Anab Jain: Hello every­one. Good morn­ing. I’m going to go straight into it. So, over the Christmas hol­i­days last year, I found this news­pa­per clip­ping at my par­ents’ home: 

It’s prob­a­bly one of my first design projects. Cue I was much younger and less cyn­i­cal.” In response to a com­pe­ti­tion by Apple Computers, we as stu­dents at the National Institute of Design in India devel­oped a con­cept for the elder­ly com­mu­ni­ty of Ahmedabad, my home­town. We embraced human-centered design, work­ing to under­stand the com­mu­ni­ty’s local, contextual-specific needs, anx­i­eties and desires. And this process informed our final out­come, a hand-held tes­sel­lat­ing micro­com­put­er with giant icons. And here we are try­ing to explain it to the then-CEO of Apple Gilbert Amelio. 

I men­tion this at the out­set because you will see in my talk that I have since moved from this posi­tion. Today, I lead the design stu­dio Superflux with my part­ner Jon Ardern. And this is a quick glimpse of some of our work. We design tan­gi­ble, vis­cer­al, emo­tion­al expe­ri­en­tial futures. This sort of work has recent­ly been giv­en lots of labels: spec­u­la­tive design, design fic­tion, expe­ri­en­tial design, world-building. Although I feel that I tend to shy away from such labels because it’s too ear­ly days to give such a big label to a prac­tice that is still evolving. 

But I think it’s impor­tant to say that one thing about our work is that we are not fix­at­ed on the future as a strict lin­ear pro­gres­sion. We start by acknowl­edg­ing the fact that the future is not a fixed des­ti­na­tion but a constantly-shifting and unfold­ing space of diverse poten­tial. We intend to com­bine the strate­gies of fore­sight and spec­u­la­tion with lis­ten­ing, observ­ing, mak­ing, and doing, to cre­ate an out­come that has nuance, gran­u­lar­i­ty, emo­tion­al res­o­nance, and insight. But like any one of you run­ning a small stu­dio, I’m deeply entrenched in the every­day­ness of my prac­tice, man­ag­ing and nego­ti­at­ing projects, clients, dates, and deadlines. 

So today I would like to take a step back and look at our work, our prac­tice, and where we are head­ing from a dis­tance. Because I believe that spaces like this con­fer­ence are the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to reflect on what the state of our pro­fes­sion is and see our work from new per­spec­tives. So, thanks Roberta Tassi and IxDA for this invi­ta­tion. It’s a privilege. 

Perhaps the best, or maybe the worst place to start this is by expos­ing my worst fear. I’m scared of death. But not as scared as I used to be. From around the age of ten to my ear­ly teens, I col­lect­ed in the archive of my head hun­dreds of my imag­ined deaths. Traveling in the train through the dark Indian desert I would imag­ine being shot from some­where out in the dis­tance. Or rush­ing through the chaot­ic Ahmedabad traf­fic I would imag­ine the rail­way bridge falling down on me. 

It was not like there was a dearth of imagery and mytholo­gies where I grew up which might have leant a help­ing hand to my rather mor­bid imag­i­na­tion. For instance this 17th cen­tu­ry cloth paint­ing depicts sev­en hells of Jainism and var­i­ous tor­tures suf­fered in them. The tor­tures of this hell are so bru­tal to describe but involve all sorts of sev­ered bod­ies, drinks of molten lead and cop­per, and shack­les. And of course the leg­endary ghost haunt­ing the cross­roads at the end of my road did­n’t help.

Even though it would have been easy enough, I resist­ed the lure of reli­gious spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and instead found my spir­i­tu­al home in cin­e­ma. But we know that reli­gious mes­sages can be very pow­er­ful. There is a strong focus on reli­gions because reli­gion can be thought of as a cul­tur­al sys­tem of mean­ing that helps to solve prob­lems of uncer­tain­ty, pow­er­less­ness, and scarci­ty that death cre­ates,” said Elizabeth MacKinlay in Aging and Spirituality Across Faiths and Cultures.

Recently I’ve been reflect­ing a fair bit on this. How we do or don’t acknowl­edge aging and death here in the West. I won­der if cel­e­brat­ing aging and acknowl­edg­ing death, per­haps even rit­u­al­iz­ing it, might help us embrace tran­sience and tem­po­rari­ness, help us come to terms with the fact that our time is a finite resource, and our place and what we relate to is also finite. 

