Interview: Arne Hendriks, Researcher and “Father” of The Incredible Shrinking Man

The next guest in our interview series is Arne Hendriks, Dutch artist, exhibition maker, researcher and historian. He teaches at the Next Nature Lab of the Technical University in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

Hendriks’s activity explores the positive transformative power of creative impulses and the importance of fundamental free scientific research. In his speculative design research, the strange and the familiar continuously swap places to provoke conflicting perspectives.

His investigation The Incredible Shrinking Man, that proposes to reduce the human species to a height of 50 cm, where individuals would only need about 2% of what is consumed today, is nominated for the Dutch Design Award, in the category Future Concept  – competing with the NANO Supermarket, among others.

Waiting for the winners announce, in late October, we talked with Arne Hendriks about the possible benefits of shrinking, technology, trust and a thorny issues for which he asked for our readers advice.

How would you define The Incredible Shrinking Man investigation: a thought experiment or a work of art?

The question if something, in this case the investigation to create a smaller man for the near future, should be read as a work of art, or not, always sort of confuses me. The idea of art for me is so central to the perception and definition of reality that to say it is or isn’t somehow doesn’t make sense. Art is something that materializes in the mind of the beholder and therefor in my experience any object in a sense can be read as a work of art, even if it hasn’t been intended as such. Works of art often make the mistake of creating a method or an object that facilitates or guides what is best left alone; our personal ability to read, deconstruct and reconstruct reality.

You speak about the desire of shrinking as a necessary condition to realize The Incredible Shrinking Man. Do you think people will ever desire and accept the possibilities and implications of downsizing the human species? If ever, when people will be ready for it?

I believe that any human being is in fact a symphony of specific desires, some in favor of tall, others in favor of small. The Incredible Shrinking Man intends to stimulate those desires that will eventually lead to shorter people and overcome our desires that make us reluctant to do so. The challenge is not so much to overcome physical impossibilities (I believe there are few) to shrink but to stimulate our desire to do so. We have to want it.

The desire to live longer, healthier and in abundance would be fulfilled if we decide to shrink

Short sex symbol Tom Cruise is perhaps more effective in creating such desire as any genetic or endocrinological possibility designed in the lab. Short has to be sexy. On the other hand there is for example the desire to live in abundance, or to live longer healthier lives. Both these desires would be fulfilled if we decide to shrink. True, when we look at society now there is still an overwhelming preference for taller, more, bigger. Our obsession with growth is rather absurd considering the level of well-being we’re already at and the actual damage it is doing to sustaining this level of well-being in the future. On the other hand there are signs, however subtle sometimes, that people want to downsize. I’m very sensitive to phenomenon like the small house movement of people preferring to live in very tiny homes, or the giant vegetable growers who sort of play out abundance fantasies by growing enormous pumpkins and other vegetables. Imagine the size of an apple when you’re just 50 centimeters tall! Most obviously the fantasy of being small is played out in literature, cinema, and art. I just have to believe that these are signs of a subconscious desire to become smaller. And then there is the latent desire to become smaller that becomes visible in some species when they get trapped on islands, including an early Homo species.

Short has to be sexy

In 2003 on the island of Flores in Indonesia several skeletons were found of Homo floresiensis, people of only 100 cm tall. One of the theories on their diminutive size is that trapped on this island they didn’t have to fight with competitors (which leads to growth) or hiding from enemies (which leads to shrinkage) and subsequently they grew to the size they genetically wanted to be. If that’s true perhaps our genes would prefer us to be much smaller and we’re only this tall because we have to compete with 7 billion others for space and food.

It seems technological change is speeding up. Do you feel this is the case? And where will this go?

It doesn’t change anything. In the bigger picture it doesn’t really matter if we need another century to understand the laws of the universe, or another 1000 years. In the end it is about what we want from life that will manifest itself in how we use technology. Technology is a function of desire. We can be afraid of it or excited by it but it is much more about educating ourselves and coming to terms with our desires.

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