The New Nature

Chapter one of Peter Hesseldahl’s book, 1998

We tend to dream of returning, some day when we have the time for it, back to nature. At times, when the flood of news about ozon holes or global warmning overwhelms us, going back seems like our only hope for survival before drowning in disposable babydiapers and fastfood foam shells.

As modern humans, we can have the feeling, that we have lost our roots, and we long for some kind of ancient and natural order. Problem is that the nature that we long for, has long since changed into some different. Evolution churns on, the nature that our children are born into is different from the one in which in we arrived, and when we die, many of us will feel like aliens in a transformed world.

The difference is evident right from the moment of conception. Many are fertilized by technological means, and already in the womb the coming world citizens are scanned and measured. We are born and we die, fitted with the same sensors and meters that display our heart rate, blood pressure etc. in digits and curves.

We may pretend that we could simply turn off the technology if some day we decided we no longer wished to use it. In reality, however, we are way beyond the point where we can do without technology. We can’t turn off the computer, no more than we can get by without electricity, combustion engines or penicillin - not with a world population swelling rapidly beyond 6 billion people.

We have become one with our creations. Technology has given us new senses and abilities. We can move around faster than any animal, we can wield enormous forces, we can communicate instantaneously across the globe, gaze into the smallest atom and to the largest galaxies - and now we have begun developing an electronic nervous system and a global electronic brain, common to all those who connect to it.

The borders between the living and the dead are blurred by technologies such as artificial life, nanotechnology and gene manipulation. Our traditionel distinctions between mechanical, electronic and biological system are becoming ever harder to maintain. We are in the process of radically transforming the planet, right from it’s physical appearance till its ecosystem and climate. Transforming ourselves as a species will be the next step, thanks to biotechnology.

All things considered, we are creating a new nature, requiring new instincts and understanding. It’s a world of new natural laws and rules of the game, we just haven’t really realized it yet.

For most of us, nature is a picture we carry in our heads. Something beautiful and inspiring, something we can watch on TV, and experience occasionally on picnics or hikes in our vacation.

But it is no longer nature that keeps us alive. In practical terms nature has no importance to our daily lives. We merely use it for recreation or decoration. Supermarkets, cars, hot water and electricity is what keeps us going, and what we focus our attention on. As the american ecologist writer Paul Hawken has observed, most people kan distinguish very precisely between dozens of different makes of cars or logos of the major corporations. But few of us are able to name but a few birds and trees.

When we talk of something being "natural", it is often in the sense, that it’s something original and un-changed. Nature has become a word signaling permanence and a certain conservatism.

But in fact nature is not permanent. Nature is dynamic, it changes and evolves constantly. The world was not suddenly created as it is, and it will not remain like that either - as if this were the ultimate, perfected stage of development.

It may seem banal to point it out, but very little around us of what we refer to as natur is original. Our nutrition has been changed by our forefathers' voyages around the world. Our landscapes, our domesticated animals, even the climate has been changed by the previous generations.

There’s a new eco-system evolving, one in which intelligent robots and cyberspace must find their places alongside bacteria, forest lakes and the turning of the seasons. Evolution moves us onwards, sometimes very quickly. It would seem that we are in the midst of one of evolutions periods of fast and sweeping change. Certainly we have removed some major obstacles to change in recent years, not the least with bio technology, which now enables us to make rapid changes in the very way in which humans, animals and plants function - changes that might have taken thousands of years to accomplish previously. Evolution itself has been altered.

The continouos fall of Man

What’s "natural" to us is what’s untouched; that which has evolved uninterruptedly, as it happened, with no human interference. As soon as humans have tinkered with it, nature turns into culture or it becomes un-natural.

Nature is paradise before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. We lost our innocence when man acquired knowledge, and in that respect the fall has continued to this day. All the new knowledge we gain displaces virgin nature. In ever more fields we lay bare the underlying mechanisms of our world and we learn to understand the context we live in well enough to interfere with it for our purposes. Our newfound knowledge pulls us away from innocence and requires us to act and choose. We may, for instance, have lived happily unaware of the greeen house effect and the consequences it may have, but now we know, and we know that we have some possibility of affecting it. We’re no longer innocent. Our knowledge bestowes a responisibility upon us, and choices that we have to make. And thereâs no way around it. What we do is our choice, even if we choose not to do anything.

This is evident in the field of medicine. When we, for example, know about the factors that affect our mood, it enables us to some extent to choose, how we want to feel - the result being that we must assume responsibility in yet another area. Our mood is no longer something random or beyond control. We understand that it depends on our actions - e.g. our consumption of food and drugs. It always did, but hitherto we weren’t conscious of how we could contribute to controlling it.

Similarly with the possibilities to examine fetuses to search for genetic defeciencies. It was simply not possible previously, so parents would take what came - the health of the baby was in Gods hands. Now we can sort and choose just the fetus we want, which leaves us with the responsibility, whether we do any choosing or not. Obviously, we can still choose to shut our eyes and let things develop without our interference. But not without moral implications. As long as you donât know any better, you can hardly be blamed for not intervening to prevent an accident to others.

