Organised by Baltan Laboratories, Philips Design and Avans
Report written by Rene van Peer
Posted: 13 May 2021
Organised by Baltan Laboratories, Philips Design and Avans
Report written by Rene van Peer
The planet we live on faces serious problems. Pollution, climate change, extinction, a pandemic, severe inequality, depletion of resources. These are all down to human activity, or negligence, that finds expression in economy. It is the way we make the current type of economy work, which inevitably leads to these results, it appears. Therefore, to remedy this situation, to try and find out of it, alternative economies should be put forward. In the paper Co-Emerging Futures, Reon Brand - Senior Director Foresight and Socio-cultural trends at Philips Design - describes four future scenarios in which humans, technology and nature are the main protagonists.
Together with Olga Mink, director Baltan Laboratories and founder of Think Economia, Brand decided to focus on two of these future streams to explore the economic implications. The question is, how feasible are they? What do they involve? What are the ramifications? What are possible routes towards these alternatives? That is the challenge in Co-Emerging Economies, a three-day online workshop organized by Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven. Forty-odd people from different continents, age groups and backgrounds take it upon themselves to try and envisage two of the scenarios outlined by Brand, called Gaia and Etheria, and to see if their effort and imagination would lead to a new economic thinking. In the former scenario humans live with an environment in which all beings are of equal importance - the health of eco-systems is paramount. In the latter humans transcend their physical existence and upload their mind into a digital environment.
Considerably more participants opt to explore the Gaia scenario, hosted by professor in new economy Godelieve Spaas, apparently feeling more comfortable with retaining their body than having to leave it behind. Out of the twelve people who join the Etheria group, hosted by multidisciplinary artist and futures designer Lisanne Buik, most admit that they don’t relish the prospect of abandoning their biological existence. It doesn’t, however, curb their enthusiasm in exploring the consequences of that scenario. Both groups develop their ideas separate from the other. They share their progress by posting thoughts, images and links on an online whiteboard that all have access to, and in summarizing presentations in plenary sessions at the end of each day. Artists assigned to each group, capture the topics and themes that have been discussed in imaginative, visionary drawings, presenting these to the participants as part of the summarizing talks.
Day 1 - testing the grounds
Most challenging is the task for the members of Etheria. They have to try and let go of references to their own biology, because that is supposed to be replaced by a digital existence. They have to wonder whether that will mean everlasting life, and what that implies. Speculate about the consequences for perception, about their position in a digital environment, how they relate to other entities, question whether digital entities procreate. Will there be new generations of these entities, how will they come about, and what will be the drive to create new generations?
In the discussions that arise references are made to science fiction in attempts to envisage this scenario. Elise and Natasha focus on other aspects of disembodied existence and suggests that it will provide a solution to environmental problems, because digital entities produce significantly less pollution than physical ones. Natasha realizes that Etheria beings still need material for the equipment that houses them, which may further widen the rift between the rich and the poor: the latter, still in physical form, will have to supply materials and maintenance services to the former. According to Oli, powering Etheria may lead to a significant increase in the consumption of energy.
Another question is how consciousness should be defined. If the brain is a conductor of consciousness, Lisanne Buik puts forward, then copying human brains into a cloud will create a hive mind without emotions or empathy. She wonders what or who will be excluded from this existence, and who will be running the servers that house the Etheria entities. In other words, whether all humans can enter this digital existence, or whether it is a privilege to be enjoyed by a limited group only; and how the selection is made; or whether the physical duties would have to be performed in rotating shifts, meaning that bodies might still be needed for digital entities to download into to perform such tasks.
Reon Brand invites the group to consider an existence detached from bodies but linked to other beings in Etheria - what consequences would that have for identity. He is not convinced that there will be equipment in which Etheria beings dwell that needs to be maintained. Computers and other hardware are already getting increasingly reduced in size. Etheria might be housed in a unit the size a post stamp. “You cannot deny the exponential progress in the miniaturization of technology.” He also proposes the possibility of a layered identity in the hive mind: beings can be autonomous but are part of a larger whole, just like things can exist in two places simultaneously in quantum circumstances. Fears keep cropping up. What are the chances of being wiped out? What about a sense of space, of being at a specific place? If there is such a thing as monetization in Etheria, inequality will not be resolved there? Unclear is also if capturing the memory of a person for upload means that the personality as such will be captured; or will part of a person’s identity will be left behind with the body?
