Nature is a slippery word. Nature is the opposite of culture but “natural” behaviors are culturally expected from us. Nature is serene and wholesome, but nature is red in tooth and claw. Nature is the opposite of technology, but any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Nature is wild and untouched by humans, but there is no place on Earth unaffected by the changing climate. When we follow our trash from our homes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch we realize that there is no nature “over there,” separate from human societies. How can we change our concept of nature to encompass this hybrid nature, where artificial and natural are blurred in a scale of aliveness and a spectrum of artificiality? Next Nature in inextricably tied to human technology, never “over there,” but co-evolving with us as we design nature.
The Next Nature book is a nearly 500-page exploration of the science and art of designer nature. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking collection of images and essays curated by a team of Dutch researchers led by Koert van Mensvoort. You can check out an excerpt below:
The book is split up into seven National Geographic look-alike sections, covering work, play, food, bodies, societies, and ecosystems, confronting us with the strange artificiality of our cultivated nature and the uncontrollable forces of Next Nature. We are all cyborgs at the mercy of an atmosphere we thought we could never change.
It’s not all hopeless and terrifying; Next Nature offers us images of art, design, science, and technology that can begin to deal with the ecological crises we are facing, crises that are in large part due to the old ways of thinking about the nature/culture and society/ecology divide. Like Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics and Bruno Latour’s “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design,” when we let go of nature and embrace Next Nature, we can begin to design technologies and natures that are ecological and sustainable.
How does technology change when “the made” and “the born” converge? How can we design ecologically when nature is technology? Next Nature provides countless examples, but one page struck me in particular, featuring the Maple of Ratibor and the living bridges of Cherrapunji, India. These are incredible examples of guided growth, ecological building that steers natural processes to create unique, sustainable, and context-dependent technologies. I’ve seen images of the root bridges used before as examples and inspiration for synthetic biology, that someday we will be able to program the DNA of organisms from the top-down using modular parts and computer-aided design to create new shapes and buildings. But Next Nature isn’t just about applying old technological top-down design paradigms to the control of living things, but changing how we think about technology and nature and how they interact, working with ecology and nurturing new technologies.
The blurring of nature and technology is interpreted and presented through the blurring of art and science, and here the slipperiness of words pops up again in interesting ways. In talks about Synthetic Aesthetics, artist and designer Daisy Ginsberg discusses the different definitions of “experiment” and “artifact” when introducing the unique challenges of art/science collaboration. For a scientist, an artifact is an error or noise in the data that distracts from the results of the experiment that is trying to uncover something about how the world works. For an artist, an artifact is the result of an experiment that is about trying to see the world in new ways. But just as nature is never “over there,” science and art are never that far apart, and new ways of seeing and new ways of doing come from many kinds of experiments. Next Nature can give us a new vocabulary and a new philosophy to see and design the world.