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What is Next Nature?

With our attempts to cultivate nature, humankind causes the rising of a next nature, which is wild and unpredictable as ever. Wild systems, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers. Nature changes along with us.

Razorius Gilletus – On the Origin of a Next Species

Essay: Razorius Gilletus – On the Origin of a Next Species

Is the evolution of the single bladed razor into an exorbitant five–bladed vibrating gizmo the outcome of human needs, or is there another force in play? Say hello to Razorius Gillettus, one of the new species emerging from our technoeconomic ecology. Proof that evolution should be understood as a universal principle rather than a DNA-specific process. Yet if this is the case, how can we become responsible stewards of these new, non-genetic forms of life?

By KOERT VAN MENSVOORT

My first razor I got when I was fifteen. It consisted of two blades on a simple metal stick and I remember it gave me a really close and comfortable shave. In the twenty years that have passed since my first shave, I’ve used nine different models of razors. This morning I shaved myself with the Gillette Fusion Power Phantom, a rather heavy, yet ergonomically designed battery-powered razor that looks like a bit like vacuum cleaner and has five vibrating blades with an aloe strip for moisture. So what happened? A story about design, technology, market and evolution.

First, a personal disclaimer (in case you were wondering): Yes, I agree shaving technology was already sufficiently developed when I got my first razor twenty years ago. Actually already in 1975, shortly after the Gillette Trac II razor – the first two-bladed men’s razor – was advertised, its excessive design was parodied on the US Television show Saturday Night Live. The creators of the satirical television program played on the notion of a two bladed razor as a sign of the emerging consumption culture and made a fake commercial parody for a fictitious razor with the ridiculous amount of three (!) blades, emphasizing the consumer is gullible enough to believe and buy everything seen on TV. Of course, the comedians of Saturday Night Live could not know a three-bladed razors would become a reality on the consumer market in the late 1990′s. Let alone that they could have anticipated I would shave myself with a five bladed razor this very morning. Welcome in the twenty-first century folks: No we don’t travel in spaceships… but we do have five bladed razors!

Fortunately, it is still possible to buy brand new blades for my very first razor model today. These older blades are not only cheaper – they are sold in a box of ten pieces for less money than a box of blades fitting the latest model, which contains only four cassettes. The older blades are also more durable. And yet, in the years that have past since my first shave, I bought over a dozen different razors – I honestly have to confess I’ve bought some models of the competing brand as well. So, why did I buy this whole collection of razors over the years? Perhaps it is because I am the type of person who is keen on new things: I am a sucker for innovation.

Before we analyze my own behavior as a buyer, lets first study the razors. If we look at the development of razor technology over time, we can distinguish quite some similarities with an evolutionary development as we know it from the biological world: 1) Every new model builds upon the properties of the previous model. 2) Successful alterations are preserved in future generations, whereas unsuccessful alterations will fade out. 3) The shift from functional technologies, like a pivoting head, to seemingly functionless aesthetics of the newer models, that only change in color and have no other purpose than to stand out amidst the competing razor models, remind us of the exuberant tail of a male peacock. 4) The unique click-on systems for replacement blades on different models resemble biological immune systems withholding intruders from entering and feeding on your environment. 5) There even are different survival strategies being tested, which over time may even result in separate species – think of the parallel branches in the more recent models that come with and without a battery. Apparently the marketers aren’t sure whether electric or non-electrical shaving has the future and decided to gamble on both strategies – and yes I confess: I bought them both.

INTELLIGENT DESIGNER

Now it may seem quirky, corny even, to consider the development of razors from an evolutionary perspective. After all these are industrial products assembled in factories. Yet I propose to look at them as the result of an evolutionary process. Now I already hear you oppose: “These razors didn’t evolve, people designed them! How can that be and evolutionary process?” Well, let me elaborate – and this is where we learn something on our symbiotic relation with technology. Indeed it is true that all the individual razors were created by engineers and designers, however, if we look at the design of the whole series of shavers as it developed throughout my shaving-career, it will be difficult to pinpoint one creator. Where is that one big mind, that ‘intelligent designer’ responsible for the transformation of the razor from a simple blade on a stick to a five bladed electric razor?

