Co-Emerging Futures as Sensory Experiences – an interview with Reon Brand
“As humans, we have to realise we are part of natural ecosystems, not above it. We cannot only focus on human needs, our economy has to become a servant of nature.” (Reon Brand, 2019)
I’m writing this article from my home while in quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak. While recognizing the pain and disaster that this pandemic brought, by now we know that there is also good news to watch: the skies in China turned blue again, and some of you may stop to hear the birds singing. Spring has arrived in the Northern hemisphere and the Earth has some time to breathe. I am also taking this time to share some of the work of people like “us”, future designers and researchers whose job is to offer new perspectives on reality in times of uncertainty.
A while ago I sat down for an interview with Reon Brand (director of Foresight at Philips Design) at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. I read his Co-emerging Futures Report with excitement, for its depth and his courage to introduce a non-common perspective on health and our future in the corporate world: that of the importance for humanity to start living as part of nature, not above it.
In this article I will take you through a journey of the four co-emerging future trajectories that Reon Brand foresenses. The trajectories (Etheria, Immortalia, Habitania and Gaia) can be placed on a continuum of perceived bodymind split and disconnection from nature, to perceived bodymind connection and interdependent relationship with nature. I will mix snippets of our conversation with the principles and perspectives that he so eloquently describes in his expansive work; and will use three of the speculative films of the series Next Senses I made last year with Next Nature Network and Alain de Bruijn, to make these co-emerging futures tangible to the senses.
Are we above nature? Or are we nature? This is the one question that philosophers throughout the ages have disagreed on. Where rational reductionists like Plato, Kant, Descartes and also Newton place humans at the pinnacle of evolution above animals and other species, Buddhists and Taoists, but also quantum scientists and researchers in new fields like epigenetics, place humans on equal grounds with animals and plants. It seems about time to reassess which notion of nature we want to put at the basis of our first-principles and design decisions. Brand took the challenge to not only identify these first-principles but scale up on the whole world that would emerge around it. He agrees we need an overall systemic shift. While noting it is “out of his league” to design such a new operating system, he offers these narratives as an open invitation for all of us to take agency on our future, to kickstart new design-initiatives, to enhance critical reflection on existing ones, and to be sensible on how our relationship to nature and our body and mind impacts our collective future.
This future trajectory stems from a reductionist body mind split and Newtonian worldview, and would lead to a future in which we can upload our consciousness into a machine, so that we, free from the burden of time and space, can live happily ever after in the Cloud.
When asked if he fears such a future, Brand says he does not, but he is worried by the limited understanding of consciousness that is at its core. Brand points out that people who look at the world through this lens perceive it through classical Newtonian science, which sees consciousness as being activated by a complex system of connected nodes and our brain as a creator of that consciousness. But the panpsychism theory already proved that consciousness is a fundamental property of reality on a quantum level, which implies that our brain is a mere conduit for consciousness, not the creator of it.
Brand refers to the creation of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) as developed by (the likes of) Elon Musk. This system sets its own goals for learning and self-improvement and decides how, what and when it wants to learn. He notes that such a machine would maybe be smart, but only in a rational, linear sense, not in an emotional, embodied sense. Another project would be the Human Brain Project — a massive supercomputer built in Dresden. Here, scientists are developing a system for a substrate independent mind, using technologies like optogenetic recording and nano chips (100 times smaller than the width of a hair) to feed brain activity data into a machine, monitoring tens of thousands of neuron-reactions in real time. He says they can indeed start to mimic the circuitry of the human brain.
“Eventually they want to decouple the human brain from the machine, and have a running AI mirror brain. This may seem super science fiction, but it’s well on its way and funding for these types of projects runs in the multi-billions. These systems will be able to learn something in seconds that take us 20 years to learn. At some point these systems can create new systems without any human intervention and at that point we will reach the Singularity. And by that time the argument of the Etherians is that if our intelligence is not somehow merged with that of the computer, we will become irrelevant and lost as an inferior species. And that is why Etherians have chosen to merge their brains with AI.”
The Baby Code from the Next Senses series would be an example of such a future. Born from a humble desire to understand and communicate, it tells the story of a mind-reading machine that processes signals from a baby’s brain and reconstructs these into sounds, assisted by AI, in the language of a mother. She no longer has to feel and intuit her way through motherhood, she can understand, by conduct of (artificial) intelligence, what her baby needs (…according to the machine.)
