Zones of the mind

and the machine sector


I wrote of the way that computers farm us into “communities” to make our attention easy to harvest and sell to corporations. We don’t have a natural gradient of social interaction, fully private (alone) to fully public (in the street). Instead we are virtualized and packaged, our desires simulated by machines based on data they’ve collected.

This data is necessarily incomplete; even if you give your life fully to one megacorp, have a Brand™ phone and a Brand™ email, use Brand™ Pay and Brand™ Watch and Brand™ Messenger and Brand™ News, they can’t know everything about you. Even if you take your phone to the bathroom with you, leave it by your bed at night, let it track your pulse and your breathing and your REM sleep and your meals, it can’t know your inmost thoughts. It can’t read your dreams. The invasion of the machine sector is not yet complete. We still have a chance to define our zones.

What do you mean, zones?

I use this word a lot — too much, if you ask my girlfriend. But in permaculture design it has a specific meaning and usefulness.

In permaculture, one of the first tools we apply to any environment we design is the zones and sectors analysis. This is a map, but not just a geographical one. It’s a map of time, of energy patterns that flow through and around the landscape.

Zones divide the entire landscape into concentric rings based on how often any given area is used or visited. These rings don’t have to be perfect circles; in real life human beings don’t walk around in perfect circles. And we are talking about how often humans visit each area, not bugs or cats or robot dogs. A permaculture design is always an opinionated analysis: how can this landscape be more useful to the people who live in it? It has to be human-centric, because humans are the ones who will carry out the plan.

So the center of this wobbly bullseye is the human who lives on the land. Say we’re designing your home garden (apartment friends, you’re going to have to use your imagination). You live on, what, an eighth of an acre? Your house takes up a good chunk of that space, and you spend most of your time in your house. After all, this is where you sleep (6 hours a day), eat (2 hours), do chores (1 hour), watch TV and doomscroll and WFH (15 hours). The house, the center, is Zone 0.

Most people think of this as “indoors” and the rest of the yard as “outdoors”. Just two zones. But really, you don’t visit the entire yard evenly. Some places — like the path to the driveway — you traverse every day, but the back corner of the back yard? Maybe once in a blue moon, when the bathroom is otherwise occupied.

So Zone 1 is where you go regularly, and we’ll want to put the most energy-intensive garden stuff here. A kitchen garden, say, with salad greens and herbs you pick each night for dinner. Zone 2 you might visit once a week, so it has longer-term vegetables that need to be weeded, maybe a compost heap and a toolshed. If your space is big enough you might have a Zone 3 with some fruit trees, which you visit once a month or so.

Most city lots won’t have more than these three zones, but rural homesteads will also have a Zone 4 (pasture, woodlot) and Zone 5 (wilderness, for hunting and foraging and inspiration). Zones also don’t have to be perfectly concentric; for instance, you might have a “side yard” very close to the house that’s actually in Zone 3 by usage. It’s not meant to be a rigid hierarchy, but a way of visualizing how an area is impacted and enlivened by human energy.

(from Deep Green Permaculture)

What about these sectors, then?

Unlike zones, which are defined from the center to the periphery, sectors are flows of energy that enter your space from outside. Sunlight, for instance, arrives from the south; at least, here in the northern hemisphere. Solar energy is crucial for gardening, but also for human activities. If you put a porch on the south side of a house, it’s going to get a lot of sunlight and stay warm longer than it would on the north side. If you put a garden on the north side, the shadow of the house will stretch across it and your winter crops will be cold and sad.

Other sectors might include a prevailing wind flowing from east to west, or a busy street nearby creating a noise sector. My parents live near a junior high school, so every afternoon students stream down the sidewalks and molest every plant they can reach. A neighbor finally cut down his apple tree after years watching his unripe harvest turn to ammunition for street warfare. We might call this the “you darn kids!” sector.

