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Sacred & Mundane

When Plants Tweet

by Erica Wetter

It’s said that talking to your plants may help them grow, but what if those plants started responding? Would they demand human blood, as the carnivorous and vocal Audrey II did in Little Shop of Horrors? Or would they simply request more space, direct light, or another green companion?

It was in the hope of starting just such a conversation that a group of researchers at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program came up with Botanicalls—a small leaf-shaped electronic device that allows houseplants to tweet about their thirst via Twitter. The way it works is simple: two steel rods are attached to a circuit board tethered to an ethernet connection. When the rods are inserted into the plant’s soil, they measure its conductivity, which shifts in relation to the amount of moisture present. These readings are sent to the circuit board, which then translates that information into brief tweets. “Water me please,” a plant might begin asking politely, before segueing into a more desperate plea: “URGENT! Water me!”

Now, houseplants around the world are tweeting a common message: they’re thirsty. “Wanna get me a drink?” Mr. Ikea Plant, based in the East Village, often tweets in the late evening, parroting the question he no doubt hears from bar-goers carousing on the street below. “One more round?” he sometimes follows up. Meanwhile, Spike, from New England, is more accusatory with his tweets: “HELP! Plant abuse! I’m dry!”

Without a doubt, inserting wires and rods into a plant’s pot so that it can “talk” has some uncomfortable anthropocentric undertones to it, despite the cute messages this technology facilitates. “It’s creating more technology, and one argument is that if you just learned how to take care of a plant, and to read its communication system, then you wouldn’t need this,” said Kati London, who co-created Botanicalls with Kate Hartman, Robert Faludi, and Rebecca Bray. “But we were really interested in creating a conversation for people who don’t know how to have that conversation.”

The inspiration for the project came about when its four creators found themselves craving some greenery in the otherwise sterile and technical environment of their grad school offices. Realizing that any plant could be vulnerable to tragedy-of-the-commons-style neglect, they decided to help their new leafy inhabitants literally vocalize their need for water, giving them the ability to ring up their owners via telephone. Playfully matching botanical characteristics to voice intonation, the group made the ivy’s voice sound creepy, the spider plant’s bubbly, and the Cuban oregano’s sultry. “We were thrilled, because people totally paid attention and took care of the plants,” added London, confirming that the first plant to “speak,” the well-tended Pothos (who now has three-thousand-some followers on Twitter), is still thriving. It’s hard to know what the plants think of all of this, but if their tweets are to be trusted, many seem to be thinking: “Thank you for watering me!”

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