‘Optimism is our duty’: A conversation with Koert van Mensvoort

Ruben Baart
July 30th 2020

We live in a world in which we control the biology of a tomato at such precision, you could think of it as a product of technology, instead of a product of nature. Think about it, from genetics to breeding; a simple tomato isn’t remotely as simple as you might think. Technological advances allow our daily ingredients to be grown bigger, faster and better than ever before.

Conversely, in our world, technology (such as the internet or the financial markets) has grown so complex and omnipresent, though, that it’s developed a natural dynamism of its own, and we need to understand it better.

In the newly translated 'Next Nature: Why Technology Is Our Natural Future’ (2020) Koert van Mensvoort takes us on an epic exploration through the wonderful world of culturally emerged nature. It shows how the problematic disbalance between nature and technology not only obscures our current view on society, but simultanously hinders the future.

The book offers a detailed read on the Next Nature philosophy, alongside timely examples and scientific insights. Gradually, you’ll find an entirely new worldview unfolding that is not only more realistic, but also infinitely creative, optimistic and humane. From wild software to genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers: Nature changes along with us!

'Next Nature: Why Technology Is Our Natural Future’ (2020) by Koert van Mensvoort

Celebrating the English launch of his latest publication, we spoke with none other than Koert van Mensvoort himself about the discovery of next nature, the problem with dataism, and how to live in a future with memetic organisms (and what these are). 

You have discovered Next Nature. Can you briefly describe what it is and how you got there?

About 15 years ago something clicked in my mind. Back then I was thinking about the changing relationship between people, nature and technology. I realized that nature and technology are not opposite; technology is the next nature. Nature is a dynamic rather than a static reality. And our technology is transforming nature. Next Nature is a different way of looking as we are used to now. In the early days there was no vocabulary to describe it, it was more of a feeling. I immediately knew the scope of this story was far too big for one person. Hence from day one there has been a kind of network with whom we aimed to define this. 

The network is positioned as a progressive nature organization. How does it relate to the traditional nature organization?

Firstly, I am not against traditional organizations. I understand that their intentions are pure. Although many people have tried to improve our relationship with nature, few have asked the elementary question ‘what is nature?’ and how does that come about? Next Nature Network was the first organization to do so. We went to study how, for example, Disney films have had a large contribution to the image that people have of nature. I believe this image is often naive and must be radically altered. The image of nature as we know it in western societies is also linked to religious images. Think of the sinful paradise from which man has been expelled, capable only of spoiling and wrecking nature.

What is the next nature we want to live in? And how are we going to do it without clinging to nostalgic images?

But what about evolution? We come from nature. When a bird builds a nest, we call it nature; when people build a network of motorways, it’s fundamentally no different, except that our impact is much greater than the bird’s. When looking at scientific images of the planet, you will see that Earth has had many faces in the billions of years she had existed. And so it is obvious that she will also continue to change in the future. I find many people working in nature conservation to be, well... conservative. Even those who are positioned themselves as activists. I believe there is room for a progressive voice. Someone who says; ‘nature changes along with us’. What is the next nature we want to live in? And how are we going to do it without clinging to nostalgic images?

These insights were then published in the Next Nature Bible, followed by numerous projects and publications. Now there’s a new book. Why?

A written book yes! It is actually way overdue. I could have done it about ten years ago. It was then that I decided that it was useful to create such a visual book, also because the vocabulary was not developed yet. It really was more to position the Next Nature statement. It was a good book and has been well received. But people kept on saying; "Write it down, if it is a philosophy!" And so I did. As a reader you will notice that, if you know the previous book, the new book contains a lot of recognition. Especially in the first half it neatly describes what the next nature way of looking is. In the second half of the book there a new story unfolds.

Within that new story, you state that humanity is at a crossroads. So where exactly are we?

We live in an early age when the presence of human beings is starting to become visible in the earth’s geology. Our presence is transforming the planet. The sum of human activities makes up a technosphere that sits atop the much older biosphere. While this didn’t result from an intentional design or plan, humanity has caused it. Like it or not, this impact is not always as positive, at least we can agree on that. We must no longer see ourselves as the anti-natural species that merely threatens and eliminates nature, but rather as catalysts of evolution.

