Social networks—those easily mockable collection of faux-friends and empty tweets—have rarely been as inspiring as they have recently been.
Watching the streets of Tunisia and Egypt fill with protestors toppling repressive regimes, and the people of Libya now trying to do the same, was a thrilling encounter with the capacity social networks have to bring people together in messy, fleshy, local realities. People used the connectivity social networks provide to get bodies in the street all working for common purpose, and they are changing the world. Literally.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I attended the TEDx Manhattan conference on sustainable food-issues "Changing the Way We Eat" and was inspired again by social networks. Maybe I was primed for it; maybe the project I encountered really does have the world changing potential I think it has; maybe both. No matter. What I learned was that Tahrir Square has a surprising, non-obvious connection to thousands of sunny urban apartment windows hanging with tubing, pumps, and linked water bottles sprouting hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables. You see, those easily mockable networks just may be doing their world-changing thing again.
Let me explain. As a psychoanalyst and 25-year veteran of online communications, I've become a little jaded, and very familiar with problems created by our always-on, everywhere-connected digital culture: constant distraction; the alienation of being alone together; dulled, shallow thoughts; and what I've been calling over-simulation, people confusing a tech-mediated simulation with the actuality being simulated—like thinking a Facebook "friend" is an actual friend. Despite techno-evangelists who still make rosy predictions about the singularly wonderful world being created, what we've really learned is that it is not going to be so easy staying human in our post-human world.
And the solutions offered? Less technology (take an "internet sabbath"), better technology (mine the "cognitive surplus"), or additional techno-skills ("program or be programmed") are all of limited value. But an answer that can work just may be found in those freedom-loving streets and fruitful window panes: more life. That's right, the best answer to the technological-too-muchness of digital culture is more life. The revolutionaries and urban farmers are both exemplifying the more general process of using technology to build better lives.
Among the inspiring 18-minute presentations at the TEDx Manhattan conference was an incandescent talk by Britta Riley about do-it-yourself research and development (R&D-I-Y) and the resulting urban window farm project. You see, it is not just about heirloom cherry tomatoes growing in a window, it is about a social network in which the knowledge necessary to do so is created, shared, and expanded through a world-wide open-source research and development project.
Take a look at an earlier video about their project ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkCuPrsPn_I ):
OK, big deal you might say. But you'd say that only if you think this is nothing more than a bunch of edible house plants. And if you did, you'd miss the point that because of the social network linking them together, these window-paners really are farming, but in a new way. They are all functioning within a simulated community to facilitate farming actual food. Talk about an optimistic solution to the problem of too much technology!
While talking with Britta Riley the other day I realized each urban window farm is like a field in one huge decentralized, distributed community farm where expertise is exchanged, knowledge created, and friendships forged. The scale is not any one window; the scale is all the windows. She told me a rather touching story of 3 women who bonded together as friends over learning how to window farm together. And because their online interaction was grounded in life, they were together together rather than alone together. The fact that the social side takes place online rather than the local diner or ag-supply store—like a traditional farming community—doesn't mitigate the fact that real bodies are sharing information so they can grow real food.
Furthermore, reading the community sections of WindowFarms.org reveals people who are actually thinking and acting like farmers. They are trying to maximize yield; worrying about costs; balancing energy input with food output; caring for and exploiting the potentials of their tools; and learning the intricacies of their windows' micro-climate, both across and within each window. Regardless of the food they produce, it is hard to imagine an urban farmer whose identity and food choices are not being changed by the experience. They are truly learning how to "eat local and laugh" and get the most gratification as possible out of the food they consume. In fact, growing farmers more so than growing kale may just be the world-changing legacy of this particular project in which more life is being made to grow from potentially too much technology.
Finally, I do want to note that no one can say where the content of this particular urban farming R&D-I-Y will lead: that's what makes it so inspiring. But Riley did tell me that additional open-source do-it-yourself research and development is underway with solar panels, aquaponics, pump technology, and heat sink engineering. In the video above she said, how "with each improvement it's easier for the next person who joins to build a window farm." So who can know where this will lead? But the fact that more people are getting interested in how technology can help us be better people and not just in how well computers can pretend to be people (like Watson and Jeopardy) means that something world changing just may be growing in those Mideast streets and urban windows.
© 2011 Todd Essig, All Rights Reserved