The first fertilization is a lexicon that develops a new vocabulary for the affordances of plant, machine, and human sensing. Drawn from fields like plant neurobiology, ecological economics, media philosophy, and engineering, the lexicon is meant to provoke new design imaginaries. To explore the project, click the headings below.
Lexicons are fertilizer for new fields of inquiry. New ways of doing require new ways of perceiving and describing. This project is an effort to:
It consists of terms drawn from a range of research fields and juxtaposed in alphabetical order. Users and plant conspirators are encouraged to submit signals to our research repository on Are.na, or reach out to us with thoughts.
Fertilizer is a research platform for future activations. The terms are meant to generate further projects across design, art, science, engineering, and more.
Humans have never been the only planetary intelligence. While we are building planetary-scale systems of computation and calculation that exhibit certain kinds of intelligence — ones that can effectively mimic human modes of writing, visually identify objects with higher degrees of accuracy than their human counterparts, and beat humans in domain-constrained games with inhumanly beautiful styles of play – what we call the natural world is already filled with complex forms of communication, processing, creativity, and intelligence.
Animals, from vertebrates to invertebrates, corvids to cephalopods, each demonstrate forms of intelligence tightly linking what they sense to how they interact with their environments. Plants, too, sense, process, and signal. But more so than animals, their worlds are utterly foreign to ours. They are sessile (immobile), autotrophic (producing their own food), and perpetually morphogenetic (never stopping their growth) — with the caveat that for every rule, an exception can be found.
It is these very characteristics that make them important for imagining other worlds, in which the mutual entanglement of plant and machine intelligence can be a source of inspiration, a modality for extended and remote sensing, a field for modelling and simulation, and a domain for mutual actuation.
Exploring these entanglements is not about communicating with plants, controlling them, or projecting our aspirations onto them. It’s about interfacing with their already complex forms of phytosemiosis and cultivating an art of noticing their strangeness – a strangeness that is just as foreign as our own cultivation of machine intelligence, and just as foreign as our own perpetually redefined humanness.
This lexicon asks how we might shift the frame of speculative design to activate futures of more-than-human intelligence and design for users to come.
The use of acoustic sensors to monitor environmental processes, such as an Australian project (2017) using 400 solar-powered audio sensors across the continent and accessible 24/7 online, or projects like Rainforest Connection’s (2013) use of discarded cell phones to monitor illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
A model for describing ecological resilience developed by C. S. Holling (1986) in which systems are always in states of disequilibrium, between phases of growth or exploitation, conservation, collapse or release, and reorganization.
A post-Enlightenment era described by Danny Hillis (2016) in which technologies, social structures, and natural processes interact as complex adaptive systems with difficult-to-disentangle elements, rather than as discrete simple machines.
An exploration by Benedikt Groß (2013) of the potential of digital technologies and programmed landscapes for farming, in which precision targeting and personalization rather than scale and homogeneity guide planting.
As distinct from digital computing, analog systems operate with real numbers, non-deterministic logic, and continuous functions, embodying complexity in their network topology rather than in code that controls the system; explored by John von Neumann (1958) in assessing parallels and disjunctions between nervous systems and computers.
Efforts to harness plants’ and other natural beings’ innate sensing capabilities to monitor and respond to changes in environments, such as DARPA efforts (2017) to develop augmented plants as early warning signs of biochemical hazards and weapons.
Political scientist David Runciman’s call (2018) to pay more attention to the “artificial” in artificial intelligence and look at the array of already existing artificial intelligences like states and corporations that sense, process information, and pursue goals distinct from humans; described by Danny Hillis as hybrid intelligences (2019).
Term used by Jay Springett (2013) to describe future calls for coercive, drastic, and unequal reductions in consumption and emissions as a response to climate change, akin to the deployment of austerity policies after the financial crisis.
Hypothesis that consciousness and intelligence emerge immanently from matter itself, requiring no special substance or spirit, by Francis Crick (1994); extended by Frank Wilczek (2015) to argue that all natural intelligences are simply a subset of artificial intelligence.
A global network of scientific stations, including a ring of stations around the Arctic and mobile cruise ships hosting sensing equipment (2000), that collect the data necessary for modelling our understanding of atmospheric change.
