top of page

The Living Garden (Book)

"The Living Garden is a kind of banking system, but one which instead of trading in Pounds, Dollars or Yen deals in the currency of human memories. The Living Garden is, literally, a memory bank.

The high street branches of this memory bank are not constructed from bricks and mortar but from grass, trees, stone, water, sun and light. In other words elements from the physical world deliberately arranged into a certain shape to create a special place – a garden. The garden provides the means and the place to obtain access to these messages and memories..."


(click underlined headings below for Chapters & sections)
Chapter 1: The Memory Bank
Chapter 2: Ordinary Magic
Chapter 3: Client-Server Relationships: Books, Keys & Gardens
Living Books
The role of the Key
The role of the garden
Chapter 4: The Garden Visited
Response vs. reply
Signals & messages
Chapter 5: Guiding Principles
Map & compass
Everyman's guide
Chapter 6: Streams of Consciousness
The ultimate display?
Chapter 7: Technology – The Pillars of Wisdom?
The Key to the Garden
Relational relationships
Viewer research
Webs and wires
Authoring tools
Chapter 8: Messages
Arcadian egos?
The Wasteland
Voices from the past?
Chapter and verse
Issues of taste
Chapter 9: A New Model Garden?
Figures 1-5: Summary of digital processes from creating a Living Book to Visiting a Garden
Glossary & Gallery
living garden tree.png



The Living Garden is about our ‘wired’ world, today: it challenges how digital is used and made available to us, what its role is in our lives, and ultimately who this technology is for?

It challenges today’s commercial, content-based world of digital products and services and asks what would happen if we were to use digital to create a kind of banking system. A banking system which instead of trading in Pounds, Dollars or Yen dealt in the currency of human memories. The Living Garden is, literally, a memory bank...

A memory bank accessible from public spaces, in which individuals can retrieve messages through a scheme of public gardens and simple messaging tools woven together through digital networks. A subversive, fantasy architecture, but one that could actually be constructed.

By exploring the role and purpose of such messages, as well as issues of access, interface, content & navigation, and meaning & ownership, the Living Garden makes us reflect on where digital is going today. It is a book to encourage us to think about the analogue quality of human thinking, communication and emotion that is central to our selves as human beings.

We now operate in a world where we continually provide insights and personal data via the searches and movements we make online. Where, increasingly, it can feel that we behave like bees bringing informational nectar to the hives of Google and the like. The Garden should prompt us to ask is it we who must become the ‘servers’ of this corporate digital architecture or should that model be reversed.

In the last 20 years, since the Living Garden was first conceived, giant corporations have mushroomed from the digital loam of the 1990s: Amazon (established 1994), Google (1998), and Facebook (2004) now dominate large swathes of our virtual – and increasingly – our tangible public and private existence. For some, digital has created wealth and employment. For others, digital provides access to creative tools and process, to markets and audiences, almost impossible to imagine even in the recent past.

Indeed, much of our work, rest and play is now digitally mediated. In 2014, there were nearly seven billion mobile phones (technically SIM subscriptions[1]) on a planet of seven billion people. Not everyone on earth has a phone, (though we all know those with two or more); so some may be having more than their fair share of the digital pie. Clearly, there remains significant disparity between the digital haves- and have-nots whether as a result of bandwidth, accident of birth or simply having access to the right tools. The means and ability to access digital, and simplifying the processes of doing so, are also themes of this book.

In the office, too, digital tools predominate countless means of production and functioning. More than ever people are wired, connected, ‘on’ 24/7. For many, the de facto tools for doing work are PCs, laptops, and tablets – along with the software suites or ‘authoring tools’ on these machines.

At home, too, we manage our leisure via iTunes, Spotify and Netflix, and through a variety of digital play-out devices like Kindles (which you might be reading these web pages on), iPads, tablet-PCs and sonorous Wifi Hifi systems, all of which provide more and more functions. Ever larger TVs, too: half cinema screen, half web-browser, lenses gazing ethereally (or at least fibre-optically) onto a Google server farm – a client-server architecture not unlike that proposed in the original Living Garden, albeit perhaps for different ends than those of Google.

The Internet has also expanded enormously in the last 20 years from a specialist tool into a utility. There are now around three billion internet users worldwide[2]. Many can now do things, ‘connect’, interact, and ‘talk’ to each other, mediated through integrated digital networks, on a scale and in ways which could barely have been imagined 20 years ago. Millions of us now share our personal thoughts, habits and movements with digital companies like Facebook and Google on a daily, hourly, second-by-second basis.

Yet, 20 years ago, when I conceived the Living Garden, few would have suggested that so many of us would feel swamped by digital media and messages. That many would find themselves struggling to manage the deluge – and meaning – of digital dialogues, whether these be the code of an SMS text message, a telegraphic Tweet, gleaning the subtext of the Daily Mail web site’s ‘side-bar of shame’, or comprehending the video of a beheading on a social media platform which appears beside the post of a fluffy cat. Indeed, the recent interest in mindful meditation has grown, at least in part, as a coping mechanism for those who feel overwhelmed by digital data and information in both their private and professional lives.

As digital commentator Nicholas Carr puts it:

“The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’ brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought… …It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”…[3]

For some, digital ‘connectedness’ can paradoxically leave individuals feeling mentally disassociated and socially isolated. The dinner party host seeing a guest surreptitiously glancing at their iPhone? Or our own reaction to another carefully-curated social-media post, which we are algorithmically (or indeed socially) invited to ‘Like’, but only in a binary-fashion.

There are others, too, the old, the less-abled, the poor, who can feel disenfranchised from the increasingly de rigueur need to transact more and more of our lives online, leaving aside those who simply might not want to do this. So, despite massive benefits, the huge impact that digital has wrought means that many of the questions raised in the original Living Garden, all those years ago, remain just as important to consider.

The Living Garden bloomed, briefly, once before, in 1995, as an exhibition at the Royal College of Art, and as a short-run, privately-printed book. As an idea, the Living Garden is built around four conceptual walls: the first, an attempt to identify a social role for technology in society; the second, an exploration of how evolving computer technology and wireless ‘active’ environments might be used to simplify access and interface to ‘content’, as well as asking what ‘content’ is; the third, a critique – and parody – of digital as a technology and as a social phenomenon. The fourth… the fourth – deliberately – still remains open.

As the designer of this garden my intention was – and remains – to provide a forum, a space, where concepts about technology, social needs and man-machine interface (the other three corners of the Garden) can combine with ideas which may float in from outside the Garden’s walls to seed something completely new. As we might say today, the Garden – as an idea – is an Open Source project.

The reason I call this a Living Garden rather than a Digital Garden is because – by using technology, but constraining ‘digital’, by questioning what ‘content’ (or indeed ‘product’) is – the Garden encourages the very analogue quality of human thinking, communication and emotion that is central to our selves. As I say in Chapter Eight, messages within a Living Garden are not treated as dead, isolated events, cold artefacts or commodities. Their function is to act as a trigger, to set off a series of psychological processes.

Whilst the temptation always exists to ‘improve’ on a work, this 2021 web edition of ‘The Living Garden’ reproduces, (with one-or-two minor typographical corrections and notes), the text and diagrams of the 1995 original written over 25 years ago. Back then, I said:

“This is an idea in its first season, and its shape and limits have yet to be defined, but what fun it would be to cultivate further…”

So, with all this in mind – and as in 2021, the Garden’s 25th anniversary passes – it seems timely to invite a new audience to contemplate, comment and reflect on the questions posed by The Living Garden. I hope that you enjoy the journey...

Nick Wray –


[1] UN’s International Telecommunication Union figures:


[3] ‘The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’. Nicholas Carr (2011)



The Memory Bank​

The Living Garden is a kind of banking system, but one which instead of trading in Pounds, Dollars or Yen deals in the currency of human memories. The Living Garden is, literally, a memory bank.

The high street branches of this memory bank are not constructed from bricks and mortar but from grass, trees, stone, water, sun and light. In other words elements from the physical world deliberately arranged into a certain shape to create a special place – a garden. The garden provides the means and the place to obtain access to these messages and memories. The garden part of the Living Garden is, therefore, very much a real location. It is not a metaphor, or a description of an image of a garden on a computer screen, but as real as Kenwood, Kew, Fontainebleau or Yosemite National Park.

