E-spinach & the Wood Wide Web

Posted by jlubans on April 30, 2021


A recent headline declared, “Scientists Taught Spinach How to Send Emails to Help Fight Climate Change!”
That declaration suggested to me (and maybe Popeye) a suddenly sentient spinach, its tiny roots tapping out texts!
Regardless of the hyperbole, the spinach story did get me thinking about something called the Wood Wide Web, aka WWW.
And, in turn, that moved me to think about Complexity Theory, a topic I sometimes try to teach in my management classes.
Complexity theory applies to systems that exhibit “non trivial emergent and self-organizing behaviors.” In other words, something happens in the system with no boss to dictate behavior or make decisions.
The theory holds that leaderless groups can indeed thrive and survive; e. g. the self-organizing World Wide Web operates with simple rules and no central control resulting in highly complex collective behavior.
While the spinach research makes no claims to complexity (i.e. a root system linked with other vegetables in nearby fields), the researchers have indeed created a new method for detecting major changes in our climate via spinach root systems.
According to the study, when spinach roots detect certain soil compounds they can send a signal to an infrared camera, which then triggers an email alert to scientists.
The Wood Wide Web is very much a complex system. The buried roots of trees and fungi in the soil cooperate and communicate back and forth.
Forestry researcher Suzanne Simard - by injecting fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes (!) - ultimately showed how fungi and tree roots collaborate for each other’s benefit, an underground “network” of relationships, a mutualism.
She asserted that fungi and roots ‘forged their duality into a oneness, thereby making a forest’, a ‘co-operative system’.” Trees ‘talk’ to one another, resulting in a collaborative intelligence, a ‘forest wisdom’.
It is claimed that older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees that they recognize as their ‘kin’, acting as ‘mothers’.
While her tie-dye speak may be akin to the spinach email hyperbole or Silicone Valley’s hyperventilating about “singularity” – I too have been known to ascribe human qualities to trees and have even hugged one or two.
Indeed my fable, “The Fallen Tree”, embraces “forest wisdom”.
Perhaps more of a genuine mutualism and complexity can be see among starling murmuration
in which thousands of starlings a-wing make impromptu yet coordinated evasive movements to discourage predators.
But, and this is a big but, all may not be sanguine in leaderless systems.
An already noted, just like the human workplace, the WoodWW is a competition – not solely a collaborative mutualism.
A BBC News video helps explains the difference between the wish and the reality of the WoodWW, how some trees and fungi benefit by sharing nutrients and signals, and how some trees take more than they give.
What looks like mutualism is actually a closely played competition.
As one researcher put it, “For every birch donating carbon to its fir neighbors, there’s an orchid stealing carbon from nearby trees. For every plant that informs others of a disease outbreak, another sends out toxins to kill its rivals".
Sounds like the last place I worked!
Most of us want to cooperate – it comes naturally to humans - but genuine collaboration takes work to avoid imbalance; it takes sacrifice and not always getting what you want.
This is where leadership matters.
As for the Internet, by leadership I am not talking about an executive council or dictator to regulate the Internet.
What’s needed is for the producers and consumers (US -you and me) of content to lead in letting the platforms know we are not going along.
If you don’t like Facebook (for umpteen reasons), stop giving them content.
If you are offended by the egregious censorship on Twitter, stop tweeting.
If you are tired of Google’s money-grubbing, privacy-plundering ad biz and its skewed search results, use another search engine or go to the library and ask a trustworthy librarian.
If you are offended by Amazon’s “book-burning”, go to another vendor.
Apply your opting out to any and all Internet participants who assert they know best.
Remember, the Internet is us.

Only two days left.
Leading from the Middle: Changing approaches to library leadership and communication,” offered May 3-28, 2021.
Lyda Fontes McCartin, Interim Director, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning, University of Northern Colorado
Andrea Falcone, Dean, Steely Library; Northern Kentucky University,
I have no connection with this class, but it looks interesting since the title is identical to my book from 2010, Leading from the Middle.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

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