September/October 2015

Fall marks the earth’s yearly transition from fecundity to rest, from birth to dormancy. It’s a season that might encourage a sort of maturity: like the earth, we, too, could learn to accept loss with grace, even gratitude. That’s one of the lessons in Julia Alvarez’s piece in this issue of Orion, “The Practice of Gracias.” It’s about her visits with Johnny Rivas, a Haitian man imprisoned in the Dominican Republic for attempting to organize on behalf of his fellow Haitian workers—and a man who has maintained such grace throughout his situation that, according to Alvarez, he’s “far richer than most of us.”

But one need not face such harrowing personal circumstances to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what one has. Our harrowing energy and climate circumstances will do just fine, says Charles Mann, whose essay “Peak Oil Fantasy” also appears in the issue. In it, Mann attempts to dismantle the popular idea that we’re running out of fossil fuel—because the real problem, he says, is much bigger and more dangerous: climate change.

Also in the issue are other variants on the theme of loss and grace: there’s a piece by a young woman whose relationship with amphibians helped her overcome anorexia; a dispatch from immigrant communities planting gardens in the image of their native landscapes; a profile of a musician who’s turning the winds of New Orleans into song; and much more.

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10 Words Technology Borrowed from Nature

Art by Peter McFarlane

1. Ecosystem. The internet is often described as an ecosystem (or a sky, or a park, or a jungle), and many of its parts are named after the natural world. “Cyberspace,” says the technology historian Fred Turner, “is a frantic mingling of biological, digital, and frontier metaphors.”

2. Tree. Inside every computer, smartphone, and server is a floating forest of branching directories, all sprouting from a deeply buried “root” folder. Open one and you’ll find it connected to many others, like a leaf atop a twig that’s attached, eventually, to a trunk.

3. Spider. One of the first search engines was named after Lycosa kochii, or the wolf spider. Called Lycos, the system was designed to imitate the spider’s habit of catching its prey by relentless pursuit.

4. Virus. Computer scientists have categorized two main kinds of digital viruses. “Zoo viruses” are those that have little chance of spreading; often they are collected and preserved. Viruses that exist “in the wild” are much harder to control—some are shape-shifters that imitate more benign forms of code, while others are parasitic and invade computers, telephone systems, and other networks.

5. Water. The digital world is full of watery metaphors. We follow the Twitter stream, surf the web, listen to torrents of music, and meet at online watering holes. We swim in seas and oceans of data.

6. Bug. The first known computer bug was a real bug—a moth, in fact—that got stuck inside the enormous inner workings of an early computer in 1947. After removal, its body was taped to a sheet of paper on which the computer recorded its daily data, alongside the words “first actual case of bug being found.”

7. Swarm. At Kobe University in Japan, scientists used a swarm of forty soldier crabs to simulate the logic function of a computer. They watched the creatures navigate a maze, and then imitated their behavior in an effort to improve circuit designs.

8. Worm. The first computer worm was invented by John Brunner in his 1975 science fiction novel, The Shockwave Rider. He called it a “tapeworm,” since it worked in a way similar to the fleshy parasite. Real computer worms followed soon after.

9. Brain. The Mandarin word for “computer” means “electric brain.” Technologist Tim O’Reilly believes that hyperlinks allow the web to grow in the same way that synapses form—but is the internet like a brain, or is a brain like the internet?

10. Cloud. Until recently, a cloud was just a visible mass of condensed water, but today we also imagine it as a fog of data, accessible with a username and password, floating somewhere above the planet. In reality, though, it’s an earthbound network of enormous computers, as is the internet itself. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote that clouds—the puffy kind—help us dream of transformation. They still do.

Sue Thomas’s books include Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age: Practical Ways to Connect to Nature Without Logging Off (2017); Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace (2013), a study of metaphors in nature and technology; Hello World: Travels in Virtuality (2004), a travelogue/memoir of life online; and the novel Correspondence (1992), a story of transformation which was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction Award. From 2005 – 2013 she was Professor of New Media at De Montfort University and is now a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University. In the United States, she has been a Visiting Scholar at UMASS, UCLA, and UCSB. She lives on the south coast of the UK and dreams of California.