Somehow it feels like we have cre­at­ed no capac­i­ty to deal with the finite. It feels like there’s a hubris that we have accept­ed sub­con­scious­ly, where lin­ear, forward-moving, infinite growth seems like the nat­ur­al and inevitable order of things. A bit like this paint­ing by John Gast titled Spirit of the Frontier” in the 19th cen­tu­ry. There’s Columbia, the glow­ing, heav­en­ly woman in the cen­ter mov­ing west­ward with the inno­v­a­tive tele­graph in her hand whilst wag­ons, then stage­coach­es, then trains all move with her. 

This paint­ing is almost a pro­pa­gan­da, icon­ic of how the Western expan­sion by the Americans was seen as a glo­ri­ous and right­eous thing.* In real­i­ty how­ev­er, this image excludes some of the more com­plex and prob­lem­at­ic aspects of this move­ment. For instance, for the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions and a lot of the wildlife it was not quite as serene and romantic. 

Here is anoth­er icon of the myth of progress, the graph. Usually a con­tin­u­ous line between the coor­di­nate axes, trac­ing a tra­jec­to­ry through a scat­ter­ing of dots. Wherever they clus­ter togeth­er, the line runs through them to mark the aver­age pat­tern. The idea is to fit” a gen­er­al trend­line that min­i­mizes the vari­a­tions of the actu­al empir­i­cal obser­va­tions along it.* In this instance, it’s the graph of the gross domes­tic prod­uct, the GDP, the sym­bol of eco­nom­ic growth and mar­ket value. 

If we were to zoom into the graph to look at the last cou­ple of hun­dred years, we see that apart from a few hic­cups we’ve been mov­ing upwards. Moving up to no idea where. Just like the paint­ing in the pre­vi­ous slide, such graphs of eco­nom­ic growth are deeply polit­i­cal. They sim­pli­fy and exclude a more trou­bling and com­plex reality. 

When seen against anoth­er fair­ly sim­i­lar graph, but this time that of species which have gone extinct in the same peri­od, it’s quite shock­ing. And one real­izes that this kind of progress can only be cel­e­brat­ed as a vic­to­ry in isolation. 

Because as soon as you fac­tor in the exter­nal and oth­er exter­nal­i­ties of its achieve­ment, it’s no longer such a clear-cut upward-moving trajectory. 

But we’ve been con­di­tioned to read progress and growth through such visu­al instru­ments. These numer­i­cal ren­ders, like archi­tec­tur­al ren­ders, have become leit­mo­tifs for growth, progress, com­fort, assur­ance, and secu­ri­ty. That every uncer­tain­ty can be cal­cu­lat­ed and mea­sured and become a know­able risk. As authors of the man­i­festo Speculate This! would argue, These instru­ments ren­der firm the uncer­tain future, enclos­ing us with­in a rel­a­tive­ly secure horizon—a fir­ma­ment as it were, seem­ing­ly fixed over the earth.

Another graph that illus­trates a coun­ter­point to lin­ear eco­nom­ic progress is this one, which we have been study­ing in our stu­dio for a while. Produced by NASA, it charts the glob­al land-ocean tem­per­a­ture index. It’s a famil­iar graph. It gives an idea of pro­ject­ed glob­al warm­ing. Beyond the sin­gle vec­tor of tem­per­a­ture rise there are many more com­plex prob­lems. Such pro­jec­tions sug­gest­ed by 2050, per capi­ta food con­sump­tion will grow from thirty-two kilos today to fifty-two kilos, along with increased volatil­i­ty in price and pro­duc­tion. It is also esti­mat­ed that with­out appro­pri­ate mea­sures, farm­ers in the future need to pro­duce 50 to 100% per­cent more food than they cur­rent­ly do. 

On the oth­er hand, increase in heavy rain­fall events might lead to much more flood­ing, destroyed crops, as well as dev­as­tat­ing food stores, assets, and agri­cul­tur­al land.* As a result con­sumers are like­ly to be unable to pur­chase ade­quate foodstuffs. 

Based on such prob­lems, last year at Superflux we worked on a project called Mitigation of Shock explor­ing one pos­si­ble future where the Western world has moved from abun­dance to scarci­ty. We imag­ined liv­ing in a future city with repeat­ed flood­ing, eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty, peri­ods with almost no food in super­mar­kets, and bro­ken sup­ply chains. What can we do to not just sur­vive but pros­per in such a world? What food can we eat? 

