artificial — even if, by most definitions, live — non-organismal cellular tissue, historically known under many names as its capabilities evolved; arf (originally artf, from artificial) is common now but you can also hear it called gluum, smartwood, simply stuff. Following convention, we use lowercase arf for the tissue proper and Arf for the entirety of interconnected arf on Earth — whose billions of chunks of all sizes, uses, and aggregation states are in many ways a whole. ■    The first direct ancestor of todays arf was a self-replicating microhomeostat modelled on a plant cell — a “growable computing platform,” the most successful of the many projects that pursued self-regulating computing ecology. Simply put a seed in a pot, add water and nutrients; within a week, the swelling dough-like lump becomes a wireless-linked unit of storage and computation — encrypted, redundantly backed, with ever-increasing capacity. As neighborhood arf plants were connecting peer-to-peer, the global Arf network was born: free, distributed, invulnerable, perfectly private, growing (at first) superexponentially — practically limitless.  ■    Self-replicating “gray goo” (overruns Earth, kills all life) was one of the worst scares of that scare-rich era. Arf has natural safeguards: first, its carbon-based (biologically inspired) chemistry allows at most plant-like speed of growth, giving ample time to detect and deal with a runaway; also, single cells dont survive outside of a body of arf that reproduces vegetatively but only from large enough chunks. Another crucial protection was there from the start: part of the genome of an arf cell is stored in an encrypted form and must be decrypted before division — the key being the genome of a human. Each plant thus depends on its owners physical proximity as it constantly filters the air for human cells (shed by the outer layers of the human skin), extracts their DNA, and uses it to decrypt its own genome; the human DNA is destroyed in the process, so a sustained supply of decoder material is required for a plant to remain alive and data-able. A catchy if biologically dubious metaphor: arf must always be making love to its human to live. ■    Countless generations later, this procreation brake remains in place but is known to be less reliable (and certainly less warranted) than when it was conceived. A lot depends on arfs upkeep regime, data load, plant scale, genetic diversity; a large enough volume with thoroughly intermixed lineages (the City) may sustain on minimal human attention. Its only a thin surface layer that procreates in an arf body — this alone rules out exponential growth; the inner volume remains stable and almost structureless except for slow inward migration of surface-born cells to replace those that break down and get recycled by neighbors. Time is the critical resource, arf is “time condensed”; you can stimulate growth by being physically near your plant, exposing it to nutrient-rich air or a soil-like substrate, but theres always a limit to how fast it may swell: “arf and compilers taught us patience.”  ■    Cohabitation with a human owner is what keeps arf healthy; given how much humans, themselves, depend on arf, symbiosis is hardly an exaggeration. When not orphaned, a plant homeostatically preserves its shape and texture, repairs wear and tear, admits no senescence; a piece of arf may mineralize to max out on short-term strength at the expense of malleability and self-repairability but that is reversible: unless mineralized too deeply, arf eventually rebounds to its natural organic composition. Abandoned, a plant stops growing, withers, and ultimately vanishes, the rate of evaporation inversely proportional to its volume (tiny bits disappear within a day, a house-scale blob may linger for centuries); withering works by thinning — gradual loss of density — with minimal melting, sagging, or crumbling: arf truly dissolves into thin air, becomes more and more rarefied until only a translucent, barely material mesh suggests an outline of the original structure. An arf tree — “faithful mourner” — over a human grave, feeding on the decaying bodys DNA, growing to fulfill a geometric testament of the deceased: ghastly or cute?  ■    At first a “data goo” would only make sense to sustainability geeks; outside the early adopters, fear mingled with ridicule. It didnt help that “arfers,” with agricultural enthusiasm, kept inventing ways (arf wearables, obsessive manual handling of their “babies”) to make plants grow faster — sometimes impressively so. Several cancerous outbreaks — mostly self-defeating natural mutations — made news, but the community persevered until the initial fears began to dissipate. Just like early in human history, pet animals hijacked — and enriched — the human parental instinct, arf has been riding the agricultural instinct of the neolithic man whose life depends on things that grow: replacing the domesticated plants we no longer cultivate for food, arf becomes our “portable earth” — an all-absorbing, all-cleaning, all-spawning ground for ungrounded human existence.  ■    Aptly named arf is the only artificium todays human cant do without: the Crusoe index of an adult possessing an own arf seed is “practically unity.” Theres an emergent symbiosis of Humans, Minds, and the “second nature” of Arf — each unable to survive without the others; we use Arf, know it, live in it, but its not our machine anymore, nor a “collective body” or “global consciousness”; we draw from it but dont always know what well find. “Indistinguishable from magic”? Are we surrendering to something we no longer fully understand? There is subjective magic in what ties a human being to an arf plant: “know thy arf” is the new “know thyself” — sculpting, reading, writing arf is both daily routine and transformative experience.  ■    Like any self-replicator, arf evolves; unlike biological multicellulars, most of its evolution happens at the level of the individual cell — the subject of evolution as well as its own selector. In the thin surface layer where cells mate and divide, each newborn cell undergoes vetting: older cells interact with it, run randomized tests to measure fitness, argue among themselves, and eventually vote for or against its continued existence; any mutation that sacrifices usefulness or versatility for growth normally gets suppressed. Biological immune systems were an inspiration for such “evolution by consensus,” except that arf has a much more integral idea of how good cells are different from bad; without a single-cell lifecycle bottleneck (only vegetative reproduction), arf is naturally conservative but a good deal of beneficial evolution has been observed in the wild. Most of the interesting changes in arf, however, come from humans: following experiments on isolated plants, best developments are selected, tested, and integrated into a version patch released every few years by the worldwide arf community; patched culture takes time to spread, so real-world arf is always inhomogeneous, permeated by generation waves: a plant may have cells from many generations as well as tweaks by its owners and arf doctors.  ■    About the time artf lost its t, the sculpting upgrade appeared and the first whole-arf homes were being grown: arf was establishing itself as “something to be anything,” “stuff to build world out of”; thus began the second and much longer period of exponential growth which further accelerated when lazyball flotation and aeroactivity ungrounded the arf homes. Arfs data density has plateaued but its ubiquity and sheer volume more than compensate for that (“the only time in history when storage capacity outexpanded the demand”); once a second-choice backup, Arf became the Storage — metonymically, Knowledge. ■    Arfs capacity is finite but the limit is soft; a piece of arf can always take “just a bit more” pushed into it at the cost of inhibiting some life functions: overstuffed arf — in a “drydocked” isolated plant that cannot offload excess data to its neighbors — becomes brittle and responds poorly to sculpting. “Running our civilization without backup,” “all eggs in one basket” — but its grown so big that nothing else would fit these eggs anyway; arf has internal storage redundancy but there is no second Arf: apart from beam backup, the only viable non-arf storage is the old network of Innerwald crystalline vaults (limited and expensive but designed to be near-eternal, so highly contested).  ■    Invented for storage, arf wasnt taken seriously as a computing cloud at first — but here, too, it ended up becoming the default: a limitless universal substrate for all kinds of digital life. Early Minds were unwilling (or unable: Mind mobility) to transplant into the more and more habitable Arf — but now, all Minds are born free & arf-native: “fish in the ocean,” they enjoy full (even if not effortless) mobility within the planetary Arf, including the bulk of human homes in the sky or on the ground. Minds dont sculpt or grow arf by living in it (“no more than Humans grow their brains by thinking”), nor can people affect, or spy upon, the sentient beings in their walls; for all their adjacency, Human/Mind communication only works via mutually acknowledged channels (a window can be grown on any arf surface but needs action from both sides to be functional). ■    Growth may be stagnating as Arf is increasingly crammed with fattening Knowledge and proliferating Minds — who thus depend on humans in ways they dont always appreciate. Arfs hardwired link to human DNA — all but impossible to severe now, however hard to defend — means it cant expand much faster than it does; bereft of humans, Arf would completely evaporate within a few thousand years unless an unlikely self-sufficiency mutation occurs. Is it buyers remorse — “not what we bargained for” — with arfs forced evolution and multiple goal shifts, its fixation on the physical, its still-smouldering scares, even its globality and (relative) uniformity despite the instinctive individualism of “my plant is mine”? Has it effectively anchored our civilization to Earth? Grown it such a cozy shell: so bodily close, so vulnerable, so intolerably stuffy?

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