The use of human-designed artifacts as substitutes for ecological roles held by disappearing species, such as the use of submarine robots to eliminate coral-reef-damaging starfish (2018), or the “flash forests” mentioned below, substituting drones for the seed dispersal of birds.
Research program articulated by Jussi Parikka (2010) to examine the relationships between animal behaviours and the design of technologies, in particular the parallels between the swarm behaviour of insects and parallel processing in computation.
Inspired by nature in the design of form, function, or system; engineering roots in aeronautics, with dirigible pioneer George Cayley noting (1809) “nature is a better architect than man”; term itself coined by Otto H. Schmitt (1950s), whose study of squid neurons inspired electronic circuits that transform analog to digital signals, still in use in most electronic devices today.
Explorations funded by NASA from the 1960s to build multi-species life support systems for space travel that replaced technologies by mimicking Earthly systems, centred initially on the use of algae for generating oxygen, removing waste, and providing food.
Term by John Thackara (2019) to orient a design program around the shared purpose of aligning urban systems and their supporting technospheres to local and bioregional topographies of energy and matter.
Bruno Latour’s term (1987) for processes of knowledge production in the colonial era, when objects (plants, artifacts, etc.) would be made mobile, stable, and combinable so they could be taken back from colonies for study, which enabled the creation of tools for the exertion of power at a distance.
The chthonic realm, or underworld, is a world inhabited by the complex symbiotic structures of plant roots, mycelia, bacteria, and insects that make up the “wood-wide web” (1998) of communication and resource distribution underneath forests, and remain largely illegible to contemporary sensing technologies (2019).
Also known as time-lapse photography, chronophotography was used to capture the first documentation (1898–1900) of plant movement on film by Wilhelm Pfeffer, and, just like the telescope and microscope before it, made perceptible what had previously been invisible.
A sub-group of citizen scientists, such as iNaturalist (2008), focused on distributed data gathering of the sightings, movements, and descriptions of natural organisms, and the building of knowledge infrastructures to share that information.
A scenario of political theology by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann (2018) outlining a system of planetary sovereignty developed in response to climate change, invoking Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) to describe a new ecological sovereign.
A concept from Nordic participatory design, infrastructuring (2012) refers to the design not of singular objects or projects, but of ongoing sociomaterial assemblies of human and nonhuman elements for public use.
The vast majority of animals exist as units rather than colonies in which individuality is lost; in plants, it’s the opposite. First understood by Jean Fabre (19th century) and Roelof Oldeman (1970s), colonial architecture confers an indeterminate life span on organisms, limiting their lives only through unfavourable external conditions like earthquakes, drought, predators, etc.
A period of widespread exchange of plants, animals, culture, populations, technologies, diseases, and ideas following Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage; beginning of the globalization of crops like potato, maize, tomato, tobacco, rice, citrus, coffee, and chili peppers.
Of the three evolutionary pathways to domestication (the others being the prey pathway and the directed pathway), commensal is the most symbiotic, granting a form of agency to the species being domesticated through the benefits it receives; includes certain plant species (12,000 BCE), including ones that have evolved to mimic domesticated species without providing human benefit.
The study of the relationship between visual imaginations of the Earth and geopolitical responses to climate change, articulated by Lukáš Likavčan (2019) to describe the implicit politics and potentials of the figures used when representing the Earth.
The notion articulated by Freud (1920) that certain revolutions in scientific understanding, such as the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, produce traumas by decentring the human, a process continuing with today’s advances in artificial intelligence (1987, 2015).
A political alternative to globalization that emerged in the 1990s and is built off distributed notions of developing local productive capacities alongside shared global knowledge infrastructures, and central to the work of design theorist Ezio Manzini (2015).
Cosmotechnics is Yuk Hui’s term (2016) for the ways cosmological systems shape how technologies are developed and deployed. It stands against a technological essentialism that would imagine technologies as only developing along a single path of increasing complexity.
Put forward by organic chemist Graham Cairns-Smith (1966), the hypothesis explains the emergence of life-like processes before molecules like DNA by looking to clay crystals, which grow, divide, and inherit the traits and patterns of their genitors much like life does.
Argument put forward by primatologist Richard Wrangham (2009) that cooking, by making energy more bioavailable, was the evolutionary step change required for energy-intensive brains like humans’, highlighting connections between energy concentration and intelligence.
