☞ Anticipatory Gardening for Technology
Planting Trees, Digital Preservation, Oxford University, and the Talmud
In my last newsletter issue I explored the relationship between generation ships and monarch butterfly migrations, focusing on the nature of long-term intergenerational projects.
Related to this is an oft-told story (though apparently an apocryphal one) that involves Oxford University’s New College. When the oak beams in the ceiling of New College’s dining hall needed replacement—so the story goes—it was discovered that there were oak trees that had been planted five hundred years earlier, specifically to act as the raw materials for the replacement of these beams. In other words, these trees were just there, growing and waiting centuries for their preservation moment. And whether or true or not, this story speaks to some profound long-term planning.
It turns out that a somewhat similar story is told in an old collection of Jewish stories that offer elucidation of texts from the Bible. What’s the feature of the text that needs to be explained? Well, when the Children of Israel wandered the desert after their Exodus from Egypt, they were told to build a portable place of worship known as the Tabernacle. This Tabernacle was constructed from a wide variety of materials, including beams of cedar. But where did the cedar wood come from? The explanation given is that the Biblical patriarch Jacob planted these trees hundreds of years before when he went with his family down to Egypt, anticipating his descendants’ material needs generations hence.
This story is less about preservation than about anticipating needs, but I’d like to think that there is a similar approach here when it comes planning for the future. Ultimately, as an essay about the oak beams of Oxford notes, “Long-term thinking can be difficult for us short-lived humans, but perhaps trees can help us make a leap beyond the horizon of our own lifespans.”
Let’s call this sensibility—that of foresight combined with maintenance—anticipatory gardening. Anticipatory gardening involves a certain amount of planning, but is also a kind of “just in case” maintenance. It manages and cares for the future by providing us with options as we proceed into the unknown.
But of course, we don’t have to just be thinking about wooden beams and trees for the long-term; this approach can be applied far afield from arboriculture. Specifically, it can be applied to the realm of technology.
At its most straightforward, anticipatory gardening in tech involves digital preservation. This could be as simple as storing and maintaining old floppy drives or VCRs or Zip Drives, or any other players of media formats that have become obsolete. Or even preserving formats that are still around, because they are inevitably doomed to obsolescence since they are part of the constant march of technology (memento mori!). The Voyager probes rely on data storage methods that use a sort of 8-track cartridge, so it’s probably good to have this technology knocking around still (though, alas, we might not actually have it anymore). The Internet Archive is doing the Great Maintainer’s work in preserving old digital information and is vital when it comes to anticipatory gardening in the digital realm.
But perhaps other things might be done in the technological and coding realm that also qualify as anticipatory gardening. For example, this could involve ensuring that there isn’t any sort of technological monoculture in our environment, where a small set of technologies are responsible for the bulk of our information storage, or our computer programming, or even our operating systems. Just as biodiversity is vital for ensuring a sustainable ecosystem (and avoiding a single failure that can cascade out of control), we might need a certain diversity in technology that can also ensure robustness.
Or it could be like a “Keeper of the Fabric” (like the person with this title at the Salisbury Cathedral), who would be responsible for bridging generations. We likely need this a lot in the tech world, helping to ensure that we are not just reinventing ideas every couple decades, but instead maintaining a body of wisdom that future generations can rely on (related: don’t discount the power of reading old computer magazines!). There are probably lots more examples of tech anticipatory gardening (if you think of any, please let me know).
Ultimately though, anticipatory gardening is about providing possibilities for the future. And it’s about paying it all forward. Returning to another old Jewish text, there is a story told in the Talmud of someone planting a carob tree not for himself but for his descendants: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.” ■
I wrote a fun Twitter thread about emergent microcosms, snippets of computer code that are capable of unfurling entire worlds, such as cellular automata and falling-sand games (stay tuned for a potential essay about this!).
And if you know of other good examples of these emergent microcosms, please let me know.
I’m also thinking about the need for a HyperCard for Simulation.
A few links worth checking out:
From the paper “Real World Games Look Like Spinning Tops” comes a fascinating insight into what makes a good game: “A game is interesting if there are many qualitatively different strategies with their own strengths and weaknesses, whilst on average performing on a similar level in the population”:
“A Vision of Metascience” by Michael Nielsen and Kanjun Qiu: a fantastic exploration of how to think about expanding the space of possible ways we can engage in the process of scientific discovery, particularly related to the need for new types of scientific institutions. A gem.
The Psychological Weirdness of “Prompt Engineering”: “It’s like we need to hypnotize the AI into focusing on the subject we care about.”
“A blog post is a very long and complex search query to find fascinating people and make them route interesting stuff to your inbox”: Thanks so much to everyone who responds to my newsletters with interesting things. You all are the best and please keep on corresponding with me!
How to make landscapes using code: A bit of clever programming to make some rolling hills.
Until next time.