Immortalia stems from a fear of death and decline, and leads to a society where people chase ever increasing beauty and health with the aim to live forever. In this scenario, biotechnologies and neurosciences play a crucial role. Emerging biotechnologies like synthetic biology, bio-printed organs and CRISPR run through the circuits of this future. These technologies are in an advanced stage of development and behold great promises for curing diseases in the future. And yet the question is, who will be helped by these technologies? Is this a preferable future? Then for who? Will this version of the ‘augmented human’ become available only for those wealthy enough to afford these treatments? Will it fuel even more inequality? Brand stresses that also Immortalia stems from a limited perception of consciousness and disconnection from nature. It is a product of mind-driven thinking that disrespects (‘the Mother’s) circadian rhythms.
Brand refers to the Paganistic times and the importance to refertilise its metaphors and cultural myths.
“Our whole existence has been cyclic. Mother Earth is continuous death and metamorphosis. We have made decisions on behalf of nature, depleting her resources and her body. I always think that lots of the devastation on our planet is a result of not receiving the love of and/or giving respect to the mother that bred us.”
Immortalia is especially relevant as a trajectory to Brand, because so much of what it evolves around is health.
“Most healthcare companies need to move the needle from being essentially ‘sick-care companies’ to becoming true health-care companies that take a preventative stance rather than emphasise a diagnosis and treatment stance to health. People live in environments that are not conducive to good health, eat diets that are not fostering a healthy body and when they get sick, they have to spend a fortune on diagnosis and treatment to get better again. Is that the future of healthcare we truly want?”
“We have to ask ourselves: are the foods that we eat in sync with the biorhythms of the land on which we live? The system in our microbiome has evolved with seasonal foods, not with eating everything we want all year round. Our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and since the Industrial Revolution we have been introducing thousands of volatile chemicals into our living environment that get into (and can’t get out of) our bodies — they are accumulating in our lymph system. We need to return to our original biorhythm and reconnect our bodies to the lower frequency Earth resonance (of 432 Hz) that became overshadowed by the frequencies of technological numbing.”
“You are not a human being — you are an ecosystem — a supraorganism. Your microbiome / bacteria cells outnumber your human cells in a 60–40% ratio. They are an integral part of the way your system works — impacting emotional wellbeing, digestion, thinking, and memory. And are bacteria less intelligent? Well.. that is doubtable. The human genome consists of only 22.300 genes, while the bacterial genome consists of 3.5 million genes. Many diseases start in the gut, and so, building a healthy microbiome in the gut is the key to building resilience. Eventually, this era is all about resilience: it is the key to health, lowering healthcare cost and the burden on health care givers.”
As Immortalia centres around the idea of letting AI fix healthcare issues, the Next Senses scenario of Synesthesia fits quite right. Our sense of smell has been underused (influenced by reductionist philosophy coining it the most inferior of senses) and so more and more people are experiencing loss of their sense of smell. In this film you meet Franka, a chef who let that be fixed by technology.
In this future trajectory Brand unwraps a future that values sustainable prosperity for humanity and economic growth within the boundaries of ‘preserving’ the planet. We already know this scenario, as it is vividly exemplified by the sustainability movement. Brand notes the risks that we also already know: ‘Saving Nature’ is already being used widely by corporations for greenwashing and fake-eco campaigns. By focusing on preservation, sustainability offers at best resource-management based on economic incentives, not system change. Also, as this scenario does not take a multi-species approach but is focussed on saving ‘Team Human’, it does not necessarily adhere technology to the highest ethical standards. In Habitania, nuclear energy would still be welcomed even if leaking waste is killing sea life, and bees could be easily replaced by bee drones, pollinating the necessary crops for humanity’s survival.
“Another key problem with Habitania is that its solutions (e.g. building a circular economy) do not address the need for cleaning the environment from the pollution we caused over the last century, and for reversing the human footprint to a level that may safeguard natural ecosystems.”
Some other questions that Habitania does not fully attend to is the adaptation of our design-principles to our interdependence with all other life forms on Earth. Therefore we need to deeply attend to the final trajectory: Gaia.
This final, most holistic, ‘Mother-of-all-futures’ trajectory proposes a return to a worldview that sees the Earth as a living entity, and the human bodymind as one, and abstracts new first-principles for design of technology from the algorithms of nature. This worldview is not new, as it has dominated our perspective for most of our existence (during Pagan culture, as well as in Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism) until humanity embarked on a reductionist material worldview fuelled by Cartesian thinking and Newtownian science.
Gaia’s origin myth came forth with the book 'Silent Spring’, as written by Rachel Carson in 1962. It was studied by the great scientist James Lovelock in his 'Gaia Hypothesis,' that later became the 'Gaia Theory’, and was extrapolated into the coming eon in his latest book 'Novacene,' that he wrote at (wow) age 100. The latter looks through a Gaia lenze to a post-anthropocentric, "Novacenic", future where both human and non-human (including artificial) agents perceive Mother Earth as a living entity and supraorganism, with all species being her collective ‘nervous system,’ and where collective operating systems are lifted from the shadows of guilt, shame, fear and self-interest to the best interest of planetary wellbeing.
