Article by Gunter Pauli
Author of The Blue Economy
Founder of the ZERI Network
The world is trying to shrug off the economic and mental damage from a virus. There is a need to revive the economy from the bottom up. We know that data is the new petroleum and therefore, as part of a strategy to kickstart the economy we could use “data power” to provide the welcome and needed source of income. However, the main challenge is that nearly all revenue generated by data is earned by only a dozen players worldwide. The present structure of the Internet and the high concentration of earnings implies that the marked increase in internet use is “making the rich richer”. Worse, we are loosing an opportunity to democratize the internet, both its access and its income model. An estimated 50% of the world population is excluded from the full benefits offered by the internet, and the other 50% gets exploited over the internet through a business concept known as datamining which has no respect for privacy and rather resembles a modern day form of slavery and dependency forcing billions into polarized opinions.
In this article I propose that we first of all inspire ourselves in how nature communicates, before we enter into the details of the human-designed and centered internet. Could we emulate this surprisingly efficient system of exchanging data and trading information? If yes, then chats on social networks could resemble the trunks and branches of trees, supported by strong roots, strengthened by mycorrhizal fungi that ensure the connection of the local networks into a coherent system. We could establish secure connections of one pod (area) with another, while each has its own rules for data gathering and sharing, based on universal ethics engrained in human rights. Leaves and undergrowth will nourish the soil, provide the energy that makes microorganisms perform, combining the unique contributions of each of the five kingdoms of nature (bacteria, algae, fungi, plants and animals). Everyone is always learning and continuously inspired, finding pathways to improve performance and resilience, finding joy in the process of discovery. Once we grasp how Nature has evolved a data collection and communication system, can we then imagine a political and technical framework to redesign the internet based on Nature? I believe we can.
All information of a forest circulates within the local ecosystem. Few of us realize Nature, this amalgam of ecosystems operates the greatest communication network ever. It is self-sufficient in energy, and has been operating for millennia. While we may be impressed by the exploits of 5G or the 30,000 satellites that Mr. Elon Musk wishes to put in orbit, Nature’s information and communication system is proven to be much more performant and resilient. Surprisingly most of it operates just right underneath our feet, or in the vast water bodies of our oceans. This network is hidden from our eyes while it operates as an interface between plants, fungi, soil rich in microorganisms, and the soups of virus and bacteria, blended with plankton and micro algae in the seas. These systems work all the time and trade 24 hours a day with amazing stability, and diversity of communication methods. Its ultimate purpose is to take care of everyone, even considering the specific needs of the young and elderly, leaving space for new life and even new forms of life to emerge, like we have never imagined (and practiced) without our human-centered world. To our surprise, this highly performant internet originates in the seas since the beginning of time, and on land well before the Cambrian Revolution 450 million years ago.
The land-based underground network has received most attention – even though still very much in the margin of science – but has been wittingly called the “wood-wide-web’. This network connects and communicates intensively about available resources and imminent threats, balance of nutrients and density of water. The physical connection provided by these fungal networks is thinner than a silken thread, while their length can measure one kilometer in just 1 gram of soil. This is mind blowing. The amount of connectivity that is right under our feet is billions of times more intense than the one million connections of Internet of Things (IoT) per square kilometer that data mining companies are projecting. The fungi, who1 operate the core of this communication system exchanges and processes all information in return for sugars and fats. Ultimately, the responsibility of this “www” is to promote life. Can we ever emulate this level of sophistication?
The interspecies communications in the sea has reached a level of sophistication that has been left unstudied, thus it is not understood at all. Since the density of water is dozen times higher than soil, and nearly 800 times more than air, we can only imagine how the exchange of information has evolved in water bodies. While research is still in its infant stage there is an emerging consensus that information is exchanged and messages are swapped through the biochemical changes in the water caused by metabolism or anxiety; the electromagnetic shifts emanating from movements of organs; the subtle perception of changes in sound from everything but especially the heart beat which is audible over long distances through highly sophisticated filtration techniques permitting to zero in on that particular sign of life; to calls with perfectly pitched sounds; or, even the careful drawings that would resemble highly expressive art and the play with colors. All and more yet to be discovered are part of this diverse portfolio of communications.
From Anthropocene to Fungi-cene
Many modern day citizens think we created the Anthropocene times, where life is determined and dominated by humans. When our visionary computer scientists refer to the intelligence embedded in nature they usually point out the neural networks. True, it is easy to be impressed by the capacity of our brain. However, if you really want to be impressed, then spend a few hours exploring the magic of fungal networks which are nothing less than the largest living organisms in the world (100 square kilometers of filaments of mushrooms going through the soil all having the same DNA). And then take the time to explore the power of precision of data transmission through pheromones; or, study the varying content of whale songs and the diverse languages mastered by the sperm whales. Their capacity to express precise instructions and opinions in the same structure as language but with different syllables according to the oceans where they roam has baffled scientists.
