Musings On The Marsh – A Natural Intelligence That Can Only Be Imitated

I am ensconced in rattan chair on a screened porch overlooking a marsh at high tide. A bridge over the Harbor River connects this spit of sand to the chartreuse expanse of St. Helena Island, an anchor for the Gullah community, descendants of enslaved Central and West Africans brought to South Carolina to toil on the rice and sea island cotton plantations.

I came to this little cottage with my mom to celebrate her eightieth birthday. We dined alfresco with big bowls of salad on the beach, hers sweet with fruit, mine savory with avocado and tomatoes. We dipped our feet in a warm tidepool and tucked into a beach bag of books. My dad, suffering from late-stage Alzheimers, is back in Charlotte in a care facility. It is bittersweet sojourn, but an appropriate destination to contemplate the ebbs and flows of existence and the expansive web of connections into which our lives are woven across time and space.

The novel I packed, Herve Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” on the recommendation of a friend a few months back, was a good choice. So far it has held a few synchronicities for me – axolotl and physicists in the New Jersey Pinelands (Ong’s Hat, which I visited a few weeks ago). The author raises questions of faith, mechanics, quantum simulations, and many worlds – what is all of this anyway, the hours we pass together?

On the four-hour drive to the coast, we listened to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.” It’s been awhile since I let her world view wash over me. Her writings on reciprocity and right relationship and the majesty of a responsive, animate world was exactly what I needed to open my heart to this resilient place, bursting with life laid over a history of brutal property ownership in the form of bonded human capital. Thrown into the Low Country mix is a hefty dose of militarism, the Marine Corps Parris Island’s training facility is on the other side of Cowans Reach opposite Fort Fremont built in 1898 during the Spanish American War to protect the deep-water port. Two-and-a-half hours to the west is the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Ecology Lab where Eugene Odum conducted his research into energy exchanges and helped birth the environmental movement.

About six miles up the road from Fort Fremont is Penn Center, a National monument comprising a campus of a few dozen mostly white wooden buildings. Penn Center was among the first freedman’s schools set up by Quaker and Unitarian abolitionists from, where else but Philadelphia? Modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, it offered vocational training to former slaves. As I walked the grounds under the live oak trees past several structures, dilapidated but benefitting from recent infusions of federal money into infrastructure projects, I read about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time spent here in the 1960s planning landmark events of the Civil Rights era and couldn’t help but imagine the tentacles of social entrepreneurship woven into the enterprise. If Penn Center were still functioning today would the northern instructors be offering training in coding and bioengineering instead of leather-work and blacksmithing?

It is early summer, and there’s a cool breeze coming off the water. I’m surrounded by Eastern Red Cedar and acres and acres of spartina grass sucking salt out of the brackish water and offering respite for dainty periwinkle snails. To my left, a smaller bridge offers passage to Hunting Island State Park, a sub-tropical maritime forest of towering pines, live oaks, and cabbage palmettos that embrace an 1870s-era cast iron lighthouse and advance right up to the line of dunes, a habitat for protected shorebirds. On the south end of the barrier island is a boneyard beach, a labyrinthine tangle of bleached tree crowns buffeted by the rough surf. Barrier islands are constantly on the move, at the whim of tropical storms and the banal, relentless nudging of the Atlantic. Despite man’s attempts to contain them; they care not for the legalities of waterfront real estate. As the land moves and mature trees fall, soft piney sprouts and prickly palmetto blades emerge to take their place. It is all about cycles – emergence, growth, peak, decline, nourishing the next generation.

It is morning, and the whir of redwing blackbirds and swallows and the cooing of the mourning doves serenade me as I sip a cup of dandelion tea. Several egrets, their elegant, brilliant white silhouettes punctuate the, decidedly not-magenta, green of this liminal world, standing tall as a mama osprey swoops from her perch of sticks arrayed over a nearby chimney in search of fish for the hatchlings. There is a symphony of life unfolding all around me, as it has for thousands of years. The life of the marsh isn’t governed by man-made time pieces, but by the tides, the moon, a cosmic dance in which the flow of saltwater across the mud guides the antics of fiddler crabs and nourishes the oyster reefs. Here, oscillation is measured by lapping waves, not pendulum swings.