In Gaia the 21 participants try to envisage how to establish an equilibrium between humans and the environment they live in that will benefit the entire ecosystem. One option, proposed by one of the participants, is to work with small-scale groups, the family as the pillar for the economy. The question arises how to connect with the environment, with ‘non-human stakeholders.’ Shamanistic trance is suggested as a means to transcend rationality, to expand beyond the limits of what can be measured and calculated, a last resort means to make contact with non-human creatures. In order to counter the exploitation of other beings on the planet, a method should be devised to grant them representation. Cynthia draws from her experience with sheep, describing the co-dependent relationship between the animals and the meadowland, which makes that environment a resilient space of biodiversity. In Ireland, Maria says, indigenous cattle are reintroduced. Other than continental breeds these are not too heavy on the land. She also advocates a less industrial approach to farming, supported by the fact that livestock died in transport ships held up by the blockage of the Suez Canal in March.
Rutendo makes a case for an economy of inefficiency, talking about the Niger river. It has its source 250 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, but instead of taking the shortest route due west, it flows away from the ocean intro the desert, in the direction of the Mediterranean. Then it bends back towards the ocean, covering 4,000 kilometres, before it flows into the ocean, by way of an enormous delta, the largest wetland in Africa. This course makes it beneficial for humans and non-human species. It supports life and biodiversity because it is inefficient. In other words, it does speak a language, and can teach people about economy and inclusivity. “Trance is not necessary”, she says. “Nature speaks all the time, but we have forgotten how to understand it. It is the marginalized people, such as the San in South Africa, who still converse with nature. We have to shift our paradigms. Be humble and surrender to the language nature speaks.”
In order to do that people will have to find reconnection as a society, have to learn to communicate, among themselves as well. There have to be valid incentives to do so, according to Martina. “These have to go beyond appreciation. Trees are cut down for money, because countries are forced into the economic system that is upheld by the WTO and the IMF, consuming more than the land has to offer.” Picking up on Ngara’s tale, Dan advocates a mode of thought that is not linear, not rational, in order to step out of familiar patterns, into the unknown; to come up with polycentric perspectives. According to Vitalija we live in relatively safe circumstances: in everyday life danger is eliminated; there is no motivation to espouse biodiversity.
Godelieve Spaas stresses the need for humans to shrink. “If fishermen go out in small boats the sea has a larger impact. They can feel the waves. We have made ourselves too big. Things come out when we shrink. And as for experience with nature, the coronavirus also comes from nature. Can we find stories in cities similar to the story about the river? Nature is coming to the cities.” And looking ahead to the second day, in which economy should take central stage: “Try to find ways to create space for more space, time for more time, to move towards a self-balancing economic system.”
Summary Day 1
In the plenary session at the end of this first day a participant voices his doubts about Etheria: “Gaia is intuitive and tangible. As biological beings we are in Gaia. We just don’t know what we would be in Etheria. Who would be in the driving seat? Who would want to be in that world?” Reon Brand counters: “We run the risk of reacting to Etheria in an anthropocentric way. For the sake of argument ask yourself, why the singularity (the autonomous existence of AI predicted by Raymond Kurzweil) would welcome us. Machines work in the direction of one answer. As imperfect, broken entities we could diversify that singularity. But we won’t be in the driving seat.” Oli responds: “The creatures in Etheria will be our children. We will have to take care of them.” Someone else adds: “In Etheria the fundamental nature of existence will be radically rethought. The question is whether we want that future. The trajectory towards it is important.”
Spaas sums up one of the main questions emerging in Gaia’s discussions: “Moving away from efficiency will face difficulties, because we as humans are in the equation, as opposed to Etheria.” Reon Brand adds: “Etheria will takes us out of the food chain in which we create waste that other beings cannot use. It removes us from the dangers of a cruel nature. On the other hand, when faced with danger, we feel hyperconnected with nature. In our bubble of safety, we lose that connection. Life has been robbed of meaning, which may be the reason why there are so many suicides.” Someone else concludes: “In Gaia we will be reconnecting with nature.”
