In Metaphors of Ed Tech I suggested that we should approach metaphors drawn from nature with caution, writing:
“it is worth emphasising that metaphors drawn from nature are probably the most prevalent, and the most dangerous, of metaphors. Making appeals to what is deemed ‘natural’ and applying it to any form of human endeavour has led to justifications for social Darwinism, misogyny and repression, with the implication that certain states are naturally occurring and therefore inevitable.”
But the opposite is also true – we need to be wary of technological metaphors applied to nature. I came to appreciate this because I’ve been reading Merlin Sheldrake’s intriguing overview of fungal life and science, Entangled Life. He sets out the many different ways that symbiosis and natural networks operate, including the oft-quoted Wood Wide Web, wherein resources are shared in through a complex mycorrhizal fungal network. Sheldrake points out however that the phrase Wood Wide Web leads us into “plant-centrism”, which ignores the active role of fungi, stating:
“It is a metaphor that tugs us into plant-centrism by implying that plans are equivalent to the webpages, or nodes, in the network, and fungi are the hyperlinks joining the nodes to one another. In the language of the hardware that comprises the Internet, plants are the routers and fungi are the cables.”
Fungi are not passive in the network and gain from the web and shape it themselves. This is not just unfair to fungi but also distorts our focus and understanding of the processes in play. In popular accounts the emphasis in always on trees, ignoring the role of the fungi. “Everything changes when we see fungi as active participants”.
He further argues that the metaphor is problematic because it encourages people to impose values and utopias onto the natural system. As the Internet promised non-hierarchical, more community based systems, so many people have latched on to the Wood Wide Web as demonstrating the value of sharing, and altruism. While there is some truth in this, it also varies widely, some plants just take, some take now and pay later, some make exchanges, etc.
The Wood Wide Web was a useful metaphor for what was quite a mind-blowing concept, that there was this subterranean connection between the visual forest we perceived. But while metaphors drawn from nature abound in much of our everyday language and as I argued, I’d always be wary of people proposing ‘natural’ metaphors for human activity, the book was also a useful reminder to see the manner in which technological metaphors applied to nature can be limiting also. Anyway, it’s a fascinating book. But it’s fascinating because it’s about fungi and that is enough in itself, their value is not determined by what we think it can teach us about ourselves.
PS – congratulations if you read this post without making the “he’s a fun guy” joke to yourself. I failed.