ESSAY

May 2021

the internet is a fungus [part two]

A New York urban gardener takes a look at life online. 

candace thompson

Read part one of this essay in issue 11

The internet is an Amanita phalloides.

I mean, the name “The Death Cap” says it all, right? Often mistaken for other edible species, this mushroom is the leading killer of fungiphiles across the globe and has taken the lives of emperors and regular folks alike. Allegedly the mushroom is delicious, a tricky deceit as the toxins therein slowly turns one’s liver and kidneys to moosh. One Korean family of four foraging in their new homeland of Oregon accidentally mistook this species for the Paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) common to their native Asia. The error resulted in a subsequent family outing to the ICU for liver transplants. In 1740 while on a hunting trip, Charles VI accidentally ingested a meal of Death Caps, killing him within days. Voltaire is known to have remarked that a humble plate of mushrooms "changed the destiny of Europe”. 

 

Many people use these sorts of stories as good reason to never try mushroom foraging at all – even for species that look nothing remotely like an Amanita. They assume they can never know enough to navigate the world of entomophagy with confidence; that an ability to discern the tasty from the deadly is something that some people come standard with, downloaded to their brains at birth. But, in fact, all things worth knowing are only acquired through critical thinking, some hard lessons, and the support of a trusted community.  

 

It is November 17th 2016 and I am in my first semester of grad school. Twelve days prior, Donald Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States, and I watch the news in horror as his administration makes plans for a “Muslim Registry”. I think of my Muslim classmates and friends – Americans and internationals alike – and how this will impact their ability to travel, to work, to see family.  So, for a class assignment, I decide to create a Swiftian piece of internet art: A White Male Registry, complete with statistics detailing how white men are, in fact, the most dangerous demographic in America. Surely they, too, deserve to be tracked? It is a Google form embedded into a tumblr, masked with a custom URL. Kid stuff that I make in two hours. I make a Twitter handle and start tweeting at elected officials to let them know I’ve signed them up. I post a link to my Facebook page to collect some ‘data’...ya know, for my homework. A friend asks me to make my Facebook post public and I, foolishly, oblige. 

 

In twelve hours 500 people have signed up or been signed up. 

In 48 hours it has been shared 2,500 times and the original Facebook post has upwards of 700 comments. I start getting contacted by press outlets for interviews.

 

72 hours later I’m working three freelance jobs and doing homework assignments while also trying to figure out how to put double authentication on all my bank accounts, email accounts, social media accounts, web domain and hosting packages. I’m being discussed on 4chan and the conversation isn’t pretty. I learn that a group of people are trying to brute force my passwords and dox me. There are strangers going through my Facebook photos and mocking me, my friends, and my family. They’re questioning my partner’s manhood, suggesting that my father must not have loved me enough. The dedicated email address I’ve created for the project is receiving messages that are heartbreaking on many levels. Some folks write to me falsely believing I actually have the authority to help them. They want to report rapists and abusive exes; they know them to be a threat and no one else has helped... so can I? Others, through their own assumptions, think that with a name like Candace Thompson I must be Black, and the language and vitriol I receive for this Black version of myself shakes me to my core. It is a form of hate I have never had to bear witness to in such a direct and personal fashion. It results in the sort of bodily startle reflex I’ve felt when being flashed or groped or forcibly pushed against a wall, but at a whole new level of deep dehumanization and violence ...And I’m not even Black, so I can’t know what the non-tourist version of this experience must be like. 

 

I’m getting text messages hourly with pictures of historical KKK lynchings, the text that accompanies these images is simply my full name and home address.  

 

Meanwhile I’m worried for another (actually Black) Candace Thompson who I know also lives in Brooklyn and I reach out to her, deeply apologetic for the Pandora’s box I’ve just potentially unleashed on both of us. 

 

My partner is leaving for a job in Europe in three days and will be gone for two weeks. I’m left with our pitbull Buster and the hope that most of these people are braver in digital space than they are in the material world. Thankfully in that moment a whole community of friends rally to help me: tackling the trolls in my stead, helping me erase my digital footprints, offering me places to stay. Things quiet down quickly and I try to tell myself I wasn’t ever in real danger, but then two weeks later a lone gunman shows up at the doors of a DC pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong looking for Hillary Clinton’s secret satanic pedophile cabal and I can’t stop myself from imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to myself, my loved ones, and even complete strangers who just happen to share my name. 

