Exploring this year’s Human Nature theme, we ask thought leaders about their vision of the future. What does human nature mean both personally and professionally? In the fifth episode of our Human Nature Forecast series Koert van Mensvoort shares his thoughts on ‘human nature’ in contemporary times.
It’s World Animal Day and a cat named Monkey, loudly meowing, makes frantic efforts to reclaim the peace in his personal office: a more appropriate setting couldn’t hardly be thought of for an interview with the man who’s main research theme is the shifting boundary between nature and culture. Koert van Mensvoort is a man without a clear job description but with an extensive resume, mentioning a background in computer science, philosophy, media-art and design and many books, paintings, websites, installations and videos to his credit. However, it all boils down to the one central theme that he’s so very passionate about: Next Nature.
Van Mensvoort thinks we should upgrade our thinking about nature to Next Nature. First of all we should review our image of nature, which he considers rather naive: “If you’ll ask people to describe nature, they just talk about trees, animals, green things.” Partly to blame for this onedimensional image is the way in which such images of nature are presented for commercial purposes that present only the positive sides: “You don’t sell products with the darker sides of nature: cruelty, death, diseases. Because this dark side is rarely presented to us, many people perceive nature as harmonic, something which is good for us.” Van Mensvoort thus believes that “much of what we think of as nature is just a comforting illusion”.
Cultivated nature and naturalised culture
Van Mensvoort advocates a more profound image of what the concepts nature and culture behold nowadays, which he tries to stimulate into thinking about Next Nature. He states that Next Nature includes first of all the awareness that “nature as we know it is a very human nature. Our environment has been completely transformed by humans.” However, not only has the nature-culture boundary shifted towards a cultivated nature, but the same movement can be seen the other way around: a naturalised culture. Van Mensvoort states that in contemporary society there are many cultural systems that function as nature: “The best example today is the financial system, clearly a man-made system, but with the contemporary crisis it functions in a manner that we cannot seem to control. We would do better if we understood the financial system as an ecology in it’s own right and try to work with it, rather than trying to control it”.
Another way in which this naturalised culture works is how hidden technologies are enriching our lives: “Next nature is also about second nature that becomes first nature, you can’t imagine life without it anymore”. Van Mensvoort mentions our use of mobile phones as a good example of how a technology can first feel artificially and alien, but quickly becomes second nature to us: “It’s part of your identity as a person and when you leave the house without your mobile phone you almost feel like missing a limb”. Back in history there’re many more examples to trace. What to think of things like cooking and agriculture for example which few people would still consider technologies?
Playing with fire
Although van Mensvoort considers technology as part of our human nature, he emphasises we should still be very aware of the impact on our lives: “We are trying to find all kinds of new technologies, principles and things to improve our lives, but as we are doing this we are also causing a new setting, a new situation, a new nature that can be as wild and unpredictable as ever”. Not to think however, we should or could stop the development of new technologies: “If you say, we should not play with fire, you’re also denying part of human history. This does not do justice in what we people are.” Van Mensvoort worries that in the future this fear of the risks of technology might split humanity in two groups: people who use technology to improve the human condition, and people who are afraid in this use they’ll lose their humanity: “If people start to design themselves in a way that other people see them as products, well, with products you have a different relationship so that’s a scenario we don’t want. We should avoid a situation were people don’t recognize each other as people anymore.” Van Mensvoort sees our relationship with technology thus as a nuanced balancing act: “As people we are in a balancing act between the old nature that we stand from, and the next nature that is also emerging. The responsible thing would be to find the balance between being too reckless and being too cowardless”.
Next Nature: a responsibility for us all
This balance point sees Van Mensvoort in creating technologies that are inherently ‘humane’: “If you invent new technologies, the human nature part is important. You can ask the question: “Does it emphasize and extent my human nature or is it numbing and outsourcing my human nature? This moral question can be quite helpful in deciding which kind of technologies we want in our society and which ones we rather keep out”. He states for example that the bike is a far better invention then the car, because it stimulates our body while the car pacifies it: “The greatest technologies are the ones that revive human instincts.” This creating of humane technologies is a responsibility for us all. He believes that the designing of technologies in contemporary society is so much democratized that everyone can participate in this process: “Almost everyone is a designer nowadays, because design starts at the level of atoms, molecules, genes. Not always the people who call themselves designers are doing the design.” And he sees it as vital for our relationship with Next Nature that we not only have awareness of, but also are active leaders in where this process of mutual influence between nature and culture takes us: “I’d like as much people as possible involved in this process, not just an elite of designers, because in the end, the things we design end up designing us.”