The World Expo is always the place to showcase the latest inventions and speculate on future developments. In that tradition, Het Nieuwe Instituut steals a march on the future with the exhibition Garden of Machines. Curator Klaas Kuitenbrouwer (e-culture expert at Het Nieuwe Instituut) explains the future sketched by the exhibition.
What is the exhibition Garden of Machines about?
"Garden of Machines is about a change of perspective. Technology has always served humanity, and its effect on the rest of ecology was subservient. This exhibition invites us to consider technology as part of ecology. Hence the name Garden of Machines. A garden exists somewhere between total control and untamed nature. A garden is planned, but then becomes a small self-generating ecosystem. In the twentieth century the narrative of material progress evolved in unison with the growth of the middle class and the emergence of the welfare state. Everybody benefited, not only in a material sense through the availability of all sorts of products, but also in an immaterial sense through education and emancipation. The first cracks appeared in this rosy picture of the future in the 1960s and 70s. Attention started to focus on the problems caused by material progress, particularly for the environment. Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, a huge number of people no longer believe in progress at all. An awful lot of people believe we are heading towards a series of huge crises and we don’t know how to change course. So there is a great need to think about progress in new ways."
What does that new narrative of progress consist of?
"Our alternative narrative of progress departs from the Anthropocene era, a name increasingly used to denote the times in which we live. The word Anthropocene expresses that humanity has become the primary geological power. We are largely the reason for the rapid speed with which the environment and climate are changing. That places a huge responsibility on humanity, and compels us to consider the consequences of technological progress for life on earth. In our narrative of progress we focus on the possible positive influences that the latest technology could have on all living things, be they humans, animals or plants. We no longer distinguish between culture and nature, but approach both as part of one ecological system."
Can you give a concrete example of such a positive development?
"We present a number of examples where there is evidence of co-evolution, where technology and non-human creatures engage in new exchanges. One of the scenario’s we present comes from the gigantic container ships that travel the world’s oceans all the time. Ever since the first voyages of discovery, animals and plants have been dispersed across the world. There is often a fear of the harm caused by so-called exotic species. We want to reverse that perspective and look at how those ships enable us to consider the world more as a shared ecology, by according them a role in the exchange between various systems. In the meantime, sea levels are rising and research is looking into living on water and floating cities. We connect various developments to one another and propose the container ship as a floating habitat for humans, plants and animals."
That sounds like a modern version of Noah’s Ark.
"But this ark doesn’t need to survive autonomously. This is about an unexpected and strange collection of creatures from all over the world that, together, form a new ecology. We focus on two important developments in technology. Owing to the use of solar and wind energy, machines are increasingly able to generate their own energy, an ability that living organisms possess by nature. Likewise, new software ensures that technology can function more autonomously. Moreover, the internet is starting to penetrate the world more thoroughly, through all sorts of possible sensors, weather stations, seismic measurements, GPS and so on. So the exchange of information, material and energy that was already so evident in organic ecology would seem to be possible for machines too. If plants and animals could also make use of information technology, then how will organic and technological creatures exchange and interact with each other? People will primarily shape that development, but it is conceivable that this process will then lead a life of its own."
Can you imagine a time when the difference between nature and technology has all but disappeared? That our worldview is totally new?
"We don’t claim that there isn’t any distinction between the organic and the technological. We want to demonstrate that you can view technology as a power that can extend nature; that technological developments can be deployed in such a way that they create a new ecological cohesion; and that technology does not necessarily have to constitute a danger to nature but can in fact provide opportunities for people, animals and plants."