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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.

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Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [1]

In Western cultures, nature is a cosmological, primal ordering force and a terrestrial condition that exists in the absence of human beings. Both meanings are freely implied in everyday conversation. We distinguish ourselves from the natural world by manipulating our environment through technology. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly proposes that technology behaves as a form of meta-nature, which has greater potential for cultural change than the evolutionary powers of the organic world alone.

With the advent of ‘living technologies’ [2], which possess some of the properties of living systems but are not ‘truly’ alive, a new understanding of our relationship to the natural and designed world is imminent. This change in perspective is encapsulated in Koert Van Mensvoort’s term ‘next nature’, which implies thinking ‘ecologically’, rather than ‘mechanically’. The implications of next nature are profound, and will shape our appreciation of humanity and influence the world around us.

The Universe of Things, by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (2010) [3] takes the idea of an ecological existence to its logical extreme. She examines an alien civilization whose technology is intrinsically alive. Tools are extrusions of the alien’s own biology and extend into their surroundings through a wet, chemical network.

The idea of existing in a vibrant, organic habitat is an increasingly realistic prospect as living technologies are now being designed to counter the ravages of global industrialization. These can even be implemented at a citywide scale. For example, Arup’s Songdo International Business District, in South Korea, is being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Incorporating rainwater irrigation and a seawater canal, this design suggests that the building industry is aspiring to use living technologies to revitalize urban environments via geoengineering. The Korean artist Do Ho Suh had proposed to build a bridge that connects his homes in Seoul and New York by harnessing natural forces and using synthetic biologies to literally ‘grow’ a trans-Pacific bridge.

The apparent science fictional nature of ecological-scale projects has prompted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to observe that the large-scale harnessing of ecologies might explain our current lack of success in encountering advanced alien civilizations. Schroeder explains the Fermi Paradox – the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them – by speculating that we have not yet encountered our cosmic neighbors because they are indistinguishable from their native ecology.

Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.”

Despite our visions and desires for a more ecologically integrated kind of technology, the scientific paradigm, which underpins technological development, considers the world to be a machine. Ecologist Fern Wickson argues that humans are intertwined in a complex web of biological systems and cannot be included within a definition of nature where “an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill” and wonders whether there is a better definition of nature [4].

Changing the definition of nature is not the solution to Wikson’s conundrum. The scientific method is actually responsible for this paradox. If the problem of human connectedness to the natural world is to be resolved, then science itself needs to change. Modern science relies on ‘natural laws’ that use mathematical proofs and the metaphor of machines to convey its universal truths. In the 1950s Robert Rosen observed that when physics is used to describe biology, a generalization occurs that distorts reality [5].

Alan Turing noted in his essay on morphogenesis that mathematical abstraction couldn’t capture the richness of the natural world [6]. Life is a complex system that is governed by a variety of unique processes that machines simply do not possess. Life responds to its environment, constantly changes with time and is made up of functional components that enables life the ability to self-regulate [7]. Complexity challenges the epistemological basis on which modern science and industry are grounded.

So what does complex science mean for our relationship with nature? Are we separate from or intrinsically connected to the natural world? In a complex system we are both. Our actions through technology are intrinsically governed by the physical and chemical constraints of the terrestrial environment, yet we also possess agency and a capacity to modify our surroundings. But if we are connected to nature, then is Wikson right that our propensity to innovate through technology becomes a meaningless idea?

Science Fiction author and cultural commentator Bruce Sterling proposes a further play on Clarke’s dictum and wryly observes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from its garbage.”

You’ve got to hand it to Sterling – his observational powers are immaculate! Garbage explains how we can be connected to nature – but not in an unlimited way. We subjectively distinguish ourselves from the natural world by ‘editing’ our networks through the process of making garbage. We choose what is important to us by applying cultural, rather than material criteria, which does not lend itself to empirical measurement. Turing had already grasped the importance of personal bias in dealing with complex systems and devised the ‘Imitation Game’ to address the conundrum of intelligence, which evaded an easy empirical solution. This is now more popularly know as the ‘Turing Test’ and is now being used more widely to fathom complex systems and to identify ‘life’ [8].

Suppose then, that scientist observes distant aliens that are so highly advanced that their technology works in concert with the generative natural forces of their planet. Using our current empirical methods of observation, scientists will note the alien landscapes, but they will not be able to discriminate the meaning that is flowing within its organizing networks. Yet the flow and structure of information within the planetary terrain is of vital importance in establishing just exactly what is technology, what is garbage and what is ‘life’. The issue here is how can we ‘prove’ meaning? Currently we do not have the right tools, materials and methods that enable us to ask the ‘why’ questions that Aristotle was so fond of, and which could be most revealing in this context [9].

The development of living technologies and the cultural questions that Next Nature asks are important steps to be taken along the journey towards a more ecological kind of human development. Until complex technologies can be built and deduced from their meaning: Any sufficiently advanced civilization will be indistinguishable from its nature – and also from its garbage.

Image via Zeutch.

[1]Clarke, A.C. (1973) Clarke’s Third Law, quoted from the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination in Profiles of the Future, Harper and Row, p. 21.

[2] Bedau, M., (2009). Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research,  Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206.

[3] Jones, Gwyneth (2010). The Universe of Things. Seattle: Aqueduct Press.

[4] Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b. 2. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455263b.

[5] Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.

[6] Turing, A.M. (1952). The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, /Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, /Vol. 237, No. 641. (Aug. 14, 1952), pp. 37-72.