Beyond the garden walls, the architecture of this scheme provides mechanisms and means which allow anyone to record the messages which will be replayed within the garden. Thoughts and feelings in words, sounds and images can all be recorded and unlocked at a later time, simply by visiting a garden.

The Living Garden is therefore an architectural scheme with communal gardens as its 'buildings'. These gardens create a space which – whilst being able to serve a vast population of human memories – can provide a unique, intensely personal experience for any single individual.

The Living Garden’s roots rest within a project which formed part of the Master of Arts programme in interactive multimedia which I attended at the Royal College of Art in 1995.

As this course progressed, I along with several colleagues who collaborated on the Living Garden project, rapidly became disillusioned with the way that 'multimedia' – as the "integration of images, sound and text into new forms through computer technology" – was being pedalled. This definition, it seemed to us, derived more from the interests of computer hardware manufactures keen to sell us digital hardware than from individuals who saw real applications, or genuine needs and uses for these systems.

The technology-led, computer cognoscente belief that 'multimedia' and related systems like the Internet (the world-wide network of computers) will apparently 'empower' us in various, mysterious, ways currently seems to be accepted as an article of faith in many circles, but in reality there seems little to justify these claims.

The idea of the Living Garden was seeded to grow something new from this arid ground and is an attempt to cultivate a new way of looking at some of the possible roles of digital technology in our lives. The essence of the Living Garden is simply to provide a mechanism for people to establish a form of contact between each other. The Living Garden is something of a hybrid: as a communications medium it sits somewhere between the telephone and the computer – it aims to emulate the simplicity and ease of use of the telephone handset, but at the same time make use of the potential power offered by digital technology to transparently tailor environments and events for an individual. It differs from both these systems in that the value of the Garden is not to be judged by what appear to have become the reference points for defining the 'success' of digital – profit-margins, market-share, the Kudos of the Great-and-the-Good, or approval by external authorities. The ‘value’ of the Garden is based upon the values of those who care to use it, because – within certain constraints – the Garden provides the means for each and every one of us to develop an individual landscape of thoughts, voices and memories, what Simon Schama calls a 'Manscape'[1]

In the same way that technological innovation like the telephone has not replaced other forms of dialogue, the Living Garden is not intended to be a substitute for other social and technological modes of communication. Rather, the aim is to provide an additional channel which can add to the ways in which people can talk to each other. The Living Garden does this simply by providing a means by which anyone may record personal messages (in a variety of forms) which are ultimately delivered within any one of a number of landscape settings.

It is important to be clear that the garden part of the Living Garden is very much a real garden – convincing people of this fact is always the most difficult task when they first hear of the idea. The reasons for using a natural, open landscape will, I hope, become apparent over the course of the following pages.

The Living Garden is, then, a vehicle which aims to take us away from what currently seem like narrow and inadequate definitions and uses of technology for technology's sake. The desire to drive off at high speed, willy-nilly, in panic and frustration from this starting point marked by 2D computer screens, autoexec.bat files and noisy, expensive computer hardware – to go almost anywhere else – is understandable enough. I hope, however, that in the following pages the reader will see how the Living Garden serves not just as sketch map which may help us escape from where we are, but which can also provide a compass to point us in the direction of a less cluttered and confused environment. Something which takes us towards fresh horizons which throw light not just on new ways of using developing technology, but which – most importantly – should start to make us ask questions about whose needs and what priorities are shaping the digital landscape of today.


[1] Simon Schama, 'Landscape & Memory' Harper Collins, 1995.

The Memory Bank


Ordinary Magic

Imagine a wafer-thin talisman which when it is taken to a special, consecrated, place can unlock worldly riches, simply through a ritual movement of a few fingers. Well, this talisman exists. True enough, to describe a cash card being used to withdraw money from a service machine, in this way, couches the transaction in language more pious than that one would normally reserve for discussions of the banking system. Yet, this example serves to show that words not only colour our understanding of the world, but that they can also be used to define an event as either fantastical or mundane. Today's 'hole in the wall' would have been a miraculous (and unusually generous) apparition only 50 years ago. Where computers are concerned, language defines not only our perception of how something works, but what technology 'is'. The machine into which I am tapping these words is called a computer simply because the first application of 'computer' technology involved automating mathematical calculations previously performed by workers known as 'computers'[1]. This computational label, I would argue, with its rationalist-realist resonance, still holds a strong sway over the way we use digital media today, and the way we see its future.

The purpose of this book is to use language to build a model; to describe an architecture which I have called The Living Garden. The Garden is also a banking system, of a kind, except the assets it deals in are human memories and messages.

Why talk of banking at all, though? One reason of drawing the analogy is because the way in which millions of individuals around the world obtain money from their bank accounts (and on happier occasions make deposits) by interacting with machines and software, is a real example of how an individual memory – the discrete memory of the contents of your bank account, the movements in and out of that account, the details of who you are and where you live – can reside securely and independently within a computer system. A network which everyday manages to cater for millions of individuals and countless billions of transactions throughout the world. It is worth reflecting on the extent to which we already accept the abstract representation of capital 'value' through computer systems.

More pragmatically, bankers are hardly notorious for their interest in technology, per se, for flights of experimental fancy or for doing anything without a very good – and ultimately profit­related – reason. The explosion in the use of networked banking technology is a reflection of the fact that – within the context of the banking industry – not only might such a system serve a useful purpose, but that such a system can actually be built and made to function reliably. From the banks' perspective Automated Teller Machines (ATM) 'work' because they reduce staffing costs, extend trading hours, and allow banks to reach a greater number of potential users.

Put another way, a universal system of discrete memories can not only actually be built in theory, but such a digital network can also be made to work in practice. If this can be done for what ultimately serves as a database which records (or perhaps defines) the wealth of a culture, perhaps the same can be achieved in terms of establishing a database which stores and retrieves personal memories; memories whose 'value' is of a different kind to cash? The parallel between technological innovation in banking and the Living Garden has also be drawn to remind the reader that technology has a habit of suddenly appearing in places where it is least expected.

Cash machines were first introduced into the high street in 1967 [2]. Prior to this, not only was the relevant technology simply unavailable, but the potential benefits of ATM banking – in terms of the prevailing business, political and social structures of the day (low costs, fewer customers, low wages, conservatism to change, the need for the 'human touch' etc.) – would have made the prospect of a global network of ATM Machines seem as likely as the fall of the Iron Curtain (1989).

Technology also has a habit of being used in ways different from those originally intended. The technology of the telephone – marketed amongst other things as the théâtrophone (1881), a ‘means to listen to live opera remotely via private telephone networks’ – was not exclusively conceived to be the instrument of personal communication we know today. In the same way that the phone has become something other than a channel for squeezing opera singers down telephone wires, so the idea that computers are principally about computing – as in the processing of mathematical data, per se – may turn out to be a somewhat limited view.

One of the arguments of this book is that we should simply be looking for new ways to use computers. If we do not turn digital technology into what we want, we will get what we are given. The Living Garden may not turn out to be one of the ultimate destinations which computers are able to take us, but we can still learn a great deal along the journey.

There are, of course, alternative views to those of number crunchers or money-men. At the other end of the spectrum, digital media tends to be championed as a kind of totem by supporters of fashionable philosophies who argue that the computer's form and function 'proves' aspects of a theory. Swapping my bank manager's bowler hat for a French beret, for a moment, I would argue that, for example, postmodernism – by focusing on the ability of computers to reduce the continuity of experience into bitty binary code which can be morphed into symbols then signs (and back again) – has seized on the technology in an attempt to prove a thesis which sees meaning-upon-meaning in everything, and therefore loftily concludes that 'nothing means very much'.

Not only does it seem odd that postmodernism sees computers as some kind of 'proof' of its arguments (strange that any post­ modernist argument can be said to be 'provable'), but its conclusions, for those of us outside the groves of academe, are far from encouraging. Are our digital futures consigned either on the one hand to a hard-headed world of automated commerce, or on the other to a meaningless existential plain, relieved only by the occasional whiff of garlic?

