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Interview

Out of Love, Not Duty:
The Key to Interspecies "Synlogue"

DESIGN VISION is an original design research project at Sony that predicts societal trends and explores the course that the future might take.
In this initiative, Creative Center designers themselves conduct research and interviews, leading to analysis and proposals.
In 2021, DESIGN VISION implemented backcasting through the new technique of Sci-Fi prototyping to investigate possibilities for a better future. This is a reprint of an interview article from that research report with informatics researcher Dominique Chen, who has searched for new ways of coexisting.

Dominique Chen Dr. Chen is Professor of Culture, Media, and Society at the Waseda University Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. He researches ways to improve the relationship between human society and technology, basing his studies in a digital wellbeing perspective. Published works include Mirai o Tsukuru Kotoba: Wakari-aenasa o Tsunagu Tameni (Language that Generates our Future - To Connect our Misunderstandings) and his most recent book, Commons Toshite no Nihon Kindai Bungaku (Modern Japanese literature as a Commons).(Photo by Rakutaro Ogiwara)

Related theme from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021: "WELLBEING-WITH"

The DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 conceptualized the future world of 2050 using Sci-Fi prototyping. By backcasting from that, the report derived four themes to focus on for the future*1.
One of those themes is "MULTISPECIES."
Overcoming previous anthropocentric ways of thinking is essential to solving global problems such as climate change. Now is the time when it is required to understand humankind as members of a diverse ecosystem and switch to a consciousness that presupposes people’s relationships with countless other types of living things, as represented in multispecies ethnography*2.

How can an ecosystem where species—everything, including humans, from plants and animals to microbes and robots—interact while continuing to coexist be realized? In pursuit of this theme, this article interviewed Dominique Chen, who researches coexistence with other beings from a unique perspective.

*1 Sci-Fi meets design to shape hopes for the future: Designer roundtable on DESIGN VISION 2021
*2 Multispecies ethnography: The concept, recently drawing attention in a variety of fields, of coexistence with multiple other types of living things, not only plants and animals but also extending to microbiomes.

Out of Love, Not Duty: The Key to Interspecies "Synlogue"

Using the Nukabot, a pickling bucket robot he developed with his team, informatics researcher Dominique Chen has been studying how humans can develop a sense of coexistence with microbes. We talked with him about the possibility of coexistence and synlogue*3 with nonhuman species.
(Reprinted from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 booklet published in October 2021)

*3 "Synlogue" is a term coined by Nobuko Mizutani, a scholar of Japanese language education, as a combination of words meaning "together" and "speech."

Using the Nukabot as a jumping-off point, could you talk to us about multispecies coexistence?

The 2000s saw significant growth in the field of animal-computer interaction (ACI). Researchers study the design of interfaces for not just humans but also cats, dogs, and elephants. The field has now expanded to other life forms such as plants and mushrooms. Our Nukabot is an interface for microbes.

Nukazuke is a Japanese pickling method that involves pickling vegetables in a paste made by mixing rice bran, water, and salt. If you study the process, you will see that it involves microbes in our skin, in the vegetables, and in the atmosphere—all coming together inside a single container to create a complex ecosystem for triggering lactic fermentation. In other words, it is a multispecies process.

Could you talk a little more about ACI?

I believe ACI resulted from an overlap of more-than-human*4 research and human-computer interaction (HCI). The current leaders of more-than-human research, such as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, deliver lectures on posthuman philosophy that are inspiring engineers and designers.

In the generation after Haraway and Tsing’s is a brilliant environmental philosopher called María Puig de la Bellacasa. In her wonderful book, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, she espouses a philosophy that treats soil as an enormous ecological system that includes the ecosystems of the microbes in the soil. In our research involving the Nukabot, we incorporate de la Bellacasa’s ethical framework.

*4 More-than-human: A field of study that goes beyond the many problems of the human world to explore paths to coexistence between humanity and Earth’s ecosystem, also attempting to establish a "more-than-human" perspective that overcomes conventional human-focused understanding.

