and the danger of crashing the whole system
I wrote last week about permaculture ethics. There are other valuable things to take from permaculture, but I promise: this newsletter is about technology and the ways we interface with it. It is not a farmer's almanac.
I just think that gardening algorithms is a better metaphor than engineering them.
What does it mean to garden algorithms?
When you engineer something — a bridge, a car, a spaceship — you design the entire thing before you build it. But the process of programming is more gradual and experimental. You can see the general outlines of the whole, but you have to fill out each specific through trial and error. Code is not concrete. It is a language, a special way of writing in the second person: you do this, then you do that; except if other, then you do else.
Coding is communication. It's a conversation with an alien being: the machine.
Currently, we speak to machines with the logic of capitalism. Command lines, service workers, garbage collection. Purchasing apps at the market. Executables.
But we have other ways of talking to alien beings. Gardening, for example.
Plants are so opposite us as to be aliens themselves. We move, they root. We inhale oxygen, they exhale it. They absorb solar energy. We radiate it. Plants were here long before we were, and have a totally different value system. Yet we've managed to get along.
Plants were doing their thing long before we showed up to organize them. They catch solar energy and atmospheric water and molecules from the soil and transmute them all into the self-sustaining process called Life. This process, this gigantic DNA-based program, is constantly maintaining the appropriate temperature and oxygen level in the atmosphere. If it weren't, life would have ceased to exist long ago.
We're part of this computation too. Humans are ecological engineers. Like beavers or worms, we transform the world around us, creating niches for other forms of life. We form alliances with certain plants, and those plants thrive in symbiosis with our behavior. Plants that don't get along humans, tend not to reproduce.
We alter ecosystems everywhere we go. Lately, we've changed so many things, so quickly, that we're in danger of crashing the whole system.
We were always already gardening algorithms. We're just doing it badly.
What's wrong with the way we're doing algorithms now?
We're growing the algorithms wrong, but that's no surprise: we're growing the plants wrong, too. Lined up like troops and fed a diet of petroleum products, the interconnected intelligence of the plant world is divided into dumb patches of monocrop.
Sure, at one point it was the best we could do. We have all these legacy technologies from the age of fossil fuels: physical machines, but also governments, markets, intellectual property, land ownership. Our current methods of farming were invented in a different time, when energy was cheap and communication was expensive.
If we started from scratch today, we would do both agriculture and computers differently.
For instance, permaculture tries to increase the number of connections between elements. The squash shades the roots of the corn, the corn grows a stalk for the bean to climb, the bean adds nitrogen to the soil for the squash and the corn. The focus is on relationships, instead of objects.
If we treated algorithms this way, we would think in terms of processes, not products. We would build rituals around the cycles of upgrades. Cultures would spring into life around different codebases.
In fact, this is happening. The open-source community is a vision of the future. The world is shifting to a new balance of power, where communication is cheap and energy is expensive. We will have to cooperate to survive; fortunately, when groups of people are interconnected, they're more likely to cooperate. The free software available on the internet, and the millions of people who help build it, are evidence of that.
This is gardening: a community of people, sharing knowledge of a space, and the beings within it, and the way that they interrelate.
The farming mode of production is based on energy glut. It strips the ecosystem of all but the simplest variables, sucks a huge amount of fossil energy in one end, and squeezes food (and pollution) out the other. But that world is ending. In the future we have to make do with the amount of energy that hits the planet — less, in fact, since so much energy must go to the plants to sustain the climate.
No longer can we simply reduce the variables and increase the power. We have to use all the information we're gathering to increase the connections between each person and plant — and computer. More connection means we wring more work out of each droplet of sun that hits the planet, before it floats off into space again.
In the transition to a high-information society, we will re-awaken the knowledge common to indigenous groups across the planet: Everything is connected to everything else. Life is a web of relationships. And in this awareness, we will garden our technologies. And our technologies will garden the world.
Thanks for reading.
I love writing this newsletter. I hope you enjoy reading it. Any thoughts, just drop me a line. And if you know anyone else who would like it, please share. N+1 heads are better than N!