The answer is no. Like Nature herself, the Living Garden abhors a vacuum, and over the following pages I hope that by taking a clipping of an idea here, or cutting back on the wilder growths of another thought elsewhere, by taking a leaf from various books, to illustrate how it might be possible to create a place which – whilst remaining firmly anchored in a reality which includes the high street bank – establishes landscapes which can be filled with memories and messages which you, I, or anyone may care to mint.


[1] Benjamin Wooley. 'Virtual Worlds' Penguin, 1993, p46.


[2] and fascinatingly radio-active Carbon14 was used as part of the ‘Key’ ID system these machines depended upon. This is the same year as Richard Brautigan penned his Utopian ‘Machines of Loving Grace’, quoted on the title page.

Ordinary Magic


Client-Server Relationships - living books, keys & gardens 

Gazing on distant vistas of some time and land where man and digital live happily (no doubt amongst electric sheep) is all very well, but how would a system like the Living Garden actually work? The sequence of illustrations indicate the basic functional outline of how the Living Garden records and replays messages.


In this example, as the diagram shows, an individual records a few words, perhaps a line of poetry, as a message intended for someone else. The message – which, once recorded, is described as a Living Book – is stored on a remote digital database from which, at a later point, it may eventually be recalled and replayed within a Living Garden visited by the person the message was created for.

Living Books

A Living Book is simply the generic name given to any discrete message which the Living Garden is designed to hold and deliver. The purpose of any message is up to the author, but the system can deal with anything from a short sound recording (words or music), to an image or series of images (photographs, pictures, colours even) or a more complex mix of things.

In the example illustrated, the Living Book in question is purely the recording of the spoken love poem. As shown in Figure 1, below, the creator (the author) of this Living Book simply records their spoken words via an 'authoring tool' (something rather like a telephone or microphone in this case), words which are digitised and transmitted via fibre optic cables onto a remote centralised digital database. As the message is being stored as a 'file' on the database, a unique database reference number is generated for this record. This number is immediately transmitted back to the authoring tool where it is recorded on a removable device – analogous to a cash card – called the Key (see Figure 2):


The whole process takes only a few fractions of a second.

The role of the Key

Two main roles are served by the Key. First, for as long as it remains in their possession, the Key provides the means by which an author retains control and access over any message which they have created. The Key's second role is to provide the instrument via which memories can, literally, be passed on from one person to another. As illustrated in Figure 3, having created a message (a Living Book), an author simply hands over the relevant Key to the intended recipient, who may then visit a garden to unlock the message intended for them:


It is important to be clear that the Key, itself, stores only the reference number of a message – rather than a copy of the actual recording. This means that the Key's memory requirements are minuscule (a few bytes of information) and that it can be made from a core memory device based around a very small passive semiconductor which – like a cash card – can record a unique PIN number magnetically, without needing any additional power supply.

The role of the garden

The main function served by the garden is to act as the 'window' or interface through which Living Books are replayed. Various 'active elements' within the grounds of the Living Garden are the final component which enable the whole system to work (Figure 4):


A central element is a low-power radio transmitter which constantly scans the local environment. If anyone enters the garden in possession of a Key the radio signal is detected by the passive semiconductor built into the Key which – excited by the scanning radio frequency – emits a low-power signal which transmits the PIN number stored within it. This signal is picked up by detectors within the garden and then relayed back to the central digital database (which could be hundreds of miles away). The database executes a search to match the unique PIN number which has been detected to the record to which it relates.

The record, in this case a sound recording only, is found, retrieved and sent back to a temporary store (a 'buffer') within the garden. From here it is relayed to a certain area where the visitor has been directed (as described later) – where it is replayed and heard by the holder of the Key. The end result of the entire process is that a message created by one person days, months or years before is delivered – perhaps hundreds of miles away – to the person it was intended for. Whilst being the end of one process, this message may be the catalyst for starting another type of dialogue between the individuals concerned beyond the garden's physical walls.

The choice of a garden as 'interface' to a message might at first seem odd, but it serves a number of purposes. As a public space, the garden is open to everyone. Anyone can, therefore, visit a garden to receive a message.

The garden also allows messages to be unlocked simply by moving through a natural environment (as described later on) – which technology transparently tailors to create an individual experience. So although this is a public, shared space it can transparently create a unique environment for any individual in possession of a Key which will unlock events unique to that one person.


Neither does the Living Garden require any special 'literacy', training, or knowledge. Nor – unlike most communications systems and certainly digital computers – does it demand ownership or access to computer hardware. Ultimately, then, the Garden provides a context for content, rather than a definition of content – in possession of different Keys, any two visitors will have completely different experiences. Finally, the garden can – of course – still be visited without a Key, and serves the same 'functions' as any other public garden spaces.

Although up to this point a single garden has been cited, the database at the centre of the Living Garden can be linked not just to one garden location but to a whole series of national gardens, spread around the country – clearly, location is vital if people are to be able to visit gardens (see Figure 5):


This range of landscapes also allows for diversity in terms of design. Some gardens will be large, open 'natural' landscapes similar to national parks, whilst others might be much more formal, or indeed 'modern' (avant gardens? ). A role for private gardens within the scheme may exist, but within the Living Garden scheme, proper, any one garden (no matter its layout or location) is designed to be able to replay any Living Book. The creator of any Living Book may well, however, have one particular location, a specific Living Garden – in which a message is intended to be recalled. One aspect of the scheme as a whole is that choices regarding not only content, but the context for content are left up to the individual to decide.

Client-Server Relationships


The Garden Visited​

The Key held by the visitor to our garden (one of the many gardens forming part of the Living Garden network which can have been entered) has started to trigger off a series of events. In our example, based on a sound recording of a spoken poem, the particular Key in question interacts within a garden to retrieve this sound recording from the remote database. This message now sits in temporary store within the garden visited. So how is this message heard, and where in the garden will it be relayed?


Viewers are simply the 'play-out' devices which ultimately reproduce the contents of Living Books within the grounds of any garden. These machines provide the visitor with various 'views' of the contents of a Living Book. Various types of Viewer, spread over different locations in the garden, are optimised for the replay of certain types of material; rather than multimedia machines these are essentially monomedia devices, each performing a specific replay function, each dedicated to a particular medium.

Our poem – the material essence of which is simply a sound recording – is relayed from the temporary store within the garden to a Viewer called the Echoing Tree. The Echoing Tree is a Viewer for sound only. It is a (real) tree, fitted with hidden loudspeakers, to which the Key holder is directed and under which they may sit. On reaching the Echoing Tree, an event automatically signalled once more by the Key, the visitor will hear the Love poem spoken in the author's original voice. Despite the separation in time and space between the message being created and heard, the instant at which it is finally unlocked not only creates an intensely intimate moment, but establishes a form of relationship between author and visitor.

On another occasion someone else visiting the garden might find themselves sitting under the same tree. This would not simply be a repeat of our first Keyholder's encounter since the second visitor is in possession of a completely different Key. A Key which represents and controls not the Love poem but a unique message created for by another author.

In this way, the garden – through the agency of the Key – can transparently tailor the same physical space to create a unique, individual, experience, even though it is a place open to everyone.

Response vs. reply

The design of the garden is deliberately constrained so that it can only ever act as a 'receiver' for these messages (rather like a telephone answering machine, which allows you to hear a message but not – directly – reply to it without using a phone). Within the bounds of the garden, there is no possibility of either speaking directly to the creator of a message, nor of creating another Living Book as a 'reply'. This asynchrony – this one-way nature of delivering messages – is part of the design of the Living Garden.


Yet, this scheme does not exist to replace human experience and contact. The Living Garden aims to ensure that social 'channels' of communication remain at the very centre of human experience, affording them an importance through ritual and place – ritual as the process of creating a Living Book, handing over a Key, the visit to a garden; place – not a 'sacred' grove, but a landscape put aside to serve the needs of individuals, rather than the mass demands of amorphous 'people', 'populations' or 'markets'.


