Complexity and Evolving Synthetic Soil
Twenty-first century society draws from a world that is less determined by objects and increasingly shaped by connectivity. The clear either/or distinctions that formerly informed experience are being replaced by a much more fluid understanding of the world. Identity is not fixed, but shaped by networks where people and ‘things’ can coherently exist in many states. This ‘complex systems’* view extends to the characterization of nature, which is made up of many interacting bodies. Some of these are human, others living and many other participating agencies that are dynamic, yet are not thought of as being alive. Yet the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms represent different kinds of organizing networks that are entwined and constitute our living world.
The study of complex systems has become an important scientific study that requires interdisciplinary collaboration to characterize their properties. Networks, which share patterns of organization, are at the heart of complex systems. This helps us understand poorly understood complex systems, such as metabolic networks, by making analogies with well-known ones, such as the Internet. Complex systems are usually represented as diagrams whose points of convergence, or ‘nodes’, represent the various participating bodies. The connections between these active sites are represented topologically to signify the interactions between them. Structural features of complex systems are revealed as secondary phenomena that appear as a consequence of the network interactions that give rise to them. Currently the mapping of complex systems is not deductive and cannot tell a researcher just how a network arose, or how it will behave in the future.
The temporal properties of complex systems are complicated by the phenomenon of emergence**, but the kind of dynamic temporal changes that may occur can be grasped by studying a range of processes that can be broadly thought of as ‘evolution’. The particular structure that best embodies the transition from inert to living matter is the story of soil. William Bryant Logan notes that the earth was not born with soil but has acquired it over the millennia. Soils are a living web of relationships within complex bodies that will eventually grow old and die. Plants take root in the rich chemical medium and bind the particles together to attract animal life. Conversely, soil harbors fungi and bacteria that break down the bodies of dead creatures and turns them into more soil. The speed of this dynamic conversion process varies. In fertile areas it may take fifty years to produce a few centimeters of soil but in harsh deserts it can take thousands of years. Once soil is eroded, it is completely destroyed and is effectively lost forever.
The possibility of artificially engineering soils creates the opportunity to transform artificial landscapes into places that can attract nature. Gardeners already select rich combinations of loam, compost and fertilizer to produce blooming plants but these techniques do not evolve their infrastructures in situ. Rather they transport them from other areas of soil production.So, is it possible to create a matrix using a bottom-up, complex systems approach, where interacting networks give rise to a superstructure that performs the work of soil?
An experiment that explored the possible evolution of soil matrix was conducted during the Hylozoic Ground installation, an architectural installation by Philip Beesley, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, 2010. Iron, the favored mineral of Ruskin, was passed through reactive gels in a chemical process called the Liesegang Ring reaction, which occurs naturally under certain geological conditions. This dynamic process, driven by gravity and diffusion, produced layers of complex materials over the three-month period of the installation. The process of separating the homogenous gel into layers of different colors and thicknesses was the first stage towards creating an artificial soil.
Of course, much work still needs to be done before the gel could be functionally likened to a soil. It would, for example, need to contain air filled cavities, organisms and be capable of compost production. However, these first experiments suggest that sterile surfaces can be transformed into living, complex bodies through the interactions of multiple, interacting biological and chemical agents. This synthetic matrix could potentially provide a supportive, evolving infrastructure for a web of designed life forms and synthetic ecologies, where culture and technology connect through processes that are typical of next nature.
*Complexity Science considers the physical world to exist as the result of an interconnected set of networks, of complex and simple systems rather than as a series of objects that are hierarchically connected. Network connections are shared by different organizing systems through information flow where linkages are made and broken around sites of localizing activity. Complex systems do not acquire complexity but fundamentally possess it, exhibiting an optimized, elegant design, even when they are composed of only a few ingredients. Such systems cannot be broken down into components.
** Emergence is a term that proposes an alternative roadmap of organization between a mechanistic view of the world and a vitalistic one. In the late 18th century emergentists sought to describe the nature of vital substances that were composed of ‘inanimate materials’ yet in some sense continued to retain irreducibly vital qualities or processes. “All organized bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself. (Mill, J.S. (1882) A System of Logic, Bk.III, Ch.6, p.1) See also: O’Connor, Timothy and Wong, Hong Yu, “Emergent Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/properties-emergent/