The unbearable lightness of co-emerging futures. Reloaded. Remixed. Credited. | Marco Bevolo, Ph.D.
On the 22nd of April 2016, after the defence of my Ph.D. at Tilburg University, Prof. Em. John Rijsman organised a seminar on futures research epistemologies with Dr. Peter Bishop, former Director of the Master of Foresight at the University of Houston, and Prof. De Ridder, University of Twente, member of the commission. I remember walking into the seminar after changing from the somehow clumsy tuxedo mandatory for the defense, into my Italian custom-made suit, just to catch Prof. De Ridder state: “…and by 2046 we will reach singularity, so we will become immortal by transferring our consciousness into A.I.”, to which I reacted: “ Excuse me, I am afraid the Young Doctor wants to die, possibly painlessly, because death is key in the human existence”. I had to think about Prof. De Ridder last week, when I attended the Baltan Workshop on” Co-emerging Futures”, directly directed by Olga Mink, Founder of the “Think Economia” program and reported by Rene van Peer, curated in 2020 by Lorenzo Gerbi, with the key support by Loreto Bazo Marquez, designed to further develop the “Gaia” and “Etheria” scenarios presented by Dr. Reon Brand, Principal Design Futures, in his groundbreaking 2019 paper.
The paper, introduced by Brand at a Keynote at the Dutch Design Week 2019, the last edition to take place in presence before Covid-19, articulates between philosophy and foresight, four scenarios for the future transformation (or trans-mutation), beyond antrhopocentrism. “Gaia” is an extreme scenario that presents a deep integration of humankind with nature, with the latter determining new directions of holism. “Etherea” is an extreme scenario of trans-mutation, as coined by Brand, where humanity dissolves into singularity and a somehow abstract A.I.-driven reality emerges, where it remains unclear if and what role “people” play. At intermediate level between these two extreme scenarios, “Habitania” (perhaps a moderate version of “Gaia”?) represents a strong circularity-driven world, where humankind reduces and erases its ecological impact on the planet, and “Immortalia” (perhaps a version of “Etheria” were “people” still exist as such?), sees the human augmenting their body, artificially extending their life as we know it.
Since Manuel Castells in the mid 1990’s wrote about correlating parameters in a matrix structure, and since Francesco Morace, at the same point of the 1990’s, operationalizalized matrixes in Design Futures within Philips milestone, “Vision of the Future” (1995), the adoption of structured scenario thinking, with opposite extreme scenarios to determine an articulation, has been wide adopted in both consulting and reflecting on foresight themes. A relevant example from recent years might be the socio-political analysis “Four Futures. Life after Capitalism” (2016) by Peter Frase. The proposed longer term thinking by Brand might therefore look relatively conventional within the landscape of futuring and foresight, however there are three reasons why Brand’s “Co-emerging Futures” might represent a milestone in this decade:
- the clarity of its thinking, where Brand deliberately decided to write and reference the paper in wider editorial frameworks and format than niche academic publishing, with the result of an editorial quality that combines freshness of insight with flow and actual pleasure in reading;
- the quality of his citing, where a deep scanning of ideas and visions, from Plato to post-postmodernist philosophers; from popular press to scholarly sources, with an unusual ability to cut across conventions that sometimes castrate multidisciplinary fertility in academic publishing;
- the visual support to the actual text of the paper, courtesy of Philips Experience Design, where the paper was accepted as one of the recurring thought leadership “manifestos”; clear thinking comes through clear graphic synthesis, or the rational and immediate, simple representation of sophisticated thinking.
Within the Baltan Laboratories workshop, part of sophisticatedly curated “Think Economia” program (a fine arts, design and media festival about economy without the economists), I worked in the team that focused on Etheria, a human trans-mutation scenario that stretches the notion of A.I. into disembodiment and dematerialisation, with agency and consciousness somehow floating between human and artificial neural networks. The relationship between Design Futures and A.I. was explored by Filiberto Amati and myself in our recent World Future Review paper. However, in this Design Futures world of “Etheria”, there is no design as we know it, because there is no “human” as we know it. As a matter of a fact, as suggested by Hugo Pilate, in Etheria “we”, or what Singularity will make of our consciousness and mind, might feel through third bodies, e.g. by plugging our mind into a jellyfish or a dolphin (as anticipated for our memory in William Gibson’s 1990s “Johnny Mnemonic”)It is a somehow abstract world, the world of Etheria, that might resemble Alighieri’s immateriality in his “ Paradiso “. While the Divine Comedy is mostly known for the vivid characters and images of its “Inferno”, Dante’s Paradisiac cantos are highly philosophical and -indeed- ethereal. In the workshop, we discussed with the likes of Elise Talgorn, Philips, and Lisanne Buik, Next Nature Networks, one of the facilitators, how transactions and affection might evolve in Etheria, from human touch to mathematical models. In this world, Ambient Intelligence as envisioned in the early 2000s shifts from digitally-enabled anticipation and integration to the actual supremacy of a body-less, permanent A.I. landscape. The question of what consciousness actually is, and how consciousness emerges from complexity or else, is key to “Etheria”. From Buddhist non-local consciousness and Panpsychism, to poetic visions of wisdom and wit, like -in Ariosto’s 1516 “Orlando Furioso” Astolfo’s trip to the moon, to search for Orlando’s consciousness and bring it back to earth, the question of “consciousness” is the key question, to imagine “Etherea”.
