review

Technology is nature

Reviewing Koert van Mensvoort’s Next Nature

There are two options: man dies out or becomes part of the next evolutionary level. The vision of the future Koert van Mensvoort outlines in Next Nature seems like a doom scenario anyway, but in this book, he offers us tools to survive. We, as humans can anticipate and adjust when we become aware of the inevitable future. Key is that we let go of thinking in nature and technology as opposites and understand that technology is our next nature. That idea is not new. Van Mensvoort follows in the footsteps of technology thinker Martin Heidegger, media theorist Marshall McLuhan and future thinker Kevin Kelly. However, he has an advantage over them: Van Mensvoort is not only interested in theory and vision, but he also translates them into practice. With this goal in mind, he founded the organization Next Nature about ten years ago. Since then, he has stimulated us with speculative design and artworks that question the future: cultured meat, a nano-supermarket, an artificial womb. Conceivable projects, stimulate the imagination and thus initiate the discussion. This book is intended as a more theoretical foundation of the position behind these projects: technology is our new nature.

Van Mensvoort is a master of accessible writing. He strings together scientific insights and combines them with moral positions. He takes the idea from Heidegger and McLuhan that technology is an externalization of human endeavours. Charles Darwin, Van Mensvoort writes, provides the most crucial view ever: that of natural selection. The link between evolution and technology provides the framework: what started with cells, cell division, carbon connections, and DNA continues to evolve into post-genetic organisms. Van Mensvoort calls them memetic, following biologist Richard Dawkins. Organisms that may be made by man, but that have taken on a life of their own, independent of direct human influence. Examples of memetic organisms are states, companies and religion. Ultimately, humans and other ‘natural’ organisms are swallowed up by these types of super-organisms. In fact, in most cases, that has already happened. Humanity has already lost its dominant position.

A provocative idea that mainly shows the artist in Van Mensvoort. Theoretically, his substantiation is inadequate. The moral assumptions are too dominant for that. In this way, he reduces Darwin’s theory of evolution to a hierarchy in which the struggle for existence and dominance are central. For Van Mensvoort, humans are the showpiece of genetic evolution. Now that we are threatened by superior memetic organisms, our position at the top is no longer safe. His image of evolution is one-dimensional: eat or be eaten, the right of the strongest. Outdated nineteenth-century ideas that are scientifically outdated and not in line with the richness of the works of Darwin, Alexander Von Humboldt and Peter Kropotkin. By being so rigid in his own moral point of view, he does little justice to the complexity of natural and technological ecosystems and how they (can) work together with other sentients when a hierarchical vision is exchanged for a decentralized one. Perhaps that is the next step in the evolution of Van Mensvoort’s Next Nature.

Next Nature: Why technology is our natural future by Koert van Mensvoort is published by MAVEN Publishers, 2019. The English translation can be obtained here.