Anders MichelsEn

The fact of would-be worlds

Short history of A-life

The art project Black Shoals taps into the rich imagination surrounding the computational heritage, whether as the creation of manifest artifacts, e.g. personal computers, moon rovers, or digital assistants, or associated speculation and theory, within artificial intelligence, artificial life, connectionism, and complexity. The leitmotif of the project is to follow how the notions of artifact and life intermingle and change substances somehow, in early computing within cybernetics, and later within the broad array of applications in organizations and modeling predicated on the computer, and how, these, moreover intermingle with a wider social and cultural life. The title of the project, Black Shoals, refer directly and indirectly to the famous formula of Fisher Black and Myron Scholes which for a time seemed able to fully predict and follow the complexity of the financial markets to the advance of investors, but which ended in a dire crash, ironically to be explained somewhat on par with the attempts at modeling which lay behind Black and Scholes’s formula in the first place.

The projects aims at the interfaces and the interactions between machine and life, as concrete effect of ideas of mechanical liveliness predicated on computer technology and theory. Thus it also, and importantly, focus on how such issues are translated into a social and historical sphere by way of creative handlings by humans. Thus the project comments on the contemporary fascination and fetishation of computers, on the folly and exaggeration, on the dire implications for our world of the will to machinic life. It asks important questions of how we create artificial liveliness, of what sort of fact such life may amount to, of why we as social beings are indeed so fascinated by the machinic Being of ”would-be worlds.”

Let us then start with a look at the charming 1953-picture of the British cybernetician, Grey Walter, showing Walter, his wife and daughter with the ’electronic tortoise’ Elsie.1 The picture is provided with a text, ’the couple with their two children, one, however, electronic’.2 The image displays naively, yet unrepentantly, the profusion of the novel science of cybernetics in the first postwar decades envisioning information and communication as central to reality, and as it were, in explicit dependence on the computer invented during WW2. The small and – to us – rather clumsy mechanism may count as an early piece of artificial life, albeit of the kind relating more to latter day intelligent vacuum cleaners, ready for the middle class suburbs of the world, than to children, not to mention present day children. Nevertheless to many in the early 1950s, Elsie was a sign of certain future. Finally humans were able to make real the age old dream of the man machine, of a machine come alive, not least in the scientific milieu gaining around cybernetics and early computing. The same year, the last of the ten famous Macy-conferences was held, concluding a breathtaking endeavor at mapping the perspectives of the world after the computer, that is, of a science founded on the concepts of information and communication. On the view that ”control and communication in the animal and the machine,”3 with the title from Norbert Wieners famous book from 1948, was not only a most promising new scientific field but an essential supplement to the concrete computer. And moreover, Wiener made clear in his later introduction to ’cybernetics and society’, a ”human use of human beings.4 In the 50s artificial creatures – the robot, the electronic brain and so forth – were no longer a dream or dependent on shady tricks and mechanisms. In 1958 John McCarthy coined the phrase ”artificial intelligence” which were to gather a substantial part of the burgeoning computational science under the even less repentant view that ”machines will be capable, within twenty years, of any work that a man can do” as Herbert Simon stated in 1965.5 Wiener himself appeared to raise the stakes even further “to certain points where cybernetics impinges on religion” in his last book God & Golem, Inc. from 1964.6 A German pioneer of computer art, Herbert W.Franke summed up the early hopes for cybernetics in 1999: ”In the “Gründeryears” of cybernetics from 1950 onwards it seemed as if a floodgate had been opened and a multitude of phenomena had been discovered involving both matter and data which had previously been possible to compare only with difficulty. At this point it was primarily the philosophers who were occupied with non-material issues, which were also called consciousness. To those objects that cybernetics were able to handle belonged, of course, all the devices of communication technology, control techniques, and computer technique. From the beginning, Norbert Wiener included biological and social processes – everything that has to do with behavior, sensing, and thinking, with inter-personal relations, with language, with learning processes. And on this account a vision arose: Cybernetics were supposed to be the contrast to the science that relates to the material artifacts – what could ordinarily be ascribed to physics – a general science which united all sciences pointing towards information processes.”7

The image of Grey Walter is thus more than dusty representation of the computational heritage. Walter contributed to the development of the postwar agenda of computation by giving rise to some of the very first concrete examples of Wiener’s visions. Walter’s robotic tortoises were small electrically propelled vehicles equipped with on-board battery and devices allowing for a measure of the power stored in the batteries and sensors which made them able to seek out and plug into a recharging apparatus when energy ran low.8 These primeaval forms of artificial life were in fact received as much cleverer than they were, for instance at the Festival of Britain in 1952, where there mechanism performed what was perceived as a small brain carrying out the sophisticated task of satisfying its own appetite. The tortoises was a highly factual proof of cybernetics’s claim to solve the traditional schisma between mechanism and organism, between ”the animal and the machine,” what Norbert Wiener in 1948 called the “badly posed questions”9 opposing vitalism and mechanism.