Signals & messages

So the Living Garden simply provides a mechanism to deliver messages which can establish a relationship between individuals – it is the contents of any message which determine what happens next. A message may be the catalyst for two people to make contact and meet outside of the garden at some future point; alternatively, it might provide a means and a place in which individuals can convey experiences and events which are never touched upon again outside of the garden (a 'secret garden'?); over the years, a Key may even be passed down through generations of a family to provide the means to unlock a voice from the past.

Some visitors may only choose to visit a garden once. Others may visit the garden once in possession of a Key, but return at later points in their life without it, simply to recall the place and time that they once heard a message. Someone else may choose to journey to many of the other gardens in which messages can be replayed. Over time, their recollections of each garden – the colours, the time of year, the sense of place, would fold into and combine with their memory and experience of listening to a message. For one person, these successive 'readings' might make the contents, the meaning, of a message grow and flower, whilst for another it would provide the opportunity to let a memory fade and die away.

The Garden Visited


Guiding Principles​

So far I have described the way in which an individual's message – a love poem, a single, discrete, spoken message – would be unlocked through the Echoing Tree. Of course at a given moment there would probably be more than one visitor to a garden, so each landscape would need to enclose a number of Echoing Trees. Within the wooded area of a garden there might be a dozen-or-so of these trees spread amongst the natural growths. A garden might also contain several such wooded areas – their exact number and position determined by the size and location of the landscape in question. So although the Echoing Tree is designed only to replay one message, for one person, at one time, there could – at any given moment – be dozens of personal messages being simultaneously relayed to different Key holders, each sitting under a different tree.

Returning to the forest path, having heard a message, a visitor might also encounter someone else making their way to or from another Echoing Tree. A natural opportunity arises for individuals to acknowledge each other but walk on, or to strike up a conversation – perhaps even talk about their experience of visiting the garden. These chance (rather than random) events are one of the reasons that the architecture of Garden is considered to be a 'living' space.

Map & compass

Without some means of direction the visitor would be faced with the somewhat surreal prospect of meandering through a forest in search of a (particular) speaking tree. The solution to this navigational conundrum is actually very simple – the Key holder is simply told where to go.

The wireless technology which detects the presence of a Key holder can also be used to track their movement and position as they move through the garden. The constant pulses from the radio transmitters hidden in the garden can easily be automatically analysed by computer to triangulate the Key holder’s position at any instant.

Knowing the position of the visitor means that the garden can also relay the appropriate message (which has already been identified and retrieved through the Key), to the nearest available Echoing Tree (if the message is a sound recording). Since both the site of this selected Echoing Tree and the Key holder’s position can be determined, the garden's local computer can create a map of the relative positions of the visitor (the Key holder) and of tree (site of the referred message). As the visitor moves through the garden their changing location is detected, so this map can be constantly updated and a suitable path between the Key holder (the 'start' point) and the Echoing Tree (the 'finish' point) may be calculated and described.

Through this simple combination of active elements, the garden can act as a guide to its own changing environment. It 'knows' who and what need to be married together where, but some mechanism is needed to convey this vital information to the Key holder. There are various ways this can be achieved.

The dynamic 'virtual' chart which exists as a series of plots and calculations in the computer's memory could simply be transmitted as a 'live map' to a flat panel television screen (similar such guidance systems are already to be found within cars trundling around the M25 motorway). This lightweight (perhaps foldable) map would be picked up on entering the garden and returned on leaving. As the Key holder moved through the garden their position would be shown, and directions given through this map – either as graphical or aural instructions – on when and where to turn left or right.


Everyman's guide

Another way of finding a 'location' is to be taken somewhere by a guide. The map and path information known to the computer might just as easily be referred to robot which – like Dante's Virgil – leads the visitor to their ultimate destination. The image of a clanking R2D2 or clumsy Robbie the Robot – not to mention the dismal prospect of encountering Marvin the Paranoid Android – will no doubt sound a discordant note amidst the bird song of our bucolic setting. Even so, new materials like carbon fibre which can form the skeleton of light, strong walking machines, mean that today's robots already sit in some transitional place between organic and inorganic entities. The B-movie aesthetics of robots – as (paradoxically) prehistoric, ammonite-like creatures – are evolving too. The mad-scientist dream of artificially creating living, organic materials is already becoming a reality; our garden's robots might bare closer resemblance to a Unicorn (albeit with an antenna for horn), than a Tin-man. A life-like form which might, literally, guide you by the hand.

Between these extremes lay several other possibilities for pointing visitors in the right direction. Holographic projection might summon up a nebulous human-like figure or a disturbingly wraith-like guide. Alternatively, voices in the air – summoned from various hidden loudspeakers along the garden's paths – might simply whisper directions towards the visitor's ultimate destination.

This extravagant world of guiding principles would also be married to some more mundane, practical cues and clues. Echoing Trees are – obviously – located within woods and forests. They are off the beaten track, but not too far removed – tactfully positioned out of earshot of each other, sited so that the casual walker could not accidentally stumble on some private moment. The identity of an Echoing Tree as such would also be marked out by design – perhaps through something as simple as the presence or shape of a seat under the tree.

We have seen how the design of the garden clearly confers upon it enough intelligence' to direct an individual or – like some pastoral air-traffic control system – any number of individuals to their respective arboreal destinations. Even so, by also visualising, by marking out the visitor's ultimate destination (through location and the shape and form of the Echoing Tree), the Key holder is led not just ‘down the garden path’, navigationally; but also along a path to a destination which is also the beginning of a psychological journey, as their message starts to unfold amongst the falling leaves, as they approach the Echoing Tree.

Guiding Principles


Streams of Consciousness

Does the garden need the sophisticated guidance mechanisms described in the last chapter? Surely, part of the pleasure of a visit would be that of wandering through a forest and, spying various Echoing Trees from a distance, select one's own destination; a tree which commands a place and a view selected by the Key holder, rather than allocated by the garden? The position of the Key holder in the garden can still be tracked, and the seat under seat under an Echoing Tree might simply be fitted with a sensor to detect someone sitting down.


Combine this 'knowledge' with a rule or principle such as 'if a Key holder is under an Echoing Tree, relay and replay their message after a 30 second pause' and a visitor could clearly go to any Echoing Tree of their choice to hear a message. One of the aims of the Living Garden is to imagine ways of providing the functionality of machines without recourse to buttons, switches or elaborate instruction. Certainly, this simpler way of moving through the garden, this transparency of controlling the replay of a message, is enormously appealing. But what happens if an author's message is something other than a sound recording? What if someone wants to create a Living Book based upon a photograph, picture, some image or a medium other than a sound?

Since one of the principles behind the Living Garden is to provide a context for content, rather than a definition of content, this question needs to be explored. What if instead of creating a spoken love poem as a Living Book an author decides to describe their thoughts, memories, or capture some artefact in a series of simple still images?


One solution lies in the functionality of the garden's Viewers. In addition to the Echoing Tree (which replays sound recordings only) various kinds of Viewer – each optimised for the replay of a certain medium – may be found in different parts of the garden. Some examples of these different Viewers might include:

  • a Pool of Reflection – a lake, pond or body of water where a single image would be projected onto the water's surface [Unbound editorial note: a video of an example is available for the web site/promo video]

  • a Stone Circle – a series of flat-faced, broken stones set into the ground. As a visitor walked past each stone, the Key could trigger the recall of an image on the surface of each stone for as long as the visitor stands there

  • a Time Sail – a monolith, perhaps of Obsidian, able to display both moving images and sound

  • a Censer – an area of the garden planted with a mixture of herbs and perfumed plants, which includes a Viewer mechanism which could synthesise and 'replay' any fragrance which had been recorded as a Living Book

This richer world of possibilities poses a number of problems, given that the Key holder is unlikely to know the contents of their Living Book prior to visiting a garden: they have no way of knowing which type of Viewer to head for – "should I go to the Echoing Tree, or the Pool of Reflection (is it a sound or image recording I've come to see?)". An assumption is also being made that not only would all visitors be able to recognise the different types of Viewers, but that they would also be familiar enough with a landscape to know where the various types were located in the garden and how one might reach them. Clearly, the navigational system outlined in the last chapter, whilst not strictly necessary if we were to constrain the environment to the replay of sound-only messages, does actually provide the solution to guiding the Key holder to the relevant Viewer for any message recorded in a particular medium.

