Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Softness of Trees

Sitting here watching footage of Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong. The water gets everywhere, swept into the sky and through lobbies and down alleys. The street floor becomes a swamp. Walls become perilous sandcastles, ready to wash away in the tide. Bins and cars scatter the space we hold sacred - human space with its ordained purposes, holding fast to a belief in functional order.

The shots of trees and grass, willowing in the storm, get into me. A few trees fall, of course, but there is beauty in this softness - the branches twist and turn, almost like they're playing. The water refreshes their roots. The earth will become muddy and comfortable. The forest sways as one, and is a thousand miles away from bushfires and drought.

There are ways of dealing with climate change that are more to do with attitude than technology. The softness of trees is not the sole preserve of plants, and the way of nature is not separate to the way of people. That softness is a part of us. We build it into buildings to survive earthquakes. Can we build it into human processes? Human structures?


Engineering as an artform, drawing from inspirations found all over the world, in front of our eyes, under our noses. We observe before we design. We learn to work with physics, with chemistry. Engineering is alchemical, still a natural science.

What if we started thinking of democracy as an engineering process, only applying this inspired art to the way that we interact and resolve conflicts? If capitalism supposedly came out of an evolutionist 'survival of the fittest', then what would it take to re-imagine an approach/system/structure that drew from trees? To build resilience into our communities - local through to global - can we make comparisons to greater, older ecosystems?

Perhaps the structures of Twitter, Facebook, Google et al are the social engineering equivalents of giant, monolithic skyscrapers. The aim for a single building, incorporating everything and everyone. The view from one point to everywhere else. The uniform, laser-like geometry of "pure" lines and metal and glass, promoting strength and control. Everything is ready to be shattered. Survival of the most strident, the most surveilling.

To distribute, to churn through, to allow decay. Perhaps the fediverses of the net are seeking the forest nature of society again. The ability to create and destroy identities reflects the constant lifecycle of the mayfly. Fleeting and temporary, constant life and death - but more than this: a reactive swarm, brought in as needed, in the same way that cloud computing allows. Seasonal, opportunistic, and interdependent - never the end of the food chain.


Our politics has become solid and immovable like brittle warehouses, and the network is not helping but solidifying this. What was once a public sphere populated by newspapers -  but limited to this scope - has now become intertwined with 'verified' (or rigid) identities, a single global forum, and the ability to spread words quite separately from context, like expecting a polar bear to live in a desert.

We have a melting pot, but one with no direction or coherence. Through single identities and linked histories, people are forced to 'delete their account', because there are no other places or ways in which to engage, or to evolve. There is no public sphere any more, or perhaps it has got smaller while the public itself has got bigger. There is nothing forest-like here.

Seeds of inspiration do not thrive in a cooking pot - the heat kills them instantly, and they become what they are - shells, without potential,used only for their immediate physical attributes. Words make democracy palatable, like spices in cooking, but ultimately, there will be no seeds left if the trees and bushes cannot grow elsewhere.

The seeds must travel - on the wind, in the air, through animals. The forest of democracy needs re-planting, in places it has long been forgotten.

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