[7] Maturana, H. R. and F. J. Varela. 1980. /Autopoieses and cognition: The realization of the living. /Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

[8] L. Cronin, N. Krasnogor, B.G. Davis, C. Alexander, N. Robertson, J.H.G. Steinke, S.L.M. Schroeder, A.N. Khlobystov, G. Cooper, P.M. Gardner, P. Siepmann, B.J. Whitaker, D. Marsh,. (2006) “The imitation game—a computational chemical approach to recognizing life” Nature Biotech., 2006, 24, 1203-1205.

[9]Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.

Discussion

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  1. gregorylent

    this is so deep.

    it is about economies, cultures, science, agriculture, politics, spirituality.

    alignment with nature is a huge tool in our human bag of tricks.

  2. Laocoon

    Very true, we as a people need to fully understand what is being proposed here. Something cannot be bad for the species, yet good for society. Alignment with nature means to understand that the brutality of nature works. It is folly to embrace only some aspects of the wonders of nature. We evolved because there is fierce competition for resources. We become closest to nature when we understand that peace is the opposite of harmony.

  3. I can’t believe this – total intellectual theft! I am the originator of what has come to be called Hughes Corallary to Clarke’s Law. It reads, “Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable form nature, or beyond nature as we understand it”. I published this Corollary 8 years ago (2004) on FutureHi.net, and republished here:

    http://www.playananda.com/writing/exotic-civilizations-a-possible-answer-to-fermis-paradox/

    I’m not one to normally quibble, but to be given no credit whatsoever is insulting. My work on the Fermi Paradox has been read by over 1/4 of a million people in the last 8 years, and is cited on Wikipedia here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox#External_links

    see: Exotic Civiliations: Possible Answer to Fermi’s Paradox.

    I would very much appreciate credit here for this whole idea.

  4. P.S. I should note that I know Karl Schroeder and he is aware of my work – if he mentioned this I would hope he is giving me credit for this idea.

  5. Paul Verberne

    What is technology but our manipulation of the products of nature? Whether it be a drug or a computer, it’s a matter of how much we have to mess with it to get it to do what we want that defines its complexity, and the profit motive in large part drives complexity. We don’t build bio-machines because we can build inorganic ones to do the same thing cheaper and easier. I submit that this has nothing to do with how “advanced” a civilization is. Arguably, the most primitive societies on our planet are the most indistinguishable from nature, because they exist in it, as opposed to fighting it daily.

    There is so much definitional vagueness in the terms thrown around that much said here is, to me, without meaning. As a big fan of Herbert’s Destination: Void series, I think I get the gist of the comment here, but I fail to see real distinctions between nature, and “next nature,” living systems and something not “truly alive.” Is putting a turf roof on one’s house thinking ecologically or mechanically? Or both? If we build self-replicating inorganic systems or build them out of wet organic materials, is one more alive than the other? False dichotomies, all of them.

    We are nature; we are part of the continuum, and any being on this planet who manipulates its environment to its benefit is using technology There is a underlying sense of the superiority of humanity and its impact on natural surroundings here that I don’t buy into. A termite mound and a skyscraper do the same thing – protects its inhabitants from the elements. Why is one superior to the other? Materials? Complexity or lack thereof?

    I submit the real discussion here is one of human values – what matters and why, as we choose to do what we do.

  6. Mikee

    RE: Paul Hughes

    Funny, because I was going to say it sounds like something that Paul Davies wrote in his book ‘The Mind of God’ published in 1994. $20 says you haven’t given credit to him.

  7. Beautiful – thank you!

  8. RE: Mikee

    In 2004, I wrote these exact words, “Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from nature”. These are the exct words used in this essay and quoted by Karl Schroeder. There is a big difference betweeen general ideas and areas of inquiry and precisely worded statements. If I wasn’t the originator of this concept then I doubt scifi authors such as John C. Wright would be included me in his upcoming book.

  9. oikos

    In honor of Int’l women’s day, a shout out to Janine Banyus, author of six books on Biomimicry (the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems).

  10. “Science fiction writers: critical studies of the major authors from the early nineteenth century to the present day” P. 556:

    “…any sufficiently advanced technology can also be indistinguishable from nature itself.”

    Any other “inventors” want to claim priority?

  11. That book was published in 1999 by the way.

  12. Keegiebear

    I’ve been playing Final Fantasy 13-2 lately and it seems as if their future uses “hypernatural” tech as well. Some of the concepts in the game posit a post-singularity world. Just my 2 pennies worth.

  13. Hansel

    RE: PAUL HUGHES

    Merciful …

    I wrote a story back – let’s say five years ago, about how humans had only become truly advanced because of their ability to subdue nature without dominating it through brute force.

    By God, I even use the exact phrase “Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable form nature” as a sort of epithet of sorts, thinking I was being so very clever. And, let me assure you: I have never read your work or even heard of you until five minutes ago. I can say with complete confidence that I did not steal this from you.

    It is not so surprising that someone else should have this exact same phrase: it’s not a particularly difficult conclusion to come to.

  14. Craig8128

    Greg Egan explores this a bit in his 1999 novel _Diaspora_: the main characters encounter a “planet” that has no obvious intelligence but when they analyze the ecology, they notice that one particular species seems to be “protected”, and that every other aspect of the ecology works to benefit them somehow. Neat idea.

  15. Fascinating piece, thank you. Surprised you didn’t touch on the work of Mitchell Joachim:

    http://brainsturbator.tumblr.com/post/70543361/dream-job-working-for-mitchell-joachim

    I am especially grateful for the Turing essay, though. An old signal, to be sure, but new to me.

  16. Wow. I feel embarrassed for Paul Hughes. You are only kidding yourself if you think you “discovered” or “invented” this. So petty.