The ultimate display?

In the well known paper 'The Ultimate Display''[1] published in the 1960s by American computer 'guru' Ivan Sutherland, the following proposition is made:

"The ultimate display would be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland in which Alice walked."

Herein lies a paradox: is the goal of the 'ultimate' display to simulate or duplicate reality? In the search for ever higher definition and finer resolution, are we not actually starting to replace the richness of human experience with the showman's ultimately empty promise of a world ‘more real than reality'?


Today's claims for digital and virtual reality are startlingly similar to Hollywood's promises for the 'new technology' of the 1950s with Bwana Devil, the first 3D film, promising the cinema-goer: "a lion in your lap, a lover in your arms"[2]? These tawdry promises are simply never kept.

Yet what if these larger than life, brighter-than-white worlds could be made real? The "bullet that kills" is not a mere simulacrum; surely it is not just a simulation, but a real bullet? The distinction between being shot by a slug of lead or a 3D vector-mapped tangible projection (as no doubt the computer industry would call it) would be fairly academic to victim of either missile.

The problem with these ultimate synthetic experiences is that in being able to so effortlessly summon up both reality and fantasy, the difference, the meaning and essential tension between these worlds just disappears. To reach Sutherland's goal – to "literally” walk through Alice's Wonderland means that we lose any distinction between this world and any other we may choose to invent and inhabit. It empowers us only to the same extent that the Crack cocaine addict establishes control over his life by removing himself from it. In the plastic universe of infinite possibilities the 'ultimate' display can, I believe, only offer at best a pair of rose-tinted spectacles through which not just weeds but life disappear from view.

Does this view pose a problem within the scheme of the Garden? In an attempt to make it a space for everyone, will the garden's Viewers simply have to proliferate ad nauseam, not just one for each 'medium', but one for every person? Do we not actually need Sutherland's display? I believe that the answer is a definite 'no'. The Living Garden provides sufficient – but not unlimited – tools so that anyone who cares to may both 'read' and 'write' messages. In terms of ‘traffic management’ within the garden – the number of visitors etc – the navigational systems can track, direct, ‘park’ visitors until a Viewer is free. In terms of the ‘resolution’ of each device, I would argue that meaning is not defined by the number of pixels which we can see. Through limiting the number of Viewers within a garden – by creating constraints – the range or 'meaning' of a message is not impoverished; it actually encourages a perception which amplifies meaning by making use of an ultimate display already in mass production – the human mind.


[1] Ivan Sutherland, 'The Ultimate Display' Proceedings of the International Federation of Information Processing Congress, 1965, pp. 506-508.

[2] Tana Wollen, in 'future Visions: new technologies of the screen', edited by Philip Hayward & Tana Wollen, BFI Publishing 1993, pp. 10-30.

Streams of Consciousness


Technology -The Pillars of Wisdom?

The purpose of this book is not to serve as some Utopian blue­print, laboriously detailing each nut and bolt of the Living Garden, but to provide the means to sketch an outline of how various ideas, philosophies, principles and technologies could be brought together within an 'architectural' scheme to help us think about the use of technology today. Even so, although this is not a textbook about the technology of the Garden, could such a scheme ever be realised outside the pages of a book, or is it merely a fantasy – or garden folly?

Having already asked the reader to pull on a metaphorical pair of green Wellington boots to wander through the Garden’s landscape of ideas, anyone who prefers not to have to don the computer Geek's anorak, too, may skip this short technological diversion. It may, however, come as a surprise to discover that not only does a great deal of the theoretical technology required already exist, but that much of it is relatively simple [written in 1995].

The Key to the Garden

Take the Key, for example, which copies the serial number of a specific Living Book stored on the database. This is not dissimilar to Datatag[1] – a security system already on sale in the United Kingdom. Datatag is based around a passive semiconductor device that 'remembers' a unique serial number, and which is small enough to be hidden within items of property.


The Datatag kit includes a form which the purchaser completes by filling in details of their name and address. The company which administers the scheme then enters these details – along with the relevant Datatag serial number – onto a database. In doing so, an implicit link is established between a (uniquely numbered) tag, an item of property, and an individual (i.e. the purchaser of a Datatag).


Police forces now routinely scan stolen items of property which they recover using special Datatag hand-held detectors. The radio waves sent out by this detector excite any tag hidden within a piece of property, triggering it to emit a low-power radio signal which can be registered by the hand-held detector. The tag does not need any kind of power source as the semiconductor 'naturally' converts the energy of the incident radio waves to emit its own signal. This signal contains the tag's unique serial number which is picked up, decoded and displayed on the detector. All that is required is for this number to be checked against the Datatag database to find the name and address of the original property owner. Datatags are small, light and cheap enough to be fitted to virtually any object.


The Garden’s Key could work on similar principles, except that each Key identifies a Living Book (rather than an owner's name and address) and all the detection, search and retrieval processes are automated.

Around 1993, Olivetti Research in Cambridge launched the Active Badge[2], a system which used infra-red signals to constantly keep tabs on the position of Active Badge wearers (people and objects) within an office environment. The system constantly updated a computerised map of the location of all badge wearing staff (or stapling machines!) within a building. This commercial implementation certainly has 'Big Brother' overtones, but the Garden offers an illustration of how one set of technologies can be used to affect very different ends. Within the Garden, technology similar to that developed by Olivetti would provide the means to locate the position of a Key holder, generate maps and guide visitors to any garden location.

Materially, the Key might look something like a small coin, a pill, or postage stamp – a size and shape (like a miniature version of a cash card) which would be designed to fit into the standardised 'keyhole' of any type of authoring tool. Once a blank Key had been used (thereby storing the serial number of a Living Book), an author might decide to secrete the Key within an object – a ring, brooch, a photograph, for example – something which may confer a physical identity on the Key/message as an artefact, before it is passed on to its recipient.


A Key could even be inserted into a human body, or perhaps place in (or recorded onto) a piece of fruit: if a message is not retrieved before the fruit rots away it will be lost forever – perhaps a means for signalling the urgency or need for a rapid or immediate dialogue?

Relational relationships

Technology like the centralised digital database – at the heart of the system – which actually stores and retrieves sounds and images is, of course, functionally the Internet. Combine this with evolving relational database technology and the Garden could be built tomorrow. Even today, video on-demand trials currently underway throughout the world already make use of database engines which can store vast quantities of a variety of media (such as music, films and television programmes) individual items of which can be selected and delivered into one home (cf. garden), on-demand, through a set-top command box (cf Key).

The Living Garden would make use of something akin to this, but instead of a single centralised database, the system would be made up of a network of smaller – but linked – databases (similar to the distributed principle of the Internet, the world-wide network of computers). This would establish a virtual database which whilst functioning as a single entity, able to feed any garden, would be much more robust than that based upon a single 'server'.

Viewer research

The garden's Viewers are, again, simply off-shoots of existing or currently evolving technology: the Echoing Tree requires little beyond hidden loudspeakers, waterproofed to withstand the elements; the Pool of Reflection would simply throw images from a digital projector onto the surface of water (Hughes Corporation in the United States has recently developed a high-definition gas plasma projector able to do just this); and both the Stone Circle and the Time Sail referred to in the last chapter might be built around the next generation of thin-film transistor display panels, similar to those already found in high-end lap-top computers.

The only Viewer which could not be built in some form at present is the Censer. Even so, a British company is already marketing a device which can be used to 'sniff' objects and by, analysing the vapours given off, record the unique profile (or 'finger print') of any smell. This machine literally digitises smell and is already being used to create libraries of wine bouquet profiles. These records can then be used to identify an unknown vintage by matching its visual profile against one previously recorded – the machine as wine expert. The technology might even provide a novel means of sorting odd socks? If a 'smelling machine' can be created is it beyond the bounds of possibility to image some means of reversing the process? A device perhaps making use of a mass spectrometer and a cupboard-full of raw ingredients from the Periodic Table which could combine various elements (according to the recipe of a described by a profile) and re-synthesise a perfect copy of a scent recorded as a Living Book?