Obviously many designers and engineers have been involved in the creation of my razors over the years. No doubt these are all descent and friendly people – with good incomes too – but what more are these creators of the individual models than little cogs in the perpetuating Gillette Corporation? Calling them engineers and designers is arguably too much credit for the work they do, as they merely sketch up the next razor model of which one can already predict the ‘innovative’ new properties: it will be a slight variation on the current model with some added nanotech-sharpened blade, an extra moister strip, an anti-slip grip or perhaps even a custom customizable color scheme. The razor designers don’t have a lot of room for truly creative design work really. Its not like they are in a position to think deep on the meaning and origins of shaving, in order to reinvent how this ancient ritual can be improved upon. Like bees in a beehive their work is determined by the logic of the larger structure. The chair of that one great ‘intelligent designer’ steering the entire development of shavers over time is empty. The larger design gesture emerges from the closely interrelated forces of the consumer market, technological affordances and of course the competition – think of the Wilkinson brand that first introduced a four bladed shaving system, thereby forcing Gillette to answer with a five bladed system. Together these contextual influences constitute an ecosystem of a sort, which (again) closely resembles the environmental forces known to play a part in the evolutionary development of biological species.

EVOLUTION, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Of course there are also arguments against this evolutionary view on the development of razor technology – so lets get both sides of the coin here. The most common objection is that “people play a role in the process, so it can’t be evolution.”

This reasoning is tempting, however, it also positions people outside of nature – as if we are somehow placed outside of the game of evolution and its rules don’t apply for us. There is no reason to believe this is the case: after all people have evolved just like all other life. The fact that my razors are dependent on people to multiply is also not unprecedented. The same is valid nowadays for many domesticated fruits like bananas as well as a majority of the cattle on our planet. Moreover, we see similar symbiotic relationships in old nature: just think of the flowers that are dependent on bees to spread their seeds.

Another objection might be that my razors cannot be the result of an evolutionary development because they are made of metal and plastic and not a carbon–based biological species. Underneath this argument lies the assumption that evolution only takes place within a certain medium: carbon–based life forms. A variation of this argument states that evolution only takes place if there are genes involved – like with humans, animals and plants. This way of thinking exemplifies a limited understanding of evolution, as it is a mistake to constrain it to a certain medium rather than to understand it as a principle. In fact the genetic system of DNA underlying our species, is itself also a product of evolution – DNA evolved from the simpler RNA system as a successful medium of coding life. There is no reason why evolutionary processes could not transfer itself to other media: Richard Dawkins already proposed ‘memes’ as a building block of cultural evolution, whereas Susan Blackmore suggested ‘temes’ as building blocks for technological evolution.

In the end, the question we should ask ourselves: are the environmental forces of economy and technology, at least equally or perhaps even more important for the shaping of razor technology, than the design decisions made by the ‘inventors’ of the individual models. I am pretty sure this is the case and hence I propose to consider the development of razors as a truly evolutionary process – not metaphorically, but as reality. The species it brought into being we will call: Razorius Gillettus. It is just one of the numerous new species emerging within the techno-economical system – and it is evolving fast.

TECHNODIVERSITY IS INCREASING

Once we agree to perceive the development of razor technology as an evolutionary process, lets zoom in a bit at our own role in the evolutionary game. How can we see our relation with Razoritus Gilletus and its numerous fellow evolving techno-species? Are we like the bees – who feed themselves with nectar from flowers and in return spread their pollen, enabling the flowers to reproduce – heading towards a symbiotic relationship with the technosphere, which feeds upon our labor & creativity, and in return gives us Razorius Gilletus? Should we take pride in our role as catalysts of evolution? Propagators of a technodiversity unlike the world has ever seen: the one and only animal that transfers the game of evolution into another medium? We can. Yet, as in every symbiotic relationship, we should also be keen on whether both parties are actually getting a good deal. And although I did buy all these razors and they have been providing me with an ever-smoother-closer shave throughout my life, I am not entirely sure about that.

INNOVATION WITHOUT A CAUSE

To many of what we call ‘innovations’ are merely directed at increasing the growth and wellbeing of the technosphere – bigger economy, bigger corporations, more technological devices –, rather than actually improving the lives of people. Indeed my latest shaver does shave just that tiny little bit more smoothly than the previous model. Yet, if you would ask me if the device has ‘innovated’ my life, I’d have to say no.

