A Shroom With A View

Mushrooms are chatty. Below our feet, the soil throbs and hums with their conversation.

A Shroom With A View
Photo by Sander Mathlener / Unsplash

Mushrooms are chatty. Below our feet, the soil throbs and hums with their conversation. Via mycelia, their gossips breathe through the soil. The Common Mycelium Network down there benefits plants as well as fungi; plants plugged into it have a much better survival rate than those that aren't. The CMN decides where nutrients are needed and distributes them accordingly, like a benevolent Communist leader. And if plants on the outer reaches are attacked, they send signals to the inner plants and fungi, so defences can be mounted long before the threat arrives.

To paraphrase Friar Laurence, in man as well as mushrooms. We're proud of our networks. It's hard not to be; we're networks ourselves: blood whispers through us, neurons and synapses sizzle and spark, we aspirate and respirate. Out there, we're nodes in myriad networks. Some of these are local, cosy, knowable, but some of these are digital; we are the flickering glitter of data cascades on screens. We're connected, every which way. Anyone with an internet connection can read this post. It will outlive me, I'll warrant. There are “three deaths," Eagleman writes. "The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” That's why I write, perhaps – though I'm not sure – to prolong that final fit of life before the third death. I'm hoping the network can keep me alive.

I'd be happy for science to help me stay alive, to be honest. I'm fine with Transhumanism, though my desire to be Transhuman extends – most days – to wanting to escape my need for sleep. What a piece of work is man. I don't doubt it'll happen, bio-mods and -hacks will become commonplace ultimately, because we want to augment. That's what connections are – they're augmentations of the self. In our networks, we're part of something bigger, some One.

Or so we'd like to think. Why is it, then, that when I connect to my networks, there is so much crushing loneliness? I plug into my network, whisper to it coyly, tell it to let me know I'm not alone. It screams back, a flood of voices crackling with digital hoarseness, like the prayer-inbox of a god who keeps saying that tomorrow will be the day he gets around to checking the mail. Everyone is lonely; everyone is sad.

But everyone wants to connect. There are still those out there who believe in ley lines: networks of primal geo-energy that throbs beneath the earth, connecting significant sites in straight lines. They stand with dowsing rods in the scalp-stiffening cold and try to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. That energy out there, it's inside them, too. Those primordial spasms are both within and without. It's an attempt, perhaps, to transcend much of the liminality that seems to govern the world of binaries we've grown up to believe we live in. We want to transcend these binaries, just like the dowsers. Stand in the spot, feel the energy; become One. At home, face blue with digital light, I become one with my network.

I am become cyborg. I am become transhuman.

Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 that this is how we needed to think. The cyborg, her metaphor, represents the dissipation of old binary boundaries. O brave new world, with such cyborgs in it! Maybe this is why we're crushingly lonely. We're connected to the outside, but we're like the plants on the utmost boundary of the mycorrhizae: we can but send out distress signals to the rest of the network.

If we want to connect, we've got to really connect. It's going to take more than platitude, and it's going to take more than Twitter. It's going to take full-throated and active willingness to smash binaries, to shoot for a world beyond binaries and categories that make people compartmentalise, assess, refine and in some cases hack shameful bits off themselves. I'm not talking about empathy, either – there's a pretty compelling argument from Paul Bloom that empathy's fierce spotlight exhausts the empath and narrows the scope so much so as to be useless.

What, then? My mushrooms, be chatty.

Make the soil sing.