By the Code of Soil - a story

Apr 10, 2019

The soil is a vital element of our biosphere, life-building entity, the recycling mechanism, the fertile ground for our food, the geopolitical territory and the land. Soil is detrimental just like oxygen and water, but absent from the conversations about environmental condition, unlike the pollutants in air or the quality of water. However soils right now are affected by droughts and agricultural mismanagement and becoming less fertile. This has an impact not only on the future of food, but also many others aspects of this planet’s life affirming equilibrium.

Technological advances such as sensors, satellite imagery, machine learning or networked devices can help scientists and farmers to monitor soil conditions on micro and macro scale, and help in understanding how the condition of soil can change - vital for speculations on possible future scenarios.

As an artist and designer who probes emerging technology in the environmental context, I have been commissioned by GROW Observatory to create two projects dealing with soils’ conditions, soil moisture data and growers’ farming practices.

Screenshot from By the Code of Soil - a computer virus version

Both are governed by environmental data, and both are speculative scenarios on how such a powerful hyper-object (Timothy Morton) as soil as a source of data, mixed together with certain AI algorithms, can be manifested in our everyday lives and what that might imply for us as society. “By the Code of Soil” is about giving away a power over to the land - soil - and that way depicting it as a first and foremost living organism in its own right, and not as a resource which capacity must be maximised for our own benefits. It is inspired by Bruno Latour idea of being “terrestrial”, who insist that while current political trends let us down in addressing environmental transition, we must start thinking about the material nature of soil upon which nine or ten billion of us must live. It is also a reaction towards the latest scientific perspectives directing us towards preparation for the environmental and thus social, economical and political disaster rather than any glimpse of hope offered so far - that is in mitigation of CO2 and slowing down the effects of global warming. And it also is comments on the role of IoT and billion of deployed sensors built with rare Earth’s elements. These devices provide various data and a constant flow of information about the environmental conditions, depending on the intricate system of cyber security and faith in impartiality and purity of data. However not only they fail to engage most of us in considering different way of living, but also relatively easily hacked (as the Mirai botnet has demonstrated, the data and its routes can be manipulated by algorithms with consequences geting out of human control.

“By the Code of Soil” poses a question whether AI in this context can steer people’s perception of environment in new, not thought of previously, directions? And, to paraphrase William S. Borough, having our networks and devices infected by an AI made virus, would we “offer violence” to it knowing that it was well intentioned on its slow road to symbiosis?

Below is a speculative story which was a starting point for this work.

Screenshot from By the Code of Soil - a computer virus version

By The Code of Soil.

Millions of them are scattered on the land. It is 2050, and we have ballooning population in Europe with 1.5 bln people, long droughts and heatwaves. People from the South of the planet has been migrating to the North of Europe. The food shortages must be avoided. Population must be educated on food availability to steer clear of conflicts. Soils are now the most precious element of our times. Those “They: - as referred to in the first sentence - are Soil Moisture sensors. 30 years ago around 15000 of them were placed in soils by only a handful of growers.

These people were guided by their mistrust in government agriculture policies and land usage but also curiosity and a belief that the farming practices must change. And now, when so much of soil have been depleted, sensors are everywhere, tirelessly monitoring soil conditions and transmitting data to so called “main system”. Decentralised in purpose, perhaps using blockchain, so that each result, each data reading and interpretation is recorded and legitimised, and never can be faked.

It all has started rather innocently. The AI software interpreting the soil moisture data at the beginning had a glitch of some sort, and suddenly part of it got distributed over the network to all networked devices - our personal computers, corporate databases and servers.

“The AI became OI” - was the saying back then, repeated among people. “OI stands for Organic Intelligence” and It was like a computer virus - monitoring our food consumption and purchase habits. At the beginning it was very gently altering internet searches for certain food. But then it spread to e-commerce - changing the content of corporates databases, and thus availability to order and buy certain products by hiding those things which weren’t beneficial for soil.

Whether that was OI itself, government action or doing of some hackers or growers themselves - that remain unknown to this day.

People started slowly changing their habits - so many of us looking for food recipes could only find recipes for groceries grown locally, Obviously this change took quite a few years - but eventually so many of us forgot about avocados or coconut oil and instead, in case of North of Europe, we got busy and creative with onion, carrots, cabbage or pumpkin.

And everyday, at certain time, all the networked devices stopped most of its processes and tuned in to the data coming from soil sensors, so we could hear the song of the soil - a reminder that we cannot be without the land. It now happens on all of our networked devices and last 1 minute. And like a ritual of some sort, the sound is carried by all the speakers of each device, and those of us who are in front of monitors, are also subjected to the visualisation - all dictated by data - by the health of the land. The OI virus uses this time to set computers CPUs and processes to reflect the soil condition and food availability. We all had to work very hard on our food eating habits and farming practices if we wanted to have perfectly working devices and fast internet.

Our individual habits and our personal data however have never been stolen and then used against us or for the profit of somebody’s. We remained anonymous, just like those who control the software of OI virus. And after few decades, even with the ballooning population and potentially more hungry people, soil of Europe are healthy, fertile and providing - to all of us.

Soil Data Portraits - screenshot from By the Code of Soil gallery display version

By the Code of Soil is a work by designer and artist Kasia Molga, in collaboration with a sound artist Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner and creative technologists and artists: Erik Overmeire and Dan Hett.

The GROW Observatory is led by a team based at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design, University of Dundee. Working with 17 partner organisations from 8 European countries, the project is an innovative approach to creating a community of citizen growers, gardeners, small scale farmers, scientists and policy makers, working together to learn from each other, provide growing and policy advice and contribute data on local soil conditions and land cover, to help validate climate change models generated by satellite.

The project vision is to support and build smart and sustainable custodianship of the land and soil across Europe and to provide an answer to the long standing challenge for space science - the need to validate climate change models with soil moisture detection on the ground. These data and this knowledge will in turn also be used to inform policy decisions on land use, soil management and climate change. GROW empowers citizen growers, gardeners and small scale farmers to better understand their environment and their impact on land and soil and to use that knowledge to address land and soil degradation.

The GROW Observatory decided to work with artists to add a new dimension to the project. Art can change the way we see the world, and help bring curiosity and imagination to a project like GROW. By adding an imaginative dimension to the project, artistic engagement can enable people to experience the GROW project or data in a novel way, and generate increased literacy in the GROW data and science.

The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

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VERTIGO is funded under the H2020 European STARTS initiative, innovation at the nexus of Science, Technology, and the ARTS. STARTS promotes the arts as catalysts for efficient conversion of science and technology knowledge into products, services, and processes.