A shift of control
We live in a complex world. The powers that propels the society and the speed at
which changes are happening are constantly changing. In these recent years a shift of
control has come in the way people learn. We live in the Access Era, where people are
enabled to access multiple sources of information and documentation. Learning is part
of this revolution because people want to take charge of their own development. The
old paradigm of transfer of knowledge is broken, people can structure their learning
process, deciding modalities and timing, deciding the way they want to explore a
concept and how to relate concepts in their own cognitive grid. We register a shift in
the way old disciplines are presented and accessed by people: internet , satellite TV,
specialised review, journals.Moreover the control of your own learning is becoming a
necessity for the speed at which old jobs are converted into new forms of employment.
With these new possibilities offered by new communication channels and access
to information, people can increasingly take charge of the knowledge about their own
well-being and the well-being of the environments in which they live. In addition, this
new awareness produces a change of view in the way people perceive their role in the
world. In fact, with this shifts of control come shifts of responsibility and may emerge
a new awareness of one’s person responsibility in regard to environment’s pollution,
politics, social position. In this context, new representational strategies can translate information so people can understand it in their own ways and so, contribute to this changeover. This thesis, in fact, is just an attempt to look at simple tasks, like plant keeping, with these new eyes of knowledge construction. Here new strategies of representing plants
and their surrounding environment will be proposed. This work can be considered as
an attempt to use new technologies, new media to produce and support this shift of
From the outer world to the inner environment of one’s room
The goal of this thesis is not to concentrate on the big systems but on very concrete
examples in which informal learning can make the difference in the way people learn.
For this reason, during my work at MLE, I concentrated on the plant keeping activities
that everybody does in a house environment, trying to support the exploration of the
plant ecosystem as inscribed in the bigger house-room-ecosystem.
The room in which a person lives can be abstracted as a self-contained environ-
ment with proper dynamics and inhabitants. Temperature, humidity level and light
conditions are perturbed as in the outer world. People living in the room are also per-
turbing this environment: breathing, for instance, increases the humidity in the room,
the human body emanate heat, affecting the temperature levels in the room, finally
the light bulbs present in the room and/or windows can modify the light conditions.
Any pet living in the room is going to be part of its ecosystem. A plant is not
different form an animal, it has only different dynamics but is a living being: its
biology does not allow the plant to modify directly the temperature but, it influences
the humidity level and so, indirectly, the temperature conditions.
The health of the plant reflects the life support conditions of the room environ-
ment. If the plant is not healthy this may reflect a bad oxygenation of the room, or
severe conditions of light, heat and humidity. The is a concrete correlation between
the room-system and the plant-system because usually a room is 10-30 m2 , and walls
and windows provides enough insulation form the external world. Subsequently, as a
first approximation I considered a room environment as a self-contained ecosystem,
with its proper dynamics and i tried to simplify the exploration of the plant organism
inscribed in its world.
In fact, it is usually difficult to understand how the environmental variable affect
a plant’s life, or, at least, how to tune and control these conditions to provide the
best environment to our green friends. We know, from oral tradition, that we have
to give water to the plant and that we need to keep the plant warm and in the right
light conditions but this is usually it. Conversely, variables interactions are usually
complicated, sometimes also in good light conditions we do not get the best growth
results because the way the variables mix and influence the plant growth are difficult
This thesis wants to intervene in this precise context, trying to provide a frame-
work, a technology and a toll which can help in the ‘variables affecting a plant growth’
exploration, in doing plant keeping and above all in constructing a personal knowledge
of these phenomena.
A plant’s world: limits of an interaction with a plant
When we interact with a plant we experience several dynamics which I consider
limiting the learning experience with the plant. Firstly, you cannot manipulate the
plant with too much energy because of its fragility. Is not possible, for example,
to shake the plant to throw the plant, etc., without causing severe damages to its
integrity. In this sense the manipulative experience you can have with the plant is
reduced (see [Eyster and Tashiro(1997)], or [Sowell(1989)]). Secondly, plant are slow
in responding to climatic/environmental changes. This reflect in the way a learner
may build cognitive connections between a perturbation on the ecosystem and the
corresponding effect on the life of the plant, which is the corresponding qualitative
and empirical approach of the exploration of the plant’s biology. Thirdly, a plant
is a complex world in its own. Lots of environmental factors concur to generating
non-linear forms of growth. Using empirical observation for grasping the underlying
laws and connections is usually not enough.
Several variables interact at the same time to generate the outcome of a plant’s
life. Model these variables is not an easy task for research and, moreover, for empirical
observation. Lots of simplifications are needed in order to concentrate on the core
concepts driving the growth of a living organism. Technology can can be at hand
in this simplification process, providing the computational power needed to isolate
conditions, speeding up processes, and taking track of the outcomes. This was the
attempt of this work.
A new media for exploring the plant’s world
One of the aims of the Biosphera and the DigitalSeed pro ject is to expand human
potential in the observation of a plant’s life. in fact, these microworlds i have de-
signed, support the learner, the user, during the observation of the plant, enabling a
comparison between different sets of inputs and outcomes into the ecosystem of the
plant. another mayor feature of this system is to speeding up the biological processes
of the virtual alter-ego of the physical plant for real-time observation, and finally
this technology allows the user to reverse processes that usually are unidirectional
for manipulation and exploration purposes. This kind of abilities are not possible
for the human abilities, so technology is considered through this work, as a tool for
sustaining human exploration, allowing new kind of enquiry.
Biosphera and DigitalSeed are new media, in the sense that support new human
abilities, the ability, for example, to observe invisible phenomena, to speeding up
biological processes and to make comparisons usually impossible to do. the purpose
of this thesis is also to provide a stimuli to the research in this field and to use
also these new media, these new technology as research tool, to study deeply the
cognitive experiences people have during their interactions with plant and the kind
of understanding they can gain with new tools supporting them.
An outline of this work
it is not my intention, in this work, to make claims about the scientific effectiveness of
the technology usage proposed in this thesis. Rather, this work has to be considered
as a report of a design exercise coming after two years of study and research at Media
Lab Europe. The proposed solutions, in fact, have not been tested longitudinally to
draw any scientific conclusions.
The second chapter illustrates an interaction scenario of the usage of the Biosphera
system, trying to give the reader some more example of how and when this technology
can be used and for which purposes. This chapter give me also the opportunity of
discussing a matrix of cognitive experiences the user can have while comparing plants
grown into the system from plants grown outside the system and combinations of
The third chapter will discuss the theoretical background of this work giving
support to current status of research behind any hypotheses raised. These sections
will analyse all the aspect of the human interaction with plants and research questions
and claims collected during the literature study.
The fourth chapter will illustrate the design of two implemented microworlds: the
Digital Seed and the Biosphera system, explaining how any technical solution chosen
is related to the theoretical study of chapter 3 and how the design is going to support
The fifth chapter will detail how the design proposed in chapter 4 is born from
the collaboration with several groups of children which have participated to some
design session at MLE, and how their ideas stimulated the design of the final ob jects.
In addition, this chapter will try to report the historical evolution of the pro jects
through several stages of development.
The last chapter will draw some conclusions of the entire work, with some space
for future development.