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.
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).
Our human nature allowed us to move away from our ‘loser’ biology, that’s awesome. But this drive also moved us so far away that we lost the idea of accountability towards it. Our human nature made us exceed our natural state and with that our life expectancies skyrocketed. But now it looks like the technology that made this possible is going to burn up its very source and origin. I’d say there’s room for improvement, won’t you?
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.
The biggest R&D department in the world.
Biomimicry is a way of searching for innovation in a sustainable way by mimicking certain natural patterns (that have been thoroughly time-tested). The idea behind it is that nature has solved numerous challenges that we too are faced with and we might learn a thing or two. If you think about it all nature’s creatures are engineers: ants, microbes, otters, …
Compared to us nature has had billions of years of ‘Agile development’ to find the best configurations for survival. Nature resolved engineering problems. Think self-healing, tolerance and resistance to environmental exposure, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and even harnessing solar energy. Don’t forget that it seems to be only the human species that was crafted a bit shabbily by nature. The rest of the fauna and flora surrounding us were mostly designed and developed extremely ingeniously.
“Think of our planet as a research-and-development lab in which the best ideas have moved forward, and the ones that used too much energy or materials or were toxic were dropped. What you wind up with are organisms that are efficient.”
The idea of biomimetics looks at how all this natural research could be used to face human challenges in a more circular and sustainable way. Biomimetics helped new technologies gain popularity that are inspired by biological solutions and this from a macro to a nanoscale. It might not be the first time in history humans look to nature for answers, but it’s the first time the symbiosis with (digital) technology is becoming this widespread.
Designing the world
How about some examples to make this point a bit more solid.
Aside from the study of functional adaptations to nature, biomimicry also searches for deep patterns or laws that apply to all organisms and have proven to be beneficial.
An example of these patterns is the concept of being locally attuned and responsive. This principle is a guideline to how an artefact, species or design can be designed so that it would be in harmony with its surroundings.
Take for example the Arctic fox, it changes the color and thickness of its fur in the summer and winter, white and thick in the winter when it’s snowy and more camel, beige-colored and thin in the summer so that he matches the tundra and can endure the sun. It’s fair to say the fox is very attuned and responsive. So what’s the lesson we can learn here, to take into account when designing a product, be it digital or physical. All products should be attuned and responsive. We have to make them fit seamlessly for various users and usage. We should ask ourselves how they react to different needs and environments. Your product isn’t going to stand the test of time if it causes friction for the user and is not flexible or interactive with its environment. The less futureproof it is, the more likely it will be discarded after a while which is not sustainable, evidemment. If we move from product or web design to architecture, design’s largest scale, we see that there are already a lot of copycats in construction, material, design and even the adaptation to extreme weather conditions. There is ongoing research at MIT that is looking at how a cell in our body is structured to copy that into the fundamentals of big building structures to make them more resilient.
So we had design, but even for my fellow Bagaarians, I can only make a convincing point if the use for development or technology is also being proved. So here goes!
BioDigital, BioEngineering and BioHacking
These terms may sound strange and sci-fi-ish but they exist and are very much alive and kicking in the subset between digital and biology. These new technologies are going to have a huge impact in our culture and quality of life. Some examples could be wearables that can replace first aid or prostheses by bionic hands or legs. An especially good example of this is CRISPR.
CRISPR is making a dramatic entry
CRISPR has the potential to completely change how we exist as a species. I’m not going to go into detail (mainly to not make a fool of myself in front of possible bio-expert readers) but in short you could say that CRISPR allows us to tweak our own “source code”. This means we could erase hazardous pieces of code like cancer or genetically transferable diseases, which would be one of the biggest achievements technology ever made. But like most technological developments there are still some downsides that cannot be ignored. The risk is that if we can upgrade every person we become a very genetically homogenous species and thus we might be less likely to survive unexpected adverse environmental events. But there are many upsides too (otherwise I wouldn’t bring it up because it’s not good for the case I’m making here).