Our presence is an accelerator, a factor in evolution.

I use the term ‘catalyst’ very precisely here. I could also have said that we are ‘in charge of evolution’ but I don't think that is the case. Our presence is an accelerator, a factor in evolution. Similarly, in the book I have researched and elaborated the evolutionary leaps that have taken place in history, and we are now on a leap that you see that evolution breaks loose from DNA and carbon compounds (genetic evolution), to the memetic evolution.

So cultural evolution?

You could say that yes. Just as a gene is the unit of biological evolution, a meme is the unit of cultural evolution. 

In the book you call for a debate on what these memetic organisms will look like. What are they?

For example I compare it to how the first molecular structures formed into cells several billions of years ago. That is still a hugely magical moment in history. Because how is it possible for a set of molecules to become a cell that will reproduce itself? It’s wonderful. We have now reached a similar point where memetic organisms are unfolding. It is happening around us. But do we understand it? Can we see it? That is the conversation I would like to have. This is also the next evolutionary phase in the Next Nature philosophy.

Do you believe that digital technology will play a decisive role in the development of memetic organisms?

It would be obvious, although I believe it’s bigger than that. Not only the internet, AI and digitization in which we are now living will play a role. Consider that these developments also come from somewhere.

How are we going to manage that? The historian Yuval Noah Harari believes that platforms like Facebook and Google will eventually know us better than we know ourselves. In his 2016 book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari introduces ‘humanism’ and ‘dataism’ as ‘religions’ which offer norms and values that can scaffold human responses to technological and cultural developments.  What do you think of such a statement?

I think it’s a relevant view. By positioning ‘dataism’ as a religion, people who initially thought they were an atheist and therefore not religious, now suddenly believe in data. You have to realize that is also a belief. It is also an ethical position and I find that very valuable. I also agree that this is at odds with humanism. You can read that beautifully elaborated by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in his 2019 book Team Human.

By positioning ‘dataism’ as a religion, people who initially thought they were an atheist and therefore not religious, now suddenly believe in data.

There are two groups. One group believes data is everything. In my view this is a reductionist perspective. The other group believes it’s impossible to capture everything in a database. This conversation is held on all kinds of levels, from a fundamental philosophical perspective (‘is the universe information?’), to a more practical perspective. Think about the consequences it could have when you tick something on or off in a database. Like a teenager with behavioral problems. Without a context this may read as a negative, but once you dig deeper it turned out that the child refused to take off his hat in the classroom. Then it suddenly sounds very different. Perhaps Next Nature then, is aiming to find a way to start a conversation between these groups.

You call this the ‘encapsulated human’. You make a distinction between ‘tamed’ people who are controlled, or, domesticated, and ‘free-range’ people who are autonomous. Do you really see this human image as black and white? 

It will always be a slider. Compare it to an albino mouse you buy at the pet store, which lives in a container and gets food from its owner. Then there is the wild mouse who freely runs around outside but always in danger. This is a very black and white comparison. People are somewhere in between. We are partially domesticated by the world around us. We are born into it and there’s almost no escape. 

Kind of like releasing an (unprepared) modern human to the prairie for three months?

I wouldn't make it. However, the joke is that almost anyone could do this. Anyone could give up their rent, get rid of their belongings and start living somewhere in the woods up north. Strangely enough, it is not an attractive image. Camping is fun for a few weeks. But not to live in the wild forever. The modern world also brings us a lot, from medical care to the food system. We often tend to forget that. So there is mainly nostalgia in this idea of going ‘back to nature’. 

Your Facebook account functions sort of as a passport to the internet.

You divide this form of security into the domains of politics and corporations. What’s their relationship like?

I foresee a lot of tension between these two domains. Facebook already has 2 billion inhabitants. Your Facebook account functions sort of as a passport to the internet. Google also aims to do this with their Google account. These are corporations that want to offer some kind of embedding for people in the digital world. This is often at odds with what governments want. The interests of corporations are global. The fact that we don’t have a global government but instead geographically fragmented areas, this is what makes governments weak. This is also why it is very difficult to do something about climate change. Or to tax companies. This tension is already going on and I expect it to only get bigger.

What can we do, as citizens of the world, to take justice into our own hands?

