This began as a place to gather images and impressions in preparation for writing a book, Letter by Letter, about the history of the idea of writing; it continues to live as a kind of shoebox under the bed.
I'm Matthew Battles. I write about technology in natural history, culture, and our experience of the natural world. I'm a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I help out with metaLAB at Harvard, a collaborative investigating the roles of technology in the Arts and Humanities. On Twitter, I'm @matthewbattles.
The concept of ecological restoration, as developed over the past 20 years, rests on the mistaken assumption that we can somehow bring back past ecosystems by removing invasive species and replanting native species. This overly simplistic view of the world ignores two basic tenets of modern ecology — that environmental stability is an illusion, and that an unpredictable future belongs to the best adapted.
Many landscape architects feel conflicted by the restoration debate, trapped between the profession’s idealistic rhetoric about the innate superiority of native ecosystems and the constraints imposed by the financial and ecological realities of a particular site. Over the past 250 years, people have altered the basic trajectory of modern ecology to such an extent that going back to some earlier native condition is no longer possible and is certainly not a realistic solution to the increasingly complex environmental problems that we face.
Landscape architects — and anyone else who works directly with vegetation — need to acknowledge that a wide variety of so-called novel or emergent ecosystems are developing before our eyes. They are the product of the interacting forces of urbanization, globalization and climate change, and are made up of organisms that have been brought together by the elimination or neutralization of barriers that had kept them separated for millions of years. The concept of a novel ecosystem applies not only to our cities and suburbs but also to many landscapes that have been subjected to the disturbance-intensive practices of agriculture, industry and mining. It is unrealistic to assume that turning back the ecological clock will be any easier than reversing the economic forces that created these landscapes.
Landscape architecture can be a charged discipline, especially when it has to resolve the competing interests of its human clients with those of the other organisms that seek to inhabit the same space. The dichotomies that separate people from nature, and native from non-native species, present contradictions that landscape architects must resolve if they hope to have a lasting impact on the environments they design. My purpose here is to articulate an ecologically oriented vision for human-dominated landscapes that does not define them as intrinsically negative, valueless or alien.
What can I tell you about Brooklyn Arts Studio? You’ve already eschewed the joys of rinsing your hair with hand lotion and making off with tiny bars of soap, with staring into empty minibars and the travesty of CNN International. You’re an airbnb user, a wanderer of the electric world, a swimmer in the liquid modern! Well let me tell you, best beloved: you aren’t ready for the Blue Annex—not unless you were raised among the golden lions of Shangri-la, wrestling the gimlet-eyed inferno birds till dawn. You aren’t ready for the tintype wreckage and the clouds of American Spirit, or the red-lidded stare of postrock refugees rolling back from shows. Maybe first you should try kickstarting yourself a Bates Motel, or youtubing a haunted inn in the snows of Colorado, or tweeting yourself a cozy wicker man of a Summerisle. But you can’t sleep in youtube; kickstarter isn’t about to hand you a sloppy plate of curry and a snifter of hand-made gin. Twitter ain’t gonna light your cigarillo. Only wait—you say you miss the golden lions and their wishy-swishy tails? Perhaps even the inferno birds and their wobbly songs raise fond memory-welts on the back of your head? You pine for the pale mosquitos of morning whining their siren songs to inflame your gentling dreams? O best beloved, there’s a can of Off waiting for you in a trailer in Brooklyn.
When striving to re-form the pattern of our own way of life, we often invoke Nature as our great teacher, seeking to justify man’s actions by arguments based on what happens in nature. We strive after ‘organic creation’, ‘form production from within’, ‘functional forms’, all of them aims which man believes he can find realized in works of nature. Using such slogans, our spirit protests against the artificiality of outward show; it demands ‘essentials’ instead of ‘façades’, and thinks that the very observation of nature should make us proof against false appearances and superficiality.
But what do we see in natural objects which are said to be examples for us? The functional form pure and simple, so much extolled by some as befitting Nature, is a rare and special case. How much more often do we find in animal forms just what is not comprised in these concepts? And what about ‘form production from within’, which is supposed to be Nature’s way of salvation, which should be the aim of Art? The inside of an animal does remind us of really ingenious man-made apparatus, and a machine-like interpretation does explain some of its functions. But against this, the covering of such ‘apparatus’ always stimulates us to compare it with those kinds of human artistic creations which are farthest removed from any purposive conception. How often does it seem to us as if roving fancy had been at work; sportiveness, the capricious free play of creative force, comes to mind rather than a technical necessity.
Adolf Portmann, Animal Forms and Patterns: a Study of the Appearance of Animals (Faber, 1952).
The Oblique Strategies card I turned over today tells me to “discard an axiom,” and of the day’s reading this comes the closest to meeting the obligation.
We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them. We want the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town…. We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, those conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy. Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade. This we want as a central feature. We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.
Technology comforts, surrounds, and confounds us. When we argue about MOOCs, hydraulic fracturing, NSA surveillance, or drone warfare, we’re arguing about technology. Unfortunately, the conversation is impoverished by the absence of a robust cadre of scholars who can engage with and critique the role of technology in society. Instead, we have the glib boosterism of tech intellectuals like the former Wired editor Chris Anderson, the media gadfly (and CUNY journalism professor) Jeff Jarvis, the British writer Andrew Keen, and the Google executive Eric Schmidt. A fairly homogenous group of white men with elite degrees inclined to champion innovation, disruption, and the free market, these tech intellectuals have usurped the role of explaining technology to policy makers, investors, and the public. Their arguments and advocacy are too often a tepid substitute for robust analysis and honest critique.
Montfort’s involuted, single-line programs give BASIC something of the tang of the Old English of Beowulf—sharp and shorn, barbed and battered by the harsh economies of its habitat. Perl, by contrast, might be the programmer’s version of Occitan, the language (a cousin to latter-day Catalan) of the medieval troubadors, whose poems chimed with the decadent elaborations that flavored courtly life in medieval southern Europe—a fanciful dichotomy, which manages to caricature both the software and the vernaculars in question. Programmers of philological bent will find the comparison to Occitan especially laughable, given Perl’s cobbled-together nature and its reputation for clunkiness; a better example might be the macaronic jargon of the later middle ages, of which Pig Latin is an impoverished descendant.