To real­ly get inside these ques­tions we did a ton of live pro­to­typ­ing. We imag­ined that a lot of our homes would become spaces for food pro­duc­tion. And so we built food com­put­ers from scratch using the tech­nique or fogponics—so just fog, no water or even soil to grow things quick­ly. We want­ed to build them in the cheap­est way pos­si­ble from sal­vaged, aban­doned, and used waste mate­ri­als, turn­ing today’s waste into tomor­row’s din­ner. Let me give you a quick glimpse of the final doc­u­men­ta­tion of this project. 

Still from Mitigation of Shock doc­u­men­ta­tion video

The instal­la­tion trans­ports you into a London flat, per­haps around 2050 or so, when my son will be around my age. At first glance, a seem­ing­ly com­fort­able liv­ing space designed for a world of auto­mat­ed liv­ing, glob­al trade, and mate­r­i­al abun­dance. But then on clos­er inspec­tion a real­iza­tion that the apart­ment has been adapt­ed to a future it was nev­er meant to inhab­it. Discarded news­pa­pers and a radio show reflect the ten­sion of this new world. A smart pan­el con­stant­ly ask­ing the fridge to reset itself with milk, but where is the milk to be bought? 

Amongst the detri­tus of now-obsolete smart devices and design­er goods lives a new real­i­ty formed by the impact of cli­mate change. Recipes in the kitchen reflect the change in food pro­duc­tion, stor­age, and consumption. 

Experimental food pro­duc­tion now occu­pies a space once giv­en to relax­ation, trans­form­ing the apart­ment into a space for grow­ing and pro­duc­ing food. Resourcefully hacked-together con­sumer items: IKEA shelves, dec­o­ra­tive fog mak­ers, com­put­er fans, pro­gram­ma­ble micro­com­put­ers. Fog ooz­ing out of these con­trap­tions, blind­ing pur­ple light, myceli­um, snails, [?], all bear­ing fruit in the blast­ed ruins of cap­i­tal­ism. Looking beyond, there lies a city famil­iar yet alien.

Currently this project is in show at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona till the end of April. So if you hap­pen to be there I would of course rec­om­mend you to go and have a look. 

The thing to say about this is that this is not a pre­dic­tion, but it’s not a ren­der either. The inten­tion of such a spec­u­la­tive approach with­in hands-on exper­i­men­ta­tion is that it offers us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to very direct­ly step into a famil­iar space to con­front our fears but also to show con­crete ways in which we can mit­i­gate the shock of cli­mate change. It’s a space that nur­tures hope and desire for trans­for­ma­tive action with aware­ness and respon­si­bil­i­ty for its consequences.

Jon Ardern, who led this project, and my col­leagues from Superflux had nev­er built a food com­put­er before. In prac­ti­cal terms it meant con­stant test­ing, work­ing with tri­als and errors, to find, for­age, build­ing impro­vised tools and mate­ri­als in order to make things work. It was relent­less and we had our share of acci­dents. But we learned a lot. The stu­dio began to resem­ble a mad sci­en­tist’s lab. This is the view of what hap­pened around my desk in the days lead­ing up to the build. 

We have put up all the recipes of our food com­put­ers and how to build these foods stacks on Instructables, and we are hop­ing to share it much more wide­ly for all who are inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing such projects themselves. 

But some­thing much more dif­fi­cult to put on Instructables, or share as wide­ly, is what this form of spec­u­la­tive com­mit­ment can mean as a prac­ti­tion­er. The project gave birth to new rela­tion­ships as we moved from just mak­ing things to mak­ing things that grow. Of course, for us foresters grow trees, and farm­ers grow wheat. But with­in our world of design, the focus on the prod­uct or the arti­fact has always been the embod­i­ment of the out­come. Here instead we began to focus on the organ­ism rather than the arti­fact. By sus­pend­ing pots with seeds in basins of nutri­ent fog, we saw how roots were born, how they were formed and grew into these del­i­cate ecolo­gies. How they trans­formed and died, or grew incessantly. 