CRISPR opened up the ability to cut and paste in genes so quickly, easily and precise that its application for biofuels, materials, food, genetic diseases… are legion. And most importantly, it can be done within a much shorter timeframe and at a relatively low cost. If I was to tell you that over the past 9 months more than 200 million dollars were invested in startups working with CRISPR technology, you can guess this is going to be a big deal in the near future. Like I said in my intro, it is quit useless to ponder about wether or not we are willing to let a new technology into our lives. CRISPR will be a reality, lets not waste time thinking about how we want this to impact us while thinking we can or should stop it.
(for more info on CRIPSR: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAhjPd4uNFY&t=11s)
So we saw how digital is hacking bio and how we can learn from nature to design in a more sustainable way, but it goes further than that. We could also look at how networks are constructed in nature, how information is gathered and spread.
Take for example the idea of open source or even crowdsourcing, a thematic that is also emerging in biotech. The core idea behind this philosophy is that those who are connected and give freely to their networks, win. Knowledge and/or power is not stored or sourced in one single place but via a vast network of nodes or actors that contribute. This is very typical also for nature. Have you ever met a turtle that patented the way his shield protected him? I haven’t. The urge to keep all discoveries, knowledge and development inside centralized and closed networks is not beneficial for progress or to guard them in such networks if potential new developments are in fact for the better of mankind. Nature, on the contrary, shares all her secrets with us, they’re there for the taking!
In science specifically this can mean that for research you could call in the help of non-academics to be your eyes and ears and provide you with feedback about specific variables in a predescribed context. Platforms like the Zooniverse are a beautiful example of this citizen science (be careful not to become addicted, I’ve spotted penguins for hours during my exams). In the digital realms Wikipedia is a very good example of both open source and crowdsourcing. It’s an encyclopedia free for everyone to use and also to contribute to. Another, maybe less conceptual way of mimicking how networks are constructed in nature is found in blockchain technology, an example of a decentralized network in technology.
What is so beneficial to a decentralized or even distributed network that we would copy this from nature? Let’s take a close-to-home example. Since it’s almost Christmas (at least according to IKEA) I will keep up the jolly spirit. You all know the drama of the Christmas lights. They are super fragile, get totally tangled up in Houdini-like knots and when one is broken, the whole chain gives up. Or at least until 1999 or something that was the case. Well, that’s because the lights formed a serial chain and if one broke all the ones before and after him did too because the connection to its source of power was lost.
The same thing goes for networks. If you have a centralized network with all data or power or even electricity stored on 1 node, in one place or inside one person’s head you are extremely fragile. An attack on this 1 node, place or person could take down the whole network. Like when you kill a powerplant and the whole town goes black without power.
Research has shown that nature isn’t so foolish to be the victim of a situation as described above. Trees for example have a way of communicating; they form a worldwide network (the woodwide network!) sharing information about fungi, predators, climate change and who knows, some gossip too. If you were to take out 1 tree, it wouldn’t have any effect on their network. If one DNS name server gets attacked (happened 2 weeks ago) Twitter, Spotify, the New York Times and some other huge players get thrown off the air. The attack was pointed at 1 single server and yet it could do this much damage. Not such a solid or decentralized network in my opinion. And the worst part was that I couldn’t even tweet about Twitter being down.
One technology I have talked about a couple of times is blockchain. For more info and an intro I wish to kindly refer you to a couple of blog posts ago. Here I want to zoom in on 1 specific characteristic, namely being decentralized or even distributed. The giant ledger or database that is blockchain is copied to and stored on every node in its network. So if one is hacked, all the others can continue. You could even hack 99% of the nodes in a network and there would still be a copy of the ledger. If you would hack 99% of anything, it would be very much lost. Not only computing power and storage are distributed in a blockchain but also control and, depending on the application, responsibility. If there is corruption on the chain, all nodes can see and decline the fraudulent transaction. I’m just going to shamelessly quote myself from a previous post here (somebody has to do it): “Let’s have a look at nature, how cells are built to create organisms, how our neurons are all interconnected to create a neural network. This is done in a distributed way. We don’t have a big boss behind a mahogany desk with a glass of bourbon in his hand telling our arms and legs what to do. Our natural universe is entirely built up by distributed networks of cells, neurons, protons, … and much smaller bits and pieces that all work together in harmony to grow and manifest themselves. So why don’t we work like that in governance, in finance, in all our inter-subjective relations? It has proven to be quite effective, I believe. Well, Blockchain can make that possible. Who knew technology could be so natural.”