Day 2 - economic perspectives
Reon Brand kicks off an initial plenary meeting by outlining the challenges ahead, and suggesting ideas the participants in both groups may want to explore. “We have to embrace notions about a post-anthropocentric society. I felt the anthropocentric sense in the debate. We will have to move beyond our own identity. That is most difficult in Etheria, because it’s abstract and doesn’t resonate. We have to come to assumptions in order to progress, to get an idea how intelligence is merged with AI. Identity and consciousness are different notions. We cannot discuss intelligence without referring to the body, because it is linked with our ability to sense. There are other ways of sensing that our bodies are not capable of, such as ultraviolet and radiation. The sensation of pain, on the other hand, can lead to response - contempt, disgust, the urge to flee, but also empathy. Technology focuses on the best, most efficient outcome. In Etheria millions of copies can be made of inhabitants after they have been uploaded. You may want to ask yourself what identity would be in a post-human intellectual world, on a private level, the level of family and of community. What do you want to share? Would a digital entity have layers? What would be scarcity and abundance in that environment? Energy will be more efficient in fifty years’ time. There will be layers of knowledge that can be exchanged as a commodity.”
“In Gaia there should be a push to get away from the materialistic notion, ‘what is the benefit for me?’ It will be an economy of nature. We are currently overusing non-replenishable resources. We shouldn’t use too much, and be aware of the fact that what is the waste of one organism constitutes the food of another. Not everybody is everybody’s friend. Organisms get eaten so that others can live. Because we have taken ourselves out of the food chain, we have lost the ability to reconnect with other species. We live in a zoo. If we rewild the environment the element of danger is brought back. We will have to program ourselves to re-establish our link with nature. What Gaia needs to explore is how we can create an identity in connection with the ecosystem. We cannot ignore what is around us now. Changes we make, have limited effect. But you see examples like Greta Thunberg, and children in Ecuador who took government to court. It starts with people making a new mindset. That may build momentum and create real change. The question is how to get to that point in the future. We should be free from the paradigm of now. First, we have to envisage a future, then think of the steps how to get there. If Etheria is the pursuit of intelligence, Gaia is the pursuit of depth of relationships. There is also kindness and cooperation in nature, but we are super-predators. Humans and livestock outnumber all mammals on the planet. Another aspect is the microbiome, the microorganisms in our gut. Because it is compromised, we get ill, so we have to spend money to find cures. In nature there is less chance to get sick.” Jessica (Gaia) muses: “In both it matters how we exchange energy. So, how do we define that, in human and in digital relationships?”
Gaia divides into four subgroups, trying to make out what drives economy there. They centre around topics of food (the ‘Shit Kitchen’) and the cycle of food and waste; energy, which deals with driving forces, such as emotions and a search for balance; and place (the ‘Trans-Local’ group), which looks at concepts such as scale, sovereignty and the role that non-human species can play: how to set up a system in which the rights of all beings are equally warranted. Based on the story of the Niger river, the fourth focuses on inefficiency, which resonates with apparently chaotic systems in nature, such as those that give rise to fractal patterns, that are in fact highly complex. According to Yannick nature is efficient in its inefficiency. “Events are not planned, but any decision causes multiverses of possibilities. The more structure there is, the fewer possibilities there are to move. This is true for all levels of size and intricacy. These are integrated into a chaotic world. That is nature’s intelligence.” Amber says: “The story about the river spoke to me on a personal level. Our goal is to describe an economy of inefficiency. That is paradoxical. We think of economy as something that is efficient. I myself need to be efficient. But the course of the river is intuitive.”