Ariosto’s Orlando lost his wisdom and consciousness because of his unbearable love for the unworldly beautiful Angelica. It might be that the immaterial world of “Etherea” is not so different than 1516 universe of Ariosto’s knights and pricesses. A key question to determine what “Etherea” will be like, is how “love” will be like at the time of “Etherea”. After all, there is a wide range of literature dealing with immaterial forms of spiritual connection between lovers, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his “Love at the times of cholera” to Milan Kundera’s letter from Tomas’s son to Sabina in , that becomes an epiphany whereby the memory of a love long gone is reasserted at the awareness of her lover’s death. The immaterial nature of holographic love for avatars was envisioned by William Gibson in his and more recently depicted in movies like Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049”. Will Science Fiction of the past might be seen as an archeology of our future imaginaries? Tom Lombardo might find the answer to this question in his monumental history of Sci Fi but that will take a few more years to be completed. So, for now, it seems only punctual to assert how, in the age of social media and Tinder, with the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, love and erotics have never been less physical than in 2021. As I am a Generation X representative, the idea of true love happening by exchange of bits and digits only, in some cyberspace channel and through a (hopefully) secured server, is rather alien. Perhaps for Millennials, raised with social distancing as the norm of their youth and with Instagram as the venue of their parties, “Computer Love”, as Kraftwerk used to sing, will be the standard everyday. Will, in worlds like Etherea, our anthropocentrism leave space to a new galaxy of relations and interactions, the notion of love might come much closer to Dante’s “anime beate”, floating in the eternal, splendid light of Paradise.
The issue of “future intimacy” is high in the foresight agenda, as seen by events like Speculative Futures in Rotterdam or in popular press, as in articles in the likes of Forbes Magazine. From my point of view, even more than physicality, it will be the permanence of what serendipity enables, namely the infinite power of an unexpected twist of faith, to determine whether an AI-driven world like Etheria will be post-human, or just something totally else than human. Perhaps I cannot but agree with Milan Kundera’s initial vision of Tomas, whose life completely changed just because of the power of a metaphor turned reality, triggering his 1984 masterpiece. Brand reiterated how, towards “Etheria” and within “Etheria”, a principle like Markov’s blanket might apply, in order to enable use imagine how a world without us in our physical body form, might look like, smell like, feel like. Because as much as we try to disengage from our physical reality, we still think with our senses, by means of our metaphorical interpretations of the world, as determined by our notion of love.
I would like to thank Olga Mink, founder of Think Economia and Director at Baltan Laboratories, for having me in April 2021 as one of the 30+ contributors to the brilliant 3-days workshop focused on co-emerging futures, developing the vision and ideas by Reon Brand of Philips towards scenarios and concepts anticipating next economies. I would like to thank Loreto Bazo Márquez for her excellent organization and Claudia Lieshout for her skillful Miro moderation, supporting Lisanne Buik’s facilitation.
I take the opportunity to extend what reported by Rene van Peer of the Eindhovense Dagblad on behalf of Baltan, and acknowledge the excellent insights and remarkable talent of Elise Talgorn, Oli Sorenson, Hugo Pilate, Jacco van Uden of Den Haag Hogeschool, Cynthia Hathaway (although this time we were in different teams), and of all contributors who enlightened me with their wisdom and wit across the experience. I hold our exchanges as precious inspiration.
Last but not least, I would like to apologise to Lorenzo Gerbi for misunderstanding his curatorial contribution in earlier versions of this article.
The future is open.
The future is bright.
The future is Baltan
Originally published at https://www.marcobevolo.com on April 27, 2021.