Next Nature – Koert Van Menvoort – A origem da próxima espécie

Essay: Razorius Gilletus – On the Origin of a Next Species

Is 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.

INTELLIGENT DESIGNER

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.

Next Nature – Bruce Sterling

DAM

A ideia desse projeto ambicioso é dar-nos uma nova visão do que seria a próxima natureza em todos os seus âmbitos. Fala-nos do fato de como modificamos a nós mesmos e nossa meio ambiente para um próximo passo da manipulação humana.

http://www.nextnature.net/2010/09/next-nature-intro-by-bruce-sterling/#

This 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.