But knowing, yet doing nothing as a consequence of it is - in my opinion - almost the definition of sinning. One shouldn’t knowingly ignore an urgent problem or the misfortune of others.

That is the continuous fall of Man. We are still falling, cause every time we take another bite from the fruits of the tree of knowledge, we lose some more of our innocence. We are left to live our own lives, as best as we can.

We have become as gods

The American writer, Steward Brand, has said that "we are as gods, and we might as well be good at it". What we human are doing will continue to change the earth till the point where there is basically nothing left thatâs "natural" or original. We stand - collectively - with the faith of the planet in our hands. One could point out many other factors - including divine interference - that might shape the future, but we have ourselves become so powerful, that we no longer can renounce on our responsibility.

Itâs a popular phrase in Silicon Valley that any really new technology is indistinguishable from magic. Jet planes, the telephone, antibiotics and countless other inventions have altered what was possible. Suddenly humans could converse across long distances, or recover from fatal diseases in a matter of a few days. We take it for granted now, but when it first happened, it seemed magic.

The technologies that will shape the world in the coming years will also seem like magic, turning our usual ideas of how the world works upside down.

No doubt we have lost and forgotten some things along the way that might have been usefull now. For a long time we have ignorered and exhausted the ecosystem which we are just re-discovering our dependency upon. In a sceptical mood one might even question whether there has actually been any true progress. Do we really feel any happier or better than humans did before? Haven’t we become terribly alienated towards the planet that we are living on?

On the other hand, it would be naïve to think, that if only we could return; forget about technology, live like they lived in the good old days - everything would be fine. As if we could run the film backwards, to some point earlier in the story where everything looked much better. It doesn’t work that way. We can only proceed forwards.

One comment that has really stuck in my head came from Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of Wired Magazine, and the author of "Out of control", a book I shall talk about later. I interviewed him in the offices of Wired in a big old renovated warehouse in San Francisco, and after about an hour of shooting, I tried to poke at him just one last time to see if I could provoke some surprizing statement from him - and then this came:

"We humans naturally take a very human centric, our own time-centric view on things. We have a tendency to want to keep every thing beautiful and to say they have to exist forever. But obviously throughout the history of the world, some very beautiful organisms have been pushed away or gone extinct, entirely on their own or by other organisms. The ancient greek culture is gone - but something else replaced that. Thats hard for us to accept, because sometimes it doesn't produce anything, and it seems a bit unfair to the people involved, but I think that if you take a long view, that's just the way things go. This is the pattern of life, and what it does is that it allows for new beautiful things to come out. So what we are looking at is human culture trying to invent something very new ö and who knows what it might produce?"

An age of paradoxes

Let me make it clear that I stand with a leg in each camp. I’m worried and Iâm excited, Iâm a pessimist and an optimist. I’m conservative and eager for change, I believe in solidarity and individual responsibility, I’m fascinated and repelled by technology, I love travelling and I work hard to build something of permanence in the village where I have chosen to live with my family.

Reading through this book may leave the impression of a severely split person. I can only say, that the book is my attempt to come to terms with some of the paradoxes and dilemmas which are so prevalent in our times.

This is more or less in continuation of my last book, "The computerdream and the ecological realities", which was published in Danish in 1993. Back then I wanted to show that information technology and a sustainable development are not necessarily opposites, but rather the preconditions for each other.

This book is more broad. I will try to show that the societal developments ahead which will be influenced heavily by both information technology and bio technology, could be both extremely unpleasant and something very positive - and I will try to point out some of the factors which can determines the outcome.

Iâll describe how the world and the conditions for living in it have already been changed, and I will try to condense and relate a long list of suggestions of elements that will be part of the development ahead of us, in order to try to paint a picture of what we seem to be heading for. My raw material will be scenarios and the visions of scientists, philosophers and politicians that I personaly think are among the most relevant to listen to and among the best qualified in the world in their particular fields.

The rules of the game are essential here. Reality is changing, and the rules which determine who will manage well, and what one’s allowed to do, are changing as well. At the moment our societies are seeped in the logic of the industrial age - the laws, the moral and our upbringing is marked by the conditions of an age of physical production, a time when the world was still infinite in comparison to the impact humans could make.

The rules of that game are increasingly irrelevant. They don't fully reflect the reality of the day and in the worst cases they are counterproductive and destructive. That leaves the question, what are the relavant new rules of the game then? At the moment it’s open. Our old world view has been dismantled and we are busy tinkering with a new one - freed from many of the moral and technological restraints of the past.

That is not to say that it doesn’t matter what we choose. It would seem that we can choose almost any course forward, but our choices still have consequences. In fact, the consequences of our actions have never been as important for all of the globe as they are now.

Some strategies work, others don’t. In this book I’ve tried to make the connections a little more transparent, to narrow down the mechanisms we can realistically exploit in order to shape the development.

