Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A hybrid Earth - Art, Culture & Engineers

How to handle the shock of the new? 
How do arts, technology and making sense of the future link?
Four line of thoughts #SGSCULTURE, @SalzburgGlobal.

The author at Senaatintori
 Helsinki (Finland)
Nowadays, people are altering the Earth at an accelerating pace. A new, disrupted world is in the making; research & supply-chains ahead, politics lagging behind.
Since aeons, people have built on Earth their 'sociocultural-ecological niche' through purposefully engineering their environments to sustain their existence and reproduction. Starting from the fringes, in deep time, now human activity substantially shapes the dynamics of Earth. People's activities mark the globe at least since the industrial revolution. Taking this perspective I like to argue that, since the onset of agriculture in the Neolithic age, 'design and engineering' has been an all-purpose cultural activity of people to shape their 'sociocultural-ecological niches' to maintain their well-being, mutual care, and reproduction.

Tell the people, they are marvellous niche-builders!

What people like to happen, what they fear and what they cherish, that is at the core of their cultures. It gets pictured in their visual arts and other means to express feeling, perceiving and sense-making. Hence, culture and arts describes the sociocultural-ecological niches of our species, in history, today and as vision of the future.

The history of altering Earth exhibit complex social and cultural processes. For example, Denevan [1992, 2011] illustrates what happened in the Americas, Purdy [2015] describes the USA, Fressoz [2012] studies France, and Chew and Sarabia [2016] or Kowarsch [2016] describe an extended historical period or the philosophical context, respectively.

Sculpture "Emiigrants on Fish" - Carl Milles,
Milles Garden - Stockholm (Sweden)

People are marvellously ingenious, also when altering the Earth. To that end they deploy three dominant traits of our species. First, all people - even the artists - seem to be engineers or designer who are determined to carve out a sociocultural-ecological niche from Earth. Second, people 'consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings and other states of mind that characterize' them and shapes their thoughtful insights [Deutsch, 2011, p.130]. Third, whatever people engineer (or design) that they do conceive through mutual sharing of insights into sense-making. Hence, humankind's multiple cultures inevitably lead to various 'particularly engineered systems for producing, distributing and consuming goods and services'. In making these systems, people face choices and constraints; that may take physical or mental form. 

The individual and collective responses to the global and self-inflicted altering of Earth are various. They may be visionary, confident, or concerned. However, they also include 'cognitive dissonance', or manifest as doomsday scenarios and denial of change. Addressing people's concerns appropriately through action, including politics, require shaping public and individual discourses. Discourse is a prerequisite for handling 'weird(ing) power relations enlivened by times of radical uncertainty' [Sweeney, 2014, p. 10], hence, doing politics. The discourse should be non-technical, non-expert. Rather, they must relate to people's preferences and world-views. Hence, they have to have a cultural meaning and have to relate to collective sense-making.

At very first view, people express their preferences and world-views through their lifestyles. However, the genuine societal expression of preferences and world-views is the particular engineering / design (and 'modus operandi') of the production systems and consumption patterns that support people in maintaining their lifestyles. The 'engineering/design and operation of production systems and consumption patterns' in turn shape the intersection of societies with the biotic and abiotic environments of Earth. Whatever shape these intersections may take given the scientific-technical means and economic resources, essential for the respective design-decision will be people's world-views, their preference regarding their lifestyles, and their values.
People's preferences and values are shaped by and expressed through art, for example, narratives, that is here, tales about the purpose of actions and views about 'what is right'. Nowadays, as global change is intentional and massive, the arts shall capture the underpinning social and cultural features, such as preferences of people, their world-views, and reflect general purpose. Furthermore, the arts should extend the discussions between specialists beyond the respective realms of professional competence and influence the sense-making of how to design production systems and consumption patterns.

We, the Terra-Former.

What's the New?
Examples to illustrate the perspective of the central role of engineering/design in our cultures are many.

Civil engineering builds visible intersections of the Earth and (economic) activities of people, for example, dredging a waterway, building a bridge or constructing a hydroelectric power plant and other more subtle changes of Earth's geomorphology.

A less visible although powerful intersection of the Earth and (economic) activities of people are the various production systems and consumption patterns, which couple through fluxes of matter and energy.

