In ecology, a monoculture is the practice of growing the same thing in the same field over and over again, tiring out the soil so that lots of artificial inputs are required to make it suitable to keep producing crops. To artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats, much of Silicon Valley could be characterized in a similar way: A culturally homogenous group of people making products that largely serve the creators’ rarefied needs.
But in the plant and animal kingdoms, lack of diversity isn’t just a PR problem. Without strength drawn from different genetic strains, populations make themselves vulnerable to extinction. That’s why, in order to save Silicon Valley from its own navel-gazing futility, Keats is launching a business school to train a new class of Valley employees.
They are actual pond scum.
Keats, who once created a think tank of cyanobacteria to ponder the cosmos, is launching Microbial Associates this month, a school in which bacteria can become certified to work at Silicon Valley firms. They can provide services like chemotaxis and galvanotaxis (in which microbes move in response to chemicals or electricity). Keats says this demonstrates fundamental elements of supply and demand in real-time.
“The greatest diversity that we have is biodiversity,” Keats says. “And the greatest problems that we have are those that have to do with the relationship we have with the world as a whole, which is to say a world shared by all organisms, of which we’ve only recently become the lead technologists and innovators.”
Past the wry poke at the Silicon Valley elite who often display the self-awareness of single-celled organisms (see here), Keats is being totally genuine. He has true conviction that Silicon Valley could learn a thing or two from bacteria, which possess many qualities that elude humans–like chemical messaging and quorum sensing, in which bacteria quickly make collective decisions based on population density.
“Diversity tends to breed innovation, and monocultures of any kind tend to end up with a relatively finite and relatively limited set of solutions to problems,” Keats says. “The technological world in which we live is the world that purports to be the world that saves us. It seems to me that they more than anybody need to regroup and rethink in terms that are more diverse.”
Of course Keats, who will be teaching Microbial Associates at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, is thinking several steps beyond cultural or ethnic diversity. His focus is cross-species diversity instead, the first batch of which he plans to recruit from a Silicon Valley drainage ditch.