 

In the coming weeks I begin to learn even more about how vulnerable we all are when we take to the digital commons. Tales of journalists fearing for (and sometimes losing) their lives. Tales of activists being doxed. Tales of unwitting elders having their identities stolen. Tales of exes publishing revenge porn. Tales of massive corporations monetizing our every move and selling it back to us. I begin paying attention to all the writing on data extraction, dark patterns, facial recognition, voice activation, webcam hacking, algorithmic bubbles, social engineering, the attention economy, and the rest. All these bright and glittering mushrooms. So pretty, so sickening.  

 

This experience schools me, hard. Up to now I’d been pretty cavalier: picking mushrooms up off the forest floor, giving them a quick sniff and popping them in my mouth. It was just a matter of time before I picked a deadly one, I guess. Now sure: I picked a fight with white supremacists. That’s on me, I guess. But my friends and family didn’t ask for that. 

This is the internet at its most violent. A positive feedback loop of negative behaviors that seems safe and fun, compulsively gratifying, but as you swallow it down the toxins take hold, and you don’t realizing something inside of you is dying until you’re bandying tweets with a white supremacist at 3am, or spending months trying to get your social security number back from the dark web, or changing addresses again to avoid a creepy ex tinder date, or being sold yet another product you don’t need in order to fill a void you didn’t even know you had. 


 

The Internet is an Armillaria mellea.

When you think of the largest organism on earth you’d probably imagine a whale, an elephant, maybe even a giant squid of the deep, but you’d be wrong. The world’s largest organism, weighing in at 35,000 tons and spanning some 3.5 square miles is a honey mushroom fungus. A known delicacy in many cultures, when the honey mushroom shows up they show up big. You rarely find one cluster – usually you find a score. They do have deadly lookalikes, yes, so they’re an intermediate forager’s mushroom, and I only foraged and ingested them myself for the first time last year. I consulted several friends, did spore prints, and then ate just a little bit and waited. When I didn’t feel ill 24 hours later I made a mushroom conserve. It was great. 

 

While mycophiles know this species as a choice edible, homeowners, arborists and gardeners regard this species as a pest. You see, Honey fungus are parasitic on trees and other perennials, and in a matter of years they can kill an entire landscape’s flora, converting a forest into a grassland ready for a new slate of succession. While this is an entirely natural process in the wild, homeowners and landscapers aren’t usually so thrilled to have to buy all new oak trees every five years, so this white rot fungus requires rather draconian removal measures. Immune to chemical fungicides (thank goodness) land stewards are left with no choice but to excavate the inoculated soil, or do a controlled burn, or put down impermeable plastic and grow atop. Many often choose to just grow plants that are white rot resistant. This can be a bitter pill for someone who wants to grow heirloom roses in their Portland front yard, but in fact it’s the roses that are the ecosystem invader there, not the fungus. 

 

On January 6th 2021 I spend my day fixing park fences with my coworker. We dig and work the frozen ground, correcting leaning posts and loose cables. As a manager of a public food forest I struggle with the idea of barriers. I want people to feel invited to engage with land, but without any visible boundaries people tend to move carelessly, causing long term damage to our perennial beds. Our knee high fences, made from thin braided wire, won’t stop anyone in their tracks, but our hope is that they humbly beg you to pause, and then proceed with care. But people don’t. The fences get pushed and skewed, the wires broken. The plants get trampled. The boundaries are always failing and the maintenance is never ending. 

 

At night I head home and catch up on the events in DC. That day a group of ‘patriots’ have stormed the Capitol, demanding the presidency for Trump. After an hour of taking it all in I text some of my more right-leaning family to see how they’re feeling. I try to remain neutral in my tone when I ask, “How are you feeling about what’s happening right now?”. One family member replies immediately with, “Sad”. I ask whether they feel like these protesters are being treated the same as the BLM protestors this summer and they say, “No”. When I ask why they think that may be, they say, “Prejudice”. Ok then. My second family member does not reply for a while and when they do I am shocked by the tenor of their response. It reads like a mix of Fox News punditry and political martyrdom rather than the empathetic voice of a beloved elder.  In the conversations that follow I come to realize that at this point our two realities have diverged so far that there is no longer a single truth on which we can both agree. Our respective bubbles have us both feeling that the other has led us to the abattoir with a single vote. As we try to parse “facts”, lobbing news articles and YouTube videos at one another from our virtual war bunkers I realize we’ll get nowhere this way. If their news article said it was raining, mine would say it was sunny, both of us doubling down, refusing to just look out the window and concede that, in fact, both things can be somewhat true at once. 

