Philosophy Is a Public Service

Jonathon Keats at Nautilus: “…One of my primary techniques, adapted from philosophy, is to undertake large-scale thought experiments. In these experiments, I create alternative realities that provide perspectives on our own society, and provoke dialogue about who and what we want to become. Another of my techniques is to create philosophical instruments: tools and devices with which people can collectively investigate the places they inhabit.

The former technique is exemplified by Centuries of the Bristlecone, and other environmentally-calibrated clocks I’m developing in other cities, such as a timepiece modulated by the flow of rivers in Alaska, currently in planning at the Anchorage Museum.

The latter is exemplified by a project I initiated in Berlin in 2014, which I’ve now instigated in cities around the world. It’s a new kind of camera that produces a single exposure over a span of 100 years. People hide these cameras throughout their city, providing a means for the next generation to observe the decisions that citizens make about their urban environment: decisions about development and gentrification and sustainability. In a sense, these devices are intergenerational surveillance cameras. They prompt people to consider the long-term impact of their actions. They encourage people to act in ways that will change the picture to reflect what they want the next generation to see.

But the truth is that most of my projects—perhaps even the two I’ve just mentioned—combine techniques from philosophy and many other disciplines. In order to map out possible futures for society, especially while navigating the shifting terrain of climate change, the philosopher-explorer needs to be adaptable. And most likely you won’t have all the skills and tools you need. I believe that anyone can become a philosopher-explorer. The practice benefits from more practitioners. No particular abilities are needed, except a capacity for collaboration.

Ayear ago, I was invited by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to envision the city of the future. Through Fraunhofer’s artist-in-lab program, I had the opportunity to work with leading scientists and engineers, and to run computer simulations and physical experiments on state-of-the-art equipment in Stuttgart and Holzkirchen, Germany.

My starting point was to consider one of the most serious problems faced by cities today: sea level rise. Global sea levels are expected to increase by two-and-a-half meters by the end of the century, and as much as 15 meters in the next 300 years. With 11 percent of the world population living less than 10 meters above the current sea level, many cities will probably be submerged in the future: mega-cities including New York and Shanghai. One likely response is that people will migrate inland, seeking ever higher elevations.

The question I asked myself was this: Would it make more sense to stay put?…(More)”.