This is v1.1 of a story, written to imagine some aspects of the Server Farm project.
It is set some time in the future, after the Farm has been constructed, and then fallen into disuse.
Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.
James Bridle, September 2021
A voice roused him from sleep. “Attention, attention” it called, crackling through the window. “Attention, attention” it repeated, closer now, almost below the window, moving along the side of the house. The voice sounded old, scratched, tinny. The amplifier on the receiver must be dying; he would need to do another round of battery swaps and repairs soon. He heard the goat stop, rootle through something in the long grass outside, and finally scramble back over the wall again in a hail of loose stones. The voice stopped.
The light on the ceiling was pink and orange: the first rind of sun coming over the mountain, filtering through the dust, and bouncing off the island and the cliffs across the gulf. He pulled himself up and swung his legs over the bed, stretched, yawned, slipped on a pair of sandals, and crossed over to the stove. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the wall, and he broke off a handful of sprigs, scattering curled yellow flowers and flecks of green leaf onto the counter. He turned on a ring, filled a pot with water from a jug, and crumbled the twigs into the water.
While the tea steeped, he went to the doorway, and looked out. A dozen goats - most of the lower flock, it looked like – were moving away from the house: heads down, tufts up, their haunches swaying as they flowed through the orchard, nibbling at the undergrowth, the Fence’s receivers swaying on their heavy leather collars.
Today’s list, OK. Weed the veg patch first, before it got hot. Prune the olives and the pistachios; that was getting overdue, at least do the top field today, and the terraces. Check the well, the PV panels, and the windmill. Then, out of the sun, into the mold shed, and the tunnels. When it started to get cool again he could diagram out the lower flower field, try out some new analyses that had come to him while he slept. He felt he was getting closer: the machinery of night had turned something over in his mind, clarified a line of enquiry. No closer to the question, but if the answer held the shape he thought it might… Tick tock, tick tock. Whirr.
The pot boiled. He trickled the fragrant liquid into a brass mug, broke off a hunk of bread, scraped the last of a batch of yoghurt into a bowl with a spoonful of honey, and went outside to greet the dawn.
Mid morning. The veg patch was clear of most of its weeds, for now, although he’d left those which seemed most tenacious; perhaps they would make good foodstuff too. Foraging, he’d begun to understand, was effective as gardening here. He’d amassed a pile of olive and pistachio branches, dead wood for the stove and cleft sticks for walking; amassed a sweat, too. His shirt was heavy, and stuck to his skin. The pruning saw chafed at his hands. Water was needed.
Up the hill, along the broken pathway, stepping around gaps in the wall which tumbled stones onto the terraces. Across the ditch. Through the data meadow, thick with lavender, thyme, oregano, and fennel. Around the edges of the field the brightly painted, peeling hives, some half rotted through, buzzed loudly. Their residents fussed over the flowerheads, returned dancing to the hives, heavy with pollen. Una apis, nulla apis. Lucky them. He was one bee.
Above the meadow, the water tank sat, hog-like, in its cradle beneath the solar panels, the effect accentuated by twin hollows in its nose end and the piggy snout of the tap. It looked friendly. Fat. Serene. He turned the tap, stuck his head under it, cupped his hands and washed his face before drinking. Thank you, pig.
He wet a rag, and sluiced a few days’ worth of dust from the panels. Heavier skeins of pollen were caught in the tracery of lines etched into the glass panes, making them stand out in yellow and green threads. His hands followed these engravings as he washed them out: spiral arms of plankton, tendrils of jellyfish, antennae, pili, fimbria, flagella, and other structures he didn’t know the names of. They appeared as shimmering shadows, ghostly depictions of ocean microfauna and their appendages and symbiotes, like fossils cast up from the sea and frozen in the glass. Etching the panels in this way, he had learned, trapped more light than plain glass alone, preventing it being reflected away and thus increasing the efficiency of the panels. Fossils which made fuel, without extraction: the power of images.
