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Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

IoT: The Internet of Trees

Ethics is about living the good life, and, for many of us, trees are an important part of that good life (and not just because we like breathing).  This becomes clear in an article titled “When You Give a Tree an Email Address,” in which The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about a project undertaken by the city of Melbourne.  As LaFrance explains, “[o]fficials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches.”  As it turned out, however, quite a few citizens chose, instead, to write messages addressed directly to particular trees.

Some of the messages quoted by LaFrance are quite moving.  On May 21, 2015, for example, a message to “Golden Elm, Tree ID 1037148” read, “I’m so sorry you’re going to die soon. It makes me sad when trucks damage your low hanging branches. Are you as tired of all this construction work as we are?” Other messages are funny. (All, by definition, are whimsical. How else do you write to a tree?) But the best part, perhaps, is that the trees sometimes write back.  For example, in January 2015, a Willow Leaf Peppermint answered a query about its gender. “Hello,” it began,

I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what’s called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. [Even trees generate run-ons.] Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be. 

Kind regards,

Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)

Should we rethink the possibilities of the acronym “IoT”? With the coming of the much-anticipated “Internet of Things,” will trees eventually notify the city officials directly when they’re about to tip over, or a branch has scraped a car, or a good percentage of their fruits are ripe?

In the meantime, is it pessimistic to worry that hackers might break into the trees’ email accounts and start sending offensive responses, or distribute spam instead of pollen?

For now, the article made me think of a famous poem by Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” which was published in 1913. With apologies, here is my take on the Internet of Trees:

 

I thought that I would never see

An email written by a tree.

 

A tree whose hungry eyes are keen

Upon a gadget’s glowing screen;

 

A tree that doesn’t choose to Skype

But lifts her leafy arms to type;

 

A tree that may in Summer share

Selfies with robins in her hair;

 

Within whose bosom drafts might end;

Who intimately lives with “Send.”

 

Poems are made by fools like me,

But emails come, now, from a tree.

 

Photo by @Doug88888, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

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