“Our present global crisis is more profound than any previous historical crises; hence our solutions must be equally drastic. I propose that we should adopt the plant as the organizational model for life in the 21st century, just as the computer seems to be the dominant mental/social model of the late twentieth century, and the steam engine was the guiding image of the nineteenth century.” (McKenna, 1992)
As a botanical parallel to the oft misunderstood field of HCI - Human Computer Interaction, HPI - Human Plant Interaction, explores the nature of surfaces and processes required to facilitate mutually beneficial interaction between humans and plants.
HPI necessarily takes a symbiotic approach, being shaped by the questions it poses, such as; how can this two-way interface be realised? What assumptions are we making with regards to how we understand humans and plants? Do we need individual, specialised interfaces for each species, language or alkaloid, or are there more general approaches? How would they work? Where, or what is the point of contact between the humans and plants? How do we make the transition from machinic to organic? From boolean logic systems to systemic ecologic? What changes are required, and what further changes would occur in the plants, or humans using such interfaces? How does the nature of time, place and metabolic byproducts differ on each side of these interfaces? Are they reconcilable, or even mutually explicable? What can we learn from each other? How can we form a closer symbiosis and better understanding between the human and vegetable kingdoms once we open the gates between them? Communication, or pollination?
With the understanding that we are a part of an interconnected and interdependent planetary eco-system, contemporary human culture (interpreted as the cultivation of human minds and behaviours) slowly moves from a culture of consumption and segregation to a culture of participation, integration and generation. Our technological inquiry, into the minutae of molecules, atoms and bits, is reaching the limits of rational reductionism and rediscovering the robust beauty of growth and interdependence in complex systems – from food to fabrics, from genetics to global networks. We are beginning to see design which aims to produce and recycle, rather than relentlessly consume resources and deplete energy. We suggest that these changes in contemporary culture, economy and technology are beginning to resonate with the characteristics of our close neighbours in the domain of eukarya - the plants.
By suggesting “plants as organisational models” McKenna underlines several urgent human needs - to understand the value of diversity and collaboration over monocultures of competition; to approach problem-solving through whole systems thinking, rather than pure reductionism; to redesign industry and economics to adopt more cyclical, 'cradle to cradle' processes (McDonough, 2002). The rise of nanotechnology and a “global, atmosphere-based energy economy” can be completely in harmony with detoxifying the natural environment and preserving biodiversity, if we as a species are willing to take the risks of “reestablishing channels of direct communication with the planetary Other, the mind behind nature” (McKenna, 1992).
While McKenna's preferred lenses are the plant based psychedelic tryptamines 1) (uncannily similar in structure to some human neurotransmitters 2)), we suggest that a symbiotic HPI provides a technological analog and as such, is simultaneously more feasible, acceptable and perhaps insidious to a civilisation reinforced by global ICT.
Digital technologies appear at the 'surface', an area of contact between the dissimilar realms of humans and machines. To operate on this surface, HCI reduces the range of human expression or action, in very particular ways (eg. typing words from a specified vocabulary, or agreeing only to point to one thing at a time), in exchange for enhancing or augmenting those well defined actions in reasonably specific, agreed upon ways. It extends the human operator in a given direction, while leaving other directions, or sensibilities to deteriorate. In the near future, bio- and eco-technology (particularly on nano-scales) suggest the possibility for us to interface, on different scales, with the living systems that surround us.
If examine today's cultural trends, we can find sporadic weak signals that suggest that the proliferation of 'green' culture, economy and technology will eventually give rise to what Hildegard Von Bingen called 'Viriditas' (Bonn, n.d.), or the green side of mind – a deeper environmental consciousness, that can reconnect our fickle technological (and perhaps technocratic) societies to slower, more persistent geo-ecological scales.
Aside from 'archaic' ethnobotanical experiments, are there ways to establish a two-way interface for communication between humans and plants?
