46. Cyborg Symbiosis
by Cardinal, October 2018
We have much to learn from plants.
We humans are always raging against forces of contingency, the forces of nature that seem to conspire against our will; plants, on the other hand, go with the flow, and thrive and abide within these forces. I think this has a lot to do with their relative lack of physical agency—they can’t move. They must remain in place, and see what they can make of their given conditions.
Plants represent an eternal otherness that becomes a stage for us to project upon and to consume. Their strategies for survival are long-term. Their will is expressed across deep scales of time and is an inherently multispecies affair. Plants have branched in psychedelic profusion to co-exist with species radically different from themselves.
Plants cannot run away from their predators. They are the stalwart stoics of complex life, the baseline of survival on an improbable world.
And the world continues to become more improbable.
The following is meant to compare how symbiotic, cross-species relations amongst plants can inform our relations to the devices and tech we have become intertwined with. This exercise can, if nothing else, teach us that our tech-relationships are just as complicated and mysterious as the intertwined relations of living and non-living beings in the world’s ecosystems. We can use them, their mechanisms, their behaviors, their material, as tools to think through abstract concepts.
Let's consider the thynnine wasp and the spider orchid.
(Or the movie version, which is beautiful.)
The spider orchid has, through the drift and flow of evolutionary progress, developed a strategy for pollination that involves a creature entirely alien to it. The orchid's flowering body mimics in form, smell, and even light-refraction that of a female wasp. The male wasp eagerly tries to mate with the flowering form and, in his flight to another potential mate (another spider orchid), he becomes an unwitting participant in the sexual life of a plant.
A bold, but logical, case can be made that the orchid knows more about the wasp than the wasp knows about the orchid.
What is clear in this relationship between wasp and orchid is a relationship forged over many thousands of years. Debating the levels of cognition that each actor may or may not have is to get lost in the weeds of the fundamental relationship; two radically different organisms with similar goals (sex) are dependant upon each other to operate in a dynamic, responsive ecosystem.
As humans, we are able to see this relationship as a kind of co-evolutionary process that highlights the complex bio-social plays that are being endlessly reenacted around us so we see this relationship in evolutionary terms. The wasp and the orchid are, it's safe to assume, largely ignorant of their respective lives and drives. This form of blindness does not hinder the investment that each has for one another. In fact, it may be their lack of "understanding" that allows their relationship to continue for another several millennia.
If the true motives of the wasp and orchid were known to each other, they would become competitors. The wasp would opt out of that deal, a waste of his energy and sperm.
The orchid does not explicitly provide anything for the wasp, but is utterly dependant upon this sexual script to be played out just so with it's alien lover. The plant needs the insect. It doesn't need to know why. It doesn’t need to understand the relationship in evolutionary terms.
Drawing our focus to the orchid and the wasp, we can expand our lens to encompass many more multispecies relations.
The lens we look at these relations through most readily is through companion species relations.
In opening the aperture we find a legion of relations that extend into the non-human almost immediately. Open just a little bit wider and the definitions of non-living relations between humans and our environment become simultaneously undeniable and difficult to define.
To quote from the previous link, a companion species framework that embraces and expands broader definitions of human (living) interactions with the tech (non-living) can be understand as follows:
“Cell phones, for example, could be considered a companion species. They cry, and must be picked up. They must be plugged into a wall at night to be fed. They must be upgraded, protected, and cared for. In return, they provide information, connectivity and entertainment. They grow alongside humans and adapt to fit their needs, as humans adapt to fit the needs of the device.”
All of this sounds pretty benign; we are re-enacting the multispecies cooperative project via our technological tools. This take is not wrong and holds a measure of glass-half-full optimism within it. The line of reasoning being that we exert a measure of agency and meaning-making within our sub-sentient contemporary tools. Rather than a brutal, Hobbesian framing of the natural world, our tools and the attendant information networks provide a web (or tubes) of relations that place the needs and desires of the human baked in to the forefront of its purpose. Instead of the allocating resources for more and diverse procreation--the most popular story in the living world--we view our devices as motivated by higher moral purposes that promise to alleviate the troubles of the present and anticipate a better future.