One of the things that I found myself get­ting increas­ing­ly attached and fas­ci­nat­ed to was the hum­ble mushroom—this myceli­um that we tried to grow in so many ways. One of the things that we used was cof­fee grounds, and then we began to exper­i­ment with using old card­board pack­ag­ing and PVC-based pipes for struc­tur­al sup­port. And then we used Arduinos and ultra­son­ic fog to con­trol the humid­i­ty in this DIY polythene-clad box which became our fruit­ing chamber. 

For a while noth­ing much hap­pened. And then it began to find its right envi­ron­ment, or rather our human activ­i­ties and dis­tur­bances, both planned and unplanned, had cre­at­ed the opti­mum con­di­tions for them to grow. 

And even­tu­al­ly it began to grow into these beau­ti­ful, brightly-colored and quite deli­cious forms. 

This direct expe­ri­ence drew us into the world of many inter­act­ing species. It pro­vid­ed a use­ful van­tage point for know­ing our­selves as par­tic­i­pants in a more com­plex human, and non­hu­man rela­tion­ship. These exper­i­ments also led me to revis­it mul­ti­species anthro­pol­o­gist Anne Galloway’s texts, where she writes, Complementary ways of think­ing, doing, and mak­ing empha­size the prac­tice of care and imagination—and the chal­lenge is to work with, not against, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, humil­i­ty and inter­de­pen­dence.

Interdependence is a pow­er­ful con­cept for me, where dif­fer­ent par­tic­i­pants, human and non-human, are emo­tion­al­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, eco­log­i­cal­ly, or moral­ly inter­de­pen­dent on each oth­er.* And this reliance is acknowl­edged. I think this per­spec­tive is some­thing that would be very mean­ing­ful for all of us to con­sid­er whether via inter­ac­tion, ser­vice, UX design­ers, entre­pre­neurs, researchers, or peo­ple who put things out in the world for oth­ers to use. 

Our pro­fes­sion, and those we serve, after very long time has final­ly come to the idea of human-centered design, and it is impor­tant for many rea­sons, specif­i­cal­ly when design­ing for diverse use of com­mu­ni­ties. But, in a broad­er con­text, what if we deny that humans are excep­tion­al? What if we stop speak­ing and lis­ten­ing only to our­selves?* Learning from our own prac­tice and inspired by the work of numer­ous schol­ars like Anne Galloway, Anna Tsing, Sarah Whatmore, Dorion Sagan, Alex Taylor, Donna Haraway, and many more, today I would like to move beyond the human need and think of a big­ger pic­ture and instead con­sid­er the idea of a more-than-human-centered approach where human beings are not at the cen­ter of the uni­verse and are not at the cen­ter of every­thing. Where we con­sid­er our­selves as deeply entan­gled in rela­tion­ships with oth­er species, both human and nonhuman. 

This image illus­trates this con­cept beau­ti­ful­ly. It is The Illustrated Amanac by Jo Law, who shows us mul­ti­ple forms of time, for both humans and non­hu­mans in her cal­en­dar months. So you have a time when the autumn equinox hap­pens, when the flock of birds will move, when the swal­lows will leave. You know, all the things that we nev­er real­ly con­sid­er in our timespans. 

As Mitchell Whitelaw says, we encounter a cal­en­dar that marks and respects a live­ly world, a tem­po­ral tan­gle of humans, non­hu­mans, plan­ets and sub­stances.

This is going to be increas­ing­ly impor­tant to con­sid­er for us as design­ers, an aware­ness that we are design­ing for our iso­lat­ed and insu­lar iden­ti­ties. We are actu­al­ly more than that. For instance, if we look inwards at our own bod­ies which are such com­plex, unique ecosys­tems with tril­lions of liv­ing organ­isms. One way to help visu­al­ize what this actu­al­ly means is to ask, what if the cells of our bod­ies sud­den­ly dis­ap­peared? Ecosystem biol­o­gist Claire Folsome answers this beautifully:

What would remain would be a ghost­ly image, the skin out­lined by a shim­mer of bac­te­ria, fun­gi, round worms, pin worms and var­i­ous oth­er micro­bial inhab­i­tants. The gut would appear as a dense­ly packed tube of anaer­o­bic and aer­o­bic bac­te­ria, yeasts, and oth­er microor­gan­isms. Could one look in more detail, virus­es of hun­dreds of kinds would be appar­ent to through­out all tis­sues. We are far from unique. Any ani­mal or plant would would prove to be a sim­i­lar seething zoo of microbes.
Claire Folsome, 1985 [slide]

And beyond our bod­ies and minds we are at a point in his­to­ry where we need to re-engage with the idea that we are more than indi­vid­ual soci­eties. As peo­ple we have rela­tion­ships with the envi­ron­ment, with the ecosys­tems, and with the tools we cre­ate to shape the world. All these things are in rela­tion­ships with us. And yet it feels like we are in con­di­tions where we are going about exert­ing all of it as if what we design has no con­se­quences on these rela­tion­ships. The fact is that we are always in inter­meshed and inter­con­nect­ed with every­thing around us. 