Technique in computer science (1995), common in machine learning (2016), which combines multiple decision trees to improve aggregate predictive performance; used for tasks like classification, regression, and survival analysis.
The notion that Earth is many magnitudes of order older than human scales (4.55 billion years), first put forward by Scottish geologist James Hutton (18th century) by examining deposited layers of strata, a process of sorting and inscription that has been described as homologous to computation by Manuel DeLanda (1997).
The tendency observed by some economists that the total use of materials to achieve the same outcomes and meet the same needs drops over time, currently expounded by Andrew McAfee (2019) and linked to “ephemeralization” in R. Buckminster Fuller (1938).
Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi novel 2312 (2012) describes the period from 2005–2060 as an age in a “state of indecisive agitation” in regards to climate change.
Discredited notion that plants with parts that resemble human body parts can be used to treat those same body parts, present in cultures from the Roman Empire (50–70 CE) to traditional Cherokee knowledge, but particularly pronounced during the Middle Ages, when similarities were considered a signature from God.
An ecological accounting mechanism for decentralized governance, designated by Regen Network (2017); specifically, protocols for assessing the changing ecological state of an area of land, to be layered with mechanisms to incentivize shifts in regenerative land use.
Popularized in the early 2000s, the concept provides a way for governments and others to account for and measure natural systems as generators of economic value, which freely provide services and carry natural capital; related to ecological infrastructure.
Also known as symbiogenesis, this evolutionary theory (1967) describes the emergence of organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts as the collaborative merging of separate organisms, shifting notions of evolution away from exclusively competitive drives.
From epizoons – parasitic animals – a term developed and documented by Theun Karelse and others in the FoAM network during the 2010s to highlight the increasing outfitting of animals and plants with rich technological media.
Term from Christina Cogdell (2018) to describe how genetic algorithms – an optimization heuristic inspired by natural selection – and generative design in general have inherited a shared vocabulary and an abstract set of practices from early 20th-century eugenics.
Evolutionary term (1982) for characteristics that didn’t evolve as adaptations through natural selection, but were nevertheless repurposed to enhance fitness; exaptation has itself been repurposed to explore the evolutionary dynamics of technological innovation (2016).
Notion that cognition is embodied not just in a brain or body, but, for example, in external objects like pen and paper, without which humans couldn’t do logic, as described by Clark and Chalmers (1995); taken up in AI research by figures like Rodney Brooks (2008), in paying more attention to the hardware “body” and affordances of the environment.
Open-source projects for farm management, planning, and record keeping (2017), designed as generalizable platforms for developers to extend.
Way of describing a non-domesticated AI, one that evolves in the wild beyond human needs; a process science historian George Dyson believes is already underway (2019), with the accidental emergence of analog forms of computing on top of an underlying digital infrastructure.
The use of automated drones for industrial-scale reforestation (2017), including the surveying of a site and design of its planting pattern, planting through the firing of germinated seed pellets, and continued monitoring of site growth or degradation.
A field of engineering (2016) that integrates nanomaterials into plants in an effort to harness them for tasks like monitoring for droughts, detecting aromatic substances, emitting light, and more.
An ancient form of food production and agroforestry system (100,000–10,000 BCE) that produces fruits, nuts, herbs, vines, and vegetables, archaeological evidence of which points to areas like the Amazon as once being a massive experiment in forest gardening.
Attempt by Georges Bataille (1949) to turn economics away from a foundation in scarcity towards one in abundance and excess – from the sun, whose excess energy and waste is the foundation for photosynthesis and life, to human societies, which waste in war and entertainment, excess rather than scarcity is key to understanding economies of circulation.
The phenomenon of not finding any signs of other life or intelligence in the universe, also known as the Fermi paradox (1950s), allegorized by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang (2016) to ask why, even on this Earth, we’ve barely recognized the existence of other intelligent species.
Refers to the increasing use of military and paramilitary forces, technologies, and partnerships to address conservation efforts and other environmental enforcement mechanisms (2014).
A proposal by biologist Edward O. Wilson (2016) to divide the world into two zones – one inhabitable by humans, the other excluding them entirely to facilitate biodiversity recovery.
A holobiont is the composite organism of a host and its microbiome, increasingly a site for design interventions; examples include the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in legumes’ root systems, whose symbiosis is being exported to other plants using CRISPR-Cas9 (2017) in an effort to reduce overfertilization made common by the Green Revolution (1960s).