And that’s the crucial difference between human-tech symbiosis and animal-plant; unlike the wasp and the orchid, who evolved together in the mutual blindness or ignorance, we created our tech-tools in our image of agency and usefulness. Our common language already cross-pollinates between the conditions of digital and meatspace ecologies. Viruses, corruption, and decay overlap as persistent conditions of both.
In his framing of the mycorrhizal, Paul Stamets describes the intertwined nature of below ground fungi (myco) and plant roots (rhizol) as "the Earth's natural internet". A feature of his talks is to draw aesthetic, if not scientific, correlations between mycelial structures of fungi, human neuronal pathways, and visualizations of the Internet. This kind of explaining and overlaying complex systems of relations as of-a-kind does a great deal towards promoting a general sentiment of a universal oneness (good), but does the subtle slight of hand by absolving a critical difference between the tubes of mycelium and those of the Internets.
We must not conflate the infrastructure investment and surveillance-driven business models of software/apps. The physical cables of the internet were laid for military/defense purposes, largely designed for decentralization. This was a defensive mechanism meant to ensure continued operation in the event of an attack. In this regard, the infrastructure of the internet mirrors fungal growth: to reproduce in order to ensure survival of a species in case of the loss of individuals.
We have intimate relations to our phones and the networks that it connects us to and generates culture, but the driving force behind it all is extractive in nature. We are caught in a complex set of relations to these digital ecologies, but it is not a mutualistic symbiosis. There are exchanges taking place — data for dopamine — but they cannot be taken at face value. Instead of the companion species dynamic in which we rise together as a result of these tools, we are confronted with an obscure set of relations that have a vested interest in keeping their architecture opaque, atomized, and specialized.
We are not relating to an ecology of things that want or need on their own. The military is itself a tool to concentrate and protect capital ownership and is a key element to understandings how these non-living systems have a baked in ideology. Which is to say, predatory humans leverage the models of natural systems to camouflage the intent to expand markets. Symbiosis is at play, but comes at the expense of not just the human, but non-human actors as well.
So what do we do in this growing ecology?
Extending the tendrils of meaning across species — plants, fungi, humans — is a vital conversation that deserves critical thought and humor. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that our networks and tools exert will.
At least, not yet.
If the visions of tech entrepreneurs keep apace, then we must grow the capacity to determine the distinctions between co-evolutionary processes of multispecies association and the masking of opportunistic, parasitic, designed codependence. How we relate to these networks and their physical manifestations will become more and more like that of mycelial tubes searching for optimal resources and running at the bleeding edge of built cognition.
With sufficient complexity, how would we distinguish these relations as different from another living thing?
Everything that lives wants to keep living.
Be you made of cells with walls or not, the imperative to go on against the odds seems to be a universal. In this way, instances of 'life" may be much more common than we are able to currently countenance.
Turning back to the world of plants, a chilly question is ghosting around in their behavior and relations:
Is making meaning a good thing?
Plants and their protective allies have endured with a minimum of interpretation between them over the millennia. Which is not to say that it is always an equitable or consenting exchange (remember that poor, foolish wasp?). The plants, fungi, and the animals that intersect in mutual survival do so absent morality, ethics, and story. Their protective web is not one of secret domination or exploitation at the exclusive expense of the other. This web is a living example of how a dynamic system composed of actors unaware of their deep-time re-enactments can endure in the endless permutations of environmental disruptions known and unknown.
Plants hold memories that are collective, species memories, not the precious mind-thoughts of an individual. They exhibit their collective memory through their complex behavior, which they have learned over time. There is no individual, they are a continuum of being.
Our capacity for meaning-making is too often manipulated by predators and parasites within our own species.
We want to live.
We want to believe.
We want to live a good life.
There may come a time when it is revealed to us that, like the wasp, we are unwitting participants in a dance beyond our comprehension. The alien other may be of our own construction or beyond the influence of our solar system.
The truth of the matter is that we are already complexly embroiled in these ecosystems, whether we understand them or not.
Only questions remain.
Are we the orchid or the wasp?