Climate change is an illus­tra­tion of this writ large across our futures. This is an image from flood­ing in Mumbai last sum­mer which I expe­ri­enced very briefly. Intense flash flood­ing last­ing a few days, a peri­od of utter chaos both infra­struc­tur­al and emotional. 

Unless you are there, you will nev­er know. And no, vir­tu­al real­i­ty will nev­er help us under­stand that. We can pre­tend to be car­toon char­ac­ters hav­ing fun in a vir­tu­al dis­as­ter zone, dis­con­nect­ing the world from what’s going on.

Live from vir­tu­al real­i­ty — tele­port­ing to Puerto Rico to dis­cuss our part­ner­ship with NetHope and American Red Cross to restore con­nec­tiv­i­ty and rebuild communities.

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, October 92017

This is Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook test­ing out their vir­tu­al real­i­ty gad­gets, at the back­drop of Puerto Rico flooding. 

This ani­ma­tion from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program reveals the scale and inten­si­ty of cli­mate change. The sci­en­tists at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change warn that a three to four degrees rise in tem­per­a­ture could hap­pen by 2050 with­out strong action on emis­sions, which will have a glob­al GDP loss of 0.75 to 2.5 caus­ing a 40% reduc­tion in corn, maize, and oth­er agri­cul­ture prod­ucts. We haven’t quite worked out the sys­temic strate­gies for this yet, but I do believe that a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the non­hu­man rela­tion­ships will become much more press­ing if we want to. 

One quite poignant sto­ry from a recent field trip which I made with my stu­dents in Vienna, where I lead a pro­gram in design inves­ti­ga­tions exem­pli­fies this urgency. This year in the stu­dio, we are inves­ti­gat­ing the theme called After Abundance,” specif­i­cal­ly look­ing at the impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change on Austrian life. As part of this trip we met with some home­own­ers in the Rubach Valley near Sibratsgfäll in the alpine region of Austria, who gave us a guid­ed tour of their homes. 

A short peri­od of heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion and rapid melt­ing of the snow in the spring 1999 ini­ti­at­ed a cat­a­stroph­ic land­slide.* Their hous­es moved by about 700 meters and went on a slant. It was nau­se­at­ing to walk inside the stilt­ed house. Many peo­ple lost their house, oth­ers found that their house had moved into their neigh­bor’s house, and nobody quite knew how to deal with this extreme kind of loss of property. 

The geo­log­i­cal shifts and melt­ing glac­i­ers means that these kind of shifts con­tin­ue to hap­pen. The local vil­lagers made this lone, tilt­ing met­al cube one top of a moun­tain as a liv­ing memo­r­i­al to the con­tin­u­ous land­slips in the Alps. Some home­own­ers are fight­ing for law­mak­ers to cre­ate mov­able bor­ders, while oth­ers want to build float­ing houses. 

What came into sharp focus with this vis­it was that cli­mate change phys­i­cal­ly moves and col­lides with the human-made bor­ders, man-made bor­ders that we have cre­at­ed. And like the vil­lagers here, work­ing with the dynam­ic non-human ebbs and flows will become critical. 

This, what it shows is that the anthro­pocen­tric view is not help­ful. The belief that any species or envi­ron­ment of poten­tial use to humans is sim­ply a resource to be exploit­ed. This is a video of radioac­tive tox­ic waste being dumped in the arti­fi­cial lake in Baotou in Inner Mongolia. It’s a film by Tim Maughan as part of the Unknown Fields Division field trip. It is the byprod­uct of cre­at­ing mate­ri­als used for every­day life, from mag­nets to wind tur­bines to pol­ish­ing iPhones. As Ursula LeGuin says, All we have, we have tak­en from the earth; and, tak­ing with ever-increasing speed, we now return lit­tle but what is ster­ile or poisoned.” 

