There it is. A hefty hen, with its head up high and its beak out. And a gigantic VR headset over its beady little eyes. What does this battery hen see? ‘An experience of a free life’, according to American designer Austin Stewart. Second Livestock – shown last year at the ‘Robotic Wilderness’ exhibition of the Transnatural collective – is uncomfortable to watch, but it does uncover accurately the relationship we currently have with nature. Because no, this is not an image that we associate with nature. When we think of nature, we think of a hen freely scratching around a bit of bright and unspoiled green. Not of a battery hen, let alone with a VR headset.
We often have a surprisingly romantic image of nature. Surprising, because you could ask yourself where that bit of unspoiled green can be found these days. Especially in the Netherlands, it is an illusion to think that nature in its purest for can exist. ‘God created the world, with the exception of the Netherlands. That the Dutch created themselves’, as Voltaire already described it. For example, nature reserves like the Oostvaardersplassen and ‘Het Groene Hart’ (The Green Heart) were originally industrial areas before they were transformed. And in the Markermeer five islands are currently being created the size of as many as one hundred football pitches to form a nature reserve. Nature that is just as man-made as an office park, as journalist Tracy Metz puts it strikingly.
However, we continue to long for nature that is untouched, a wilderness, a purity. Sweet nature where we can breathe fresh air on weekends and a wilderness made by human hands where we can get lost in an orderly fashion.
Nature seems to be a given, but it is something of which various different images can exist. The image of nature that comes to the fore is something that is closely connected to – however paradoxical it may be – its counterpart: technology. Our image of nature gives insight into our relationship with technology.
Our image of nature reflects our relationship with technology
Roughly fifty years ago, the prevailing image of nature was that of a production landscape. Something over which we were the undisputed ruler, that we could use and have complete control over. Technology was a reliable partner. Of course, it is something that has never been free from debate – take, for example, the introduction of the television – but at that time the debate was limited to a relatively small part of our lives.
Now, technology has taken up a different, more wide-ranging place in our lives. With the smartphone, everyone always has a screen in their pocket. When you walk down the street, you let yourself be guided by GPS or an algorithm, add an Instagram filter to everything, and are constantly in a parallel world of work emails and Facebook friends or sharing in the lives of vloggers. Technology has never had such a presence as it does today.
This makes us increasingly aware of how much we are controlled by this technology. The smartphone and apps in particular, are shown to be designed in such a way that they try to capture our attention for as long as possible. They do this by playing to all manner of psychological vulnerabilities, which – ironically – are ingrained in human nature. For example, the round icon that notifies you of an incoming email or a missed call, and was initially green, has proven to be impossible for people to ignore now that it’s red.
We live in a technological environment in which we feel more and more like puppets controlled by our smartphones, and so – indirectly – by the large tech companies. And on the horizon, an image looms of technology that is becoming even more powerful. Take, for example, robots that can open doors autonomously and algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves. During Dutch Design Week, VPRO Medialab presented the ‘Aura’ installation by Studio Nick Verstand at the ‘We know how you feel’ exhibition. This work measures the emotions of participants using three bio-sensors – a heartbeat, a brainwave, and a skin conductance sensor. Each emotion is made visible with colourful beams of light, and each colour corresponds to a specific emotion. Red beams of light, for example, could betray your nervous and tense feelings to the other visitors. This exposes your invisible inner emotional life for everyone to see.
The installation was not only fascinating and poetic, but also aroused vulnerability. Our inner emotional life has long been something with which we humans set ourselves apart from animals, but also, in particular, from machines. Who are we as humans if machines can monitor or even control our emotions? And, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, humans in general are none too emotionally intelligent. We often make bad judgements and decisions relating to our emotions. Not much is needed for a machine to know us better than we know ourselves when it comes to our emotional life.
Humankind’s position – for centuries unshakeable – is shifting. Writers like Yuval Harari and Luciano Floridi argue that we will lose our infallible position as rulers of the universe because of technology that operates more and more independently. We are moving towards a world in which humans and machines coexist. Our technological environment is taking on a grandeur that cannot be controlled, comparable to – how ironic – the role that nature has for centuries played for humankind.
It is unsurprising that a countermovement is growing against the presence of technology in our lives. Detox is the key word in this context. People try to clamp down on moments in which you can use your smartphone. Dinner with the family without smartphones, so you can have real conversations again. Working without Internet, so you can be really productive again. Going on holiday without your phone, so you can really be in the moment again. A digital detox, so you can return to that bit of pure and unspoiled human being.
It seems our search for an authentic nature experience is very logical. An image of pure, unspoiled nature is an image that can serve as an pardon. A license to feel a bit better when returning to our day-to-day environment that consists mainly of bricks and bits and feels increasingly lifeless.
Nature according to human standards
That pardon may be logical, but it’s such a shame, it might be a sin. Because we miss so much when we get stuck in this romantic image of nature. In a time in which technology impacts so much – humans and their natural environment – it is of the greatest important to have an ongoing dialogue. It is a given what we are shifting to a new natural environment in which nature and technology will be more and more intertwined. And it is also a fact that that environment will ask us questions about what nature really is, or what a human being is.
That’s not a bad thing. It gives us the resources to create nature according to human standards. To discover what we’re really searching for when we delve deep into nature for a detox. What are we looking for? What does that unspoiled bit of nature and, what’s more, that bit of unspoiled human being stand for? Simply lapsing into a dogma of detoxing and an unrealistic image of nature is not something on which you can build a solid foundation for a relationship with yourself and your environment.
So it’s time to move onward, and to accept that we find ourselves in a ‘next nature’. A nature that just might derive its definition from everything that falls outside of human control. So that cultivated tomatoes or a hypoallergenic cat (there really is such a thing) will more likely fall into the culture category, while a computer virus or a file can be considered a natural phenomenon.
And perhaps we will find, for example, that we are also able to discover the overwhelmingly majestic beauty, the sublime with which the 18th-century Romantics sang the praises of nature, in technological nature. Consider, for example, the art work FRANCHISE FREEDOM – a flying sculpture by Studio Drift in collaboration with BMW, in which three hundred luminous drones fly through the sky like a swarm of starlings. Watching the performance you realise that the magic and the beauty of the synchronised movements of a group of birds can also be created by technology.
But the most important reason to change our perspective on nature, is that it is not helpful to nature itself. For example, calculating the value of nature may feel cold and even improper, but, at the same time, it can help provide us with a tool against climate change. Our ECO coin is a first attempt to express ecological value in economic terms. How much is the Amazon rainforest worth? How much would you pay a farmer not to cut down a tree, but to leave it standing? This is extremely difficult to determine, but the current division between the economic system and our ecology is also an important reason behind why climate problems are an issue in the first place.
And so, a battery hen with a VR headset might be something that feels unnatural according to traditional standards, but it might be something that fits within a new concept of nature according to human standards.
This essay was published in the magazine The Dots no.15 with the theme Human Nature, designing the equilibrium and distributed during the Milan Design Week 2018.