Let’s face it: the new shavers from Gillette are primarily created for the sake of Gillette Corporation: higher turnover, more profit, more shareholders value. Now that’s all not bad to begin with, as good business also provides people with good jobs and steady incomes, which allows them to live a happy live – and buy more razors. So far it’s a win-win situation. Yet, the production of all these abundant devices also uses an amazing amount of resources, putting quite some pressure on the biosphere – remember, that old nature that used to surround us before the emerging of the technosphere? We should not be naïve about the fact that corporations – I know they’ll tell you otherwise – do not intrinsically care all that much about the wellbeing of the biosphere. Being able to breathe clean air simply is not important for Razorius Gillettus, as it has a whole different digestive system. Clean air is merely a requirement for carbon–based life forms like algae, plants, birds, polar bears, and of course people.

CATALYSTS OF EVOLUTION

So how to continue? I am the first to concur that there is a certain luster in the development of Razorius Gillettus. The notion that human activity is causing the rising of such a peculiar new species and that we are now co-evolving towards a shared future is intriguing to say the least. I wonder what Charles Darwin would have thought of this. Perhaps he would have pointed at the serious risks involved in this evolutionary leap. Certainly, our awareness of our own role as ‘catalysts of evolution’ has yet to mature. It is a quite responsible job description we have got our hands on there. If we feel we are not fitted for the job, we could better grow our beards and return to our caves. We can do that, perhaps. At least some people have proposed we should do that, however, trying to turn back the clock of civilization would also be a denial of what it means to be human, or at least it exemplifies a cowardness towards the unknown. On the other hand, a purely techno-utopist attitude of ‘letting grow’ will expectedly also not be in the longtime benefit of humanity and our fellow biosphere–dependent species, as we run the risk of being outsourced altogether.

The mature thing to do in our position as catalysts of evolution is to develop a stewardship that focuses on maintaining a balance between both the declining biosphere and the emerging technosphere – between old nature and next nature. Towards an environment in which both can find a place and live in relative harmony. Now, I am not saying it will be easy. But if we are able to do that, we will have something to be truly proud of.

Discussion

  1. Great article, superbly written! I completely concur with the call for a responsible attitude towards both biosphere and technosphere. It’s in the best interest for everyone, if the technosphere outruns and outsources the biosphere, it will mean the collapse of both: if there are no humans around, the evolution of Razorius Gilettus will come to a dead stop as well.

    You do not explicitly say so in the text, but you do have a paragraph header that says “technodiversity is increasing”. I have to disagree with that statement: technodiversity now is not observably greater than other times in recent human history. Our museums are filled with technological relics of bygone ages: medieval flails, plows dating to the agricultural revolution, or more recently land-line telephones. They are the technological equivalent of extinct species. Just like biodiversity is relatively constant throughout geological time (and arguably greater in Cambrian times). This does not detract from the main message though, since the demands technology imposes upon ourselves and ‘old nature’ have increased enormously over time. Just a minor point I wanted to make, I’m curious as to how you feel about this.

  2. Daniel

    Great post – love the Essays.

    Made me recall this great satirical piece from The Onion:
    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/33930
    Of course, back in 2004 the idea of blades was ludicrous. :)

  3. Wow, this is fantastic. I remember seeing the SNL parody way back, and snickering when razors with three blades appeared. The Onion turned it up to five blades about 2 years before the actual thing. (http://www.theonion.com/content/node/33930)

    My dad still uses the same all-metal “safety razor” (the kind with the blades we now associate with box-cutters) he had when I was a kid (in the 1970s). And anyone who’s had a pro shave with a straight razor knows that a single blade — expertly wielded — can produce the best possible shave, with no irritation.

    This is evidence of the longest-running trend in technological evolution, the constant yielding of technique to technology. (http://www.axoplasm.com/2008/07/11/technique-and-technology)

  4. Excellent article and will definitely pass along to other with a vested interest in facial hair (or clean legs)!

    However, I would posit that the evolution of the blade itself (vs. the number of blades) is of greater “evolutionary” significance in terms of the quality and cost of a shave.

