Your new book ‘Ways of Being’ has just come out. What is it about?
I’ve been fascinated for a while with the ways AI is appearing as both a technology, a cultural idea of what intelligence is or might be. But at the same time, I’ve become incredibly concerned about the way in which it and other technologies are wreaking havoc on the environment and on our society. It seems there is a huge mismatch here: in what we think intelligence is, what we think technology is for, and what futures we imagine for a more just and equitable planet.
‘Ways of Being’ is my response to these concerns. It begins by reframing questions of intelligence away from the human, asking first what ‘artificial’ intelligence is if it’s not exactly, or anything, like human intelligence, and then exploring the other kinds of intelligence which already manifest all around us: the extraordinary abilities of animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and even whole ecosystems. From there I explore notions of more-than-human intelligence and agency, the limits of ideas like species and individual, and the possibilities of different ways of thinking, particularly with biological and non-binary computers, that acknowledge the abilities and awarenesses of other beings. Finally, I start to imagine what a more-than-human politics might look like: one in which we admit the rights and intelligences of other beings into our social and political systems, and start to create a more just, more ecological world together.
Did something in your artistic practice change as a result of
writing the book?
My art works and my writing are always tightly bound together: alongside the book, I’ve been working for several years on reframing my whole practice, which has always been rooted in technology, towards a more ecological worldview. Thinking about the questions raised by the book, and trying to put some of its ideas into practice, has had a huge impact on my own relationship with the world around me, totally transforming my understanding of other beings and our place in the world.
Recently, I’ve been making a lot of work around ideas and techniques for renewable energy systems, from simple solar heaters and desalinators, up to windmills , lemon-powered batteries , and engraved solar panels , which I’m exhibiting in an exhibition in Berlin this month.
As a consequence of writing the book, I’m also developing a project called Server Farm, which explores how we might do computation differently. The idea is to bring together a whole host of intelligences – plants, fungi, slime moulds, as well as humans and machines – into a kind of computer, which we use to think together about the problems we face, as well as create a model for cooperation and collective education with regenerative, redistributive, and equally empowering relationships at its heart.
How does this book relate to ‘New Dark Age’?
I always thought I’d write a book about the internet, and I always thought it would be a book about how great the internet is. Unfortunately, ‘New Dark Age’, which was written between Trump’s election and Brexit, is not that book: rather, it is concerned with the ways in which technology complexity and opacity, disregard for the earth and living beings, and the structural power of financial, corporate, and governmental elites, constrain and suppress our ability to think clearly and usefully about the world around us.
‘Ways of Being’ is thus in some sense a sequel, or at least a follow up in my own thinking, as I attempt to re-situate technology within an ecological framework, and seek advice and ideas from the multitude of other minds we share the planet with on how we might better work together. Technology is a huge part of my thinking, mostly because it is a huge part of most of our lives, and it will be part of whatever future we build together, but ‘Ways of Being’ is in many ways more hopeful about what this future could look like – indeed, must look like, if we are to survive and thrive in it.
I know it’s a big question but in an age of war, climate change and pandemics, what is the responsibility of the artist?
For artists who are engaged with the world – which is not a requirement of art, but an interesting way to go about it – I think there is a responsibility to address the many problems we face, and artists have many ways of doing this. This includes story-telling – imagining different presents, pasts, and futures, which allow different narratives to develop about how we live and understand the world. It also involves cross-disciplinary work: one of the advantages of being an artist is that you can move across subjects and disciplines in ways which are often difficult for scientists, researchers, and others, siloed in their departments or companies. Bringing other people together, and creating new ways of thinking between disciplines can be powerful artistic work, particularly when in generates new collaboration and ideas withing those fields. Finally, artists can also create new tools, both practical objects and ways of thinking, that are widely applicable in society and research.
For me, as in the recent works like the windmills and solar panels, it’s important that these tools actually function: they are works that work. I’ve come to think that it’s insufficient to make work that’s just *about* climate change or ecology, that merely describes or decries what is happening. These works actually intervene in the systems they are critiquing, showing materially that there are other ways of doing what we’re doing, empowered by creative imagination. It’s hard, and it’s not always possible to live up to these ideals, but it’s a good framework for making work in these times.
Ways of Being is out now.