‘Nature has become a product’
Koert van Mensvoort on technology as our next nature
Nature and technology are not diametrically opposed to each other, but are intertwined. And have been for a very long time. So says artist, technologist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort. According to his Next Nature philosophy, nature has become a product and we need technology to shape our future. “We don’t need to go back, but rather forward to nature. And that is inextricably linked to technology.” A plea for a new, creative view of technology as our next nature.
By making video games at the end of the eighties, Koert van Mensvoort belonged to the first generation of whizz kids. He studied computer science, philosophy and art, worked as a researcher at the Center for User-System Interaction (1998-2003), as a lecturer at the Sandberg Institute (2002-2006) and as Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (2008). He is currently Next Nature Fellow at Eindhoven University of Technology, board member of the Society of Arts at the Royal Academy of Sciences and commissioner of the Dutch broadcaster VPRO. And he is the founder of the Next Nature Network; an international network of makers, thinkers, educators and supporters, with members in 44 countries who are interested in the debate about our future.
‘If you talk about technology, most people think of things that have an electric plug. But it’s so much more than that’
In director Van Mensvoort’s vision of the future, biology and technology are fused together. “For many people, nature and technology are opposed to each other, like day and night. I contend that technology is so omnipresent and autonomous around us, that we experience it as a nature in itself, as a next nature.” According to his philosophy, this means that nature and technology are firmly intertwined. “Originally, technology was used to free us from the forces of nature. It started with a roof over our heads. We moved on to growing food and wearing clothes. These are all technological developments that we do not regard as such. If you talk about technology, most people think of things that have an electric plug. But it’s so much more than that. Everyone sees the computer as information technology but, actually, so is the alphabet. In the meantime, technology has developed to such an extent that it now has its own natural dynamic, which is perhaps as unpredictable as nature. What I want is to give people a richer picture of both technology and nature.”
Also as far as nature is concerned, we have completely the wrong impression, according to Van Mensvoort. “Many people envisage a Bambi-style nature: beautiful, harmonious, balanced. But nature has become a product. Ideal for marketing; stick the label ‘natural’ on a bottle of shampoo and it sells like hot cakes. In my book ‘Next Nature’ I literally say: ‘Sex sells. But nature sells more’. Simply because of the idyllic image we have of nature. Even though that same nature also produces volcanic eruptions, floods, infections and death. Apparently, they’re not the first things we think of when it comes to nature.”
According to ‘Van Mensvoort’s Law’, the global financial system, mega-cities and the internet can also be considered forces of nature
To give us a greater understanding of what nature and technology actually are, Van Mensvoort launches new definitions in four flavours in his book. According to the philosophical artist and artistic philosopher, there is no dichotomy, but we need to view the two concepts as a scale division: from ‘born’ (= nature) to ‘made’ (= technology) and from ‘autonomous’ (= independently operating / nature) to ‘controlled’ (= technology). He cites the banana as an example, which is both born and controlled. According to ‘Van Mensvoort’s Law’, in this sense the global financial system, mega-cities and the internet can also be considered forces of nature. Not (anymore) under control, so categorised as nature.
Van Mensvoort uses all possible media to make his vision clear. This is how he conceived the NANO Supermarket. A travelling exhibition, in which the shelves are filled with products that could come onto the market in the next ten years: interactive wall paint, drinkable perfume for fragrant sweat, meatballs made from cultured meat, sneakers made from genetically modified fish leather and a flask that fills itself with dewdrops. Another example is the ‘Meat the Future’ project, in which Van Mensvoort already carried out research into the impact of cultured meat in 2011. “That was such a new thing back then that we were met with a lot of intuitive disgust. Laboratory-grown meat is still not mainstream but reactions to it are now generally much less negative. Because we know that we have to change to keep the world sustainable.”
‘In 30 years’ time, they’ll be laughing at our smartphones, which are in fact the implementation of our dream of being telepathic’
Charging with belly fat
And according to Van Mensvoort, that moment has already arrived. “We need to embrace technology in order to shape our future in the best possible way. As humans, we evolve along with technology and therefore also with nature. Take the energy belt, which will allow us to charge our smartphone with our own belly fat. Then you might connect being thin with having an empty phone and eat a hamburger in order to charge your phone. Do we want that? I think to myself: is this really necessary? But it’s going to happen. And this is just one example of electrical devices that we can link to the metabolism of our body.”
Absurd? “Absurdity is often a phase in a transition,” says Van Mensvoort. “In 30 years’ time, they’ll be laughing at our smartphones, which are in fact the implementation of our dream of being telepathic. Then, technologically speaking, we may have come to the point where that dream has become a reality.”