Could you explain this framework at little more?

It’s what de la Bellacasa calls non-normative ethics. Normative ethics is where you are given rules from the top-down about how you should act. There’s social agreement about what the rules are and what we shouldn’t do. This creates the impression that there are more things that are forbidden than things that are allowed. Non-normative ethics is the reverse. I think It is about this intrinsic desire to care for the Others.

De la Bellacasa says that in human-soil relations, the process of taking care of the soil every day causes us to think of the soil as connected to us. Gradually, we find ourselves impulsively caring for the soil not out of duty but out of affection. It is as if we have begun seeing the soil and microbes as parts of ourselves. By fostering such a relationship, we can approach the environment from a non-normative ethical perspective that comes from inside rather than from external pressure. De la Bellacasa says that unless we can achieve such a relationship with nature, we cannot solve the roots of our environmental problems. I was struck by her ideas because it was exactly how I felt through my research with the Nukabot—that I made sure to stir the batch at the right times because I wanted to properly care for the microbes.

The Nukabot was codeveloped with fermentation designer Hiraku Ogura HCI researchers Young ah Song and Kazuhiro Jo, and product designers Kiichi Moriya, Yuto Mitani and Naoto Sekiya. Internal sensors perceive the state of fermentation of the bed of salted rice bran and when the pickles are ready to eat. Speech from a smart speaker lets the user know.

You’ve achieved synlogue with these microbes.

Yes, "synlogue" refers to the act of sharing a subject and spinning phrases together, unlike dialogue where the interlocutors face each other, a concept I originally rediscovered while studying communication between humans. I am wondering if it is possible to expand this concept in the relationship between humans and other species. In this sense, for generations, brewers and other makers of fermented food products have been refining the art of synlogue with the microbes, and cultivating an emotional bond with the more-than-human world without the aid of digital technology. I’m interested in studying technology through their way of life.

Ultimately, I want to develop tools infused with a good balance of what machines are good at and what humans are good at. I think such tools—“tools that allow for autonomous action,” to borrow a phrase from Ivan Illich—would help us come up with new theories of knowledge in relation to coexisting with life forms we cannot see.

"Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds" María Puig de la Bellacasa (UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS)

What importance will be placed on the idea of understanding the umwelt (the world as experienced by a particular organism) of a non-human species, as you have with the microbes in the nukazuke paste?

It may be possible to enjoy a VR or other simulation that lets you temporarily experience the umwelt of another species through your own sensibilities. But actually immersing yourself in, for example, a dog’s umwelt in order to understand it requires a lifelong commitment. And still, you may be unable to reproduce, move, or project that umwelt into our everyday life. It requires imagining the perspective of someone other than yourself. It’s literature. Assuming that plants and microbes have emotions like humans is egotistical. Nature and everything else in the more-than-human world do not exist to be conquered and ruled. They exist to make us aware that there are things we cannot understand and in so doing make us humbler. I believe that attaining this mindset will help us develop more caring relationships with one another. It is only by doing so, perhaps, that we will be ready to normalize our relationship with the more than human—that is, living with them and shaping the world together.

(Interview conducted online on September 7, 2021)

Interviewer’s commentTakeo Inagaki, Design Producer, Creative Center, Sony Group

In thinking about coexistence between humanity and other types of living things, I wanted to focus on spirituality in Japanese culture, which has come to be accepted as a vague relationship with no perception of a binary opposition between humans and nature. Furthermore, Dominique Chen presented the perspective that every species, from the bacteria in rice bran used for pickling to the microbes in soil to human gut flora, is linked based on interaction on a global scale.

We at Sony must also take on agriculture that does not burden the ecosystem and new areas like the ocean and space from a global viewpoint to play a role in future society. What should designers do to that end? This interview made me think deeply.

Sci-Fi meets design to shape hopes for the future: Designer roundtable on DESIGN VISION 2021