“We now realise that nature is a complex dynamic system of interrelated phenomena where the whole has properties not contributed by the individual components, but these properties emerge from relationships within the system. This view has been eloquently described in the ground-breaking Gaia hypothesis by James Lovelock. Lovelock borrowed the name Gaia from the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology. The work of Lovelock was rejected by the science community at first, but has since become a key pillar for understanding how the complex phenomenon of climate change is the result of an interplay between the biosphere, the geosphere and the atmosphere of the planet.”
Brand refers to this future as an eco-entangled one — e.g. manifesting into a resilient system that is capable of constant change, regenerating a vibrant, healthy and natural ecosystem. This trajectory provokes a remembering of our subtle senses and a journey from our mind back into our animal body that is in direct communication with its living environment.
“Gaia compels us to look at our place in the ecosystem not as humans versus the environment, but as active agents that are part of a larger ecosystem.”
In the film ‘Becoming Animal’, that is a great watch in itself (and beautifully reviewed here), one can see this subtle interaction between humans and nature in action. Filmmaker Abram gives the viewer a visceral experience of these subtle interactions — invisible or tactile involvements between the body and the world — that give our minds, bodies and hearts coherence.
The sense perception in Gaia is one of interspecies communication. The film Skin Waves from the Next Senses series exemplifies such a scenario. What could ocean creatures teach us about serving life, living with the circadian rhythms and connecting our bodies to the lower frequencies of Earth’s resonance? While we have sought to discover, name, chart and plot every inch of land on the planet, the deepest depths of our oceans remain unknown. Skin Waves allows us to feel the frequencies of whale sounds coursing through our bodies, enabling a multispecies bond as a way to deepen our spiritual relationship to nature.
Communicating with Gaia without Technology
People in this future trajectory may also discover that they do not need devices or machines to communicate with Gaia. They can simply morph their consciousness into all of her life forms, and learn to speak a language of biomorphic resonance. We may go from working with computers to working with trees. We may discover how to work directly with the microscopic network of mycelium mushrooms, which carry encoded information from one tree to another. The word ‘technology’ will then start to carry a whole different meaning.
As the digital world increasingly emulates human properties of pattern recognition and guides our decision-making and interactions, it is clearly impacting our senses, our bodies and our understanding of the world. The question is: can advances in the digital realm truly encroach that which makes us human? With increasing support for the panpsychism theory — that states that consciousness creates the universe and is distributed throughout the universe, there is no evidence that even the smartest computers today are approaching true self-consciousness, empathy and feeling, which is what connects humans to nature and the universe in the first place, because we instinctively feel part of it. This implies that if humans pursue the path of expanding their consciousness, and adopting a worldview that is able to perceive, live and design within the interconnected supraorganism of Gaia, we may shift our perception of technology from being a danger to our humanity, to being a tool to design operating systems that serve planetary wellbeing.
I took you through a journey of the four co-emerging future timelines (Etheria, Immortalia, Habitania and Gaia) that Reon Brand foresenses and that he placed on a continuum of perceived bodymind split and disconnection from nature, to perceived bodymind connection and interdependent relationship with nature. As a final source of inspiration from this extensive peek into the future, I urge you to question if your current relationship with your body, your mind, your devices and the natural world is one that you would like to pursue, now you know how they would manifest in the future? Is there a way you can teach yourself how to feel more deeply, both your suffering and your bliss; how to use your senses, all of them; and can you remember your biomorphic resonance with the greater web of life by communicating with your non-human companions, with sensory technologies or by morphing your consciousness into other life forms?
Let’s note that we have not lost anything. That all steps in this collective evolution, also the ones we would coin as ‘suffering,’ are in fact important ones. As famous Butoh Dancer Imre Thorman says, “We are never far away from nature, everything is nature, including technology. We may have moved away from the principles of nature, but not of nature itself, so we can always make our comeback. And the importance of feeling that we are ‘off track’, and allowing ourselves to feel it as ‘suffering’, may be an important step to guide us back to these principles.”
However, when we fail to relearn and remember, we may miss the birth of a more beautiful world our hearts know is possible: Gaia, the convergence of technology and life, a society designed in full attunement with the laws of nature.
Thanks to Reon Brand (Philips Design), and Mathilde Zamour for her pre-publishing read.
About the author
Lisanne Buik is a multi-disciplinary artist, speculative designer, ethicist and futures consultant exploring bodymind potential through installations, sci-fi films, writing, speaking and future products. She is a fellow of Next Nature Network. Together they research, make art and educate on the impact of technology on nature and vice versa.