The Problems With Having Stuff

August 26, 2021

10am Virtual

About the Event:
In arguing that economic growth is essential for human well-being, economist Branko Milanovic recently wrote that “People [e.g., monks] indeed can live happy lives with much less ‘stuff.’…But this is not true for the remaining 99.99% of the people who are not attracted by monastic lives.” He went on to remark on the “insatiability of needs” as a foundation of our civilization, so deeply ingrained as to be feasibly unchangeable. But thirty years ago, most informed observers would have said the same about meat eating. And as Berson explores in The Human Scaffold, the roots of our insatiability lie in tactical retention and redistribution to enhance our status and personhood–tactical games of the mind at least as flexible and malleable as our body’s desire for animal protein.

This discussion will bring Berson and strategist and game designer Vaughn Tan together to begin the serious conversation our society needs to have about what life could look like after stuff. Along the way, they’ll explore the games people play with stuff, and the challenges that stuff–and stufflessness–pose to everyday tasks like getting dressed, moving house, and making nukazuke.

This is the third conversation in “The Human Scaffold,” a virtual event series exploring different aspects of Berson’s recent book of the same name, the second title in the Berggruen Institute and UC Press’ “Great Transformations” book series. Previous events included discussions with artist and researcher Simon Penny on lessons of low-tech thermoregulation in the climate change era and designer Elizabeth Chin on the value of viewing breathing as a skillful activity.

About the Book:
Humanity has precipitated a planetary crisis of resource consumption—a crisis of stuff. So ingrained is our stuff-centric view that we can barely imagine a way out beyond substituting a new portmanteau of material things for the one we have today.

In The Human Scaffold, anthropologist Josh Berson offers a new theory of adaptation to environmental change. Drawing on niche construction, evolutionary game theory, and the enactive view of cognition, Berson considers cases in the archaeology of adaptation in which technology in the conventional sense was virtually absent. Far from representing anomalies, these cases exemplify an enduring feature of human behavior that has implications for our own fate.

The time has come to ask what the environmental crisis demands of us not as consumers but as biological beings. The Human Scaffold offers a starting point.

About the Speakers:
Josh Berson is an anthropologist whose work explores the ecology of sentient behavior over epochs ranging from the momentary to the geological. He has held appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, among other places, and is the author of Computable Bodies (2015), The Meat Question (2019), and The Human Scaffold (2021).

Vaughn Tan is a middle of nowhere–based strategy consultant, author, and professor. He specializes in the design of organizations to be resilient to and to benefit from uncertainty, has spent over a decade working with the food and beverage industry and is also active in legal technology, structured data, and regenerative agriculture. His first book, The Uncertainty Mindset (2020), is about how uncertainty can be used to drive innovation and adaptability. He makes a training tool for productive discomfort called idk which is based on the research in The Uncertainty Mindset. Since 2013 he has been an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at University College London’s School of Management.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.