It is no secret that the relationship humans have with nature and technology is strained at best; a sustainable future will require significant relationship counseling. FreedomLab fellow Martine Dirkzwager Wu explores the intricacies of these relationships and possible avenues for mending them, focusing on cosmotechnics and planetary thinking. In this interview, Victória Ferreira and Joep Schot ask Martine what she has observed so far.
Victória: We have heard you talk about cosmotechnics in your research projects. Could you tell us how you got into studying cosmotechnics and what it means?
Martine: The term cosmotechnics can seem a bit daunting at first. I came across it in the work of philosopher Yuk Hui in his book The Question Concerning Technology in China. I picked it up at the bookstore because the title and cover caught my attention. I am glad I did because it has been a game-changer in my research.
Cosmothecnics is a proposal for decolonizing and opening up the question of technology. Technology is often presented as being anthropologically universal, but actually what we think of when we say "technology" is a European conception of it. Cosmotechnics suggests that each culture's understanding and implementation of technology is intimately related to that culture's worldview. It does so, for instance, by contrasting Europe and China’s understanding of the relationships between technology, humanity and the cosmos.
"Cosmotechnics suggests that each culture's understanding and implementation of technology is intimately related with that culture's worldview."
One example is how AI and robotics have been received with distrust and resistance in Europe, but not in China, where this technology is embraced insofar as it is believed to enhance human capacities. Looking at the mythologies of these cultures gives some insight into why that is. The well-known Greek myth of Prometheus, for instance, tells the story of the punishment inflicted on him by Zeus after Prometheus steals fire—arguably the first piece of technology—and brings it back to earth. Subsequently, Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock where an eagle feeds on his liver. This myth shows how punishment has been associated with technology in Western thought.
Chinese mythology tells a completely different story regarding the origin of tech. There's a myth that tells the tale of three ancient emperors: Fuxi, Nüwa, and Shennong; the latter provides his tribe with the skills of agriculture, medicine, and cooking, and after death becomes the god of fire. Technology, therefore, transitions peacefully—not brutally—and among humans, not gods.
The relationship Europe has with technology is one of many, but Eurocentrism has aimed at universalizing it. Conversely, cosmotechnics is all about rediscovering the true heterogeneous nature of technology. Current digital technologies such as smart cities, IoT and social networks lead toward a singular, totalizing human-technological relation, which is in accordance with Western ontology. For technological diversity to prosper, it is necessary for cultures to look at their histories and myths for inspiration rather than relying on bandwagoning.
Joep: It sounds like there could be quite some overlap between cosmotechnics and planetary thinking. Could you please give a brief explanation of planetary thinking and expand on the relationship between planetary thinking and cosmotechnics?
Martine: Planetary thinking is a critique of the Anthropocene. We have impacted the planet by reducing its biodiversity, disrupting biogeochemical cycles, and exhausting natural resources, generating a disequilibrium that will take a tremendous amount of time and energy to rebalance. The power of human activities has become a force, as in a natural force in itself, able to manipulate the planet’s health.
The anthropocentric mentality considers the planet valuable insofar as it is instrumental to the human species. It fails to recognize the planet as an entity in itself, with intrinsic value. But the human species is just one amongst many others, immersed in a network of interdependent systems that make a broader, planetary system. Planetary thinking proposes we understand the planet through a holistic perspective, and acknowledge its complexity, magnitude and agency.
"Planetary thinking proposes we understand the planet through a holistic perspective, and acknowledge its complexity, magnitude and agency."
I hope that by now the connections between planetary thinking and cosmotechnics are beginning to sound more apparent: cosmotechnics questions the hegemonic character of Western ontology and planetary thinking proposes a reconceptualization of our relationship with the non-human. Therefore, both are movements against the current way of relating to nature and technology.
Victória: Why are cosmotechnics and planetary thinking relevant today?
Martine: We are living through a time of crisis. Broadly, it’s the crisis of modernity, of our relationships with the non-human. We can't use old models to understand the new paradigms we are living in. We can no longer pretend to live independently from nature and technology. We need to explore a more organic unity: thinking with and through nature and technology. Cosmotechnics can help us mend our relationship with tech; planetary thinking can help us mend our relationship with nature.
Moreover, because modernity was built on coloniality dynamics, cosmotechnics and planetary thinking are decoloniality projects that seek a future where multiple perspectives can stand on an equal footing.
"Cosmotechnics can help us mend our relationship with tech; planetary thinking can help us mend our relationship with nature."
Joep: What excites you most about these new ways of thinking?
Martine: I want to help open up platforms for speakers, to open up the gates of knowledge so to speak. It mostly translates into keeping my mouth shut and listening. There's always room for questioning knowledge, even our own epistemology—everything we think we know. Cosmotechnics and planetary thinking invite us to engage in this questioning and embark on the process of continuous learning and unlearning.
I also love the idea of having a more meaningful relationship with the non-human. We are on our way to actualizing this aspiration as we start to acknowledge the agency and ontology of nature and technologies. One example is how we are succeeding in giving rivers legal personhood around the world. I am excited about the project of building a new ontology, co-produced by humans and non-humans. It is an extremely creative project in that a renewed ontology brings about a whole new economic, social, political and cultural system. The implications of such a shift are unpredictable, but to me they sound very refreshing and promising.