Yesterday, a comment was left on my blog with a link to the proceedings from the, 11th Annual Conference on Living Machines, Biomimetic and Biohybrid Living Systems, held in the summer of 2022 at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. A few days earlier I’d found a website about the EU’s Plantoid Project, in which researchers had been theorizing new forms of soft robotics that hijacked the capabilities of root tips to sense environments through distributed cognition. Leo then found a related paper where researchers were modeling robotic “plants” that were designed to “explore” underground soil conditions while “growing” in the direction dictated by sensor mechanisms through the use of autonomous 3D printing. It seems we’re moving closer to self-replicating machines, as long as someone / something is on hand to refill the printer cartridges.

Stephers forwarded me a 2018 paper about the merging of biology with soft electronics made of flexible crystalline polymers that aim to sense and regulate electrical signals. I know in my heart that crypto-currencies and smart contracts will be vital to the ongoing coordination of signals for inter-species (where some species are mechanical, artificial “intelligence”) communication – social physics, econophysics – biophysics. Here you see signs warning people to turn off outdoor electrical lights and draw their curtains after dusk, lest baby sea turtles just hatched be distracted by man-made lighting and get lured inland, away from the water that is crucial to their survival. It seems an apt lesson in the potential treachery of electrical engineering.

It’s clear to me that what is unfolding is an attempt, in the name of “sustainability” and “resiliency” to co-opt the wonders of the creator’s cosmic dance and lure biological life into a system of cybernetic circuits. I see the goal as an attempt to craft a globally-networked hybrid superintelligence be controlled by profane forces I do not understand. I hung up the phone a little while ago with Jason, and he, too, expressed incomprehension. Why? What is driving this obscene parody of “intelligence” based in bio-mimicry that can only ever been a shallow approximation of the sophisticated interplay we are graced with, the beauty that is right before our eyes?

As I walk the shady trails of Hunting Park Island, formerly a game preserve shared by plantation owners, urged on by insistent mosquitos the glory of the interconnectedness of these beings in communion with one another cannot be overstated. There are multitudes of conversations arising from the sandy soil. At my feet were countless ant hills, pinecones displaying the mathematical beauty of fractals and Voronoi patterns, a shoreline laced by iridescent seafoam containing biochemical, bacteriological, and fungal elements, the building blocks of life. High above my head were expanses of epiphytes commonly known as Spanish Moss that harmlessly drape from the graceful branches of live oaks, Mother Nature’s own green-gray “neural network” offering countless tiny creatures sustenance and shelter. There was a calling osprey and banks of clouds mirrored by the river.

For the past few days, I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to have a front row seat on the marsh symphony, even as “real world” mechanical machinations have tugged at the edges of my consciousness. Herve Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” posits we may be in a simulation, perhaps of the kind dreamed up by the Nvidia and Cesium programmers. I’m not so sure that matters all that much. I know that our soul and spirit extend beyond material reality, which helps when I think of my dad’s mind and my mom’s frailty. What we do with our time, what lessons we learn, how we give thanks, the connections we make (outside the blockchain smart contract protocol layer) is what matters.

This perhaps was a rambling post, and I’ve spent more time on it than I intended. A day out of the sun was probably needed given my fair skin and lack of diligence with the sun block. It’s time to take my mom out for her birthday dinner. On the way to Beauford I’ll drive her past the tomato farms and live oaks and doublewides and ruins of an Anglican church and Penn Center. The people here are fighting off gated golf communities. The signs are all over – preserve Gullah culture. I wish them the best. This corner of South Carolina still feels like an authentic, real place. I’ll go ahead and share some images I took of this special place to give you a feel for it, and maybe you can draw out more of what I was trying to say. A soft-electronics, bio-hybrid system of blockchained micro-payments can’t hold a candle to the magic of a marsh and the time it keeps among the mud and reeds.

PS: My friend and collaborator Cliff Gomes had a fall this week and found himself unexpectedly hospitalized for a hip replacement. He’s strong and healthy and will be fine after having time to mend, but prayers or good wishes sent in his direction would be much appreciated.




