arf,

artificial — though, by most definitions, live — non-organismal cellular tissue, known historically 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 itself and Arf for the entirety of arf substance on Earth: scattered into billions of chunks of all sizes and purposes, in many respects it is a whole. ■    Earliest direct ancestor of todays arf — a self-replicating microhomeostat modelled on a plant cell — was developed as “growable data storage” with built-in redundancy, encryption, networking: simply put a seed in a pot, add water and nutrients, and the swelling dough-like lump emerges as a wireless-linked unit of storage and computation with always-increasing capacity. Soon, neighborhood arf plants could connect peer-to-peer, and the worldwide Arf storage was born — free, distributed, perfectly private, practically unlimited; arfs global tonnage was, for a time, growing superexponentially, many projects pursuing self-regulating “computing ecology” merged with arf as a universal platform.  ■    Self-replicating “gray goo” that overruns Earth and drowns all life was one of the piercingest scares of that scare-fertile era. With arfs carbon-based chemistry — similar to natural biology — the first safeguard is the plant-like speed of growth: usually theres ample time to detect and deal with a runaway; besides, single cells dont survive outside of a body of arf which only reproduces vegetatively from large enough chunks. All this wasnt entirely reassuring, so an additional protection was wired in early: part of the genome of an arf cell is stored in an encrypted form and needs to be decrypted before division — the decryption key being the genome of a human. Each plant thus depends on its owners presence: it constantly filters the air around it for matching human cells (shed by the keratinized outer layers of the human skin), extracts DNA, and decrypts its own cells' genome; the human DNA molecule is destroyed in the process, so a sustained supply of decoder material is needed for a plant to remain vital and able to store data. ■    Countless generations later, this protection mechanism remains active but it turned out less reliable than conceived: a lot depends on arfs upkeep regime, data load, plant scale, genetic diversity; a large enough volume with thoroughly intermixed lineages (e.g. the City) can sustain on minimal human attention. Its only a thin surface layer that procreates in an arf body, its inner volume remaining stable and largely structureless except for slow inward migration of surface-born cells to replace those that break down and get recycled by neighbors. This rules out exponential growth; 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 a limit to how fast it can swell — “arf and compilers taught us patience.”  ■    When not orphaned, arf homeostatically preserves shape and texture, repairs wear and tear, admits no senescence; a piece of arf can be mineralized 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, arf stops growing, begins to wither, and ultimately vanishes, the rate of evaporation inversely proportional to the chunks volume (a large enough blob sublimates arbitrarily slowly); withering is by thinning — gradual loss of density — with minimal melting, sagging, or crumbling: arf truly dissolves into the air, becomes more and more rarefied until only a fine, translucent, barely material mesh suggests an outline of the original structure. Cohabitation with a human owner is what keeps arf healthily corporeal; given how much humans, themselves, depend on arf, symbiosis is hardly an exaggeration. It now takes effort to comprehend how ghastly an arf tree over a human grave — a “faithful mourner” — could once seem.  ■    At first the prospect of a “data goo” only excited those already techno-minded — outside the early adopters, fear and skepticism prevailed. It didnt help that “arfers,” with agricultural enthusiasm, scrambled to make their plants grow faster, sometimes with frighteningly impressive results; physical contact with owners body stimulates a plant, hence the early arf wearables and arf geeks' obsessive manual handling of their “babies.” Cancerous outbreaks — most of them either natural mutations or honest errors, not sabotage — made news, but the community weathered the early turmoil, pervasive fears started to recede. Just like pet animals, early in human history, hijacked (and greatly enriched) the instinct of parental attachment, arf has been riding the agricultural instinct of the neolithic man whose life depends on things that grow; arf surrogates for the domesticated plants we no longer cultivate for food, serves a “portable earth”: an all-absorbing, all-cleaning, all-spawning foundation for ungrounded human existence.  ■    Aptly named arf is the only artificium humans cant do without: the Crusoe index of an adult human possessing an own arf seed approaches unity. Much speculation surrounds the 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,” nor “global consciousness”; we draw freely from it but dont always know what well find. Is it “indistinguishable from magic” already — are we overrelying on something we no longer fully understand? There is magic lurking in the links between a human being and an arf plant; “know thy arf” is the new “know thyself”: sculpting, reading, writing arf is daily routine and a transformational experience.  ■    Like any self-replicator, arf evolves; unlike biological multicellulars, most of that evolution happens at the level of the individual cell — the subject of evolution and 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 procreation or even existence; a mutation that sacrifices usefulness for growth or proliferation normally gets suppressed. Such “evolution by consensus” was inspired by biological immunity, except that arf has a much more integral idea of what constitutes a good cell; lacking a single-cell lifecycle bottleneck (only vegetative reproduction), arf is naturally very 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: experiments on isolated plants lead to promising developments being selected, refined, integrated into an upgrade patch voted and 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 (inside a plant, cells may be many generations old) as well as local tweaks by owners or arf doctors.  ■    About the time artf lost its t, the sculpting upgrade spread and the first whole-arf homes were being grown: arf was establishing itself as “something that can be anything,” “stuff to build worlds out of”; this was the second and much longer period of exponential growth which accelerated when lazyball flotation and aeroactivity ungrounded the arf homes. Arfs data density had plateaued but its ubiquity and sheer volume more than compensated for that (“the only time in history when storage capacity outexpanded the demand”); once a second-choice backup, Arf had become Storage — metonymically, Knowledge. (Arfs capacity is finite but the limit is soft: a piece of arf can always take “just a bit more” data pushed into it at the cost of inhibiting some life functions — overstuffed arf becomes brittle, responds poorly to sculpting; that only happens in “drydocked” isolated plants as a regular online plant simply passes excess data into the global Arf ocean.) “All eggs in one basket” but its grown so big that nothing else would fit its eggs anyway, were “running our civilization without a backup”: arf has internal storage redundancy but there is no second Arf (apart from beam backup, the only notable non-arf storage is the old network of Innerwald crystalline vaults — of limited capacity and expensive to expand though potentially eternal, so highly contested).  ■    Invented for storage, arf wasnt at first taken seriously as a computing cloud — but here, too, ended up the default substrate for modelling, simulation, general computing. Early Minds were often unwilling or unable (Mind mobility) to migrate into the increasingly habitable Arf but now, almost all Minds are arf-native: “fish in the ocean,” they have full mobility within the planetary Arf, including the bulk of most homes in the sky or on the ground — even though arf travel isnt effortless and Minds tend to hang physically close to their families and collaborations. Minds dont sculpt nor grow arf by living in it (“no more than a Human can grow his brain by thinking”); for all the physical closeness, Human/Mind communication only works via mutually agreed channels: no “spying” or “mindreading,” a window can be grown anywhere on arf surface but needs action from both sides to be functional.  ■    Growth stagnates 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 even with the whole human population busily growing their arf plants; bereft of humans, Arf will completely evaporate within a few thousand years unless an unlikely self-sufficiency mutation occurs. “Remorse of the buyer”: “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 stubborn individualism of “my plant is mine”; arf has effectively anchored the civilization to Earth — gave it such a cozy shell but one thats soft, vulnerable, intolerably stuffy.

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