Humans have the potential to be the ultimate symbiotes – working draft

There was a time in my life when I believed that humans were parasitical and that other species would generally be better off without us, but my views have evolved quite a bit since then. I’d like to share with you a bit of my journey, so that maybe you too can hope for the best from all of us.

This leg of the journey starts with a dog. This dog, named Tau, has been cohabitating with a human named Lee for over 12 years. Over that time the two have gotten to know each other really well. Tau and Lee do not share a language, nor do they rely on the same sensory experiences to navigate their worlds. Lee, like many humans, is a predominantly vision and hearing based being who uses visual and auditory cues to make sense of his context. Tau is a predominantly smell and hearing based being who uses olfactory and auditory cues to make sense of his context. While there is overlap between the two, the auditory world of dogs and humans seems quite different. Lee and Tau cannot communicate with each other the way that two humans might be able to communicate. In order for them to meet each other’s needs they must learn to interpret each other.

Interpretation looks a lot like research. Observations are made over time, hypotheses are tested, and conclusions are drawn about likely relationships between signals (e.g., behaviors) and outcomes (e.g., needs being met or not). Also like research, there’s some amount of trial and error that is needed to distinguish between signal and noise. Over the course of their relationship, Lee and Tau have learned from each other what signals the other makes to indicate that a need has arisen and what behaviors will satisfy the need that has been signaled. The relationship that evolves over time to encompass mutual interpretation can be considered a symbiotic one. Tau and Lee can communicate their needs to each other and have them met.

Recently I was asked to take care of Tau for several days while Lee travelled. I had lived with dogs before and had enough of a sense of the sort of needs that they have to be able to manage the basics. I could, without any further research, at least keep Tau alive. If I spent enough time interacting with Tau I could also learn what makes him happy and how to meet his needs beyond simply keeping him alive. I didn’t have 12 years with Tau to develop the sort of understanding and rapport that Lee has with him, but I did have a valuable resource for Tau knowledge. Lee was able to explain to me what different Tau behaviors indicate, and how to approach meeting Tau’s needs when I couldn’t quite interpret his gestures. By imparting his knowledge to me, Lee gave me a leg up on Tau interpretation and care. In this manner, Lee acted as a shortcut for me to develop a rapport with Tau. Lee also played the same role with Tau by giving him years of examples of the sort of needs that humans have that can be met by dogs. I took Tau for walks when he indicated a desire to explore and Tau cuddled up with me when I was running low on energies and could use a mood lift. I still had to engage in a fair bit of trial and error to interpret Tau’s needs, because I didn’t understand all of the nuances that could only have been learned through years of time together.

Comparing my relationship with Tau against Lee’s relationship with him got me thinking about shortcuts more broadly. I specifically started examining technologies as a shortcut. People develop technologies to function as intermediaries between humans and the natural world much in the same way that Lee acted as an intermediary in my relationship with Tau. Water faucets act as an intermediary between water out in the world (e.g., wild rivers that pool into reservoirs) and the tame waters we are able to access at any time in our homes. I do not have to understand the nature of a wild river or develop a relationship with it over many years of interpretation and experimentation in order to get water out of a faucet. That is a benefit to me (I get all of my water needs met), but creates an unbalanced relationship between me and the water source. I do not know how to meet the needs of the water source that meets my needs, because the technology that mediates my relationship with water also hides the true nature of the water.

As a researcher who is driven by curiosity and an undying need to learn about the world around me, I am constantly curious about how anything and everything works. I am also driven by a desire to reciprocate and make sure that any sort of benefit I am receiving from the world around me is balanced by a benefit that I can confer upon the world around me. I cannot do this with the water coming out of my faucet. I cannot do this with a lot of the technologies that I use, but I believe that as a species we are in the perfect position to develop technologies that facilitate symbiotic relationships rather than one-sided (parasitic) ones. We can do this in a manner similar to how humans learn how to take care of dogs. People have been developing symbiotic relationships with other beings for as long as humans have been around. We learn from plants how to meet their needs and how we may benefit from their offerings. All beings have needs to be met and benefits to offer those who learn how to interpret them. Technology can facilitate the interpretation process or conceal it, and I think we (all of the beings inhabiting this planet) can strike a better balance than we currently have by focusing our tech development efforts on the former rather than the latter.

To illustrate the difference between an interpretation facilitating technology and an obfuscating (concealing) technology here are examples of both:

Interpretation facilitating: Plant care apps. Rather than putting in the time that it would take to learn from a plant how to take care of them (in my mind a plant is a living being rather than an object, so I try to avoid using the pronoun ‘it’ which is often applied to objects) I can consult an app that tells me how much sunlight the plant needs, how often to water them, and when the plant has other needs that I can meet, such as needs for more nutrients in the soil or a bigger pot. I can take care of a larger variety of plants than I otherwise would be able to because I can learn from the app how to meet different plants needs. In this case the app functions as Lee did in teaching me about Tau’s needs. If I get stuck trying to figure out what a plant needs I can consult this app, much like if I got stuck interpreting Tau’s needs I could call Lee.

Interpretation obfuscating: Food ordering app. This is the sort of app that conceals A LOT – there are several layers of technology at play here that each conceal an aspect of the process of acquiring food. Rather than developing a reciprocal relationship with a food providing plant and having my nutritional needs met that way, I can order a prepared meal through an app and have it delivered to my home. The app conceals from me the plants that provided the ingredients that went into the meal AND the human labor that went into harvesting the ingredients from the plants, transporting them to the place where those ingredients are transformed into a meal, preparing the meal for consumption, and delivering the meal to my door. Each of those steps incorporates some form of reciprocity (money in exchange for labor) but it would be a stretch to call any of those relationships symbiotic. Sure the plants that provide the ingredients are cultivated and kept alive, but presumably not in a way that is mutually beneficial – the focus of agriculture tends to be on human benefit. Sure the people who transport fruits, veggies, and grains, are being compensated for their time, but the compensation is generic rather than meeting specific needs of the individual humans. The people who prepare the meals and deliver them are also being compensated for their efforts, but again not in a way that meets their individual needs other than by providing them with the means to get their own needs met. The sort of technology that directly meets the needs of the end user while only providing general compensation for all of the living beings involved in the process does not create balanced relationships or facilitate the process of entering into them.

Many people are talking about evolving from human-centered technologies to life-centered technologies (earth-centered?) and I think this framework of interpretation and reciprocity can help frame the process. So, how can humans become the ultimate symbiote? We’re already well on our way. Through the creation of artifacts and technologies humans have been imbuing objects with capabilities to facilitate interpretation. Lenses allow us to observe organisms that are too small for us to be able to see, such as viruses and bacteria, as well as entities that are too large for us to be able to observe directly, such as entire forests. If we focus our efforts on developing technologies that facilitate meeting the needs not just of the humans who use the technologies (end users) but also of all of the entities involved in the process we can leverage our abilities as interpreters to develop and maintain symbiotic relationships with other beings and with our environments.

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