Thinking Through Digital Ecosystem Interactions
One of the inspirations for OpenLabs workshop is Alberto de Campo’s (and others) “Varia Zoosystematica Profundorum”
This is an interesting project, principally because the robots are granted their own means of communicating with one another, and those means are deliberately tailored to take account of the deep ocean ecology (and denizens) which the project as a whole intends to imitate/evoke. Plus points for an art installation featuring computers communicating in a manner which doesn’t have to be intelligible to the human sensorium (because for the most part the code protocols by which computers, and indeed algorithms, relay information to one another – voltage exchange – is on a scale incommensurable with human senses. See also: robots who communicate via air).
However while the robots interactions aren’t intelligible to the visitors to the installation their noises most certainly are. And it’s here which provides a pertinent point of departure, one best unfolded with reference to two projects which I am a massive fan of.
The first is ‘Sei Personaggi part 2’ by Valentina Vuksic which bears some passing similarities to the above project. In it visitors to the installation enter the space and hear the sounds of 5 decrepid computers executing their processes (courtesy of magnetic pick up mics on RAM modules and the whirrs and bleeps and the machine itself). And thats as far as the human element is catered for, a bit of acoustic stimulation.
However each computer is an actor in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, conveying lines of dialogue to one another via shell scripts. The play happens in the kernel. The intelligent (or perhaps cognitive is a less loaded term) element of the play is occuring on a perceptual scale not apprehendable to the human senses. But a concession to the flesh and blood audience is made via the magnetic pick up mics. This is very different in kind to the above project whereby what the human can hear is the means by which the robots are communicating with one another (in a similar way to how we can hear a dog bark at or towards another dog). In Sei Personaggi the inability for humans to apprehend the means by which machines communicate with one another (via network protocols and serial ports) is highlighted by the token means by which they can appreciate what unfolds before them.
Nevertheless what Vuksic has designed must be considered an interface and I’ll return to why that is crucial at the end.
The next project takes the thrust of Sei Personaggi pt 2 and ups the anti significantly: the ap0201 autonomous robots. These robots are situated in an isolated environment, the Mojave Desert California, deliberately far away from humans. In this environment they sense their surroundings and communicate with one another via RF and audio bleeps. What they communicate to one another lets them alter each other’s source code. This again is machinic communication particular to the level of the machine, to the level of software, to the level of code (as indeed all computer communication ultimately is, but the omission of the human in this piece brings this factor into relief). Better still even if some foolhardy human made the trip to the desert they would get very little from the robots: there is no concessionary interface to some human interloper.
These projects are important because I believe it necessary to think of elements of the digital ecosystem as being incomprehenisible to the human in a similar manner to how the ultraviolet/infrared colours of flowers plays no part in how we understand the world but it is crucial for bees. Or the manner in which pheremones are particular to each species occupying various niches within an ecosystem. This should allow us to think more critically about considering ecosystems: every object/organism/entity has concerns for differing aspects of the world, and each entities sensorium need not reconcile with anothers in order for them to coexist in an ecosystem. this is why the issue of interface is paramount.
Interface is paramount because it is the vehicle by which we come into contact with the inhuman spaces of code. Simply thinking of all digital technology as designed to fit human needs (even if most of it is predominantly coded with an end use in mind) would disavow the vitality that can inhabit the abstracted universe of code which is the bedrock of digital culture.
Nigel Thrift: “There is no single world (or ‘umwelt’) in which all living beings are situated”
Life is a loaded term and may conjure up unwanted images of undue animism. Nevertheless considering code and algorithms as possessed of a perceptual prowess and a vital autonomy all of their own is an intrinisc theme of ALife research. Extending such concerns would have interesting ramifications for how we consider our general interactions with digital technology (most of which are not based on generative code) which if considered from a suitably “zoomed out” perspective could be considered commensurable with the ‘simple-interactions-begetting-complex-behaviour’ at the root of CA theory. Except in this consideration both humans and codes are considered as equivalent agents interacting with one another in a search space governed by certain parameters, leading to a complex behaviour which we, as agents in this scenario, cannot forsee due to the perspective our vantage point within affords (that is to say, it will not be omniscient as it is when we watch a cellular automata program execute across our computer monitor)