    For 10,000 years, stone, flint, clam shells were used, then bronze, copper and iron razors…but still with just one simple blade.

    Lets only look at the modern disposable razor, say of the past 100 or so years. From when King Gillette received the patent his safety razor in 1904 through the mid 1960′s, blades were a simple carbon steel, quickly oxidizing and dulling. Wilkinson Sword then introduced Stainless Steel blades, taking the blades to a new level, then later that decade adding Teflon to the edges.

    In the next 30 years, improvements in edge grinding and exotic coatings and sputtering have created a double edged safety razor blade that looks the same as 75 years earlier, but shaves better than any cartridge razor and is less than € .05 each.

    My favorite blade, the Turkish Derby Extra has Chromium-Ceramic-Platinum-Tungsten and Polymer Coated edges for €10 for 100 blades…makes me laugh when the new ProGlide and Schick Hydro at $17 for a 4 pack of blades!

    To take it one step further, there are literally dozens of manufacturers of double-edge safety razor blades still making blades with slightly different characteristics and appealing to different markets. This sampler pack is a good example of blades from Europe and Asia: http://bit.ly/aipFcC and this is a small sampling!

    There is a pretty good explanation of the technology behind modern blade manufacturing here: http://www.shaving.com/history/blade.asp and in a National Geographic special…

    But again, excellent article. On my favorite list!

    Chadd

  5. steve

    Finally someone to put this thinking is good order! Thank yo
    -Talking about shaver and its evolution, Gunter Pauli thinks that it is possible to produce blade made of silk that cut hair but not the skin (?- could never find any proof…)- but it becomes easy to imagine a shaver made entirely of silk. What an evolution
    - Refering to the “nature’s kingdom” (animal, plant, fungi, mineral) each of them is useful to another one, one’s feed from another and everything gets recycled.
    What would be those kingdom for the next nature. It would allow to further define it. I’ll give it a try soon, Anybody has ideas for this

  6. Being a biologist, I have never realised that there is evolution too in the technosphere. Moreover, I would have never thought that I am a key factor in the evolution of consume goods. I merely thought I was only buying them!

    (Great Article, as always).

  7. Don Munzer

    Wonderful article. well written and intriging, and especially, clear. Personally, I believe the the evolutionary process is the governing process for all change: Social, technological, biological.
    The aspect that I miss in your story is that of jumps of level. What I mean is that at a certain point there is a quality leap. Quantity (increase) leads to quality (leap). For example, the jump from “dead matter” to “life” or from one-celled organisms to many-celled organisms. and what I now see happening is the emergence of “many-people” organisms (clans, countries, cities) to what I see as a “world organism”. The parallel with an individual made up of 300 billion cells working together to create one human being with veins, lymph, neural connections, organs, etc. and this “world organism” made up of canals, sewage systems, oiltankers, internet, tv, mobile telephone networks, universitys, etc. I hope I am being clear.
    With every leap of quality, new (natural) laws arise governing the “organism” So biological laws are different from only physical science (governing “dead matter”), pyschology is different from sociology, different again from political science.
    One of the questions I ask myself is, if we as individuals can be aware of these “laws” governing this “world organism”, which is like asking if an individual cell can be aware of the totality of a human being?
    What I do find conforting is this idea is that I, as an individual, am not responsible for the entirety. If I do my thing right, then I do my part, whether as “muscle cell” or “neural cell” or “blood cell”.
    I do not have to know everything.
    This idea comes from the book “Lila” written by Robert M Pirsig (Zen and the Art…)

  8. Christopher Buczek

    “2) Successful alternations are preserved in future generations, whereas unsuccessful alternations will fade out.”

    Don’t you mean alterations? And does no one proof read this essays?

  9. @Christopher: Indeed it should be ‘alterations’ not ‘alternations’. Thanks for pointing that out, and my apologies for crowd sourcing the proofreading of our essays. ;) No seriously. We missed this one and you’ve helped.

    I also want to thank all the others commentators for the positive responses and remarks on the essay. Darwin’s ideas are merely 150 years old and haven’t entirely landed within our culture. In particular regarding how we think of the human role in the evolutionary game there is still a lot of insight to be gained.