From an artificial mountain to a lab-grown hamburger, James Pallister finds the Next Nature Power Show in Amsterdam full of new ways that man is shaping nature
In his 1973 documentary series The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski describes how fortuitous genetic mutations of the corn plant helped man change from leading a nomadic life, to a settled one based on agriculture. This, says Bronowski, was a crucial hinge point for mankind, helping him switch from being beholden to nature, to shaping it.
Cut to a theatre in central Amsterdam in November 2011. Academics, scientists, designers and artists from around the globe assembled to give 20 five-minute lectures, each one exploring radical ways in which our relationship is changing. The atmosphere of the Next Nature Power Show felt a little like what I imagine a Silicon Valley launch to be like. Men in braces and logo-ed T-shirts hand out small cocktail glasses of pink yoghurt – laced with anti-depressants – to an audience that had all paid €25 for a ticket and were dressed for a night out.
Bounding on to the stage in a smart suit and big smile, the six-foot-plus curator and master of ceremonies Koert van Mensvoort laid down the evening’s guiding thesis. ‘Our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonic is naive and up for reconsideration. Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places.’ Van Mensvoort used the examples of stock exchanges and the internet as man-made systems now out of their makers’ control. Van Mensvoort asked us to embrace our status and ‘see ourselves not as the anti-natural species, but rather as catalysts for evolution’.
A rapid fire of presentations followed. The sports journalist Thijs Zonneveld told of his proposals to build the Netherlands’ first mountain. Frustrated with the lack of hill training opportunities in the country, the former pro cyclist wrote a speculative column that suggested building a mountain for cycle training. The day after, he was inundated with supportive emails championing the idea. Architects drew up visualisations, soon investors were sniffing around, and the possibilities of the programme spiralled; the bike training mountain could encompass flats, leisure resorts, farms, a lake and hydro-electric facilities. Zonnefeld is now in talks with investors and has stock for sale.
Architect Rachel Armstrong spoke of her Living Architecture project, which showed how self-replicating structures could be used to ameliorate the condition of Venice’s sinking piles. Gordan Savicic introduced the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine that offers its users a way to permanently delete their Facebook and other social media profiles. Some projects were more weird: Arne Hendriks made the case for genetically modifying humans over the course of a few centuries to shrink them, halving their average weight and reducing their calorie requirements. He said downsizing the human species to 50 centimetres would bring its use of the Earth’s resources back into scale.
Scientist Mark Post declared that he would make the world’s first lab-grown hamburger by next year and described how the practical process could be taken into larger-scale production and introduced to the market. It was interesting to contrast Post’s simple but compelling presentation with that of several of the designers dealing in synthetic biology – including Lucy McRae and her swallowable perfume – for whom the drama and aesthetics of science paraphernalia, white coats, centrifuges and the like, are part of their act.
The evening’s format, swift delivery and broad subjects owe a debt to the massive changes the internet has brought. At the post-event drinks and DJ set, I bumped into Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and long-time chronicler of the ‘Cyberpunk’ generation, and asked what he made of it all. These people are part of the interdisciplinary generation, he told me, drawing upon a computer programming analogy to illustrate the restless mode of enquiry that sees people flit from subject to subject, sometimes with not entirely positive effects.
In her live review of the show’s accompanying book, Régine Debatty of the We Make Money Not Art blog, described a feeling of stumbling upon a room full of polymaths. There is a downside to this omnivorous approach that feeds off and encourages a short attention span: at its worst a kind of dumb vapidity where everything is ‘cool’, ‘interesting’, or ‘amazing’ but nothing is really understood.
As the evening hammered home, technology changes us as much as vice versa. The implications of the last decade’s massive increase in availability, frequency, transmission and dispersion of information and the type of new stimuli they offer have yet to be grasped. They may not all be benign, as several recent books explore. In 2008’s Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf explored the idea that long-form reading was a honed skill, easily lost; ‘The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its achilles heel. It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited.’ While familiarity with the novels of Jane Austen may not be a major prerequisite of human advancement, there may be negative, longer-term impacts of becoming too accustomed to the saccharin rush of the delivery or transmission of a new nugget of information. Nicholas Carr argued in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brainsthat the internet is a medium based on interruption. As such, it discourages the kind of deep reading that has been instrumental in making significant research breakthroughs until now.
Whether or not we go for this gloomy prognosis, the presentations pressed home the idea that our tools of learning and exploration have become part of us and are not something we can easily put down. In his essay Technology as Forms of Life, philosopher of science, Langdon Winner called our failure to explore the effect of long-term use of technology, ‘technological somnambulism’. The Next Nature movement is about trying to shake ourselves out of this sleepwalk.
The people in that room in Amsterdam dealt with these issues, and each in their own – sometimes eccentric – way, explored their impact on how we live. New technology may result in attempts to control the weather, replacing a dodgy hip with a new socket grown from stem cells, or creating our Sunday roast in the lab. As a society, we need to think very carefully about the implications of these developments. To paraphrase the French politician Georges Clemenceau, it’s too important to leave it to the specialists.