 

Meanwhile on my Facebook feed I’m watching as scores of self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ giddily post FBI wanted photos of capitol stormers, attempting to help identify them from security camera and social media screenshots. The irony being, of course, that the government doesn’t really need your help to do this, they only need your complicity. In the days following January 6th, use of Clearview AI, a much maligned facial recognition software, surges in use amongst American law enforcement entities. Turns out that COVID isn’t the only reason that savvier protestors cover their faces during acts of civil disobedience. It’s because this same technology, suddenly being gleefully strengthened and honed with the assistance of the center left, has been used for a while now on protestors of all sorts across the globe. Unfortunately, while the technology is deployed democratically on citizens regardless of your political stance, the technology itself is not one-size-fits-all. Facial recognition software – having been designed primarily by white men – is notoriously faulty when used on people of color and women – sometimes returning false positives 5-10 times over. In other instances, researchers have used AI to determine people’s sexual preferences. That’s all fine and good in a Provincetown bar, I suppose. In the streets of rural Iran, not so much. Who should have this sort of technology? How should it be deployed? When is it a violation of our rights? Unfortunately the tools are developed faster than the ethical regulations they demand.

 

It would seem it isn’t just the cops who have a bias problem, our technology does as well. The world wide web can do remarkable things, but it is also an algorithmic Pygmalion that even the engineers themselves can no longer control. With every “like” of a political article we spin our wheels deeper into the ruts of our own confirmation bias. With every “which piece of classical art am I” selfie test we sharpen the tools of our overseers while also perpetuating the historical notion that white folks look like kings and queens while Black people look like the lute playing slave in the corner. The binary code on which the digital world is built excels at rendering our reality as an equally polarized set of opposites and profiting from it; a self perpetuating system that regurgitates our own outdated narratives back at us for cash. In a world of 1’s and 0’s there’s very little room for the evolutionary nuance of a decimal point. 

 

But what does that have to do with mushrooms? Well, in the world of ecology a parasite is any organism that forms an advantageous relationship to another living being, eating off of them consistently and, at times, almost imperceptibly. Parasites sometimes destroy their hosts, but it is often more to their advantage to keep them alive, slowly extracting from them as they themselves profit. If you asked a Honey fungus if it’s a parasite, it would probably vehemently deny it. It’s only eating the trees it needs to grow big and strong, after all. The trees, of course, would have a different answer. But would we think to include the woodpeckers in this interview process? How about the bugs who will inhabit those dead logs, and the billions of microbes who will slowly compost the trees back into precious topsoil- one of our most scarce and crucial resources? 

 

If you held a quorum with all these vested stakeholders on what the honey fungus is doing to the forest, do you think they’d all see Armillaria mellea as the problem? Or do you think they’d have the wisdom to know that there’s an even bigger set of forces at play, impacting their collective community. Maybe the eagle or the owl would be able to report that in their travels they’ve seen how the forests are disappearing, how soil is degrading, how the climate is in chaos. They could clue everyone in that instead of blaming one another, it’s really another set of beings who, with their greedy deforestation, have made it so that the loss of a three-mile stretch of woodland is cause for communal alarm. 

 

This is the internet at its most flawed. A space where the few profit by inoculating the thoughts of the many, pitting us against one another when in fact we should be collectively dismantling the systems that hinder us all. Where the same divide and conquer strategies that pitted poor whites against poor blacks in the antebellum south have now become leveraged and super-powered. Where no one trades in truth, just pithy tweets and reductive, unchecked “facts”. Where on more than one occasion, I’ve seen major media outlets fail to even accurately report the weather, let alone what’s really going on in Aleppo. It’s no wonder, then, that my beloved family member and I can’t even agree on the color of the sky. 

 

How do we trust any of it to serve us when it has been designed to slowly eat us instead? And how do we fix it? Controlled burn, perhaps.

 

I’m holding out hope that we can create both a digital and material world that prizes mutualism, abundance, respect, and care over extraction, scarcity, hate and war. I have a guide book for mushrooms that I keep on my phone, and a community of experts that I call on regularly for help. We have those tools for the internet, too, and there are experts working to turn this ship around. We just need to listen to them, and then act. Quick-like, before we're all poisoned beyond repair. 

 

 

CANDACE THOMPSON is an artist, activist and land steward whose work concerns the digital and natural worlds.  She/they/he manages a 2 acre native food forest in lower Manhattan built on a former industrial site and teaches internet skills within the adult education department of the New York Botanical Garden. Candace makes art work about our codependent relationship with the data surveillance state and about how we can be in right relationship with the natural world while staring down the barrel of climate crisis. Candace is also a mycophile who is very worried about the current state of the internet. WEBSITE. INSTAGRAM.

 

Candace has compiled an introductory resource for safer, more ethical use use of the internet for individuals and communities, click here to access her guide: GURGLESAFETY.

(Image Credit: Screen shot from Super Mario Bros. World 1-1, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka,1985, image edited)