The inherited schisma could be solved or at least mitigated by a mechanical demonstration on par with speculation. In machines one might install new phenomena with a ’would-be’ stature: phenomena that could be as real as the real, forwarding similitude, even if they were enclosed in their mechanical surrogate, as charming Elsie. Put differently, the computer appeared to be comparatively more alive, spontaneous, than previous machines. From the early Elsies emerge the option of mechanical production of something new, something un-expected – “surprising” says John L. Casti – by making a model in computer-created “would-be worlds” covering a far ranging class of phenomena – from stock markets to the human brain.10 Allegedly ”complex” systems:

“ (…) that are completely inexplicable by any conventional analysis of the systems’ constituent parts. These phenomena, commonly referred to as emergent behavior, seem to occur in many complex systems involving living organisms, such as a stock market or the human brain (…) Complex systems are not new, but for the first time in history tools are available to study such systems in a controlled, repeatable, scientific fashion. (…) with today’s computers, complete silicon surrogates of these systems can be built, and these “would-be worlds” can be manipulated in ways that would be unthinkable for their real-world counterparts.”11

Elsie is thus one ancestor of what was to become a proud family of ’monsters’ as it went in the 90s’s radical chic surrounding the implementation of mass computing and computer media, – an ancestor of Bruno Latour’s “quasi-object,” taking mediation (computer based and otherwise) into the center of everything social and natural, and, importantly, undermining the nature-culture divide securing modern truth based on a separate nature understood be separate humans.12 Put differently: it was not clear that a would-be world of e.g. a natural phenomenon, let’s take the trivial example of the beeswarm, could not actually be exactly as good as nature, or as humans. The establishment of such ”worlds” proved that science had long been working with quasi-objects, that were as alive as any human when trying to grasp the reality of a phenomenon. There was no real ’nature’ or ’science’ but only, as Latour argues, ”sociotechnological networks” producing relationality between things, including humans.

When looking closer at the image of Elsie she thus has to gain. She is a lovely concrete example of the ongoing postwar fascination not only with what became known as automation with the term Marshall McLuhan choose for the concluding chapter of Understanding Media in 1964,13 but also with the new life that might transpire in its wake, with “learning a living,” or, learning to live with new conditions for human existence, as McLuhan indicated in the chapters subtitle. The issue of automation – the automaton – became an important testbed for later notions of spontaneity and complexity, underwriting the proliferating would-be worlds of today. The pioneering idea of mechanically generated complexity was set out in the mid-40s by Walter’s colleague Ross Ashby and specified in number of key texts from the late 40s by John von Neumann, conjecturing a new species of, what we may term, machinic Being,14 based on prospects such as the ”automata that produce automata,” as von Neumann writes in the late 40s.15 In his draft of a “theory of and organization of complicated automata”16 from 1949, he thus imagined one of the first contemporary definitions of complexity, in abstract as well as material form, as a ’being’ which was to be “inconceivable” when looking at the initial state of system, that is surprising, yet also bound to its concrete mechanics:

“There is thus this completely decisive property of complexity, that there exists a critical size below which the process of synthesis is degenerative, but above which the phenomenon of synthesis, if properly arranged, can become explosive, in other words, where syntheses of automata can proceed in such a manner that each automaton will produce other automata which are more complex and of higher potentialities than itself.”17

The fascination with artificial liveliness proposed by Elsie was indeed to have an immense and still somewhat unclarified impact on postwar intellectual life circumpassing unlikely compatriots such as Herbert Simon and his ”science of the artificial” and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari and their ”abstract machine.” In 1972 Edgar Morin lamented the captivity of ”the idea of mechanical repetition” and argued for a new idea of the machine as contemporaneously ”regulated and regulating.”18 He poignantly embraced the machine as a poietic instance and talked enthusiastically about “the family of machines:” the “arche machine: the sun,” “proto machines and wild engines”, the “living poly machines” with an autopoietic capacity, the “social mega machine,” the “artificial machines,”19 and not least, referring to Wiener’s cybernetic machine. The cybernetic automat transforms the mechanical machine’s “externality” into an organized internality by means of its program whereby it stands forward as “ (…) comparable with the living (…) by means of its organization of behavior.”20

The fact of Black Shoals

However, there is more to the picture of Elsie than meets the eye. The positioning of the tortoise in the gestalt field of the image indicates the coming issue of complex organization stipulated forcefully in would-be worlds such as we see in the art project Black Shoals. In the manner of Foucault we may read this image as displaying a decisive yet absent factor of relata. Not the actual entity of the mechanical object, or the consumed gaze of wife and daugther, the subject-object relation in some capacity, the wife acknowledging the husband’s achievement, the daughter engaging with a future sister, and on top the patriarch resting on his labour, but the organization of the four should be noted. The image conveys a strong sense of organization, emerging from within the automaton and the organisms pictured, juxtaposing, relating and emphasizing connections and networks to come in a manner not all too different from the way Foucault prefigures the subject and its predicaments in Las Meninas. Nevertheless, the image also indicates the remaining problem of such a generative representation ’covering a far ranging class of systemic properties’, that is, of systemic organization: what is the status of such an organization?