But what if we flip the view, observe how we are doing from the points of view of oth­er non­hu­man enti­ties? The German the­ater group Rimini Protokoll did just that in their lat­est work, win > < win. The work gets us to see our­selves from an anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive in rela­tion­ship to jel­ly­fish. The work calls atten­tion to the fact that com­pared to so many oth­er crea­tures, we as humans are so deeply vul­ner­a­ble and unpre­pared for what the future holds.

Lisa-Ann Gershwin, the Australian marine biol­o­gist and jel­ly­fish expert says that glob­al warm­ing, plas­tic in oceans, pol­lu­tions, every­thing that kills marine life becomes the per­fect con­di­tions for jel­ly­fish to thrive. We are in this crazy, unfore­seen, and incom­pre­hen­si­ble sit­u­a­tion where we are com­pet­ing against jel­ly­fish. And they are winning.”

It is mes­mer­iz­ing to watch the jel­ly­fish trans­form with each move­ment. They can squeeze their bone­less bod­ies through impos­si­bly tiny open­ings or join their expand­ed bells to cov­er vast stretch­es of ocean. It goes to show that what­ev­er the conditions—a man­made plague or nat­ur­al oscillation—jellyfish have a remark­able abil­i­ty to shift depend­ing on how you look at them. As we head into this uncer­tain envi­ron­men­tal future, these crea­tures pro­vide a much-needed reminder of both the per­ils of shift­ing ecosys­tems and the impor­tance of per­spec­tive.*

An illus­tra­tion of this type of per­spec­tive is embod­ied by the Māori tribes in New Zealand, who regard them­selves as part of the uni­verse, at one and equal with the moun­tains, the rivers, and the seas.* So they fought a 140 year-long legal bat­tle and final­ly won the case last year to grant the Whanganui River the same legal rights as a human being. Meaning that it would be treat­ed as a liv­ing enti­ty, as an indi­vis­i­ble whole, instead of the tra­di­tion­al mod­el for the last hun­dred years of treat­ing it from the per­spec­tive of own­er­ship and man­age­ment.*

The spokesper­son for the Māori tribe said, We can trace our geneal­o­gy to the ori­gins of the uni­verse. And there­fore rather than us being mas­ters of the nat­ur­al world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our start­ing point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the riv­er but to begin with the view that it is a liv­ing being, and then con­sid­er its future from that cen­tral belief.” 

These cru­cial exten­sions of law are based on eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples rarely rec­og­nized since the indus­tri­al age. But this is how indige­nous peo­ple have long treat­ed nature. People and gov­ern­ments can step into the shoes of nature. When peo­ple wit­ness the fail­ure of the gov­ern­ment to uphold nature’s rights, they can bring cas­es on its behalf.*

This is pre­cise­ly what my stu­dents recent­ly pro­posed in a project explor­ing the impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change in Austria. They cre­at­ed a Declaration of Rights of Natural Entities in Austria and took the exam­ple of a very icon­ic and mon­u­men­tal glac­i­er that is rapid­ly melt­ing. What would it mean to restore the dig­ni­ty of the glacier? 

In this project, a legal case was filed by the local author­i­ty of Tyrol in Austria, act­ing on behalf of the glac­i­er, and it results in a civ­il ser­vice equal to 10,000 hours of multi­gen­er­a­tional human work to reestab­lish the dig­ni­ty of this glac­i­er by recre­at­ing the for­mer ice sheet. And why so many hours? It turns out that it takes one meter of snow to com­press it to one cen­time­ter of glacial ice. And this process can take up to 100 years. Dignity comes from age, but here it is rein­forced through legal status.

At a time of accel­er­at­ing species extinc­tion, ecosys­tem col­lapse, and cli­mate change, such real and spec­u­la­tive com­mit­ments sug­gest a change in the rela­tion­ships we have with the nat­ur­al world. Such work sug­gests that non­hu­mans and humans can become col­lab­o­ra­tors and can form new kinds of inter­ac­tions and relationships. 