Now I have bugged you enough with my blockchain fanmail so maybe on to a next example.
While the world’s technological opinion makers are warning us about Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a one-way street towards singularity, this could also bring a lot of good into this world, if done right. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to profoundly change the way we interact with the world around us. It could increase efficiency significantly and bring us closer to natural processes while doing so. Our lack of natural instincts could be compensated by the knowledge we can retrieve from deep learning algorithms. This is the idea of socratic intellectualism, that if we would know the ‘right thing’ we would always act according to it. So if we as humans misbehave it’s because we lack information or wisdom on how to do better. If (and I want to emphasize the IF) you follow this train of thought, the full access to information and insights AI could provide us with could dramatically improve our behavior.
But the possible impact of AI can go even further, to the level of how algorithms are constructed. Take for example Swiftkey, a predictive typing keyboard company. They are working on a back-end that is sophistically built up around AI. They have constructed artificial neural networks (ANNs) that are directly based on the structure and workings of a human brain.
Lean and mean
If we would look a bit closer to home, the Bagaar home, where development is part of the daily routine, there is a nice example of Biomimicry too.
One golden rule in nature is the usage of feedback loops. These are cyclical information flows that make it possible for organisms to adapt and react to environmental changes and situations. These feedback loops are at the core of the Agile development concept, something most of you have heard about a few times already (everything is agile, lean and mean nowadays). The idea is very similar to that of nature’s feedback loops. Agile development is built around the idea that you design and develop in small teams where everybody is an active member and you divide the product you are building in small building blocks to work on. Every building block is developed during 1 sprint and after this sprint the building block is reviewed and adjusted where needed based on feedback. This process repeats itself until you have a minimal viable product or a proof of concept. With this MVP or POC you go to the real end-users as soon as possible to start collecting valuable feedback to improve your product, update it and go through the same process over and over again. This system tries to dodge some very classical f*ckups in digital development that generate from a waterfall model where after you get a clients briefing the next touchpoint is a finished product without any consultation or input in between. This hardly ever works out for the best.
Ok so, I’ve sketched roughly the why and how technology was born, then I gave some context of how the relationship between nature and technology evolved over time to bring us to the present day. We agreed (yes, you agreed) on the fact that the very reason why technology was put into place was being fired up by it, and then I shared with you my insights on how biology or nature and technology might make it to the next century together, if they take couples counseling seriously. Now let’s wrap it up with some wise words for the road.
Do nature and digital get along?
After reading all this, I believe it’s fair to say that potentially nature and (digital) technology could become BFF’s, they’re currently just having some issues. I would even dare go further and state that if we go about this the right way, technology might be saving us from extinction yet another time. If we manage to make the means for making profit and satisfying our ever growing needs match with the means to generate more sustainable businesses and consumption, this crisis (the climate one) might be diverted. I mean that if making your factory more efficient can cut costs ànd at the same time generate less waste, that’s a double win very likely to motivate people to change their behavior. In order to do so we can look at nature for inspiration on the level of organization, network building, design, development and even how to use Artificial Intelligence.
Take a moment to look at evolution with pink glasses and imagine what the world would look like if this was the path we would be walking on, where we could continue to improve our life quality, answer all the needs humans have without damaging nature or ourselves. This would be a utopia where all shitty unfulfilling jobs were done by robots and all humans on earth were healthy, safe and lived in peace (because there wouldn’t be oil or scarcity, we just need to figure out the religion thing then). We would not even consider our jobs as being any different from free time except we might be paid for it and more importantly we would regain our ‘free time’ to do what we humans are good at and where most other species are the losers.
We can spend our time on inventing new solutions, creating art, music, taking care of family, reading, writing, having drinks with friends and dressing up for parties, … we would strive towards real superhumans. If this is what is meant by singularity, then it’s officially my most favorite buzzword from now one. And to come back to the slide that made me think and write all of this… We are only going to become more natural in this hypothesis and our surroundings too. The idea that we have an actual choice in this might even be an illusion. Because if the gap between technology and nature is going to continue to grow, we will annihilate ourselves. No nature, no room.