Sunday, August 22, 2004

Enhanced Dirt

Dirt has a spell over me. I'm enchanted with dirt's dirty properties. The Japanese have a saying that 'old men admire rocks', meaning they can respect something that has outlived them many times over. Old nerds admire dirt, meaning they're weary of the virtual world and want to get dirty.

These days we seem to live more in the virtual than the physical. We email people we've never shaken hands with, we talk in digital streams that drop the nuance of our voices and sometimes even the words. In virtuality there is a loss of physical constraint: distance is meaningless; time can be endlessly divided to create more time; assets can be cloned without loss of quality. We've so lost touch we resort to emotion through punctuation-- F*CK! Even computer representations of the 'real' world feel too clean. Computer graphics are getting better in this respect, but virtual worlds are still just the surface, way too clean, too sharp, too freakin' THIN.

Dirt is thick--you can plunge your hands into it and there's more underneath. You can smell dirt and, if you're like the gullible neighbor kid from my youth, you can even taste dirt. Dirt has grit and working with it gives you grit..I prefer 60-grit dirt. In the virtual world there are no consequences for anything, nothing sticks. Dirt sticks. The more you mess with dirt the dirtier you get. But at least you feel connected to something real. You're touching all the ancestors of the universe, maybe pieces of stuff created in the BIG BANG!, stuff that has wandered eons to get here, bumping into asteroids and interstellar dust and cruising past spiral galaxies and through the cosmic foam to wind up in your back yard along with the dog doo.

Programmers and engineers spend most of their time trying to create organization where none exists, structure and logic in a universe that is ruled by inevitable entropy. Dirt is the ultimate result of entropy--when something decays to the level of dirt you can bet entropy has pretty much won. And entropy is going to win in the end. So sometimes it's nice to give in to entropy, to embrace it, to take a cozy dirt-nap once in awhile--nothing permanent, mind you.

But not everyone loves dirt or finds it perfect the way it is. The problem with dirt is that it's partly made of the same stuff that computer chips are made of--silicon. Nano-technologists are already figuring out how to make lazy dirt do more stuff. What kind of stuff?

Well, they envision little particles that self-assemble and grow into larger forms-- more complex machines that can self-replicate using the raw organic materials that dirt provides. They envision these little machines being powered by thin layers of photoelectric materials that will convert sunshine directly into energy.

Since it's hard to directly control these little micro-devices individually, scientists are only defining general organizational rules and a few simple behaviors. This gives the dirt-bots the flexibility to optimize their structure over a period of generations. Such small structures can be fragile, but the beauty of the nano-approach is that when a micro-machine fails, it simply decays into its constituent parts--mainly dirt. If there are any large pieces left that don't decay, a set of simple machines designed for this purpose decompose it further. In this way, the nano-factories do not produce pollution per-se; they simply release raw materials back into the dirt.

I must say, it's a pretty elegant cyclical system that the nano-technologists have put together. But I stand by my original statement--please leave dirt alone. There are so few refuges from the virtual world these days, we need to preserve them while they're still around. Besides, it creeps me out to imagine-- when I'm taking my final dirt-nap-- all these little nano-creatures crawling over me, breaking me down into dirt for their little factories--hey, wait a minute...