Citizenship is also in need of a redefinition. It is now associated with being a resident of a country. But in the future the relationship with corporations will also play a role there. Do you have an Apple or an Android phone? It is a non-binding question, but at some point it says something about your citizenship.

How so?

Because those are fundamentally different companies. With an Android phone you may have a cheap phone, but simultaneously you are part of an advertising company. This company then offers you as a product to other companies. At Apple, you have to pay a lot of money in exchange for some security. I think Apple offers more citizenship to users in that regard. The problem, however, is that the product is too expensive for many. This then creates an uneven world. That is also disturbing. 

Then what about Huawei and the concerns over Chinese involvement in 5G wireless networks?

China is extremely interesting when it comes to memetic organisms. In China, state and corporation are much more intertwined than in the west. It’s also interesting to see how the US opposes these network. We are led to believe that the US is high tech, but in reality the US does not have a 5G company. Europe does, it’s Ericsson. Here you clearly see tension arise between geographical areas. It reminds me of how the steam engine was invented in the UK a century ago. If you did not participate in the steam engine at the time, you did not participate in the industrial revolution. That way, certain areas of the world have subsided. Including China. They missed out on the industrial revolution. Today there’s 5G, digitization, AI. Who's on board? That’s right. China.

We will soon be living inside the robot.

According to your book, there are two futures for humanity: 1) we are dying out; or 2) we are being encapsulated in a next evolutionary complexity level; quite the statement. 

Yes, we are not replaced by robots as many may believe. Rather, the robot is growing around us, or, we will soon be living inside the robot. This is an idea that I want people to understand because we do not experience it that way now. Human beings are not the dominant species on earth. Although it’s seductive to think of human beings as the dominant species on earth, many others play important roles too. Bacteria, insects, algae colonies, and the technological systems with which we are co-evolving all have a dynamism and an agenda of their own, separate from the human perspective. Now, a huge robot is growing around us in which we are encapsulated.

What exactly do you mean by that?

The sum of all technological systems. 

As a solution, do you think we should organize ourselves as a superorganism?

When looking at all the past steps in evolution, it’s tempting to imagine what's next. The next step in my view is the jump to the memetic organism. Instead of denying that we are part of a superorganism. We must embrace the superorganism.

Hearing the term ‘superorganism’ I’m reminded by a group of organisms—such as ant colonies—that function in an organized way. Though the Next Nature lens there are similarities to be found between the roles that different systems play in society. E.g. The network of communication channels could be seen as the nervous system; Roads as its artery; Sewage as its intestines; and so on. Is the superorganism a metaphor?

We need metaphors to understand things. Without metaphors, there are no ideas. Then the metaphor reaches up to a certain point and things change again. I can make a parallel between a cell made up of molecules and a multicellular being made up of individuals. This is also a metaphor. They just function slightly differently. These memetic organisms will therefore also function differently as we know them from ant colonies. Metaphors can help us understand. It’s actually a form of biomimicry.

At which levels does a superorganism exist?

Given, the term is a bit ambiguous. It actually means no more than a composite organism. And so a superorganism can exist on different levels. An anthill is a superorganism, but so is a human. The human body is composed of trillions of cells. In that sense, it doesn't say much. I use the term because it could help us in the introduction phase we are in right now. If you want to interpret it more precisely, we should be talking about memetic organisms. It becomes more clear to distinguish between different types. Think, for example, of plant cells and animal cells, which have evolved side by side and have existed for billions of years, without having anything to do with each other.

To what extent can the superorganism contribute to stabilizing the planet?

That brings me to the superorganism as James Lovelock formulated in his Gaia theory. Lovelock states that the sum of life can also be seen as an organism, regulating all conditions of life on earth that are beneficial for life. Life builds upon life. This is not new. Because life has arisen on earth, it is now less hot on earth than it would be if there were no life on earth. As a result, life has provided for itself that it can continue to exist.

You are known as an optimist. Any words to the pessimist?

It takes more imagination to envision a world in which you want to live yourself, than to imagine a dystopia where everything goes wrong. Pessimists often confuse it with naivety. We should stay away from that. A utopian may push the problems out of the frame of today because the future will solve it. We must avoid that. In that sense, optimism is a duty.

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