So zones are fields of activity, and sectors are flows of energy that pass through them. What I referred to earlier as the “machine sector” is the energy of computation that enters our lives from the outside. Most of us only think of physical zones as indoors/outdoors, but for our minds we don’t even make that distinction. There’s just one area, "consciousness”, and we let technologies flow through without discretion. We need mental zones.

What would mental zones look like?

I have to confess, I may not be the right person to answer this question. I’ve been guilty of using technologies in an all-or-nothing way: either I’m way offline, deep in the woods, traveling to town once a month to tell my mom I’m alive; or I’m Extremely Online: listening to a podcast, coding a project, and tweeting on three different machines at once. I only decided to segment my mental zones quite recently, after Twitter users started to have starring roles in my dreams.

I barely like to dream of people I actually know! Why should I let random Karens and Turtleneck Guys into my most personal space?

So I’ve started to zone my days.

Now, physical zones divide space by time spent. But of course I can’t segment my days by how much time I spend in each hour. Instead I have to divide time by “space” that I spend in it: how concentrated or wide-ranging does my consciousness feel at any given point in the day?

I feel the most concentrated in the mornings: my mind is sharp, my body rested, my emotions not yet triggered by the idiots of the day. This is my Zone 1 (given that my most internal space, Zone 0, is to be asleep). I have a never-ending thicket of writing and coding projects, and this is the place where I can be sure to visit them every day.

So I’ve set my phone to not allow social media apps until noon. This deflects that sector of energy until the time when my mind is wandering anyway. I can do maintenance tasks in the afternoon, and if I’m occasionally distracted by a message, nothing is lost. The chores just take longer.

In the evenings I can take in a movie or read a novel, let my mind explore the wilderness of fiction, see if I can forage any useful thoughts to chew on. And then return to sleep, alone and blessedly free of Twitterers.

Alone? What happened to “communities”?

Have you ever been to a community garden? They generally come in two flavors: rows of individual plots cultivated to the needs of individual gardeners, or an overgrown commons where nobody feels particularly responsible and things don’t get done correctly, or on time, or at all.

The exception to this rule seems to be when the Community in question actually spends time together in the garden. When people are able to communicate about their needs and skills, a truly bountiful ecosystem can grow. Let’s call these learning gardens. They tend to have good legibility: crops labeled, chores scheduled, notes kept. You can learn from these gardens, but also they learn from the people who tend them. They keep a memory and have plans for the future. And this can only happen because the community itself is the point of view: Zone 0 is not an individual, but a group of people who care enough about each other to share the work, and the harvest.

In the world of tech this approach is generally limited to developer projects. Open-source communities tend to be cultivated by people who are both users and developers of the software. They understand their own needs and how to build toward them. But most technologies are too complex for the user to also be a developer. How can we create learning software?

One model is outlined in Convocational Development, a manifesto by coder John Evans (@dr_the_evidence). He suggests that we center the software development process not around user engagement, or managerial concerns, but around a complex conversation — or convocation — between the people who make the software and the people who use it.

The fundamental difference between the convocation and traditional open source is that energy is put into facilitating discussions between users, coders, graphic designers etc. Documentation and instructions are often the weakest part of an open source project, and that excludes people who don’t have the time or ability to assemble a mental model of the open source software and its capabilities from just the code and the meagre promotional materials. The convocation starts as a basic web forum, but evolves tools and cultures that enable greater participation in the development process itself. Better accessibility, better security, better understanding of the perspectives of both developers and users.

Convocational development is open source, but it’s also open design. The features are inspired by individual users, but more importantly by the users in concert with each other, and the developers.

Instead of being algorithmically sorted into SimClusters, we could choose our convocations, and help to garden the zones we live in. Make use of the machine sector, rather than letting it invade and pollute our spaces. The first step is to talk to each other.

In that spirit, thanks for reading.

— Max

Let me know if you have any questions, comments, dire warnings, etc. Just reply to this email.