Webs and wires

As a distributed system, the different elements which combine to make up the Garden must be linked to each other in some way. Once more, most of the technology needed to do this is either already available or currently being developed. Bundles of fast, fibre-optic cables (which offer the capacity or 'bandwidth' needed to deliver large quantities of digital information) would carry signals from authoring tool-to-database, and then from database-to-garden. Where cables could not be laid, digital satellite telecommunications systems would beam data directly between sites.

Once within a garden, controlling the process of relaying a Living Book to the relevant Viewer and Key holder would be handled through well established client-server protocols from the telecommunications world for retrieving and sending information to a particular site.

Authoring tools

What has not been touched upon so far is the form of the authoring tool, the device which provides the means to create a Living Book. Rather than looking at the authoring tool as a particular piece of 'hardware', software, or even as a specific consumer durable, the authoring function would actually be supported by a variety of different tools. To record a spoken message, an author might use a machine similar to (or perhaps a direct evolution of) a telephone, for example. The only major difference is that such a device would be fitted with a standard socket for accepting blank Keys – and the fidelity of the (digital) recording microphone within the handset would offer a much wider frequency response than that achieved by today's telephones.

Having recorded a message through the handset the author would be given the opportunity to replay, delete or save it on the remote database. On saving a record, the database engine would return a copy of the record number (rather than a copy of the sound recording itself) which would be stored on the blank Key inserted into the handset. Other authoring tools – which would be found not just in the home but in public places and buildings – would be available for capturing images. Perhaps a mixture of high-street recording kiosks – the Living Garden equivalent of 'Photo-Me' booths – in addition to cheap home cameras through which captured images might be fed into the database simply by connecting them into the handset, described above.

Although one of the principles of the Garden is to provide an environment which anyone can use, there would also be various social means of engineering a message. The Living Garden equivalent of the Indian village letter writer, or indeed the Western photographer or portrait painter – individuals who would create a Living Book on your behalf.

Computer-based terminals and sophisticated (or indeed simple) software would provide another authoring route but, as described above, these channels would certainly not be the exclusive means of creating a message. To rely on a single 'digital' authoring device would implicitly limit the Garden only to those with access to, or an understanding of, this tool.

Not only this, but any single, universal, digital tool will necessarily be much more complex to use than a variety of specialised authoring devices, each designed for a particular medium. In attempting to provide too wide range of functionality within any single object, its complexity rapidly multiples – how many people make use of the range of the full range of functions offered even on a simple mono-medium 'authoring' device like the telephone, for example? The final problem in attempting to specify a single tool or entity which is all things to all men is that – much like a penknife – there is the tendency for no one single function to be particularly well implemented. Sure enough, there is a utilitarian value in having access to something like a Swiss Army Knife, but – apart from providing the means to remove stones from horses' hooves – it is hardly the tool of choice for a specific task like cutting and sawing or undoing screws. In attempting to support so many functions in one object, which must still remain lightweight and portable, the usefulness of any one tool is compromised. We eat a meal using cutlery – rather than the blades offered by a Swiss Army knife – because knife and folk each performs its specific function very well; each tool is optimised through design for the particular role it serves.

The problem with most man-machine communication at the moment is that individuals are expected to be able to command events using computers which provide the same level of control as that afforded by using a Swiss Army knife to eat a plate of peas.







Previous chapters have described how – by visiting a garden with a Key – almost anyone would be able to receive a message through the Living Garden, and the way in which – by making use of the range of widely available authoring tools or services – individuals can create their own messages. The example used, so far, in order to illustrate the mechanical stages involved in these processes has been that of a spoken love poem. But what of other types of message?


The Living Garden is not intended to be a prescriptive environment in terms of the contents of Living Books, but it clearly serves some purposes better than others. Neither is the Garden meant to compete with systems like the telephone which caters for more immediate communication needs – it would be perverse indeed to create a Living Book, to despatch a Key with instructions to visit a garden, for a message saying that you 'might be home an hour late, tonight'. Similarly, its purpose is more than to put a television set, HiFi or cinema screen in the countryside – not least because all of these functions are performed far better elsewhere. Extending the philosophy behind the Garden to the outside world for a moment, one could say that the appropriate 'Viewer' for a movie is a cinema screen, whose 'garden' is a cinema.

Returning to the Garden, again, its social purpose does, however, have something in common with letter writing. Living Books are generally likely to be the result of various reflections (although some authoring tools would allow something to be 'scribbled down' – captured by microphone or lens – in a hurry if required). The role served by messages delivered through the Garden could range over anything: from the psychological, to the pathological; the touching to the hateful; and the sublime to the ridiculous. Whilst some messages might almost serve ends in their own right, for many the reason to create a Living Book would be to maintain or catalyse events outside of a garden. A Living Book is not intended to be any kind of substitute for experience. One person might find the process of listening to a Living Book solitary and intellectual, something which they restrict to within the literal walls of a garden (as a place). For someone else, a garden would simply be the starting point from which a Living Book would serve as the catalyst for a lifetime of events all of which take place beyond the limits of the Garden (as a scheme).

Arcadian egos?

Living Books could encompass a range of messages and meanings much broader than declarations of love, however. It will by now be apparent that whilst one author of a message may choose to read out a poem, another individual may base their Living Book on their own spoken words or thoughts, or perhaps a piece of music. Within a garden, an Echoing Tree may unlock words of love for one individual, whilst for the visitor in possession of a different Key it might play music, or reproduce a spoken stream of consciousness.

As outlined in the chapter on Viewers, the Echoing Tree is only one of a number of Viewers within a garden. Images or even scent-based Living Books could form an alternative to a sound­ based message. An author might, for example, decide to use a visual authoring tool in order to capture something as straightforward as selected images of their family growing up. As a genre, perhaps Living Books like this might be called 'books of life'.

A completely different approach would be that of creating a 'book of self', a diary for personal reflection. Author and visitor do not have to be different people. The garden, in an example like this, could serve as anything ranging from a place for private reflection and contemplation, to (perhaps literally) a narcissistic pool reflecting self-love[1].

The process of listening to a message has been described as a solitary experience up to now. Someone could, however, decide to create a Living Book to celebrate an anniversary, with two or more parties visiting a garden to hear a message together. Here another aspect of the Living Garden becomes apparent. The Garden is an 'open architecture' scheme not only because it is literally built upon open landscape, but also because the inhabitants (or visitors) to that landscape may choose how they wish to use aspects of this space. Whilst the holder of a Key effectively controls access to a message, this individual may still decide to share the experience of listening to a Living Book by visiting a garden with a partner or friend. The garden is not just a reflective, solitary environment, then, since message-and-Key can be 'behaviourally' tailored, in various ways: an author might, for example, pass on a Key, suggesting that their recipient goes to a particular garden on a particular day. What they could add is that they will be in a different part of the garden on the same date – if the recipient wants to meet them, after listening to their message – they will know where to find them.

The Wasteland

The Living Garden can also be a psychological landscape of dark forests – a psychological wasteland. Living Books might act as a kind of ark of identity, a psychological totem which an author fashions of himself and reveals only to himself. Alternatively, a garden might be the place of revelation, recrimination or even intellectual violence. As with any architectural system, foul deeds may take place within the most beautiful of surroundings.

Voices from the past?

It should be apparent by now that the Living Garden serves a range of functions very much beyond just acting as some digital necropolis, a version of the 'talking tombstones' which may be found within some cemeteries within the United States. This may be an interesting moment for anyone who has doubts about the choice of a garden within the scheme to reflect that in the West we take it for granted that a (cemetery) landscape fulfils social functions of memorial and pilgrimage. The choice of garden as centre for a memory bank is, perhaps, no less odd than its use as a place to venerate the dead? As Simon Schama says "Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock."[2]

Another of the reasons for describing the Garden as 'living' scheme was to emphasize that one of its primary functions would be to provide a channel of communication for the living. Implicit within the scheme, however, is the possibility that a Key might very well be used to summon up a voice from the past. An author might, for example, create a Living Book as a message to be heard only after his death (the Key being entrusted until this time). A Key which delivered a Living Book during both author and recipient's lifetime might also become a memento after one individual has died. Living Garden messages are stored in perpetuity, and the remaining partner may decide to visit a garden to recall a message. Others may wish to treat the Key as artefact – its shape and form may be all that is required to recall the first experience of the Living Book. Since the memory of visiting a garden as a place – in its own right – forms part of the experience of reading Living Books, a particular garden may be revisited after someone's death, but without a Key. A visit to remember, rather than – literally – to recall.