We can only be self-confident about “our” internet and “our” brain as long as we do not realize how viruses, bacteria, fungus and micro-algae organize life, just like corals, sharks, and pufferfish. While we tend to observe our role in the destruction of ecosystems, habitats, animal and plant life, we seldom look at the burgeoning of Nature’s internet in the soil, water and air. Just to illustrate: pheromones – these tiny molecules – pass very selective messages with very high precision of one part per billion through the air to reach a specific (future) partner or family member miles away. The Delicea pulchra, a red seaweed living in the Tasman Sea, which could be interpreted as a soup of microorganisms with one million virus and bacteria per cubic millimeter of salt water, has the capacity to jam the communication system of bacteria preventing the creation of biofilms and the spreading of viruses. Whales exploit salt gradients to communicate with their kin over thousands of kilometers in the oceans. These vast networks of communication deployed in soil, air and water have one main purpose: promote life and build up resilience. So, we will discover that the role of fungi in nature is much more than to degrade and decompose plant matter. Fungi could be viewed as the masters of this Nature’s internet connecting on land everyone and communicating everything, while securing fairness in the process. This social element that is part and parcel of the fungi culture is new, and not expected from a world that has been described as “wild to be tamed”.
The Plant and Fungi Data
The reset we need for the internet controlled by a few players could be inspired by the plant and fungal networks as to permit an intense exchange of information. In Nature, all data is locally managed, bringing benefits to everyone. Information for what? Let us summarize the main content of the exchanges as science has understood it to date: fungi sense and register the presence and the amount of carbon. Based on their proprietary data – since there is no one else with the means to collect with great precision this information – fungi determine the price of sugar. This is not a cold calculation and price setting based on supply and demand. The fungi assess the value of an old tree, and its role in the ecosystem, while ensuring the connection with the hundred year old stump with its offsprings in the area. Based on this detailed set of observations driven by a search for a quality of life – not the maximum revenue – the fungus and the plants engage in trading whereby fungi deliver mainly carbon. The fungi ultimately decide how much plants and which plants pay what price expressed in an amount of sugar and fats.
We discovered through recent experimental field research that the price for carbon is not uniform! Take the example of an area where human activity has mined most of the carbon out of the soil: plants have to pay a higher price for acquiring carbon and some other trace minerals that are desperately needed. This higher cost limits their growth. However, this extra income for the fungi is partly redistributed to the needy, and partly used to rebuild the fungal network which was regularly destroyed by tilling. The fungus has a culture of taxing and redistribution of wealth. Could we imagine a human designed internet were we are thoroughly connected throughout a local area, and we would be able to exchange data and provide livelihood and robustness in a system that regenerates the soil as suggested above?
Nature creates and operates information networks that guide a market with fluctuating prices for carbon. In additional, fungi will engage in partnerships that take care of basic needs beyond food for all members of the ecosystem. The fungal-flora network, supported by microorganisms including bacteria and virus, considers the young and the old, with their specific needs and secures information and nutrition that is supportive to all life since the fungi learned over millions of years that the young, old and weak share the wisdom and the knowledge that go beyond the mere utilitarian goals of trade. This approach permits all present in the local system to share, learn and benefit . This strengthens the whole.
With sugar as the currency, and carbon as the main commodity, this trading system builds interrelations that turn into the building blocks of biodiversity. The services offered by this communications network extends to health and safety measures, even to emergency calls. Take the example of an approaching herd of elephants. These giant mammals rip off branches and leaves to still their grand appetite. This is painful for trees. Once the fungal network senses the arrival of the herd thanks to its pounding on the ground which reverberates through the region, it will quickly announce this imminent danger through its underground communication system offering a sense of direction and timing. It is like a remotely controlled burglary alarm, it even extends to a health and safety insurance, including preventive measures to reduce possible damage. By announcing the arrival of elephants with a ferocious appetite, plants will quickly shoot their leaves with plenty of acids, aided by the fungal network. This rapid exchange whereby liters of fresh chemicals are pumped through the tree’s twigs and leaves is only possible thanks to the data collection, communication and trading power of the fungi. The elephants taste the bitter leaves and quickly move on to avoid an upset stomach.
We are just at the very beginning of our discovery of how nature and its communication systems work. And we realize that have barely scratched the surface of underwater communications. It is now clear that the soil with fungi and flora is wired with ramifications beyond our comprehension. This newly discovered resilience in ecosystems permits local communities to thrive, strengthen the basis of life as we know it. This incredible reality beneath our feet and in the water offers us a chance to become humble instead of the -often arrogant- belief that we have computing and communication systems that are modern and unique. Reality is that compared to what is happening in the soil and sea even our satellite connections and our internet data exchange is a poor approximation of what Nature does.
The exchange of information at the core of these networks is local, all data is locally processed, stored, shared, learned from and acted upon? This inspires me to suggest how to evolve from datamining to data farming and data agroforestry. But before we enter into proposals, let us first study the economic power behind these proposals by drawing a parallel between data and petroleum (to be continued).
1 While the English language would prescribe the fungus to be described as “it”, we consider it difficult to accept this grammatical form when the level of intelligence of this sentient being clearly surpasses our expectations.
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