18 thoughts on “Musings On The Marsh – A Natural Intelligence That Can Only Be Imitated

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you for a most remarkable recounting of your moments at the marsh. I feel like I got to know you well, and I wonder: how do you deal with the harshness of the mechanistic world of block chaining? Thank you for sharing yourself through your gift with words and with the spectacular photos as well! May your own soul be drawn always to the peace of the Creator of all things.

  2. Rodrigo says:

    Beautiful pictures.
    Have a nice dinner with your mom. You’re very fortunate to have both of your parents still with you.

  3. Gino Gaiga says:

    Sending good wishes to you, mom, dad, and Cliff too. Thank you for the breath taking pictures and moving clips. Wow, nature is always amazing. You captured the moment Alison. Good work, like usual.

  4. AliceEm says:

    This is exactly why I came to you. “What is driving this obscene parody of “intelligence” based in bio-mimicry that can only ever been a shallow approximation of the sophisticated interplay we are graced with, the beauty that is right before our eyes?” And then the maps of interests and actions to be confirmed that one is not imagining what one sees. I’m about to write something on substack (AliceEm) just started, linking your piece from today with cs Lewis That Hideous Strength “‘You shave your face; one day we shave the planet.’ ‘I wonder what the birds will make of it?’ ‘I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.’ -1946 . This book is mind-blowing, devastating.

      • AliceEm says:

        His analysis of the battle lines between the technocracy and fans of organic life could only have been written by someone who was observing it closely from a connected position, and during the wild excesses of the two world wars in Europe. It is absolutely lifelike and current. I don’t know about the ham handed fist fight on Venus cause I didn’t read the whole trilogy. I only read the third, ‘that hideous strength’ because it was coming up in the commentariat discussion around ‘(dis)enchantment’ and owen barfield on Lewis’ take on Christianity, seems to me, is aligned something like Eliphas Levi’s take— Christ is a very good example of ‘a Great Initiator’ but by no means the only appearance of such (jives just fine with coming around to seeing Christianity as an acceptable choice for sustaining useful old fashioned morals + real magic (aka prayers that actually do work) which he was also obviously ‘for’ (why magic in narnia was perfectly comfortable for Lewis if not for the people trying to straightjacket him as narrowly for or against what— undead modern Protestantism?). For people who are following the work here, I would highly recommend reading That Hideous Strength. If he was a spy and writing propaganda (all allegories are, more or less, and he also has a main character in the book who is weaseled into writing direct distortion propaganda (‘this riot was caused by agitators of the so in so’ written before the riot was initiated by the state). The character repents. The allegories that define the book, if they are propaganda, which I suppose all capable discursive prose can be, are propaganda for living within limits out of love for the spectacular and out-of-our-hands unmanageable complexity and beauty of organic life. Spoiler alert, the technocracy is smashed with a warning that it will be back and requires us to be ever vigilant while also obedient to … god/fate/‘deep heaven’ with a reading of gender that is like the kybalion fundamental principles mixed with ‘the West’ of 1946

  5. Rodrigo says:

    This goes in line with Lietaer and Camelot vision of the future:

    «The effects of our actions, including our “externalities”, can now be measured at low cost: noise, stress, CO2, emissions, waste, etc., but also desired outcomes such as job creation, social cooperation, education, health, and the reuse of resources. These would receive a price or value in the socio-ecological “f i nance system 4.0”. With the addition of numerous new currencies, existing alongside today’s one-dimensional monetary system, one could increase the desired effects and activities and reduce unwanted ones. Social and ecological commitment would no longer be expensive—it would pay off. With such an approach, a circular economy would basically emerge by itself, driven by new market forces rather than a digital command economy.»
    Dirk Helbing

    The tragicomedy is that this guy Helbing proposes this to counter the “Big Nudging” by a hyper-centralized “Digital Wise King.”

  6. washington sean says:

    Love this write up and thanks for sharing some ‘kinder, softer, gentler’ perspectives as you celebrate the milestone. A tip of “Ong’s Hat” to y’all for a great celebration and making memories that will last the test of time.

    Also, my very best to your friend Cliff for a speedy recovery!!

    “There are three mental states that interest me: 1) Amnesia 2) Ecstasy, 3) Euphoria. Amnesia is not knowing who you are, but wanting to find out. Ecstasy is not knowing who you are, but not caring. Euphoria is knowing exactly who you are, but still not caring.”