The art project of Black Shoals may enter us into the present state of robotics as a generalized, generic social issue. May we thus say that this project simply affirms the prospects envisaged by Wiener and so many others? Of course not. In fact the schisma thought to be overcome by Wiener – between vitalism and mechanism – here emerges as a different schisma between technological organization and creative articulation: that is, as schisma between effects of computation and embedded creativity. Not only because Black Shoals is created within an artistic circuit, but because: (1) the project debates the course taken by the computational heritage and resulting in widely applied computing, from models of economy to ’intelligent’ artifacts such as cell phones, (2) it shows us why the emerging schisma of technological organization and creative is as unsolvable as Wieners old schisma, yet productive of a decisive problem of how creativity relates to the endeavor of bringing objects to life in the postwar era.

The image of man, Philippe Breton makes clear, applies to define the early computer within artificial intelligence, but it also returns with a vengeance. The being of the computer, of machinic Being, is created in “the image of man.”21 The lively human supplies the image of machinic Being which apparantly can not be rendered otherwise. The ‘imagining’ of the machine is constructed on a paradox:

“There is not anywhere in the world a form of intelligence which can not be considered human and no contemporary computer program can pretend to be assimilated to the human brains functionality [functionnement]. This leads to a paradoxical situation: for each time artifi- cial intelligence obtains results it ceases to be of concern to this field, to the extent that it achieves a significance in another sense [italics mine] (…)22

The road from technological organization of complexity to creative articulation – imagination – is much more bumpy than the repeated visions of the computational heritage will have us believe. Something else appears: from the lively Elsie to the application of would-be worlds such as Black Shoals, we are confronted with the establishment of organization as a claim to truth, yet in another sense: forms of complexity generated by artifacts cannot be taken as the complexity of the world, but as a fact of this complexity: they add to our modeling of the world, and they add to the world by their factuality, and it is not possible to secure a precise relation between these two additions. What is often seen as the confinement of modeling ‘in silicon’ is actually also a statement of fact, of complexity as effectuated artificial act. Never will we know in the final sense what ‘comes’ from the complexity of the world and from the complexity we have made possible by our machines. We have just enhanced Wiener’s schisma with technological organizations of a wider nature: the schisma still emerges with the ontological complication Cornelius Castoriadis’s points to when he writes:

“From an ultimate point of view, the question “What is it, in what we know, that comes from the observer (from us), and what is it that comes from what there is?” is, and will forever remain, undecideable.”23

Global financial deepening

When viewing the model of Black Shoals, the application of artificial life-programming to an informational configuration based on datastreams from the “global financial deepening” (Ankie Hoogvelt)24 what is brought forward is information of the world and information to be used upon the world. What we see are creatures embedded in silicon, accessible only through the projections discernible by the human eye. We see the emergence of complexity as stunning as Elsie was to the 1953-viewer, but, however, as misunderstood as Elsie turned out to be. The family of monsters should prove highly effectual but not pervasive, rather they build into human culture in unforeseen and still badly understood ways. The entities viewed in the Black Shoals project may emerge in ways quite similar to e.g. evolution, behavior, adaption etc. of organic life upon the environment made up by the globalizing world of finance. However, their every move, will be inscribed in a pure fact of artifact. Only within computing, only within the meticulous plans, moves, decisions, and definitions making up the entire computational configuration it is possible to speak of evolution and so forth (as the projects programmer Cefn Hoile describes quite clearly in his paper).25 What is evolving is the artificial, in a still more comprehensive manner, in the word of Ezio Manzini, as “an unknown artificial world that we must examine to discover its qualities and laws.”26 This is what appears as highly effectual in the application of computer instruments to the global finance market: the models made in situ may convey a deeper understanding of financial cyclus, but it must be understood equally by the ways men are able to produce a deepening form of the financial by the technology’s instant use in a global terrain. As Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway put it:

“It seems to be approaching the idea that the complexity of the in system some way legitimates it – because the stock market has the kind of cybernetic properties of biological systems (feedback loops etc.) it can in some ways be studied as a kind of biological system (and is). This tends to give rise to a sense that the market is somehow a “natural” expression of fundamental forces. But the market is only a natural expression of the particular artificial world model which it embodies – in the same way that the creatures are natural expressions of the computer program that they exist in.”27