Ngara jumps in: “I started to explore the river in a presentation about indigenous peoples. It was there that the river started talking. The Niger doesn’t seem to follow rules of efficiency, but in doing so it creates diversity. Humans created economic systems around it. Its plentiful resources are exploited, whereas before everything was interrelated, interdependent. In the efficiency of nature either/or is a limited concept. But actually, it works as both/and. It’s inclusive. The river is lowing as a whole. It is such systems that we should be following. The patterns of nature give knowledge, and inspiration. When the clock was introduced, time became measured and became a commodity that could be used and wasted. As a result of that we lost touch with cycles, we got out of sync with the cycles of nature. Efficiency is not in the interest of the whole.”
Edith sees inefficiency as playfulness, making it possible to operate from things people like to do, working from an open mind. “Discovering things, investigating things you enjoy. It’s about sharing abundance, preventing exclusion. When you come to your senses you are more aware of natural cycles.” Yannick reminisces about his walking tour to Santiago de Compostela, which made him aware of his insignificance in the face of nature. “But in the course of the centuries an ecosystem of villages has appeared along the route.”
Meanwhile in Etheria people are still struggling to imagine what it is. Lisanne Buik urges the group to consider several aspects of Etheria: intelligence, ownership and abundance, and energy. “We will have to steer away from the material. What will timelessness mean for economy?” Olga, Hugo and Michal suggest something they call ‘Omnikairos’. “You can view energy as data, as a network of timeless interconnected space, in which everything that can be, will be. In Omnikairos time is seen as an omnipresent permanence. In this network energy is the main bit of value. The exchange of value means an exchange of data, which is intelligence. Diverse intelligences can set up an interchange between entities, an internet of blockchains in which data sets are shared, like in rhizomes. It is an interconnected whole, in which the digital and the physical overlap.”
Reon Brand steps in: “You may have to consider how value is exchanged. How to harvest different kinds of energy. How relationships are formed. It will be an exploration in infinite time, until the sun burns out.” Hugo suggests the idea of the flaneur, someone who walks about without any real purpose. “There is a value in that, as there is in serendipity. Would that be possible in Etheria, software that generates purposeless behaviour? Is Etheria perfect and boring, or imperfect and serendipitous? Both can be controlled through filters and preplanning, like deciding which pub to go to and who you select in Tinder. Both are done through algorithms.” Reon: “We are conditioned to think that we must have goals and meaning, whereas nature follows patterns and cycles, without a goal.”
Sofia wonders how intelligence has to be understood and how the system will be operated. “Is it centralized, a distributed system on knowledge, or is it ‘glocalised’? What will be the need for collaboration? Will there be barter in a system of self-upgrading singularities, a collaborative computational system?” Oli: “Etheria is a presence in space, a state between owning and not owning.” Elise: “Will ownership of bodies and consciousness be dissolved? Will there be virtual sex, in which you can blame a lack of success on bad connections?” Reon: “You still think in human terms. There are other forms of intelligence, such as that of an octopus, or a slime mould that responds to events in its environment. We think of hierarchies between species, with power structures based on human intelligence, which puts itself above all else.” Lisanne Buik sums up: “What does sense of belonging and ownership mean in Etheria? Is there a link between the earth and Etheria in metabolizing intelligence, like a mycelium network?” She expounds these notions in the plenary summary that concludes the second day.
Summary Day 2
Lisanne Buik: “In Etheria we have started to think in networks, as a multidimensional hybrid being, that can be driven by curiosity. Questions till arise. What is our status? Do we belong? How about sex? Why would we want to go there? What is death? Is it a concept, a threshold? Does it influence economy. It is a timeless world, so death is not a driver to us.” Gaia has been thinking about the interconnected network of trees and fungi. “What we take in, comes out. Our waste, including excrement and plastic, is used by adapted organisms. Education is something liquid, holistic. It teaches us about what it means to be connected, and whether our idea of connection is correct. It works on a small scale, with small businesses that respect each other and keep each other alive. The question is what or who do you care for? There is no ownership, just the use of what you or others need. That goes beyond both family and species. Time is just a construct.”
