Essay: Web Garden. NetBytes Magazine

NetBytes. 05-1997

netbyte_essay_96And below.
Caleb John Clark

Ever since I was a little kid my mother and all her friends had gardens they tended every year. Last week my mother sent me a 1970 edition of her first garden book, “Grow Your Own”. On it’s cover a couple holds a baby in the sun. The couple is a cliché. The husband looks like a young Garfunkle, maybe from an upper middle class Jewish family and highly educated, but perhaps he went awry after his first LSD experience during his senior year in college. The wife is possibly of WASP heritage and doing her best to look like the American Indian’s her ancestors killed. It almost seems like a parody, but it isn’t. And for all it’s clichés, staring at the this funky picture got me thinking about connections between my mother’s gardens and the personal web site I’ve had for three years.

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I recently planted a raised bed garden and started a compost pile myself. I can’t explain exactly why, but I think it has to do with the inevitable migrations kids make towards becoming a lot like their parents. This has given me a taste of my mother’s world among the plants and revealed many more striking parallels between my web site and her dirt sites.

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In a broad sense the parallels are of rebellion. My mother rebelled against her parents world partly by growing her own food, something her parents just didn’t understand. I am part of my generations greatest rebellion, the Net, and I have a personal web site which my mother simply does not understand. While my mother is learning about the web and excited, she was not part of it’s birth, just as I was a flower child kid during the sixties, but not part of the birth of the hippie movement. There is a gulf of intimacy that separates our rebellions.

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On a more narrow level, gardens are maintained by light touches of finger tips that pull weeds, get rid of bugs and turn the soil. Web sites flourish at the hands of light taps to keys and mice that pull weeds, get rid of bugs, and turn the code. Both rely totally on our eyes seeing tiny details and gently moving our fingers to alter them. It’s a very personal, intimate, almost meditative process to work on a garden or personal web site.

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Anybody can look at my garden layout, what went where and how it worked out, but they still have to plant and grow their own crops. One of the foundations of the Web was open access to anybody’s HTML code. This enabled most of the first wave of Web developers to learn from “stealing” the code of others. But just like a garden, you could only steal the layout and technique, you still had to put your own content in. In the post coital cuddling of the HTML learning curve, the content soon revealed itself as the hardest part. And like new gardeners quickly learn, planting is easy, it’s getting the plants to produce fruit that’s the hard part.

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Gardens have rows like Websites. Often gardens are contained in raised beds, but at the very least most are within rectangular frames, like web sites. The content on a web site branches off from a main page, like the content of gardens hanging from the branched stalks of plants. Gardens need constant maintenance to produce crops, and as anybody with any kind of web site will tell you, it’s the maintenance that takes most of the time with them as well.

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Both web sites and gardens have crops. For web sites crops are work gained, or some other acquisition, that was made possible by someone visiting your web site. So your work translates into money and thus food. Garden vegetables translate into saved time, food, and thus saved money.

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A good garden makes one more self sufficient, as a good web site makes the builder more self sufficient, able to access their portfolio and resume from any computer hooked up to the net.

Gardens need compost to constantly make the soil rich. The compost for my web site is my brain. Warm and wet like good compost, ideas fester in my head, concentrating until I put the finished product on an update of my web site.

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Anybody can walk by and look at my garden, but in reality only a few people do. Even fewer people take my offered seedlings to plant in their gardens at home, or vegetables to eat for dinner. Nobody but a thief would take an entire mature plant home from my garden. Web sites are planted on the land of the world’s Net and most are public for all to see. While anybody can look, few do. Occasionally someone will take some text and put it on their site, but taking an entire clump of work is frowned upon. You are welcome to take the seed of an idea and let it grow on your site until it is your own creation. And just like gardens, it’s the seeds spreading among friends that help web sites evolve.

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Over the years a garden will end up having some areas where old pots gather and old equipment rusts. A personal web site usually has some dead HTML documents hanging around. Both the equipment and the HTML documents could easily be deleted, but for some reason they stay, as if to prove the garden’s age and to show some of it’s rich history.

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Every year the layout of a garden within the rectangle changes, as does a personal web site’s layout within it’s rectangle. New kinds of plants to experiment with, new knowledge to implement, just like the new technology a web site is always sucking up and trying out at the changing whims of it’s owners. But the majority of the content stays mostly the same on a personal web site, as in a garden, the mainstays having been established and new ideas only added to the foundation.

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The Net is in a renaissance of epic proportions with changes grinding and churning daily, but personal web sites move much slower then the commercial ventures. Like a garden, a personal web site is more of a hobby, or portfolio; not a career to hammer at daily, but a plot to tinker with and let grow along with the work you do.

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Gardens grow out of the earth, are made up of the earth and go back to the earth. Web sites are made of digital 0’s and 1’s, a new earth. But like plants in gardens, dead bytes are not totally erased, only reformatted into basic material and then grown into something else.

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So, let’s rebel and let our web gardens grow! Our parents may not understand, nor society. But they will in time, just as we have grown to understand and accept a lot of the what those crazy hippies were babbling about in the 60s. Some dream of going back and being 18 during the summer of love and now others dream of having been part of the birth of the web. I for one am glad one of these dreams became a reality for me.

Caleb out.

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