Digital Ecologies

Digital Ecologies is a collaborative initiative started in summer 2012 with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. At its core is a shared passion for exploring past, present and potential relationships between digital tools and human-environment interactions, particularly human-landscape and human-plant (human-woody plant) interactions. Supported by seed funding from the Provost’s Office and the Academic Technology Group, the initiative is plural and evolving, a hybrid of digital development, experimental pedagogy, critical inquiry, community building and expressive invention. This hybrid quality is essential to metaLAB’s approach to the project: it implies, for instance, that as we work on imagining digital tools—things like open databases, participatory mapping, virtual collecting—we keep a critical watch over the contexts and stakes attending this work relative to sites like digital cultures, the history of botanical gardens and the public faces of science. Likewise we hope that our project can facilitate emergent ecologies, helping build unanticipated community connections and providing opportunities for expressive offshoots, be they spontaneous, educational or commissioned.

Some Historical Background

At first glance one might doubt that metaLAB’s collaboration with the Arnold Arboretum finds much harmony with the ambitions of the Arboretum’s founder and first director, Charles Sprague Sargent. But we get a different story when we read Sargent in his own words.

Take his 1879 appeal to Boston’s Board of Park Commissioner to build roads through the Arboretum, based on the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted. Sargent pithily divides the Arboretum’s functions under four “heads” and argues that the fourth head inevitably demands Boston’s infrastructural investment. Yes, he says, the Arboretum can support its first three missions—as a “museum of living plants”, as a “scientific station” and as a “school of forestry and arboriculture.” But for its fourth charge, as a “local educational establishment” that works through what he wonderfully (and in a rather on point fashion, as metaLAB’s sees it) labels “object teaching,” the Arboretum will always fall short of its potential without roads; instead only an ambitious few will avail themselves of the staff’s “service paths” and so immerse themselves in the open air collection. On the other hand, Sargent writes, with Boston’s support and Olmsted’s vision, “a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage.”

The connections between Sargent and Olmsted’s vision and our efforts today are far from trivial. In 1879 infrastructural changes meant not only easier access to the curated landscape but the mobilizing of its potential for public meaning, in effect turning the trees into a collective screen, imagined to afford a horse-drawn moving picture more than a decade before the cinematograph. Now—with networked technologies, geolocation, digital imaging, etc.—the variables are much the same, though in 2012, at least in urban New England, we are accustomed to moving through virtual as much as physical landscapes. Now it is conceivable that the thousands of trees can become less screens—though horse-induced screens certainly sound compelling—and instead more of the live and changing ‘interfaces’ that, in a manner of speaking, they already are. Perhaps as well the virtual paths of today can be more dynamic than Olmsted’s roads ever could: subject to change, fashioned for and through community participation, and with the potential to leap far beyond the grounds of the Arboretum.

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