anthropocene questions. Questions like, how long will we be able to consider this preeminent wilderness ‘natura’ by the common meaning of natural—that is, not shaped by or substantially changed by human activities?
The Anthropocene fact is this: nature will continue to become less and less natural. This loss of naturalness has led to what is now recognized as the dilemma of stewardship. Should we intervene in nature cq the Earth system? Or should we just allow the Earth system ecosystem to adapt and evolve as it will? Then try to imagine the future of ‘nature’ in the next century of the Anthropocene, 2100. Imagine our continuing ecological effects coalescing with designer ecosystems, assisted evolution, synthetic biology, geoengineering, and who-knows-what. What will be the ‘new natural’ on this ever-more altered, manipulated, and managed planet?
Does it matter for the physical and psychological well-being of the human species that actual nature is being replaced with technological nature? In question is the evolutionary and cross-cultural developmental of the human relation with nature. By adapting gradually to the loss of actual nature and to the increase of technological nature, humans will lower the baseline across generations for what counts as a full measure of the human experience and of human flourishing.
Our living world is already increasingly supplied with sensors and with the resulting data, we increasingly gain insights into the complexity of the interdependencies between living organisms. For instance, sensors and the datafication of forests have laid bare the complex web of communications between trees.
It could be stated that technology is fundamentally an extension of the same forces that drive life, as its development shows a movement towards complexity, diversity, specialization and increasing interdependencies. The biological process of evolutionary divergence, in this sense, was not interrupted by the Anthropocene but accelerated by it. The accelerated connections of the modern world united previously isolated biological worlds in one ‘virtual continent’, resulting in the creation of new life-forms such as urban species.
There is a growing recognition that transformation of knowledge systems and intellectual cultures is needed to address the unprecedented Anthropocene challenges. The Anthropocene concept is employed to bring together a wide range of different disciplines and actors, and especially to overcome the schism between natural science and social science. The scale and urgency of the Anthropocene challenges push some scientists to searching for alternative ‘extreme’ solutions for avoiding a collapse of the stable functioning of the Earth system. Emerging features in the era of the Anthropocene: a new mode of solution-focused transdisciplinary science for global sustainability, and a broken-taboo of researching risky, controversial technologies.
As such, a technological reversion must be conceived in terms of a turn from the traditional, largely contra-natural, dominating, structurally despotic and exploitative technologies: nonlinearity, ‘catastrophic shifts’ or ‘tipping points’ matter. Co-natural technologies in the sense of being co-operative with principles and mechanisms already operative in nature itself, and as such allowing for a non-dominating and non-exploitative relation to nature.
For all the critique of industrial technology’s destructive record so far, it is also that the only solution to this destruction might be found in the very capacity of technology itself to counter its own destructive tendency and heal its nihilistic legacy, provided that it is intelligently and completely transformed from a destructive into a constructive power, and from a desublimatory into a sublimatory force. This kind of technosphere added to the Earth’s naturally evolved geo- and biosphere amounts to a potentialization of the Earth such that its ‘carrying and sustaining capacity’ might be increased substantially, even to the point of multiplication, on the condition that it permutates from exploitation of the Earth to co-production with it.
With this, we are on the threshold of a form of technology that can be sufficiently developed to enable us to radically imitate nature. Nature’s instructions for living sustainably on Earth are found in 3.8 billion years of evolution, in which plants and animals developed the ability to fly, capture energy, see and hear, and so on. In short, living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future. What better models could there be?
How would we view value creation and designing solutions differently if human needs were subordinate to requirements for a healthy and thriving ecosystem. What would happen if technology would design for the benefit of nature with human needs as a secondary benefit? In order to find systemic solutions, humanity needs far more multidisciplinary thinking and holistic awareness and intuition. Thinking, designing a preferable future introduces the idea that humans not only need to try to predict or anticipate the future as spectators, but also to actively participate in shaping it, by creating a joint vision and mobilizing public, political and business support to realize this vision.
One direction is based in a deep seated belief in the needs and ethics of human progress; a belief in the power of science and technology. It does not consider humanity and/or Homo Sapiens as the pinnacle of Darwinian evolution on the planet. Homo Sapiens is differentiated from other species by its consciousness and intellect its ability to shape its own future and ultimately its own evolution. Humans can overcome the challenges of their environment through technology and that at least part of humanity will continue to evolve. Humans become their own creators, re-shaping themselves and their environment.
Another direction requires a transformation of how we live, consume and produce. Given the perilous state of our natural ecosystems it is an absolute must to harmonize humanity’s relationship with nature to ensure a healthy planet. To create a steady state where human non-renewable resource utilization does not exceed agreed limits, and one step further to accept all life and the planet as a single eco-entangled system and is pursuing a future of regenerating vibrant and healthy ecosystems.
As individuals, we may have different preferences and different worldviews, but the Anthropocene challenges to reflect on the planet, its natural state and our place in it. To overthink the potential long-term consequences of our behaviors, choices and the un-intended consequences of our technologies and actions. There is a need for a deep rethinking as we go forward, to become civilized.