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

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.