Godelieve Spaas talks about the four groups that have formed. “Each views economy from a different perspective. Inefficiency, the theme of the first group, is a problematic word because it doesn’t evoke the diversity that it produces. In energy, the second, exchange is problematic. It is more of a coming together, a merging, with stories and rituals. The third group, which centres on food, calls itself the Shit Kitchen Collective. Plants live on shit. Death and waste are just part of the life cycle. The fourth, with place as its theme, concerns itself with material economy in different aspects, such as resources and who is the agency. It is about rethinking the current economy, and how you would need to define economy.” Reon has the last word, contemplating the concept of death. “It is an important concept, but what is it? You can see it as purely biological, but also as a disintegration of relationships, which is what happens to a body when is has died. New relationships will be formed. It is a transformation process. Something new will emerge as a result.”
Just as in the preceding days Reon Brand opens the proceedings. On this last day he wants to kick a ball into each group. “For Etheria: you may take into consideration that galaxies resemble the human brain. Structures in the brain are similar to the universe. We may learn from the universe. For Gaia: humans are entangled in nature, they are not the sole representative of democracy in nature. They should not be managing, or manipulating.”“Inefficiency can come in different forms. The reforesting of Borneo, which not only benefits the ecology, but also doubles the income for people living there. A day-care group in Reggio Emilia where teachers learn from looking at the behaviour of the children. Chernobyl, that might be nominated for the UN World Heritage List, as a temple of remembrance of what has gone wrong in the way humans deal with the environment and with natural resources. Inefficiency concerns itself with play and care, in reflecting on what goes wrong, and in creating and facilitating life. The question is, whether it is inefficiency in the end. We may let go of the idea that we have a goal.” Yannick: “It would be more efficient to build more houses than to preserve Chernobyl as a site. At the moment we are destroying nature to build houses of concrete, whereas small communities can be housed in empty shops and office spaces.” Amber: “Preserving the sarcophagus at the disaster site is a human concept. If we allowed nature to go its own way, new layers of meaning and existence will occur.”
The participants are issued tasks for this last day: to think of a name for their economy, to come up with basic principles for it, to create a store to illustrate these, and to think of corresponding imagery. In the Energy subgroup of Gaia people are wondering about means of coding, whether to devise symbols and rituals, in order to create an enchantment. They wonder how seasons, wind and energy affect us, how to move between fear and love. Vitalya asks who will make the decisions. Jessica brings up the topic of culture as it is expressed in storytelling. “You can say that plants have culture in how they perform. They have personality. Every flower looks different.” Bea Xu wonders whether in Gaia love and fear can act as a currency. “They merge into each other. There is love in surrendering to your fear, and to destruction. Humans are just a part of a larger whole. Love turns into fear, fear of losing. This can be turned into rituals to honour emotions when they are brought into economy, a currency of love and fear. That would enchant the economy.”
Alicia tries to understand these two elements. “How do we work with a multiple presence of love and fear? How would both be present in an exchange. They will have to be fluid, a flow of energy. There should be a form to embody this flow.” The Gaia Trans-Local subgroup is trying to establish the principles of their economy. Should there be a basic income? What can be the role of failure, play and experimentation? Each comes from a different mindset. Collaboration is a living principle. Humans work as agents with resources, where nature is self-organizing. We need ever more space to be. But we derive value from being together, from collaborating. We should approach the planet not as an owner, but as a user who creates and produces.
The Shit Kitchen probes the ground. It is a time machine, they say, “If you put your finger in the ground, you’ll sense the past. You can trace back the mycelium trail, maybe a thousand years. We will become timeless when our waste is handled by mycelium.” Reon introduces another notion. “There is a therapy in Japan that consists of spending time in the quietude of nature. In dreams our frequencies are adapted and connected to the Schumann frequencies, electromagnetic waves that we access. There are listening camps where you can listen to sap moving in trees. Eating fungi makes us listen better. What happens to the body when it’s buried in the ground, what happens with the gut flora? Human bodies are almost toxic to nature. They have to be cleansed before burial.” Cynthia ponders: “We have to adapt. Compost piles are synced with the seasons. Mycelium is a network system, a neural system, a highway. Does it exist underwater? What are the no-goes?” Noam: “How can we take care of the hygiene in the environment? The smellier the better. Diversity of flavours should be one of the principles. Mycelium is polyvocal.”