The notions of space, time, movement and persistence differ greatly between the human and botanical realms. Where human progress is often described as linear, the progression of plants is cyclical, seasonal. On a larger scale, humans and plants both occupy interdependent regional habitats, which temper and define them. Even though many processes within plants are fast, their growth is slow, balanced and steady, adapting to the environmental pressures and inner needs. In order to interface with plants, humans would need to go through a gradual time-unbinding3), a relinquishing of the short-term, short-lived, incremental advances, for the sake of the slower cycles of growth and decay. If we eventually succeed in time-unbinding, how would we communicate with plants about our divergent perceptions of space and movement? Would humans be able to feel what it is like to be a forest, consisting of billions of roots and rhizomes underground, and trillions of leaves, stems, branches and flowers above ground? How would it feel to be so vast, flexible, able to bend and twist, curl and wrap but not crawl, walk, or run? Would our thinking become more reticulate, our logic less linear? On the other hand, what human abilities would appeal to plants? Would they, over time develop something akin to animal sentience? Or would we both, through these communications develop a more integrated, wholistic consciousness?
The subtle processes of chemical communication gives the plant organs their shape and function, as well as ability to signal, attract (and repel), or feed other organisms. Can we enhance this type of embodied communication? What can we learn from the effects of plant alkaloids on human physiology? Can we re-learn to differentiate the many nouances of bitter taste that plants use to warn us about their toxins? Could plants help us grow garments, food and shelter, which are living with us, rather than for us? How would they let us know that they need water, or a particular cocktail of chemical nutrients? Would they aks us for some of our blood and bone for desert? Would we make horror movies based on the dreams of carnivorous plants? On the other hand, what would plants think of vegetarians, once they could give 'informed consent'?
A successful HPI would undoubtedly help provide illumination or elucidation of the tantalising, yet unverifiable experiments of Cleve Backster and his “stately DRACAENA MASSENGEANA, one of the plants which had officially ushered in the age of sentient plant reactions”, in which he investigated “a yet undefined primary perception in plant life, that animal life termination can serve as a remotely located stimulus to demonstrate this perception capability and that this perception facility in plants can be shown to function independently of human involvement.” (Swann, 1996)
Moving beyond the exchange of knowledge and skills, human-plant interaction could lead to a deeper, metabolic symbiosis where we witness the growth of hybrid organisms (at scales necessary to accommodate this evolution). Maybe we could begin by extending the pallette of skin-pigments to include chlorophyll, carotene, or blue-purple anthocynanines, gradually learning to change colour depending on our moods. More importantly, perhaps we could allow our upper epidermis to be invaded by deeply green symbionts able to photosynthesise. Would this symbiont feed directly on the carbon dioxide in venous blood, or that exhaled from our lungs? Could botanical extremophiles form a living protective defense, allowing us to live in polluted areas, sequestering toxins, or metabolising substances harmful to un-augmented humans? How would we reciprocate, how would we extend our existing bacterial symbiosis to include nutrients for our plant companions?
Pollination, or cross-fertilisation between plants and humans would require methods, techniques and perspectives which suggest potentials beyond the mechanistic or teleological views of the universe. Perhaps we could examine what Agnes Arber called the “organismal approach” in which “the vital co-ordination of structures and processes is not to an alien intelechy but is an integral part of the living system itself.” (Arber, 1954)
While humans grow, reproduce and often continue living, many plants go through a vegetative phase, in which they grow, then move into a reproductive phase, that may destroy the parent plant, for the benefit of the procreation of the species. In this sense, plants cannot be seen as individualists, they have not developed the selfishness evident in much of our global society. How would we reconcile our drive to become unique individuals, or separate entities living in a community, with that of the plants being the community, connected though kilometres of roots and soil. In a Human-Plant hybrid – what would constitute the parts and what would be the whole – could we viscerally experience ourselves as a part of the world, “If the light is sufficient to disclose to us the way of contemplation that lies within ourselves, we may by pursuing it to the end come to know not as a mere static dictum but as a winged intuition, carrying an infinitude of significance both for mind and heart that the One is the Manifold, and the Manifold is the One.” (Arber, 1957)
An HPI could reveal possible futures where interactions between humans and plants moves from consumption, nutrition and competition, towards a fertile, symbiotic entanglement.
“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.” 4)
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