To Make Truly Digital Gardens

Why do we stop at a digital garden as a metaphor? What could it mean for a garden to enter digital experience beyond being a way to describe organizing Turing machines in a slightly different way than we normally do?

Let's enter such an inquiry from another place. Composer Pauline Oliveros, in her lecture “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence” (source), talked about whether machine intelligence could be trained to perform improvised music:

Music and especially improvised music is not a game of chess – Improvisation especially free improvisation could definitely represent another challenge to machine intelligence. It won't be the silicon linearity of intensive calculation that makes improvisation wonderful. It is the non linear carbon chaos, the unpredictable turns of chance permutation, the meatiness, the warmth, the simple, profound, humanity of beings that brings presence and wonder to music.

Freely improvised music is an open system, not closed to a particular set of rules like chess. Gardens can be organized linearly with rows of plants, but beyond our own technique something happens. The seeds take on a relationship with weather and soil and plants and atmosphere and nutrients and animals and microorganisms and God knows what else. A garden is an improvisation of ecology that harkens to the non linear carbon chaos of Oliveros.

So then questions arise for me. Digital gardens in their current idiom are metaphoric window dressing for incomplete thoughts and wiki entries. Nothing wrong with that. The growth of a digital garden occurs from the author(s) only — they add to an entry or delete parts from another. It is a closed system because the computers they are hosted on, Turing machines, are closed systems which take input from a single user (or multiple depending on the context). What would happen if a digital garden had more of a relationship with the world like a garden? What could that look like?

James Bridle's fantastic book Ways of Being explores this question in great detail and profundity. One example Bridle mentions is a random number generator called ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) built in the late 1950's by the UK government for a lottery. Instead of being a closed system, it had a relationship with the outside world — well, with neon tubes that also had a relationship with the outside world:

ERNIE was one of the first machines to be able to produce true random numbers, but in order to do so it had to reach outside itself. Rather than simply doing math, it was connected to a series of neon tubes—gas-filled glass rods, similar to those used for neon lighting. The flow of the gas in the tubes was subject to all kinds of interference outside the machine’s control: passing radio waves, atmospheric conditions, fluctuations in the electrical power grid, and even particles from outer space. By measuring the noise in the tubes—the change in electrical flux within the neon gas, caused by this interference—ERNIE could produce numbers that were truly random: mathematically verifiable, but completely unpredictable.

The ERNIE is an early example of a machine taking on non-linear carbon chaos by being in relationship with the outside world. Bridle emphasizes how crucial this is for giving computers the ability to operate with true randomness:

Given the way we have constructed them, computers are not capable, operating alone, of true randomness. To exercise this crucial faculty, they must be connected to such diverse sources of uncertainty as fluctuations in the atmosphere, decaying minerals, shifting globules of heated wax and the quantum dance of the universe itself.

This is like a seed entering the soil of a garden — there are so many diverse sources of uncertainty that make it grow (or not grow) in the way it does. What if a digital garden could be the same way? You could write something one day and then it grows by itself something different the next, influenced by AI that is then influenced by solar panels, water saturation, and pH levels of the soil in a garden nearby.

Such a possibility feels like science fiction, but I think it's a future worth striving for. Why stop at metaphor? Bridle makes a good case such that I will end with it:

In order to be full and useful participants in the world, computers need to have relations with it. They need to touch and be in touch with the world. This stands in stark opposition to the way we build most of them today: systems of inscrutable, inhuman logic, comprehensible only partly by a narrow cadre of highly trained, and highly privileged engineers, and based on systems of extraction, manufacture, and use that damage the planet in multiple ways, from large-scale mineral mining, through the heat and greenhouse gases produced by server farms, to vast fields of electronic waste.

But the use of randomness, both the processes it invokes, and the radical equality it makes possible, suggests it doesn’t have to be this way. We can reimagine our technologies—and our political systems—in ways which are less extractive, more generative, and ultimately more just.