Meanwhile in Etheria thoughts turn towards the existence in a digital network, where energy can be derived from intelligence or connections. The group has developed the idea of a club, in which sound operates as a resonant web that can lead to orgasmic experiences, and where serendipity rules encounters. Individuals will have to let go of the idea of persons, of people. Rather they appear as nodes in an orb that experience sound and can take any shape. The orbs can overlap and be absorbed in the hive mind. In the club there are nodes and orbs against cosmic backgrounds. It can be a theme park. The nodes can shapeshift, erasing human boundaries. In that sense Etheria can be seen as a game. The economic aspect of it is a journey from here to there. Reon: “You can think of nodes as a concentration of relationships. Consciousness involves value judgments, it is a discriminating feature, but there are different levels of consciousness.”
Day 3 concludes
In the final plenary session, the groups and subgroups present the results of the tasks set to them at the start of the day. But before doing so, some of the participants share ideas that emerged in the process. The Gaia group had thought of ways for power sharing, a biocracy; perhaps appointing humans as caretakers who would represent the voice of the forest. They revisit the idea of a river that collects and deposits as it meanders. Lisanne Buik tells about the initial difficulty the group had in making Etheria concrete, how to make the transition from a physical to a digital world tangible. “It does feel natural now, which was an interesting experience for me.” Reon Brand applauds the group: “It has been a birthing experience. It is brimming with possibility. You have done a marvellous poetic job.”
It was exciting to witness this workshop as an observer. Two groups had to envisage worlds that were suggested by radical and radically contrasting future scenarios, try to find words, and try to find a feasible route how to get there. For both groups a challenge, but perhaps most for the Etheria group. It had to concern itself with the most drastic transition, humans abandoning their biological state to enter a digital environment. The incentive was clear, as it was for Gaia, the other group: to find a way to counter the disastrous mismanagement of humans on this planet. What still remains unsolved is, what positive motivation, what desire, individuals may have to undergo that transition; and what would motivate their continued existence there. Endlessly clubbing around, moving from one serendipitous encounter to the next? If gaining knowledge, to what end? Would there be consecutive generations, procreation? Again, to what end? And what happens to the bodies that have been left behind? Are they disposed of, or kept in suspended animation, in case its former ethereal inhabitant wants to come back its choice?
Then, there is the notion of intelligence, which is what gets uploaded into this digital world. It is assumed that intelligence is a value in itself, but what is it, in fact? How would you define it? Are there differences in intelligence, qualitative and quantitative? Suppose there is a spectrum of IQ’s ranging from 50 to 150, would these meet selection criteria? Would these favour the higher end of the spectrum? Would people have to pay for access, again emphasising and widening the gap between haves and have-nots? Would there be room for evil geniuses, or are they precluded from entering? In short, are there filters in place for selection?
In a sense, the task for Gaia appeared to be somewhat simpler. Their vision could be based on the world they know, and on knowledge and myths of people living in close contact with nature. On the other hand, they didn’t want to fall in the trap of turning back the clock. They will have to start from the world as it is today, and move from that point to an existence that relies on other types of technology than those with which humans currently drain the resources of this planet, poisoning it in the process. So, how are we supposed to divest ourselves of these layers of protection? How do we fracture willingly into smaller, self-reliant communities? Can we rid the planet of the damage that has already been done to it?
The goals have been sketched and, to some extent, filled in. The routes that may lead to these contrasting visions are still largely unclear. Obviously, you can’t cover everything in all its detail in just three days. Although the worlds that these groups conjured up, may be located in opposite corners of the imagination, there were some fascinating similarities in the approaches. Most evident was the fact that networks played an important part in how all would envisage these scenarios, derived from the way mycelium operates underground. Apparently, we need nature to push back the limitations of our intellect and imagination. And it is nature that brings us together, however far our aims seem to lie apart.
Illustrations: Sunjoo Lee, Leif Czakai, Cècile Espinasse, Sixtine Blandin.
Workshop concept by Reon Brand, Godelieve Spaas, Lisanne Buik, Olga Mink.
Assistance & Production by Claudia Lieshout, Loreto Bazo.
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