    ~Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

  7. TT says:

    Maybe bio pirates, bitcoiners and singularity people live in fear, though they’d deny it. And many seem to be operate like ”effective altruists” who are ultimately neither effective nor altruistic.

    “Earning to give
    People that call themselves effective altruists commonly endorse the “earning to give” approach, at least for those who have, or might be able to get, well-paid jobs. At its most hardcore, “earning to give” means getting the highest-paying job that one can and then donating as much of it as possible (up to some threshold, for sanity’s sake). After all, you can get more done by paying a bunch of other people to solve problems for you than you can do all on your own, right? One story about EA originally did not give much heed to the morality or potential for harm of the job itself, recommending “trading in quantitative hedge funds” in 2014-2015, later adding a caveat in 2017″

  8. Rodrigo says:

    I stumbled upon the name Dirk Helbing while reading Heylighen’s chapter in “The Human Computation Handbook” (From Human Computation to the Global Brain: The Self-Organization of Distributed Intelligence):

    «Perhaps the most promising overall strategy is what has been called “guided self-organization” (Helbing 2012; Prokopenko 2009): developing schemes, programs, institutions or environments that stimulate, facilitate and to some degree steer the self-organization of the global brain towards what appear to be the most fruitful directions, while leaving enough freedom for the system to explore a variety of unforeseen approaches.»

    Then I started a little reaserch about him by reading his book «Next Civilization» and assorted papers and articles. From what I can see this book is a full blown “Problem-Reaction-Solution” scheme and probably “Revelation of the Method.”

    He says:
    «My interpretation is that one is considering to put nanoparticles, nanosensors or nanorobots into human cells. This might happen via food, drinks, the air we breathe, or even a special virus. Such nanostructures—so the idea—would allow one to produce a kind of super-EEG. Rather than a few dozens of measurement sensors placed on our head, there would be millions of measurement sensors, which—in perspective—would provide a super-high resolution of brain activities. It might, in principle, be possible to see what someone is thinking or dreaming about.»

    «Perhaps you are not interested in using this kind of technology, but you may not be asked. I am not sure how you could avoid exposure to the nanostructures and radiation that would make such applications possible. Therefore, you may not have much influence on how it will be to live in the data-driven, AI-controlled society of the future. We may not even notice when the technology is turned on and applied to us, because our thinking and feeling might change gradually and our minds would anyway be controlled.»

    Helbing apparently is opposed to all of this technological advancements which he calls “Digital Totalitarianism” and the first part of the book is dedicated to describe and denounce the dangers of this hyper-centralized system of Digital Global Governance. He even accuse the UN and the WEF of following this approach, although he appears as an “Agenda Contributor” on the WEF’s site.

    After all of this “Apocalyptic AI” scenario he presents in the first part of the book, he shows us a way out from present-future dystopia based on “Digitally Assisted Self-organization.” He starts this chapter quoting Sir Arthur C. Clark: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and then briefly introduces us to the science of managing complex systems:

    «Complex dynamical systems are difficult to control because they have a natural tendency to self-organize, driven by the inherent forces between their system components. But self-organization may have favorable results, too, depending on how the system’s components interact. By slightly modifying these interactions – usually interfering at the right moment in a minimally invasive way – one can produce desirable outcomes, which even resist moderate disruptions. Such assisted self-organization is based on distributed control. Rather than imposing a certain system behavior in a top-down way, assisted self-organization reaches efficient results by using the hidden forces, which determine the natural behavior of a complex dynamical system.»

    I think that they’re using a mix of “Big Nudging” and “distributed control” to give multiple shocks/perturbations to the global system in order to create the conditions of extreme and generalized poverty and learned helplessness in the population so the words “permissionless”, “opt-out” and “democratic” that they use to describe the Web3 systems they intend to impose will lose all of their meaning.

    «Distributed control is a way in which one can achieve a certain desirable mode of behavior by temporarily influencing interactions of specific system components locally, rather than trying to impose a certain global behavior on all components at once. Typically, distributed control works by helping the system components to adapt when they show signs of deviating too much from their normal or desired state. In order for this adaptation to be successful, the feedback mechanism must be carefully chosen. Then, a favorable kind of self-organization can be reached in the system.»