Another of the reasons why I describe the Garden as a 'living' system is because its messages (Living Books) are not treated as dead, isolated events, cold artefacts or commodities: their function is to act as a trigger to set off a series of psychological processes. The digital event as integrated into a place (the garden) which forms part of a dynamic social world, rather than being a product in its own right. In a sense, these mental associations could be described as a kind of intellectual hypertext – a web of personal memories elicited and recalled through the messages delivered within a garden. The purpose of the Living Books is not to define content but to act as a vehicle which may carry meaning. A message is the seed from which meaning grows within the (metaphorical) garden of the self.

Chapter and verse

Living Books are likely to be simple, discrete; largely monomedia 'events', but there is nothing to stop a more complex message being created. A range of simple authoring tools – or one sophisticated one – may be used to build up a message over time. Perhaps a Living Book might consist of a sound message followed by a few images. On visiting a garden, they Key holder would be directed first to the Echoing Tree, then the Pool of Reflection (the order of replay in the garden determined by the order in which each component of the message was recorded). The visit to the garden then becomes, literally, a journey of discovery, as different parts of a message slowly unfold by visiting (and being directed to) different places.


At its most sophisticated, the form of a Key may actually – itself – be made to resemble a book, perhaps a scrapbook. The Key-as-book could also provide a means for accessing only parts of a message within a garden – perhaps through something as simple as by opening a particular page (which would transmit a signal to recall information represented in words or pictures on the open page).

The relationship between Key and message is also another open architecture aspect of the Living Garden. Keys might, of course be duplicated and made available to a group of individuals. Or if any message has an immediate currency this could be signalled by using a Key based on a material which might decay or fade away over time. Once the Key decays, the message is lost. Keys could even be turned into a prosthetic – a memorial tattoo – which would mean that a message would always, literally, be carried with you.

Issues of taste

To some of the readers of this book the prospect that words of love could fall from the bough of a tree sound sublime. I have no doubt, however, that to others the very idea may sound appalling.

The visitor who quakes at the thought of execrable verse chasing them through the trees has nothing to fear, however. As should be clear by now, the Key is the central controlling element within the Living Garden. No Key, no message. Others may object to the very idea of hearing voices or seeing images in the landscape – the very aesthetics of Living Books and the experience of visiting a garden. Such a reader is, of course, not compelled to visit a garden or make use of the scheme. They would anyway be unlikely to create their own Living Book (why should they?).

A principle of the Living Garden is that as broad a range of people as possible should be able to both create and recall Living Books, (if they so choose). Unlike a gallery, the Living Garden does not define or serve the purpose of acting as an arbiter concerning issues of taste, aesthetics and value. If a graphic designer wanted to create a Living Book using a sophisticated authoring tool which exploits Pantone colours, new fonts, whatever, they may do so. But if others decide to make messages or diaries based on images of their children, send messages of love, or even if they just want to reproduce images of (non-ironic) ceramic flying ducks from their living room, they may do so, too. Simply because one person might find the idea of, say, a Valentines card (itself a product of social and technological change with the introduction of the postal system) 'tacky', is not sufficient reason to deny this activity to others who may enjoy it. In a conventional parkland, one may be aware, viewed from a distance, that a picnic or game of football is taking place – without necessarily having to take part in that activity yourself. In a similar manner, the ability of the Key to make the recall of a Living Book a private moment, combined with the layout of the garden (which provides enough 'breathing space' between Viewers), means that messages are not inflicted on others. A key holder may still choose to share an experience with another, but again, there is no reason why this should actually impinge on the rest of the garden.

One of the roles of the Living Garden is to provide a mechanism which (through the Key, etc.) provides literal and metaphorical 'space’, which is free at the point of use, and not determined by the aesthetics of anyone other than the creator of a message. This seems to me a central point to the Garden. Dialogue and messages are increasingly seen as commodities for the 'communication industries'. If there is no market for some form of communication then, increasingly, it is seen as having no value. Not only is there a very real price on a telephone conversation or sending a letter, but the 'value' of other forms of communication is starting to be determined by 'branding' issues – whether something has been published, broadcast or exhibited, for example. If you are not judged to be 'famous', you cannot sell your personal or 'world view', and if you are too poor to rent or pay for a channel of communication, or at the very least to be ‘visible’ – ultimately if there is no 'market' for what you want to say – then your voice is stifled. The banking analogy introduced at the start of this book seems particularly apt here, as the question is: 'what "commodities" do we value most in our society; just what are we trading in life?'


The social ritual involved in the Living Garden – in terms of handing over and passing on Keys, and in visiting a garden – is just as central to the scheme as are the gardens themselves. The fact that a garden is a physical location, rather than some virtual world which can be switched off, will itself act as a constant reminder that the transactions which the garden supports are, literally, seen to have a place; that the 'intellectual property' of social communication is perceived to be as valuable as a trade in commodities on the stock market, the intellectual currency of the art world, the actualité of television or – indeed – the fiscal commodities dealt in by high street banks.


[1] Written when Mark Zuckerberg was 11, and before Facebook’s inception in 2004!

[2] Simon Schama, 'Landscape & Memory' Harper Collins, 1995, p6.



A New Model Garden?

If a Utopia is where everything is good, gardens, as Michel Foucault puts it, are "heterotopian projects”: Places, spaces, where things can just be different, not only physically from the normal world, but psychologically, too. 

The Living Garden is also an idea made up of various parts, but at its heart lie four conceptual walls – the first of these, built on an attempt to identify a social role for technology in society; the second, based on an exploration of how evolving computer technology and wireless 'active' environments can be made to trigger 'events' (both external and psychological); the third a critique – and parody – of digital as a technology and social phenomenon as it exists today. The purpose of the final wall is described in the closing paragraphs.

The Garden, then, provides the means to bring this range of ideas together within a framework, a skeleton that might be analysed, fleshed out – or chopped apart – in various ways in the future. The purpose of this book has been to provide the means to distil these various lines of enquiry into a coherent and accessible form and hopefully to seed the start of an interesting debate about uses of digital technology.

It seems paradoxical, then, that the Internet – essentially the ARPAnet technology of the Cold War, designed to provide a command and control infrastructure in the US in the event of nuclear war – should lie at the heart of the Garden. But the evolution of ARPAnet into today's Internet is itself a very good example of how one technology (centred on digital packet switching) can be applied in very different ways. Is it any more fanciful to imagine the Internet undergoing a similar evolution to provide the backbone to a national (or international) chain of Living Gardens?

Indeed, such changes of use are nothing new. It is interesting to note that it was the military engineers of the 15th century, made redundant through peace in Europe, which spurred on the evolution of 'natural' landscapes as they applied their skills in hydraulics, surveying, cartography, and mathematics to build environments for the sake of various forms of social engineering. Today's Internet is often heralded as a means for democratising (or, yet again, empowering the individual) – true to an extent, provided you own or have access to £2000 worth of machinery, understand the vagaries of using your e-mail software and World­ Wide Web browser, that you can read, that you can pay the £15 per month subscription to your Internet 'service provider' and that you can comprehend and navigate the entire panoply. The Internet may ultimately allow you to vote in local elections, but only if you fulfil all the criteria above. The old, impoverished, illiterate or just the disinterested may find themselves very quickly disenfranchised. The free-at-the-point-of-use aspects of the Garden should simply emphasize how restricted is access today to the evolving technologies of communication.

The current shape of the Internet – like much digital technology – is also relevant as its claims to 'empower' are based on 'you too...!' promises: 'you too can be a publisher, film director, writer, musician, whatever'. That by mimicking a process you somehow control it. The Living Garden makes use of similar technology to the Internet, not to ape commercial activities or publishing transactions (as though either activity somehow makes you 'richer' as a person) but to provide and maintain a place for individual dialogue. The transaction is valuable because you think it is valuable, not because it can be sold to millions, or because arbiters of taste and aesthetics deem it fit to live and exist. An asset within the Living Garden is something whose value is defined by you, the individual.


