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What is a digital garden?

Planted May 01, 2020

Each year, my wife’s parents buy us a membership to the National Trust for the family. Granted, we’re not getting much use out of it this year, but normally once or twice a week we’d head with the boys to a property and garden somewhere near us.

Once there, we’d have a walk, probably do an art or nature trail and, of course, visit the coffee shop. These gardens are amazing. One near us, Nymans, has one of the world’s largest collection of different pine trees while another, Wakehurst Place, has a seed bank and focuses on diversity.

In trying to articulate what a digital garden is, I’ve found Tom Critchlow’s post on Streams, Campfires and Gardens[^1] helpful. Streams come and go (think Twitter), Campfires gather people around shared experiences (think exhibitions and blogs) and Gardens are tended and grow in organic ways.

The family who lived at Nyman’s loved pine trees, so the garden reflects that. Likewise, digital gardens also reflect the ones who tend it. They are curated spaces where our thinking has room to coalease. We’re not thinking about getting another post out or needing a new thought - this isn’t urgent but it is important. We are collecting our thoughts where they might be useful for us and others. We’re also reminding ourselves what topics we keep coming back to and are more clearly able articulate what we care about and believe in.

The founder of Roam research, Conor White-Sullivan, refers to this as idea sex. Having the ideas collected and connected allows them the room to reproduce new ideas and discover novel insights. He’s interested in graphs of connected thought and his product[^2] is good at doing this.

There are lots of different versions of gardens - both in what they contain and how they are constructed. A desert garden is mostly out of place in Southern England but a rainforest is misplaced in Arizona. Our gardens might be well tended or grown over - they might just focus on Maths or, you know, gardening. But, as they are tended and grow they more clearly express our thinking and beliefs.

Richard Feynman, like most intellectuals of the middle ages, was known for keeping constant notebooks. Someone commented to him that it must be good to have a record of his thinking but he replied “This is my thinking”.

In growing and tending our gardens, we are forced to think about our thoughts - we can look for new seeds and cuttings in articles and books we read, things we watch and see, conversations we have. We can plant these and see if they grow, collocate things that seem to complement each other and see what happens. It might be that some of our garden is evergreen - topics we always are thinking about - whereas others might be more seasonal - thoughts we connect with once or return to season after season. The intentionality of collecting and tending to our garden helps us avoid being swept away by the current of the immediate and think more clearly about reality.

I’m experimenting with a few different ways to tend my garden at the moment. There is a hierarchical version here and I’m currently down a rabbit hole thinking about emacs as an open source way to gather my thinking. I’m enjoying it but I’m not clear what the public facing version of this might be or even if it needs one.

Some of this thinking will take root, some needs to be transplanted from other sources of my previous gardening and some will only be around for the season. I’m really enjoying this exploration and experimentation.

I’m also enjoying connecting with other gardeners. If you have a garden, I’d love to visit.

[^1] I really enjoy Tom’s writing and am inspired by his experiments in blogging. Check him out here.

[^2] I enjoyed working with Roam for a while but I was aware that while free now it is going to be paid, I didn’t like that I didn’t own my data and I like my keyboard shortcuts and found I needed to use the mouse more than I liked there. There is a cult building around it though and it’s worth digging into and evaluating.

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