Above the panels, the windmill spun quickly in the breeze, rat-a-tat-tat of the eight sails, creak of the spindle in the rising heat. The parts for another windmill sat piled on the ground a dozen or so metres to the side: metal struts, rolled strips of triangular canvas, and the alternator he’d lugged up the hill from the outboard buried on the shore. Next week’s job.
At the base of the windmill, there was a scattering of goat pellets. They were dry, but not cracked, still whole and shining in places, flecked with green and yellow. Odd. He didn’t think the goats came up here; the virtual fences were supposed to keep them away. These invisible boundaries, policed by the receivers on each goat’s collar, circled the farm, running east to west in front of the panels, and round again behind the rise of the installation. Above the higher line was the domain of the upper flock, wild and scraggy; below the panels, that of the lower flock, heavy with milk and kids.
As well as protecting certain areas of the farm, the fences kept the the two flocks apart, opening only to let the upper flock down to feed and water on the hottest days of summer; opening again to let the top bucks at the lower does in winter. But even then the system avoided the generator knoll: the fences opened up to create a passage on the other side of the hill, following an old donkey track, and a chorus of “Attention”s from the receivers chivvied the goats towards the track in the early morning, and berated them back up in the evening. They weren’t supposed to breech the hill.
He ducked back under the panels to check the battery cables for tooth marks. It looked like they’d been under here too, from the tufts of coarse, black and tan hair snagged on the metal structure. But there was no damage.
The mold shed was half-embedded in the stone walls of the terrace that ringed the entrance to the tunnels: white-washed, peeling like the beehives, scabs of plaster falling and spilling onto the ground. Its roof was corrugated something, inches thick and well insulated. It went further back into the hill than could be seen from the outside, the roof merging with the ground in a ragged swathe of moss and crumbling earth. The heavy metal door was weighted, grinding shut again on little rails when it was released, and the lack of windows meant that he had to grope quickly for the light switch before darkness fell, inhaling the sweet, sweaty air and the tang of growth medium.
The rope lights hanging from the beams illuminated benches of heavy wood, receding into the deep, dimmer extent of the shed, always deeper and dimmer than expected after the brightness of the sun. Cooler too, the unpainted walls streaked with moisture, which pooled in finger-wide channels on the bare concrete floor, mostly dissipating before it reached the drains. Somewhere beneath his feet it would be channelled again, through the reed beds and chunks of stone into the water tank.
On the benches lay ranks of flat-bottomed glass dishes, here saucer-sized, elsewhere the size of dinner plates, or tractor tyres. Some were fed by dripper tubes; most had dried out before he arrived, their occupants furring and curling up, going still and senescent, or budding, building into little stacks and arches before sporing into nearby dishes. These were the slime molds: unruly assemblages of single-celled organisms which, under certain environmental conditions, ganged together into structures which resembled fungi and lichen: microbial mats, lattices, filaments, thrusting columns, fruiting bodies, and windblown spores. The mechanism by which they decided to do this was unclear, and defied evolutionary logic: many of the slime mold individuals would sacrifice themselves in order that a few of their comrades would seed new life, yet as a class they assumed the most wild and unpredictable diversity. Moreover, they exhibited strange, computational properties: given the structure of fiendishly complex mathematical problems – represented through light and shade, nutritious tidbits and flecks of toxins – they would find elegant, efficient solutions, more quickly and more reliably than any digital machine.
It was this ability that seemed to have spurred the Server Farm’s creators, and led them to connect them, on the input side, with the volatile compounds produced in the herb, or data, meadow, and on the output side with the flower, or display, field. Together with the farm’s memory banks – the cross-pollinated orchards, the spliced and grafted vines and olive trees, the debarked, coppiced, and espaliered willow, cork and scrub oaks – the whole formed a complete cybernetic circuit, a homeostat, or feedback loop of natural systems, designed to… what? Here his understanding failed. Something had gone wrong: the ultrastability envisioned by the Farm’s original programmers had collapsed, leaving this mess of senescent molds, bolting shrubs, creeping borders, and tangled roots.