I have my personal opinions on many of these issues, and many of the chapters will be marked by own observations and attempts to draw conclusions. But again: I certainly have my doubts. It may very well be that I’m wrong on some counts and that I have erred in my reliance on many of the facts I present. I hope that the reader will see the book as a suggestion, an invitation to discussions and correction of what misunderstandings I may have included.

A quick overview:

The book is divided into 5 parts, each focusing on a particular aspect of the way in which the world we live in is changing its nature.

I’ll kick off with information technology, describing at first what technological changes are in store for us in the coming years and what the technology will make possible. It’s a development that will influence us both culturally and socially. We will have to meet new demands for qualifications to function well in society, and in general the rules of the economy will change significantly, moving from an economy based on physical objects - atoms - to an economy based on information - bits.

Information technology will make our lives easier in many respects and it could set us free to concentrate on the things we really wish to deal with. However, the very same technology might just as well lead to a society of control and surveillance - most likely, if we should end up in some serious crisis ö for instance, in case of an environmental breakdown of sorts.

Technology has two faces. What determines which of the two faces we get to experience are the values underlying the development of society. In my opinion, one could summarize the values that are needed in order to keep on the positive track as Quality, Creativity and Love.

They are also values which are unique to human - as opposed to the more or less living and conscious computers and machines which we are likely to be mixing with before long. To many scientists it's almost a given thing that artificial intelligence and even articificial life will evolve, and there are a number of interesting and fantastic suggestion as to what that might entail.

Complexity theory is one of the most important models for explaining why the living and the mechanical now has started to meddle. Complexity theory attempts to extract some general patterns of development that are common to all complex system, whether they are of physical or biological nature.

We are undergoing changes ourselves: Through our technology we have gained new abilities and senses. Various kinds of prosthesises are combining and interacting ever closer with our bodies. But first and foremost, bio technology will radically change what it means to be human. With genetic engineering it is possible to change the fundamental building blocks of plants and animals. It has become quite clear, that humans are now participating in designing the world - and some day even our selves.

Globalization is yet another trend which implies that we are living under entirely new conditions. We are knit ever closer together by information technology and improved transportation. Cultures, economies and political system which where previously more or less confined within nation states are opened and adjusted to fit a germinating global society. The globalisation has primarily been shaped by the marketforces, money being the central underlying value in the development.

We have seen zones emerge in our daily lives which are practically identical to anyone in the western world; a culture one might call McWorld.

McWorld is a system in which we are defined as consumers rather than citizens. We are non-committed, free to pursue our individual goals and interests - as long as we can pay for it. The problem is, that it leads to frightening expulsion of the weakest and that the system tends to seek the lowest common cultural denominator.

It counterpiece is the civic society, where we see ourselves as citizens, mutually committed to each other and the community we belong to. It runs counter to the ideals of the consumer society that the interests of the individual should be subject to the common good. However, in other cultures, typically in Asia, that way of thinking is much more prevalent.

The world has become indeterminable. It's practically impossible to follow the consequences of our actions, and similarily hard to act in conscious way to make the world a better place. We have to navigate a raging ocean of clashing interests and diverging dimensions. The signals we follow are often distorted or misleading, not least because our economical system works in such a way that it doesn’t reflect the true costs associated with our consumption. The taxation and the ways in which society subsidizes particular parts of the business community stems from a time when there was shortage of labour, but plenty of natural ressources. Today the situation has been reversed, and we need an ecological tax reform, that could make it economically attractive to further a sustainable and more humane society - while at the same time taking full advantage of the potentials of information technology.

An ecological tax reform would likely lead to a society in which people are much more conscious of the way we use ressources and transportation; a sociey in which information is global, but the physical conditions are shaped much more by local conditions.

As communication and trade increases the globe begins to work like one connected system, and one might wonder whether that system would exhibit some of the same patterns of developments that characterize other complex system - for instance, that something new, which is larger and qualitatively different, could emerge out of the interactions between the many individual parts. One might also expect that very small impacts at critical points in time could have an enormous effect on which way the system evolves.

At a more philosophical level one might consider if the whole planet or all of humanity could be considered one big organism, an organism with some consciousness of its own.

In any case itâs becoming ever clearer that we depend on each other. We need a myth, which could give us all an understanding of what’s going on on earth, and a framework to understand the value of our actions in relation to. Perhaps ecology is that new myth, the realization that everything is connected in circles and loops, and that one can’t simply disregard the ecological balance of the earth by acting as there is only one form of life that matters.

To me this book has been an opportunity to combine all the many parts of the puzzle that I’ve picked up over the years and to try to see a larger pattern in the way things are developing. It’s been a chance for me to draw some conclusions, rather than always rushing on to the next deadline.

This effort obviously continues after the book has been printed, which is why I’ll try to carry on at a website on the internet, where I’ll post new articles and comments, and where one can find links to many of the books and subjects that I mention in this book.