    “FIN4” is the name of the Blockchain solution for distributed control proposed by Dirk Helbing and his team:

    «In alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (and potentially other sets of goals the world may decide to choose in the future), our proposal Finance 4.0 (FIN4) concerns a multidi-mensional incentive system for managing complex systems and promoting a circular sharing economy.»

    «We envision a multi-layered, multi-dimensional system of decentralized digital cryptocurrencies created at different levels with different characteristics, serving different purposes.

    The token systems may operate at a supranational, regional or local level. The different purposes may address environmental, social or other values relevant to the sustainability agenda at the respective level.»

  9. clay says:

    saint helena is a beautiful place, i really enjoyed the attached images and hearing about it. i hope you and everyone is doing good and wish cliff a speedy recovery.

    i write to share this talk i found where Dr Rene Doursat, Drexel University, talks about “Morphogenetic Engineering: the Two-Way Bridges Between Biomodelling, Bioinspired Engineering, and Bioengineering”.

    Doursat co-authored “emergent engineering: a radical paradigm shift” with Mihaela Ulieru in 2011. ive been reading through Ulieru’s papers, that one is particularly interesting, it reminds me of my approach to gardening and land rematriation, except for, you know, its demented buggery.
    im going to start looking for more talks from her co-authors since alot of Ulieru’s presentations are hard to find videos or full transcripts of.

    an especially creepy one “FRIENDs” is also informative, and lines up with Melanie swan on the quantified self, which spells out its nomenclature in a way that is rare from the electronic engineering literature, clearly laying out how and by what methods (circa 2012) the kinds of biometric measurements from various sensor technologies can be used to monitor our brains. Our “FRIENDs” in combination with machine learning edge intelligence and neurofeedback could be/are used to create a fuzzy behaviorally mediated brain machine interface.

    important to understand since apple announced its metaverse device and it looks like the next hype cycle/ ‘adaptive radiation’ for head mounted AR/VR/MR/XR is upon us. developments in other emerging technologies and developer ecosystems for gaming and simulation like the unreal engine make it seem like the “killer apps” are on the horizon.

    also the stuff about super-EEG nanoparticles i just read in Rodirgo’s stellar comment above is worrisome in the context of embedded adaptive brain monitoring agents and how some are talking about IoB 3.0 embedded systems being ready—next-gen/how-human-are-you-the-internet-of-bodies-is-here-but-are-we-ready.

    its like these people view biological life as a wetware and human bodies as avatars for a-life software entities, its very hard for me to understand how people could think like that or why these seemingly intelligent people think its a good idea, they should touch grass.

  10. kocotube01 začasni says:

    Andrei Kirilyuk, Mihaela Ulieru (auth.), Mihaela Ulieru, Peter Palensky, René Doursat (eds.)
    “Artificial Life: Borrowing from Biology: 4th Australian Conference, ACAL 2009, Melbourne, Australia, December 1-4, 2009. Proceedings”

    Direct pdf link:

    Taras Kowaliw, Nicolas Bredeche, René Doursat (eds.)
    “Growing Adaptive Machines: Combining Development and Learning in Artificial Neural Networks”

    Direct pdf link:

    Andrei Kirilyuk, Mihaela Ulieru (auth.), Mihaela Ulieru, Peter Palensky, René Doursat (eds.)
    “IT Revolutions: First International ICST Conference, IT Revolutions 2008, Venice, Italy, December 17-19, 2008, Revised Selected Papers”

    Direct pdf link:

    René Doursat, Hiroki Sayama, Olivier Michel (auth.), René Doursat, Hiroki Sayama, Olivier Michel (eds.)
    “Morphogenetic Engineering: Toward Programmable Complex Systems”

    Direct pdf link:

    Sebastian von Mammen, David Phillips, Timothy Davison, Christian Jacob (auth.), Marco Dorigo, Mauro Birattari, Gianni A. Di Caro, René Doursat, Andries P. Engelbrecht, Dario Floreano, Luca Maria Gambardella, Roderich Groß, Erol Şahin, Hiroki Sayama, Thomas Stützle (eds.)
    “Swarm Intelligence: 7th International Conference, ANTS 2010, Brussels, Belgium, September 8-10, 2010. Proceedings”

    Direct pdf link:

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