Contrary to the notion that genes can only flow down from parents to offspring, much of evolutionary history has consisted of sideways exchanges of genes across species and kingdom boundaries; this form of natural genetic engineering has prompted molecular biologist W. Ford Doolittle (2000) to question the very notion of a “tree” of life, with its clean notions of descent.
Biohacking a species transition to plants as undergone by members of Quimera Rosa (2016), injecting themselves with chlorophyll tattoos and RFID chips; inspired by Lynn Margulis’ (2007) notion of a homo photosyntheticus that generates energy with scalp-based algae.
A class of plants able to grow in conditions of high metal concentrations, in human use since the late 19th-century to bioremediate toxic environmental sites in cost-effective ways, concentrating and metabolizing the metals in their tissues; global database launched in 2015.
A reciprocal, non-commercial, yearly catalogue of seed collections released by botanical gardens to facilitate sharing of specimens; established in the 1800s and maintained since, this supply-driven knowledge infrastructure doesn’t allow for the commercial use of seeds.
Theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad’s term (2007) for the mutual constitution of agents through their entanglement, rather than their discrete interactions, reframing our understanding of and potential for human-plant intra-actions.
Bruce Sterling’s term (2000) for areas that, for reasons of political contestation, technological accidents, or deindustrialization, have been abandoned and returned to a state of post-natural or feral nature, such as Chernobyl or the Korean DMZ.
Objects whose design requires cutting across disciplinary boundaries and research fields, entangling different kinds of practices, activities, uses, and protocols, coined (2015) by Paola Antonelli, Neri Oxman, and Kevin Slavin.
A medieval text (1509) by Charles de Bovelles that cemented a “pyramid of life” in which forms of life are categorized by their ascending complexity – the mineral, which est (exist), the plant, which vivit (are alive), the animal, which sentit (sense), and the human, which intelligit (have intelligence).
The notion that computation can be performed in mediums requiring very low or no power, such as fluids, chemical reactants, plants, and animals (2012), or simply by reducing power consumption through asynchronous, low-bandwidth signalling.
Objects of scientific study that accept the fuzziness of boundaries and the entanglement of processes, including by recursively acting back on the observers, named by Bruno Latour (2018) in honor of James Lovelock’s description of the geo-biological entanglement of the planet (1974).
Concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980) to describe processes of self-organization common to living and non-living forms, from rocks to plants to animals, which aren’t guided by any transcendent force, but emerge from the interplay of matter, energy, and information.
Research cluster started by Neri Oxman at MIT (2010) to explore the applications of bio-inspired designs and design interventions in biology, using combinations of computational tools and new materials to program matter.
A computational theoretic approach to evolution by mathematician Gregory Chaitin (2009), which searches for the shortest possible abstract model of Darwinian evolution, defined as natural selection through random point mutation.
Concept from Marx (1844), defined and refined by John Bellamy Foster (1999) to describe the tendency of capitalism to generate ecological crises through its dissociation of energetic and material flows between the human and non-human.
Peter Sloterdijk’s parallel (2010) between the Reformation’s (16th century) break with theological teachings, and the break with present-day lifestyles necessitated by climate change, with meteorologists playing the role of dissenting theologists.
A call for introducing human-like institutional arrangements into the natural world, such as Bruno Latour’s Parliament of Things (1991) in which non-human entities and hybrids can be represented, or his call for diplomats of multinaturalism (2004) rather than multiculturalism.
Effective 2014, the protocol is an agreement deposited at the UN and signed by 123 member states that seeks to preserve biodiversity by facilitating the equitable sharing of benefits coming from the use of genetic resources.
Movement in architecture to deploy technological innovations from the fields of biology, biotechnology, medicine, and surgery to design built environments as semi-living structures, requiring new design tools and management techniques, as described by Marcos Cruz (2008).
Speculations on the future of rurality, such as Rem Koolhaas’ project on countryside futures (2020); spurred by decades of preoccupation with the urban, the automation of farming, new energy sources, and the impacts of climate change on landscapes.
The use of automation technologies, such as the AI frameworks used in self-driving cars, to manage novel ecosystems free from human intervention (2017), rather than restoring them to past wild states; critically examined by artistic works like Asunder (2019), an autonomous land use management system.