On the wooden shelves suspended above the racks of dishes stood dusty jars of leaves and flowers, each with its particular hue and smell. Tight buds of lavender in feathery casings; bushels of oregano flowers; thyme stalks bedded in dry leaves; clusters of fennel fronds like anenomes behind the glass. A disorder of laboratory and culinary tools – spoons, trowels, tongs, weights and balances – were thrust between them or hung on rusted hooks and nails.
Exact quantities of herbs should be held here, in order to determine the precise admixture for each mold platter, but the meadow which supplied them had gone wild; gone to seed. The input was junk, for now, but he had been thinking that if he cleared out some of the clover and invading metal plants he’d find the old pixel plot, deeper-rooted, beneath the cover crop. In doing so, he might recover some fragments of the original code, the initial configuration of the Server Farm.
The herbs were the inputs, information-bearing feedstock, for the slime molds. Whatever was supposed to be calculated, was calculated here. The whole farm centred on this shed: the data meadow, sowed with scented and oily herbs; the memory field, comprising denser, flowering shrubs; and the flower plot; each laid out in a loose arc around the shed and tunnels. From there the other facilities radiated outward: the power installation on the hill; the escarpment running down to the metal plants among the scree; the olive and pistachio terraces; the stands of cork, the orchards, and the fields of grains and grasses browsed by the goats. The whole establishment centred on here, the processing shed.
The first week after he’d arrived, he’d fed the slime molds, re-rigged the drip system, woken a dozen colonies from their senescence. He’d watched them unfurl, start to move and feel around again. Now that they were alert, a computational cycle took around twenty-four hours to complete. At the moment, they were running on the junk data; random sprinklings and shavings from the herb jars, as he tried to figure out each colony’s intent, its innate disposition. It was a kind of fuzz testing: deliberately seeding the system with noisome, random data, while looking out for unexpected behaviours and unforeseen reactions. It was one way to learn, but it was painfully slow.
On one of the central benches, a colony of yellowish mold in a deep, wide, dish, had reacted violently to yesterday’s input, frothing itself up to over an inch in height, and clearing a wide doughnut hole in its centre around a little pile of… he checked the scribbled notes tucked under the edge of the dish. Lavender flakes. Acetate, tannins, terpenes, esters, camphor; in as yet unascertained quantities and relative amounts. But the colony seemed to both thrive on and reject the offering, multiplying rapidly while simultaneously drawing back, building itself up. A significant response, but what it signified he couldn’t tell. He added another line to the notes, dated it, folded up one edge to remind himself to recheck it tomorrow.
He checked the other dishes. None of the other colonies presented anything so dramatic, but there were puzzles. One, mostly comprised of blue-green filaments, had formed a kind of loose grid or net, cyan strands connecting knots of deeper teal. The thyme he’d added yesterday seemed to have been entirely digested and distributed across the network. An interpreter, perhaps, or a compiler? Something which took input from another layer of the computational matrix – another dish, or another bench – and increased or reduced the level of abstraction. Made sense of it, translated it into a ground plan, for staking out the garden. Not enough information to know for sure, not yet.
So it went. He noted shifts in the colonies’ structural arrangements, adjusted light levels and drip feeds, added a flake here, a stem here, a chopped leaf there. Poking, prodding. Some adjustments were carefully planned, tabulated in the notes. Others were more random, pushing at the envelope, shaking up the problem space. It took a couple of hours, mostly writing, keeping the notes in order. The merciless grind of the log book, of lab time. No hurrying the slime molds, whose approach to problem solving seemed both fierce and languorous at once: intense concentration, over inhuman scales of time. Like watching the tide come in: no change, no change, no change, until you looked back hours later, and there it was, lapping at your heels.