Apart from cli­mate change I think there’s anoth­er rea­son to con­sid­er this form of inter­de­pen­dence, because of some­thing prob­a­bly much clos­er to home. Today, we are already liv­ing amidst oth­er kinds of non­hu­man enti­ties. Increasingly autonomous things and sys­tems that we are build­ing which appear fun, and con­ve­nient, make life easy, and are very seduc­tive. But beneath the gloss of thse visions it is becom­ing obvi­ous how these com­put­ers, tools, machines, that we have cre­at­ed in order to mas­ter the world are remas­ter­ing us, our pol­i­tics, the way we relate to each oth­er and the world around us. 

These auto­mat­ed all-seeing machines and deep learn­ing sys­tems are essen­tial­ly becom­ing autonomous to the point that they are mak­ing deci­sions on our behalf. From the most banal machine learn­ing rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tems that urge us to buy more of what we liked yes­ter­day, to those rec­og­niz­ing our faces, bod­ies, move­ments, and emo­tions, tar­get­ing infor­ma­tion to us accord­ing­ly and also chan­nel­ing our data to those who would prof­it from it, and infer­ring deci­sions based on this data. 

Machine Bias, ProPublica

And we have seen through the work of many researchers and jour­nal­ists how these tools are mak­ing their way into sys­tems that deeply affect our democ­ra­cy. Not only the way we con­sume the news and events in the world and dis­cuss pol­i­tics, but also how crim­i­nals are con­vict­ed and the bias­es for that as well as oth­er fun­da­men­tal mech­a­nisms of government. 

And slow­ly, this tra­jec­to­ry of auton­o­my is mov­ing beyond our own under­stand­ing. Last year Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research lab used machine learn­ing to devel­op dia­log agents that could nego­ti­ate to come to a deci­sion. Just like as humans we have dis­agree­ments, then we nego­ti­ate in order to come to a com­mon deci­sion, they want­ed two autonomous bots to be able to nego­ti­ate with­out any human interference. 

At one point the researchers had to tweak one of their mod­els because oth­er­wise the bot-to-bot con­ver­sa­tion led to diver­gence from human lan­guage as the agents began to devel­op their own lan­guage for nego­ti­at­ing.* So basi­cal­ly they were com­mu­ni­cat­ing in a non­hu­man lan­guage. And this is just one glimpse of how the things we are begin­ning to build are begin­ning to do things that we do not under­stand or have ever imagined.

Along this tra­jec­to­ry is DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero algo­rithm, which uses rein­forced learn­ing in a way that has nev­er been used before. That is, it does not need any human data to make deci­sions. By not using human data or human exper­tise, we’ve actu­al­ly removed the con­straints of human knowl­edge. It’s able to cre­ate knowl­edge by itself, from first prin­ci­ples,” said David Silver, the lead researcher at DeepMind and a pro­fes­sor at University College London. 

What does this mean? What does this mean to have autonomous sys­tems who don’t need any human knowl­edge? What does this mean if we we’re to imag­ine liv­ing with such sys­tems as they become more and more ubiquitous? 

Scholar Katherine Hayles describes our cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal con­di­tion, As we move deep­er into a high­ly tech­no­log­i­cal regime, and as the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture sur­round­ing us becomes more and more com­plex, it becomes increas­ing­ly obvi­ous that human agency can­not ever be seen in iso­la­tion from the sys­tems with which humans are in con­stant and con­sti­tu­tive inter­ac­tion.” We need to think about what we are mak­ing not sim­ply as tools to do our bid­ding but rather as coin­hab­i­tants of the same com­plex eco­log­i­cal sys­tem in which we all live. 

In the same way as we have shaped our envi­ron­ment, it’s becom­ing appar­ent that the tools that we cre­ate to shape the world are also shap­ing us. We don’t exist in iso­la­tion; we nev­er have. But now we’re enter­ing a time where we can no longer live in the illu­sion of iso­la­tion. We can either embrace this new under­stand­ing and work with its impli­ca­tions, or face the hubris of our inaction. 

I want to con­clude with a call to arms. A call to close­ly con­sid­er our rela­tion­ships both human and non­hu­man with the world with­in which we live and work. A call to con­sid­er our­selves in rela­tion­ships with, not as mas­ters of, the deep ecol­o­gy around and with­in us. And to embody this in our actions. 

I leave you with this quote from my friend Anne Galloway, who shared it. Think light­ly of your­self and deeply of the world.” Thank you.

Further Reference

Presentation list­ing

Interview with Superflux about Mitigation of Shock, at the Center for Contemporary Culture site