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Technology after the Anthropocene

Technologies define our notions of what life and ways of living could be. Increasingly, they form the conditions that advance or constrain life. With the help of technologies, we can “sense” the climate of entire planets, “see” kilometers deep into the Earth, and “hear” the distant quavering of dying stars. We can protect and modify our bodies with artificial skins made of intelligent fibers or with the help of hormonal injections, and synthetic biology along with climate engineering can alter the biological and climatic conditions of our planet (and soon, worlds beyond), opening up spaces of possibility for organic and inorganic life forms that are much further reaching than we ever could have previously imagined.

New terms like the “Anthropocene” and the “technosphere” are used to describe these dynamic relationships between human beings, the environment, and technology at a planetary scale. The technosphere, for instance, provides a concept for understanding how natural and technological forces come together to constitute what we experience as the contemporary global situation. The technosphere comprises nearly all human-environment interactions and regulates what forms of existence are possible on Earth. We can experience the raw materials of industry and their systems of transportation, urban and rural landscapes, and even the “software” of values and standards developed through bureaucracy and currency. However, while we can experience such manifestations of the technosphere, we often cannot understand them as something at the planetary scale. Through these technical linkages, Earth’s diverse human and non-human communities are tied into ever-accelerating systems of mass production and consumption. How can we speak about these enormous, all-encompassing systems from the point of view of their local articulations? And, vice versa, how can we conceptualize planetary relations when taking local circumstances as our starting point?

By analyzing the technosphere both in its descriptive qualities and its many articulations within current social, technological, and environmental changes, we enable a discussion about the dynamic forms, transformations, and repurposings currently taking place while simultaneously negotiating the role of technology and our own human agency within these shifts. Now that we have realized our technologies have interfered in Earth-scale processes, what projected outcomes would make certain changes or preservations worthwhile? This line of thinking places collective values at the center of the shape our life forms and their manifestations will take in the future. The dilemma presented by today’s omnipresent technologies and their current forms has been the core subject of the experimental research project Technosphere at Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Since 2015, the project has brought together scientists, artists, and the general public to explore the following questions: What happens when the technological competes with the natural in shaping the world? What happens when the lines separating cause and effect, local and global, and human and non-human are constantly blurred?

The first three phases of the project have dealt with how planetary apparatuses operate, taking into account the implications of different knowledge practices and the path dependencies wrought by critical historical moments. Now, in the concluding phase, we look at the technosphere as a horizon against which new forms of and for life emerge.

Life Forms in the Technosphere

Technologies prescribe how elements of a system can or should be linked to one another. They draw certain processes together, interweaving “natural” processes and properties into a general construct that can be addressed or manipulated through human means. In recent decades, the relationship between natural processes and planetary-scale technologies has gained an entirely new quality with the emergence of fields like synthetic biology and the nanosciences, the discovery of techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 used for DNA sequencing, and the development of computational models that have recourse on our decision-making and notions of knowledge production. Since at least the mid-twentieth century, this type of constructive and interventionist access to the world at both the molecular and systemic as well as symbolic levels has expanded the notion of what experimentation and technology are. The drastically increased speed and intensity with which technologies differentiate and shape life demands the formulation of novel strategies, attitudes, and forms of life. How do our sociotechnological forms of life express collective aims and values, and which criteria can be established to orient them? Which values push the world along its path toward a future in which natural evolutions and humans and their technologies each vie for organizational prominence—even while many of us on Earth have little to no means of steering the course? How might we produce new forms of action that enable various forms of life to work with and against these dynamics?

Life Forms is structured around ten speculative questions and four epistemic modes of investigation that explore our understandings of what a life form can be. Conversations as well as artistic and performative strategies reconceptualize and experimentally link research materials and methods from sociology, literary studies, molecular biology, and anthropology. Life Forms will take place in HKW’s auditorium, emptied of its standard seating, stage, and technical equipment. Choreographic work, acoustic cues, and artistic staging together will create a figurative, constantly changing landscape that organizes the event. Spatial and temporal movements will orchestrate the event’s rhythm and create a connection between the contributions and the audience.

The program is organized through three closely intertwined elements. The core of this structure is the choreographic work of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu, who, together with a team of performers, will deal with principles of transformation formally and conceptually. Based on the work Temporary Title, 2015 they will question the lines separating human/non-human, object/subject, and transformation/transition/modification. The performance explores processes of individual and social change and allows for a meandering environment to emerge in collaboration with the visitors.

Amid this choreographic organization, research conversations will take place in which science historian Sophia Roosth explores different approaches to the notion of “life forms” with participants from the sciences, arts, and philosophy. The understanding of what a life form is changes with the everyday and scientific uses of the term, as can be seen in the histories of the natural sciences and the humanities. The various usages and methodological framings of the idea of life forms have an impact on our knowledge and understanding of what “life” and “form” are and how the two can be thought together. The research conversations explore how Idealized Forms have come to shape our understanding of life and discuss the Formations life creates within different environments. In addition, the participants will discuss how constructive practices of Making forms of life and modeling Landscapes for living could situate and influence our understandings of life.

The ten speculative questions woven into the program structure explore possibilities for collectively dealing with the current conditions for life on Earth. Scholars, scientists, and artists will jointly analyze moments of friction between novel technologies, social systems, and social values from various perspectives. At the same time, they will engage with epistemic limits and methodological incommensurability. The goal of these explorations is to discuss questions of methods and values, reconceptualizing them to meet the needs of our technological present. How do life forms emerge from the tension between natural processes, human cultures, and their technologies? What is the impact of this relationship with respect to care work, technological innovations, and the collective negotiation of conditions for life on Earth?

Finally, the narrative of our present can also be derived from what and how forms of life can be assembled using a new alphabet of techniques and technology. Life Forms is thus an attempt to grasp new scientific and technological possibilities at a moment when these are interwoven with traditions and processes already underway. Life Forms explores the possibilities this contemporary moment could open up for new politics, value structures, and social relations. Rather than wondering what technology is, we will have to ask about the forms our lives need to take for us to be able to listen to the resonances of the past and the values driving them toward their futures.

Katrin Klingan, Nick Houde, Janek Müller, Johanna Schindler, Christoph Rosol in collaboration with Bernard Geoghegan