03 - (re)thinking the digital garden

August 01, 2020

The idea of utilizing a digital garden as a way of learning in public (over and against the practice of monetizing the self) is extremely appealing and simpatico with some things I'm trying to develop around issues of knowledge, community, and access in web development. In beginning to think about the content and structure of my own digital garden, or in thinking about what an ideal digital garden would be, I've spent a lot of time considering the metaphor of gardening. What I appreciate about Mike Caufield's description ('Every walk through the garden creates new paths, new meanings, and when we add things to the garden we add them in a way that allows many future, unpredicted relationships' ['The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral']) is that it places central focus on the user -- the person navigating the garden. What I want to think a bit more about is gardening as a socio-spatial metaphor and practice. Who gets to garden? Where does the garden come from, or what space does the garden occupy? What counts as gardening?


[To lay some cards on the table, I'm interested in working towards a workflow and relational structure that enables the proliferation of free learning resources. I see digital gardening as a great way for people to (1) develop their ideas through iterative practicing and writing in public and (2) find others' writing, which might in turn help them. I see digital gardening as a reciprocal practicing in a larger ecology of knowledge practicing(s), and I see it as potentially beneficial for lowering the barrier to entry for a lot of the work that I do as a software engineer.

In this note, I'm attempting to stay very high level about some of the questions I'm thinking through and allowing some of these concepts to develop further later on.]

gardens have walls

One major upshot of digital gardening, over and against formal blogging, is that it promotes a transitory and provisional style of writing. Gardening allows, if not encourages, us to write more for ourselves and others -- notes, working examples, missives, among other things. One thing that was exciting to learn was the amount of thinking happening around non- or antihierarchical models of knowledge in digital gardening. One example is Aravind Balla's blog, which takes an index page as a central nodal point (it's where the site begins) and moves outwards to different posts or notes. The spatial arrangement helps to refuse an informational hierarchy the privileges a kind of performance of mastery (what Maggie Appleton identifies as 'cultivated performance' ['A Brief History of the Digital Garden']) in favor of allowing the user to move between informational nodes.

This arrangement also highlights one of the problems with the garden metaphor: gardens are bounded and domesticated spaces. A garden has a wall and the wall is meant to keep some things in and some things out. We can see Mr. McGregor chasing Peter Rabbit from the garden as an apt metaphor for young learners being kept from cultivated knowledge. I don't want to be the gardener keeping others from tilled soil, and as generous as a gardener can be with others, it doesn't negate the way gardens (literally and metaphorically) delineate space outside larger ecologies. In some ways, it makes sense to talk about a digital garden in a larger ecology that is the internet or that is a set of knowledge practices. So maybe what I'm trying to say is that 'digital garden' is an apt metaphor for internet writing, but one I want to think around or beyond rather than within.

The concept of the 'quoteback' is helpful here because it pulls in information from beyond the garden walls, drawing from the larger digital ecology we inhabit.

gardens are anti-ecological

When I think about digital gardens as being 'anti-ecological', I mean that digital gardening can quickly become a kind of feedback loop that devolves into the 'cultivated performa[tivity]' Maggie Appleton describes in her article. I'm interested in the question of who and what is the garden for? If it's to learn in public, I see it as serving a few disparate audiences:

  1. The gardener: I want to use the garden to test out and develop ideas for myself. I want to write notes that I can return to. I want to allow those notes and ideas to accrete into something beyond their own scope.
  2. The garden wanderer: I want to offer pieces of information to help others. I want what I know and what I've learned to be freely accessible to everyone.
  3. The onlooker: I want to demonstrate my thinking and abilities in a publicly facing forum as a stand in for or augmentation of credentials.

In general, I'm interested in thinking in service of the gardener and wanderer rather than the onlooker. For one, the onlooker (again: literally and metaphorically) doesn't inhabit the garden -- they do not participate in its co-constitution. Second, in serving the gardener and wanderer, digital gardening can cultivate an alternative topological arrangement that does not necessarily entail walls. What I'm trying to think through is the relation between public, ecology, and gardening (as a practice). This is what I mean when I say I am thinking about gardening as a socio-spatial metaphor and practice -- can we use gardening to develop a more robust ecology for learning? How is the practice of learning in public related to the co-constitution of what we might call 'alternative ecological arrangements'?

gardens are tilled and disciplined

Your garden doesn't contain everything -- you've selected seeds and tilled the soil carefully to plant them in the hopes that something grows. While I want to hold on to projection into the future, I wonder what would come from resisting or modulating that selection impulse. I am thinking about this in terms of both form and content:

  • Blogs and posts are linear whereas our gardens can be rhizomatic -- what are some alternative approaches to authoring and presenting information? What might these alternatives elucidate for both reader and writer?
  • Blogs tend to focus on one topic -- what can we learn from other forms of content curation and production (even as I try to avoid 'content production' as a practice) that are multi-layered and multi-modal? What comes from juxtaposing different kinds of stuff?

What I'm wondering about and thinking towards is not so much the standard blog augmented by personal musings. I'm instead wondering about how differing modalities of thought transposed onto other content might elucidate new forms of knowledge practicing(s) (I'll leave this open ended).

digital garden v. digital gardening

I want to stick with the term digital garden by dragging along or pulling into focus the practice of digital gardening. I want to reshape some of the issues I've outlined above by continuing to practice digital gardening. This means experimenting with low friction authoring, alternative data arrangements that lack explicit hierarchy, and presentational layers.

further reading