Before leaving, he noticed something which brought him up short. The goats had been in here too; that wasn’t right. The door to the shed was heavy, and he’d thought the motor mounted on its rack had seized up; it didn’t respond to any of the switches and buttons on the panel beside the entrance. Moreover, the goats shouldn’t be on this terrace at all. He still hadn’t cracked the protocol which controlled the fences, which delineated the pastures, passages, and forbidden areas, but this area was definitely off limits. Just a week ago, he’d seen the lower flock approach the mold shed, but they’d stopped half-way across the field, their collars calling them back in a peal of “Attention”s. But in here they had most definitely been: there were droppings, and black, tan, and grey tufts of hair caught in the splintered legs of the workbenches, and stuck to the cogged drive shaft of the door. Another puzzle. He kicked the traces into a corner, flicked off the light, and went out.
Approaching dusk. Still wintershy when he had first arrived, the lower flower field was finally starting to bloom. He could see patterns in it now, streaks of red and blue emerging from the noise, and gradients: subtle differentiations in the height of the flowers, rising here and there to local maxima, before sloping back down into troughs and valleys of leafy greens. He sat on the wall, and opened his notebook to the last page of measurements and calculations: a dense grid, corresponding to the numbered stakes which ran along two sides of the plot. Tick tick tick. Another page, retrace a new grid over the old one. What had changed?
The low patch in the southwest corner seemed to have actually deepened – was that possible? For plants to go into reverse? Perhaps the heat was sapping them, perhaps some neighbouring plant sent toxins through the soil, or decelerants in little puffs of pheromones through the air. Either way, this flattening out seemed to accentuate the height of the central ridge, steepening its lower flank, now crowned with poppies. Something was happening there: the firming up of a conjecture, convergence on a potential solution. Perhaps, perhaps. He ran the numbers, or rather pencilled them in long columns on the verso of the grid, applying the transformations he’d dreamed up last night.
Restate assumptions. Some kind of question was asked, a problem posed, in the design of the herb meadow. The precise phrasing of this question must be an emergent property of the interaction between the various herbs and spice plants, the bees which pollinated them, and the organic fertilisers, insecticides, and defoliants applied: wood ash, chrysanthemums, compost, ground chilli powder, more. The language this question was translated into was not human, but more-than-human, yet it still comprised a message: some kind of information which was gathered up and passed to the processing unit: the slime molds – and their attendant symbiotes – in the half-buried shed, and the mushrooms wetly fruiting in the tunnels beyond.
Here another kind of thinking, or knowing, took charge of the information, one even more alien to human, animal, or even plant cognition. Slime thinking, moist and collegiate, entangled, decohered, slipping between group and individual mind, untethered from fixed structures or categories. And yet, forms of order emerged, or perhaps, more accurately, recognisable forms of disorder: shapes in substance and time, structures of generation, growth, decay, matter and mattering. What kinds of questions would such an intelligence find interesting, find meaningful and profitable to ponder, let alone produce a solution too?
And yet some correspondence existed, some mapping between the obscure and multitudinous ruminations of the slime molds and fungi, and the blossoming, vibrant, viridian green of the flower field, the Farm’s ultimate enunciation. The maps drawn up by the filaments of the slime molds, the seeds which germinated in the dank embrace of the fungi, found their expression here, encoded in the height of blooms, their number, their colour, the collectivity and duration of their flowering – in qualities and quantities he had yet to observe or enumerate. But the schema was evident in the landscape: input, processor, output. Questions and answers. An intelligence – multiple intelligences, of radically diverse kinds – entrained in the service of a problem.
Even this accounting of the farm ignored other circuits, which were clearly part of the Farm’s ongoing operations, further layers in the great stack of systems which were required to keep it functioning, processing, and evolving. Some kind of short term memory – perhaps the vines, olives, pistachios, and wheat and grass fields, which shaped the goat and bird droppings which fell upon the meadows – as well as deeper, longer-term structures: the slower-growing trees, and the networks of mycelium which undergirded them. The metal plants and the willow coppices, which provided structural materials for the other components. So many participants, each with their own agency: so many factors in play.