Urban dwellings may serve as a further example; they constitute a visible intersection with the biogeosphere, and massive fluxes of energy and matter couple them to the Earth. For example, cities are receiving drinking water and ejecting wastewater, receiving electric power or fuels and ejecting heat, receiving food and ejecting manufactured goods that at the end of their life-cycle are discarded or recycled elsewhere on the globe.

An effective terra-engineering, that is 'design at a planetary scale', is taking place on Earth to sustain a human population of 9 to 11 Billion people by the end of the century. That's the New!

Bingo, Geo-Bio-Noosphere!

Obviously, culture and arts are parts of the Earth.
But, how does culture, arts relate to Earth?
To keep it simple, the Earth is composed of three spheres, a 'geosphere' of abiotic features, a 'biosphere' of biotic features, and a 'noosphere' of cognitive features. The meaning of notions 'geosphere' and 'biosphere' seem evident. To match to these two notions, what is meant by 'noosphere' needs re-focussing compared to its habitual (metaphysical) meaning.
The notions 'biosphere' and 'geosphere' are built in a similar manner. On one side they refer to physical features of the Earth, respectively biotic and abiotic objects that alter in time and space. On the other side, they refer to processes that govern the interaction of these physical features (objects) in space and time. To relate culture and arts to 'biosphere' and 'geosphere', the notion 'noosphere' should be re-coined referring also to particular 'physical features' (objects) and 'processes'.

The 'physical features' of the 'noosphere' are the artefacts that people make, not limited to but including 'engineered/designed systems for production and consumption'. The 'processes' in the 'noosphere' are the thoughtful insights of people about how to design, use and deploy these artefacts. Obviously, culture and arts are part of these thoughtful insights. Hence, the re-coined notion noosphere refers to physical features (artefacts, engineered systems) and processes (the intentional use of these artefacts).

The notions 'biosphere', 'geosphere' and 'noosphere' describe Earth as being composed of physical features and processes that govern interactions. Culture and arts are part of these processes. Consequently, a description of the Earth deems possible in which culture and arts are integral parts; 'a kind of hybrid Earth, of nature injected with human will, however responsible or irresponsible that will may have exercised' [Hamilton and Grinevald, 2015, p.68].

The Culture of “Ingenieurskunst" **

How does culture and arts relate to the engineering/design
of production systems and consumption patterns?
The engineering/design of production systems and consumption patterns happens in a double framework. The first framework is set by the scientific-technological means, which are deployed within the available economic resources. The second framework is set by the "narratives" about what an engineered/designed system/pattern shall deliver.

The construction and operation of any 'engineered / designed system / pattern' links people's activities to the Earth, either in a direct physical manner or through fluxes of energy and matter, or through both. The 'engineering / design
narrative' describes people's sense-making of their sociocultural-ecological niche. Hence, the engineered / designed system, as well as the particular operation procedures for its use, depend on natural and technical constraints, on economic means, and on societal choices.

For example, the design of the high-water spillway of a hydroelectric power plant applies safety rules and the laws of hydrodynamics. The retention of water in the lake behind the dam is managed in function of the hydrological regimes, the intended use of water downstream of the dam, and the needs of the society for electrical power. The design and operation of an engineered / designed system in is about the appropriation of resources, that is value-driven societal choices to allocate opportunities.

Summarizing, the engineering / design of the intersections of people's activities and the Earth is much more than science, technology and economy. The intersections are as much a reflection of our value systems, cultural choices, lifestyles, virtues and good courses of action. It is in addressing these matters of sense-making that cultures and arts play their role as essential cognitive features of our species.

* The essay is a contribution to the Salzburg Global Seminar (593) The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future; 20-25 February 2018; #SGSCULTURE.  The essay is derived from reflections in my paper Ideal-Type Narratives for Engineering a Human NicheGeosciences 2017,7(1), 18; doi:10.3390/geosciences7010018. Copyright / pictures: The author.

** The notion of 'engineering' is referred to in French and German as 'genie civil' and 'Ingenieurskunst', respectively. Rather than the English 'engineering', the corresponding French or German notions historically connote a more substantial concept,  'the ingenious civil' or 'the arts of engineering', respectively. Hence, both notions refer to the design and operation of purposely built and often larger-scale environments of artefacts.

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