“I didn’t realize, I didn’t articulate at the time, that I had this reverence for trees,” Suzanne Simard explained in a recent interview with Emergent Magazine.
Simard, who was recollecting her childhood experience in familiar forests, went on to become a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. Her pioneering research showed that forest trees are connected by vast underground mycorrhizal networks.
“They were a cathedral that was one, with all of its disciples and pews,” Simard went on to say of the forests she knew as a child, “and to me it was just this integrated place.” But, she added, “when I went to university, the professors had picked apart the forest. There were the trees, there was the soil, there were the plants, so it was a reductionist way of seeing this place that I had already grown up knowing was whole.”
Out of college, Simard began working as a silviculturist in the forest industry. “Take the trees and clear-cut them and sell them on the market and then plant trees again”—this was standard operating procedure for the industry as she knew it. “I became part of that machine,” she acknowledges, “that clear-cutting, planting machine.” The main problem as she came to see it was that “the forest that was clear-cut was not at all what was put back.”
“We were creating forests that were not connected and entwined,” Simard explained, “that we were creating forests that put the parts back, but didn’t actually meld together as a whole, as I knew it should.”
In time, Simard realized that many of the replanted trees were getting sick. This prompted her research, based on intuitions derived from her early experience of forests, which demonstrated that forest trees are connected by elaborate networks of fungi and roots through which they communicate and support one another. You could replant the trees you cut down, but you couldn’t recreate the unseen network that kept them healthy. As I read Simard describe her experience with trees, I came to see the story she was telling as an apt allegory for social life in the digital age.
The story of modernity is the story of disintegration. Across a number of fields, the modern world learned to take things apart. Some of this was done in the interest of an ostensibly better understanding of the natural world, some of it was driven by the desire for greater degrees of technical precision or economic efficiency. In other cases, the separations were philosophical in nature, or they reflected changing social realities. Specialization was the order of the day. Nature was dissected. Church and state went their separate ways. Science and philosophy parted. Work was detached from the home and family life. Fact and value, human and non-human, individual and community, body and mind, object and subject—what was once whole was now separate.
Of course, such differentiations were never total or complete. The anthropologist Bruno Latour famously argued that we have never been modern precisely because we never really achieved the strict separations (he calls them purifications) we imagined to be the defining features of the modern world. Religion and politics, science and belief, nature and culture have always blended and intermingled.
Nonetheless, to be modern was to believe that such separations were necessary and good, and, while never complete, some ruptures were real and consequential. I have the rise of the individual chiefly in mind. Under the guise of freedom and liberation, the individual was unencumbered and disembedded. Ties to family, tradition, and community were gradually loosened, and the self was ostensibly freed to fashion itself at whim. The result, through much of the 20th century, was widespread angst about alienation, anxiety, and loneliness. The faceless person lost in the crowd became a recurring trope.
If we live in a postmodern world, it is not because we have become relativists with regards to truth but because the old separations that constituted the modern world are no longer tenable. It is increasingly evident that the philosophical differentiations were never complete, and individuals find themselves increasingly re-connected. In both cases, it is possible to draw a line between the advent of digital communication technologies and inability to sustain the separations that were so critical to modernity’s self-understanding. While modernity isolated the individual, the digital world promised to re-forge communities and reconnect us. But the total effect has been something akin to the replanted forests Simard described. What was torn down into its constituent parts has been reassembled, but it has not been made whole. Communities, like old forests, cannot simply be re-fabricated.
Digital tools have brought us closer together in some respects, and they have connected us to many people we never would have known otherwise. And they have provided genuine solace and consolation to many, who, apart from them, might have found themselves alone and unheard.
But it would be a mistake to imagine that these new forms of social life will function in the same manner as older communities, which had disintegrated under the economic, technological, and ideological forces of the modern world. They are, most obviously, indifferent to place, unlike the older forms of communal life, which were almost always locally rooted. They make different, perhaps less stringent demands of us. They tend to be communities of affinity and antagonism. They do not tend to foster the virtues required to live well and peaceably with those who are unlike us. And this is to say nothing of the power these new networks posses to unsettle, confuse, and overwhelm by virtue of their design and architecture. Their scale and temporal rhythms are inhospitable to the often, slow deliberate work that truth and trust require.
Just like the engineered forests with which we began, something is amiss with the engineered re-integrations that digital media makes possible. Networks built on metrics and data cannot account for the often intangible forces that bind people together, not unlike the mycorrhizal networks Simard identified.
It may be best for us to appreciate our digital forms of connection for what they are, while recognizing that they are ultimately an inadequate substitute for the more robust forms of membership and belonging that we naturally crave. Ultimately, there will be no technological shortcuts for the time and virtue required to build new and life-giving forms of community.
Michael Sacasas is the associate director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and the moral life.