The use of tools like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (2000), for assessing infrared reflections of flora, along with depth sensors and machine learning (2018), to build increasingly detailed accounts of global flora; can be related to Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the map, census, and museum (1991) as tools of colonial governance.
A term from Ian Bogost (2012) describing techniques for experiencing and inhabiting the being of otherness and objects; exemplified by artistic projects like Umwelt Microbiana (2017) by Joel Ong and Mick Lorusso, which invites participants into a microbially sensed world.
The first mass extinction event on Earth (2.5 billion years ago) caused by the rise of cyanobacteria (similar to algae) whose byproduct – oxygen – wiped out the vast majority of the world’s then abundant anaerobic bacteria over the course of 300 million years.
The cryptic 123rd fragment from Heraclitus (~500 BCE), translated as “nature loves to hide,” has been the source of musing for philosophers from Aristotle to Saint Thomas Aquinas to Heidegger, seeking to understand the borders between the animate and inanimate.
The volatile aromatic compounds excreted by plants identified by Russian biochemist Boris P. Tokin (1928), containing antimicrobial properties that repel or kill insects and fungi; also thought to boost immune systems and lower blood pressure in humans (2010) in practices like shinrin-yoku.
The role of plant agency in the creation of literary works as well as the cultivation of the cultural imagination in legal and scientific works (2019); as distinct from phytosemiotics (1981), the study of communication processes in and of plants.
Proposal by landscape architect Gilles Clément (1997) to think of the Earth’s biodiversity as a planetary garden and humanity its gardener – surveilling, observing, mixing, moving, and cultivating.
The question as to whether plants produce excrement is not as clear as it seems; while some have suggested falling leaves, this is seasonal and not dependent on daily cycles; A. C. Neish (1965) has suggested that phenolic compounds toxic to plants are polymerized and stored in cell walls and vacuoles, essentially storing waste internally as a building material.
Academic field of study established in 2005 to explore parallels between plant physiology and neural networks in animals; extends back to Darwin’s “root-brain hypothesis,” (1880) and Democritus’ description of plants as “upside-down humans” (400 BCE).
The unproven theory by Gottlieb Haberlandt (1905) that plants have epidermal cells that function as real lenses (known as ocelli, common in invertebrates), transmitting visual information not only about light but shape and movement; could explain the mimicry capabilities of certain plants that have no other known mechanisms for copying their neighbours.
The use of legal mechanisms to extend inalienable rights to plants, popularized by a Swiss ethics committee report (2008) that interpreted the constitution as extending dignity to plants, but not granting them outright rights for fear it would slow scientific progress.
Automated machines, or robots, that mimic plants rather than humans (androids), first developed by Barbara Mazzolai and Stefano Mancuso (2011); they’re nearly immobile, decentralized in their sensing and processing, and generate their own energy and form.
Call from anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2018) for design to engage with decolonial practices and participatory, place-based approaches attentive to the plurality of ways of building, inhabiting, and knowing worlds.
Update of traditional theological concerns with spirit and breath to non-transcendental descriptions of a “metaphysics of mixture” in which our survival depends on constantly imbibing the gaseous excretions of plants, as described by philosopher Emanuele Coccia (2018).
Term from sociologist Jennifer Gabrys (2016) to describe the increasing use of sensing technologies to monitor the environment and feedback decisions about interventions, exemplified by NASA’s (2010) collaboration with Cisco to build a “planetary skin.”
Term coined by Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht (2011) to describe a traumatic relation between the psyche and its connection to chronically changing environmental conditions; other neologisms Albrecht has coined (2019) include solastalgia and ecoagnosy.
Self-contained living spaces with naturally automated biomes, like the Biosphere 2 project (1991), that were envisioned as a way to hedge and ensure survival in ecologically dire futures, but were repurposed as speculative financial vehicles to test future crop yields.
The use of online platforms and their economic matchmaking capabilities to link crowd investors with regenerative agricultural initiatives, such as the Steward Farm Trust (2019).
The varied topology of plant reproduction, which can occur through cloning, grafting, apomixis (without fertilization), pollination, and double fertilization; plant sexual organs were famously used for Linnaeus’ taxonomy (1753), for which he was condemned for immorality.