And beneath all of that: the soil itself, an aggregation far more ancient, composed of rocks and minerals, of metals, salts, and acids. And the weather, together with the soil the most typical, innate, endemic quality of this place, which must have been chosen deliberately, with much care, from many possible sites: the wind that blew almost constantly for months at a time, the fierce sun, the mist that flowed down from the mountain but a few times each year, providing more moisture to the slopes than the rare and unpredictable summer storms.
All of these layers were inputs to and continuous, non-linear operants on the system itself. This slice of the world, this fragment of the whole, this tiny circuit within the whole homeostat of the Earth. Which in turn might also be part of a network of such sites, a mere node, a single repository in a wider patchwork of farms which shared data, information, knowledge, seeds, and strains. The picture in his head seemed to stretch and blur.
On the other hand – take a breath – the farm was built by humans. In expectation of more than human collaboration, certainly, but from a human deign perspective. It must be comprehensible, at least in part, and the original question must have been a human one. What were the concerns of its creators? What was the urgent question?
The problem was clear: decades, generations of computation had failed to clarify a path towards a more equitable and generative world. Binary, machinic computation had created a world of simulation and abstraction, wherein the various problems which faced humanity might be described, delineated, graphed out and explored, but rarely acted upon. The search tree was simply too broad: it had become untethered from the concerns of the earth. Worse: it had begun to consume the earth, to become an apparatus for turning all of the planet’s resources: fossil fuels, water, air, light, and bodies, into more computation. Just as agriculture had become an industrial process of ‘farming with oil’ - the application of ever-more intense energy, ever more petrol-powered machines and ever more synthetic compounds to the soil in search of greater yields, killing the biosphere in the process - so thinking itself had become an industrial process: driven by oil and extraction, poisoning the earth and sky, blighting the future with carbon debt and turning the noosphere – the planetary domain of reason – into a wasteland.
Facing the myriad threats of the twentieth century – rising temperatures and rising inequality, consensus disintegration and the devastation of the biosphere – must have been overwhelming. No wonder people were traumatised, on edge, breaking down. Individual inertia mirrored institutional paralysis. Stuck in an infinite loop of simulation, prediction, and failure to move or change, the machinery of society ground to a halt. To break this cycle must have been the aim; to move past or beyond not merely the questions of the age, but the very dialectic of question and answer, of problem and (doomed, short-term) solution must have been the goal. But where to start?
With the earth again. To return to earth, to the soil and the sand, the sea and the sky. To be liquid, to flow, to be non-binary, to become a wave, a tide, a weather system, a hydrological cycle. To break with linear time and its ever-upward, exponential curving, and re-engage with the wheel of the seasons, and the deep, ancient knowledge encoded into the lives, desires, needs, and behaviours of beings which predated human technology by millennia. To move beyond silicon: to speak like silicon itself. To land.
He shook himself and looked about. He had lost track of time; it was already getting late, the sun had set, the sky was reddening in the west and darkening in the east. Nothing more. The numbers in the notebook, growing ragged, refused to cohere. Without the framework of a question, even a hypothesis, they just floated abstractly above the field, lone digits, unconnected data, points of no interest or intent. Frustration, once again, but a frustration at least emplaced and embodied in the here and now, in this place and in this body, in this plot of land, in this conundrum.
The flower plot was the key, the display, the message. Whatever information was stored in the herbarium, whatever had been calculated and processed by the molds and mushrooms, this was the output field. Whatever question the architects had set the server farm to ponder should be answered here. But the form of it eluded him. Too many variables, too many dimensions. Una apis, nulla apis. What was he missing?
There was a sudden scrabbling behind him, which made him jump, almost dropping the notebook. One of the largest goats, almost entirely black, and mightily horned, crested the wall and dropped nimbly to the ground in front of him. It stood stock still, slightly splayed, staring at him through yellowed eye slits. Its collar was broad and widened at the back of the neck, the stitching somehow still pristine and unfrayed. Below it hung the scuffed grey box of the Fence System’s speaker.
There had been no other warning, no call, despite the fence. And then it spoke. “Attention,” crackled the box. “Here and now, Attention. I think it’s time we talked.”