Even citing 15th Century precedents, above, the choice of garden at the heart of the scheme could still leave readers feeling slightly uneasy; perhaps it appears an odd or perverse choice? This is a very good thing if it starts a dialogue about what medium, what context, what – to adopt the jargon of digital, for a moment – interface is appropriate for various types of human activity. The point is, are the events that take place within the Living Garden any odder than those that computers support at present? The Garden’s Viewers are so-called because 'Viewer' or 'helper' applications are the name given to the 'plug-ins' which provide your World-Wide Web browser with the functionality to, for example, hear and see events. The Garden’s Censer (the device which emulates smell) certainly raises questions about whether the effort involved in emulating such events is actually worthwhile at all. Could one not simply send a bunch of roses? And just because smell can be generated should it? A love letter could be 'written' in the form of a 70mm Dolby IMAX feature film, but it is hardly likely to be the best way for individuals to communicate.

The central purpose of the physical manifestation of the garden within the scheme is to establish that the 'interface' to a digital system is one that does not have to be bound by a 2D computer screen. In terms of design, why do we accept Window environments which attempt to map 3D worlds onto 2D screens which then themselves emulate a physical environment – with, for example, the ubiquitous desk-top metaphor? Signalling events is not the same as communicating. Taking part in a telephone conversation is, for example, a very different process from talking to someone in person, even though the same 'information' may be passed by both channels. Such differences in nuance are simply not currently part of the equation of digital, which sees the universal computer as a kind of digital Swiss Army Knife for all and every end.

However, the Garden is more than a parody. Its physicality, its reality, is a key part of the scheme. As a place which occupies space over time, the existence of a garden will depend on the value a culture is prepared to give it. If that space becomes a supermarket then this is not necessarily a 'good' or 'bad' thing, but it is to a certain extent a reflection on the values of a culture.

The danger with the virtual worlds of the internet is that since anything can be conjured up, the relative value and importance of 'places' is never clear. Although the Garden is not intended to be a 'difficult' place to use or reach, the limited effort involved in visiting a physical location, the process in a sense of pilgrimage, is an important part of the experience. Similarly, the asynchronous constraint within a Garden (which means that an individual cannot – directly – speak to the author of a message) is there because the best way of achieving this dialogue – the appropriate context for this reply – is not the Garden but some social process beyond its walls. The Garden is simply a catalyst, and a space, for human dialogue.


As the banking analogy signalled at the start of this book, the central role of the Living Garden is to ask questions about the way values are becoming defined – rather than reflected by – digital technology. "How is the value of a (digital) 'asset' defined?"; "what is an authoring tool?" and "who is an author?" for example. Anyone using Macromedia Director[1] is already working within someone else's definition of what an authoring tool is, and therefore what the authoring process is about. It is almost as though the definition of a writer was one that was based on ownership of a word-processing programme – "he'll never win the Man Booker Prize, doesn't use Microsoft’s Word...".

The personal, social, rationale of the Garden scheme is also intended to challenge the prevailing assumption that defines multimedia as a 'product-based' activity – one which is largely defined at present within a commercial consumer-based publishing framework. Again, why is this accepted at present?

The concentration on the social context of messages received within a Garden was to a great extent a reaction to the type of associations promised by commercial hypertext systems – characterised by products like Microsoft's Encarta[2]. Single entities which whilst claiming to be encyclopaedic, linking all things for all men – are in reality tiny, closed, localised world-views; 'places' you randomly wander through, moving along a path where you find yourself suddenly traversing from Aardvark to Zulu for no apparent reason.


The reason that this type of journey is ultimately meaningless is that the underlying purpose of Encarta and similar digital products is not about knowledge or education – the hidden reality and reason for their shape and form is because these are instruments fashioned with the purpose of exploiting digital technology to amplify cash. If the point of journeying through the Garden seems vague, is this so very different from what we actually get (rather than what we are promised) by commercial digital products today?

Digital at present is beset with the cut-and-paste mentalities which aim to create definition-by-association. It is as though by using or referencing 'great' works of literature, philosophy, design or mathematics, ownership or understanding of those ideas is conferred on the user, or somehow implicitly added to the value of a digital product.

The vague recipes behind so much digital work – a bit of text here, some library video there, the ready-mixed contents of a record company's press pack promoting a new band, that Adobe Photoshop 3.0 layers-look, some LSD there for the sake of creativity, all fronted by an interface as an afterthought serving little more than purpose than a nice 'pack shot' – ensure that the Gestalt whole is often very much less than the sum of the parts.

With digital technology allowing the cook to mix virtually anything without some kind of forethought, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the feast we have been promised is turning out to be indigestible and generally unsatisfying.

As mentioned at the start of the chapter, the intellectual space in front of the final 'wall' of the Living Garden has deliberately been left open. The intention is to provide a space where concepts about technology, social needs and man-machine interface, derived from the other three corners of the Garden (along with the occasional idea which might float in from outside the Garden walls) might combine to seed something completely new. This is an idea in its first season, and its shape and limits have yet to be defined, but what fun it would be to cultivate further…

Nick Wray (1995)


[1] Director was the ‘Flash’ and Adobe tools of today. In 1995 Director was one of the very few ‘authoring tools’ for digital content available to non-programmers

[2] An early CD-Rom-based Encyclopaedia.

A New Model Garden?


Schematic of Living Garden Architecture

(with illustrations from original 1995 booklet)
Figures (Garden Architecture)
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5
Glossary & Gallery

Glossary & Gallery

Authoring Tools
– A means to record a message (see Living Book) -
The drainpipe worked (some of the time). It contained a microphone to record a sound message that was digitised on a hidden IBM PC, and generated a code that was recorded on a Key. Taking the Key into the Garden replayed the sound message from a hidden speaker in the 'Echoing Tree'. Well that was the theory, anyway...
LG drain pipe Picture9.jpg
Echoing Tree
– The Echoing Tree is a Viewer for sound only. It is a (real) tree, fitted with hidden loudspeakers, to which the Key holder is directed and under which they may sit. On reaching the Echoing Tree, a Key will trigger the replay of a particular message which is stored on a remote server (see Figures 1-5).
– A Key electronically holds the ‘PIN’ (an encrypted and unique identification number) which identifies a particular Living Book. The Key, its simplest form could be thought of in today’s technology as the chip on an ATM cash card. The key in itself does not need to store the message – just as a cash card doesn’t store money. The key simply provides access to a record stored remotely.
LG jack ausin reed key Picture10.jpg
Living Book
LG pool of reflection with words Picture
The recorded contents of a message. A Key provides access to a Living Book in a Living Garden.
Living Garden
– The Living Garden is an architectural scheme with communal public gardens as its 'buildings' and personal communication as its purpose. These gardens, along with underlying digital technologies, provide a place and context within which an individual can go to retrieve and listen to simple messages which others wish them to have. These messages are retrieved using a token called a Key (see this Glossary and Figures 1-5).
Pool of Reflection
LG pool of reflection Picture14.jpg
– a lake, pond or body of water where a single image might be projected onto the surface of water. An example of a message as it might appear in a Pool of Reflection, which can be found via this link.
Stone Circle
little sparta stones G542_23_104.jpg
– a Stone Circle – a series of flat-faced, broken stones set into the ground. As a visitor walks past each stone, the Key could trigger the recall of an image on the surface of each stone for as long as the visitor (with their Key) is present. The representational image used is from 'Little Sparta' - the garden of the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay
nuclear sail from book e350a949923991c68
Time Sail
– an Obsidian monolith able to display both moving images and perhaps sound, too. (Representational image is 'Nuclear Sail' from 'Little Sparta' - the garden of the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay).
LG pool of reflection with hand Picture1
– a ‘play-out’ device (such as the Echoing Tree or Pool of Reflection, above) found within a Garden. Click below for a video of the Pool...
The Water Bug
bot 2.png
– Illustrating a bot-cum-automated-Jeeves, which could guide a visitor through a garden to the appropriate Viewer. An example of a Water Bug built for the original 1995 shows can be found by clicking below...
The Living Garden by Nick Wray
bottom of page