Plants that grow among waste ground or refuse; the first to return to abandoned lands, and whose initial terra-reforming sets the stage for successive waves of plant inhabitation; from the Latin word for rubble which entered English around 1855–60.
Supply chains that move goods from uncontrolled modes of production (i.e., not factories or farms) to the market, such as the trade in foraged foods, cottage industries for subcontracting clothing, etc. explored by anthropologist Anna Tsing (2015).
An effort by organizations like Via Campesina (1993) to ensure farmers’ rights to save, breed, and exchange open-source seeds that are not owned or patented, restoring the diversity and variety of edible species, and backed by a United Nations declaration (2018) opposed by the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.
Term introduced by semiotician Yuri Lotman (1984) to describe the entire sphere in which the exchange of signs between and beyond the human takes place, such as through sounds, smells, movements, colours, shapes, electrical fields, etc.
The engineering and design of transformations across sensory modalities (1980s), such as echolocation. While the research initially addressed disabilities, it has expanded to imagine other-than-human sensory augmentations, such as magnetic fields and remote sensing.
Explored by Stewart Brand and Jay Baldwin during the 1970s energy crises as decentralized, renewable sources – small-scale, self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive systems; also used by author Jeff VanderMeer (2018) to talk about bio-derived materials.
Synthetic chemical fuels like hydrogen and ethanol produced from solar energy, using processes like artificial photosynthesis – first imagined in 1912 and extensively researched over the last decade by the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (2010).
A movement since the 2010s across speculative fiction, art, design, and politics that seeks to envision the ethics and aesthetics of an optimistic, sustainable, post-fossil-fuel world.
Notion from Samuel Butler (1887) revived by Nils Barricelli’s computer simulation experiments with artificial life forms (1953), which strongly pointed to the notion that random mutation and natural/sexual selection alone couldn’t account for the emergence of intelligence.
An unnamed sense of isolation and sadness that stems from disconnection with other species and forms of kin (2015), demonstrated by the inability of many North Americans to identify even a handful of flora in their immediate environments (2018).
Recursive feedback between a model and the reality it represents, as exemplified in financial models which don’t neutrally represent future-states, but play a role in causing them to emerge; concept expanded by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik (2016) to ask whether recursive tools could be harnessed by other models to manifest other futures, such as with climate change.
A mechanism (1959) for coordinating the behaviour of individual agents, without centralized control, by communicating through traces and changes to the environment, often studied in the context of insect swarms but equally as applicable to plant roots as to organizational design (2006).
Research at the Salk Institute (2017) plans to use gene editing to increase the amount of suberin (the main component in non-biodegradable cork) produced by plants, in order to increase the amount of carbon stored in their root systems.
The gamble described by design theorist Benjamin Bratton (2016) for planetary-scale systems of computation to slingshot modernity into sustainable, resilient futures in which computation is geared towards lightening and subtracting the load on Earth’s systems.
The modelling of trees and ecosystems inside computational simulations (2019) to test future scenarios, understand complex systems, and guide environmental interventions in forestry management.
Geoscientist Peter Haff’s term (2013) for the set of interlinked systems including communications, transportation, manufacturing, and bureaucracy that metabolize energy as autonomously as do systems like the biosphere and atmosphere; humans are better seen as subcomponents of the system, constrained by its needs rather than controlling it.
Coined by interaction designer Bill Buxton (2019) to oppose ubiquity and ubiquitous computing (the condition of being everywhere at the same time), ubiety is a call to design for the particularity of place, for situated intelligences rather than universal situations.
Concept from theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1920) for describing the species-specific modelling of and access to their external worlds, as mediated by their perceptual organs and effectual capabilities.
An applied field (1998) of interdisciplinary research exploring alternative substrates and mediums for computation, including slime molds, chemical gradients, water pressure, DNA, plants, and more, for sensing, storing, and processing information.
Plant carnivory, controversially acknowledged by Darwin (1875), includes around 600 species known to attract, trap, and kill prey including small mammals like mice; recently, many more species have been acknowledged as protocarnivores (1984), such as potato and tobacco plants, which secrete poisonous substances to kill insects and indirectly absorb their waste products.
A form of plant mimicry in which an agricultural weed takes on the characteristics of a domesticated crop due to selective pressures in the agricultural system (~10,000 BCE); one of the most famous occurs between lentils and common vetch, with the introduction of automated sorting through machine vision (1997) accelerating the rate and resolution of vetch mimicry.
