Chaotic Diversity

In 1493, Charles C. Mann observes how pre-colonial Andean peoples grew potatoes using seeds and let cross-pollination create a wide variety:

Andean peoples cultivated different varieties at different altitude ranges. Most people in a village planted a few basic types, but everyone also planted others to have a variety of tastes, each in its little irregular patch of wacho, wild potatoes at the margins. The result was chaotic diversity. Potatoes in one village at one altitude could look wildly unlike those a few miles away in another village at another altitude.

Using a seed potato (tuber), however, produces different results:

When farms plant pieces of tuber, rather than seeds, the resultant sprouts are clones; in developed countries, entire landscapes are covered with potatoes that are almost genetically identical. By contrast, a Peruvian-American research team found that families in a mountain valley in central Peru grew an average of 10.6 traditional varieties—landraces, as they are called, each with its own name [...] The International Potato center in Peru has sampled and preserved more than 3,700. The range of potatoes in a single Andean field, [Karl] Zimmerer observed, “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”

The ways potatoes are planted makes me think about the web. To speak about the web is to speak of something that is, for the most part, structurally homogenous — millions of servers handling similar protocols down the stack. That homogeneity is important. If millions of computers follow the same protocols, those millions of computers can communicate with each other. Things become possible when people communicate with each other. By way of metaphor, the web is mostly made from the same tuber, clones of the same potatoes.

But I use “mostly” for a reason. On the web there is still a chaotic diversity wrought from the seeds of disparate protocols and utilities. Not just HTTP/S but Gemini, Gopher, Finger, Activity Pub, and countless others. There are wild patches of the web, wild potatoes at the margins, each with their unique taste.

This variety isn't merely ornamental either, it's crucial for survival of an open and decentralized web. Homogenization can create dependencies which can cause disaster if something breaks in the dependency chain. One reason why the Great Famine of the 19th century was so disastrous was that the potatoes were genetically identical, planted via tubers. It makes one wonder how homogenization can and has caused problems for the web. How can that remediated? More seeds wouldn't hurt.

I'm reminded of this blog post from Darius Kazemi that urges for such a cross-pollination of protocols:

[S]oftware developers should not be afraid to mix, match, and layer protocols. There is no rule that says you can't do this, yet I've noticed people picking one protocol and sticking to it out of some kind of loyalty. When really, as a developer, your loyalty should be to your values of an open, decentralized internet, whatever those are.

Loyalty to your values of an open, decentralized internet, whatever those are. What are they? Ecologist Murray Bookchin's has this concept called “the ecology of freedom” that David Graeber & David Wengrow explore in The Dawn of Everything. Their description feels relevant here:

The ecology of freedom describes the proclivity of human societies to move (freely) in and out of farming; to farm without fully becoming farmers; raise crops and animals without surrendering too much of one's existence to the logistical rigours of agriculture; and retain a food web sufficiently broad as to prevent cultivation from becoming a matter of life and death. It is just this sort of ecological flexibility that tends to be excluded from conventional narratives of world history, which present the planting of a single seed as a point of no return.

To move in and out but not be tied down, to embody agency in one's creation and adoption of social structures. Perhaps an ecology of freedom is crucial for an open, decentralized internet, a place where the seeds of chaotic diversity can be cultivated.