Etymological paradox in which the origins of “vegetation” in Middle Latin verbs (early 15th century) to signify growth, flourishing, aliveness, and activity contradict contemporary use of the verb “to vegetate” as passivity, described by philosopher Michael Marder (2013).
The use of proxy commodities to import/substitute for diminishing natural commodities in areas hit by climate change, such as the use of water to grow hay in the Arizona desert by a Saudi Arabian dairy company, with the hay exported back to the Middle East as “virtual water” (2014).
The study of data in context, in situ, which focuses on the relationships between the elements of a complex, open-ended system, rather than their easy-to-measure, discrete components and individual characteristics, as developed by Nora Bateson (2012).
Xeno, from Greek xenos for foreignness or otherness, is an approach to design that moves beyond dominant human-centred approaches to explore the broader range of capacities and relations of a more-than-human world, as described by designer Johanna Schmeer (2019).
Explorations at Het Nieuwe Instituut (2019) for a new kind of organization, inspired by co-operatives, that supports non-human members, using legal mechanisms and new technologies to facilitate them.
There are as many ways to use the lexicon as there are combinations of terms within them. Here, we highlight three ways they could function:
1/ This lexicon is an ongoing project to develop a new vocabulary at the intersection of plant and machine intelligence. It is oriented towards design in an expanded sense of the term, including the activity of scientists, engineers, writers, strategists, and artists. It draws from a range of fields – from plant neurobiology to speculative design, artificial intelligence to geomorphology, media theory to ecological economics.
From these fields it extracts a range of terms. Some of the terms are concepts, some describe processes, while others are simply singular things. This heterogeneity of terms – in the fields they come from and the forms they take – is important. A lexicon is arranged arbitrarily, in the sense of alphabetically. Terms that have no relation to one another in field or form can suddenly find themselves in proximity, in communication.
Combining disparate terms can allow for the construction of new diagrams – one could, for instance, draw a circuit between an unrelated concept and a process to generate a new speculative entity. Or combine an entity and a process to incubate a new concept. In that sense, the lexicon is a machine for speculative diagramming. A tool to imagine new worlds.
2/ The terms operate at various scales. Some are geographic – certain terms apply globally while others are resolutely local; some operate on an infraindividual scale while others accelerate and spread rapidly across the transindividual.
Other scales are temporal – some terms rise from the histories of deep time in the first glimmers of life itself, while others exist in a not-yet-actualized future that is nevertheless retroactively shaping the present; some have operated for thousands of years, while others will flash into and out of existence, never to re-emerge.
As media and design theorist Benjamin Bratton has described, these two axes, of temporal and geographic scales – long and short timescales, large and small spatial scales – outline a matrix for speculative design. Placed perpendicularly, the two axes create four quadrants, none of which is necessarily more significant than the others. A global intervention spanning centuries might not be any more transformative than a completely localized and momentary one. But neither is a localized, momentary intervention to be lauded as inherently more progressive than a durable global one.
In that sense, the lexicon is an ethico-aesthetic bridge across scales. A way to build alliances across a multiplicity of interventions and modalities.
3/ When the word “individual” is used, it isn’t meant in the sense of a human individual, or not only. The commonsensical notion of an individual as a singular human is not enough. There are many kinds of individuals.
An individual is any consistency of heterogeneous parts held over time, as elaborated by philosopher Manuel DeLanda. It’s an assemblage, its borders porous in space and time. One could speak of a society as an individual, a pack of animals as an individual, or a tree that reiterates endless copies of itself on its trunk as an individual. What matters is the consistency held by the parts over time, which produces a whole greater than the parts.
This matters because culture has over-indexed on human-centredness. It has targeted a reduced, abstracted, isolated notion of an individual as a single human being. In so doing, it has achieved tremendous effectiveness in some metrics – in intuitiveness, in convenience, in impulsivity. But in doing so, it has helped enable a range of unaccounted externalities, including environmental, social, and psychological damages. It has failed to adopt the flexible scales and complex understandings required to address 21st-century problems.
In that sense, the lexicon is an opening to what lies beyond human-centredness. It is a call to take seriously the strangeness of other intelligences and needs, and to begin thinking about the design of more-than-human futures.
Plants and machines – how differently we’ve imagined their capacities for intelligence over time.
We’ve fantasized about machines becoming intelligent for thousands of years. Some of the earliest written traces document this, like Homer’s description of Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention, living luxuriously in his proto-smart home – with its automated gates and forges, driverless delivery bots, autonomous servants, and machine-generated music. Meanwhile, plants have been variously denigrated and ignored, relegated to an invisible background condition, a lower rung on the pyramid of life – alive but not sentient, and certainly not intelligent.
Plants were forgotten even on the venerable Noah’s Ark. Had Noah’s program to restore the globe’s ecology been carried out as designed, it would have resulted in a rather temporary repopulation, as an increasingly putrid mass of animal flesh fought for the rapidly diminishing scraps of the last negentropic stores of energy – each others’ bodies. Lacking the autotrophic ability of plants to transform solar energy into chemical energy, all animal life would vanish from the world after a short but intensely non-aromatic carnival of negative-sum calorie depreciation.
Of course, this plant-blindness has not been constant across all places and times. Various cultures, practices, and knowledges have given more or less weight to the agential capacity of plants. Most recently, the modern scientific tradition has itself – not without controversy – begun to reverse its view of a mute botanous universe. It has seen the inauguration of fields like plant neurobiology, which studies the parallels between the neuronal structures of animals and the root systems of plants, a parallel noted by none other than Darwin himself.
Plants, like all living things, must be able to sense, process, and respond to a changing environment if they wish to survive. The extent and fury of this semiotic exchange has been underestimated until recently. In fact, it could turn out that life and semiosis emerge at the same time and for the same reasons – any living thing must be able to process signs from its environment. The mechanisms by which even the “dumbest” of simple cells sense and process information remain barely catalogued, while the scope of both knowns and known unknowns in their functioning steadily grows.
As our awareness of the scope of life’s capacity to communicate within and between individuals continues to grow, we should stop to note that what’s being described are forms of non-linguistic communication. There is no “language” of plants, nor any interest in resurrecting dubious metaphors extending language everywhere. But there is an exchange of signs of various kinds – indexes pointing to states and changes in the environment and icons mirroring them topographically. Plants’ most robust sensing is chemical, but they also have multiple photoreceptors, the ability to sense touch, gravity, humidity, and proprioception. Plants process and respond to these signs in complex ways, producing emergent intelligences that can’t be reduced to mute matter any more than humans’ own use of signs elsewhere on the semiotic continuum.
Plants’ evolved forms of intelligence – of sensing and responding non-deterministically to their environments – only make sense if we step out of our human and zoocentric perspectives. Able to generate chemical energy from solar capture, they have evolved body plans to maximize surface area but make mobility impractical. Their sessility – rootedness in fixed location – exposes them to the predation of mobile creatures, generating a range of creative adaptations, including the production of an endless array of pharmacological compounds to manipulate animals, impressive forms of mimicry and camouflage, the distribution of organs and functions throughout the body, various forms of natural genetic engineering, and the creation of symbiotic alliances with pollinators (such as birds and bees), defenders (such as ants), and network managers (such as fungi).
While none of these evolutionary inheritances is the result of plant intelligence, they set the context for understanding the Umwelt – the perceptual worlds experienced by an organism – of plant life. With a different set of defences, sources of energy, and bodily plans, the sensory arrangements of plants are geared towards entirely different ends than mobile creatures. Just because their intelligence doesn’t mirror our own doesn’t mean theirs doesn’t exist, nor does it mean we have to jettison the only terms and metaphors – based on our own bodily forms and needs – that we have to make sense of them.
A metaphor can be a bridge taking us to a new form of understanding. The provocation to take plant intelligence seriously alerts us to the complexity of their behaviour, but only if we don’t project our own measures and modes onto them.
It is, in that sense, the same problem confronting us when we think about machine intelligence. If we don’t want innovation to be boring rehashes of ancient smart home fantasies, might we adopt a lesson from the resolute strangeness and alterity of plant intelligence when trying to conceptualize machine intelligence? Instead of androids in human form serving masters, shouldn’t we begin from the premise that how and what a system senses will set the foundation for what its intelligence could even be? Why is the human the only measure? Doesn’t this blind us to the ways machine intelligence is already here, in many of our daily interactions? Doesn’t this blind us to what it could become?