The marriage of cybernetics and the computer – from Elsie to AI, and on to Black Shoals (end for that matter, the Black Scholes formula) – from the intricate programming that translate computational genotype into the phenomenal world capturing the viewer in the project, to the unseen globally stretched hardware behind the installations spectacle – confronts us with the promises and predicaments of creative modeling of complex organization, and, in fact, in any form of modeling as a form of creation. Perhaps, this amounts to the devolution of the modern constitution as Latour argues, to the abolishment of the exclusivity of the human and of nature in favor of quasi-objects (and quasi-subjects) 28 within the realm of sociotechnological networks. Or with Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto from 1984, to a strategic way out of the modern dichotomies between man and machine if we stop considering the machine as an “it,” “to be animated, worshipped and dominated”:29 “High-Tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relationship between human and machine.”30 However, I would argue that Black Shoals does not show artifacts and humans – technological organization and creative articulation – to be of the sharing capacity Latour and others envisage (one way or the other). Rather the project raises a wholly new question, or point anew to a question that has always been with us. The artificial may proliferate because of its ability to set forward nature, humans, society and so forth in comprehensive yet emphatically unexacting ways, vis-à-vis the real.31 One may deny this lack of exaction as devolution of a modern constitution or the like, but one cannot deny the question of who is actually creating the organizations in question: what is the status of creativity vis-à-vis the proliferating organizations of quasi-objects and sociotechnological networks?

Beyond the would-be worlds (of econometrics)

We all make models of our life – increasingly with the help of digital computation, from supranational modeling to digital assistants – from the everyday shopping list to in the largest sense computationally underwritten schemes impressed by the IMF on developing countries in crisis. The models predicated on computation are highly adaptable to a broad class of real problems hitherto ungraspable. The reason for wondering over such forms of computation, when employed to the degree of almost enigmatic pervasion in the financial markets, points further to ideological forms of contemporary capitalism. Models applied may thus underwrite Friedrich von Hayek’s claim of social order as spontaneous, as “result of human action but not of human design”32 but they do so by emphasizing that human creativity is different from the singular creativity still legitimating most art. Few today will probably subscribe to the hardcore free marketeering underwriting the creation of the global financial deepening. More pervasive, perhaps, is the belief in organization per se, indicated also in the Black Shoals project, that is, in management at large as solution. Today this belief is supported and practizised by technological forms of organization foregrounded in computing: the use of computer modeling not for the sake of argument, but as argument, the use of modeling, of the artifact – organization in itself – as an ideology of consensus. This, perhaps, is what is implicitly criticized in this project, even if Black Shoals treads a thin line between fascination and critique.

An economy set up on the assumed dynamics extracted from computerbased models and instrumented by networked computer applications – the new economy – is not crisis free as the E-bust has proven, but it still performs a formidable artifical ‘quasi-instrumentation’. Yet it is not the social, or culture as many have believed in the postwar era, from Wiener to Latour: it has a broad and problematic social interface. We are in need of reviewing our creativity in this domain, not only as thoughtful art projects but also as a specific form of complex socially creative imagination. This I would argue is exactly the most promising prospect of computer art today, to give us a reasons to debate not the computers creativity but its capacity for complexity, and conversely, not the social complexity modeled e.g. by Black Shoals, but this complexity creatively articulated in the world.

As we started with the boundless Elsie we may stop by citing Amartya Sen who followed Robert C. Merton and Myron S. Scholes and put a diverging accent on the grasp of computation and econometrics on The Nobel Prize for Economics. The Nobel Prize winner writes in Development as Freedom (1999)33 about freedom, and he speaks not of the free machines so fetishized in the postwar West, but of the human peoples of this world, ”Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means.”34

1 See

2 Here cited from Philippe Breton, À l’image de l’homme. Du Golem aux creatures virtuelles. Paris: Éditions du Seuil 1995, picture insert.

3 C.f. Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Cambridge, Mass.:The MIT Press, 1991 (1948).

4 C.f. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc. 1954 (1950).

5 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mechanization of the Mind. On the Origins of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000, p.39.

6 C.f. Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. London: Chapman & Hall 1964.

7 Herbert W. Franke, ”Kybernetik. Wo ist sie geblieben,” in Telepolis: http//www. (accessed 160299).

8 Igor Aleksander and Piers Burnett, Reinventing Man. The Robot Becomes Reality. Pelican Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin) 1983, p.100.

9 Wiener, Op.cit., p. 44.

10 Cf. John L. Casti: Complexification. New York: HarperPerennial 1994; John L. Casti: Would-Be Worlds, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997.

11 John L. Casti, “Complexity”. Encyclopædia Britannica article?eu=108252 [Accessed May 14, 2002]. © 2002 Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.

12 C.f. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass., Harward University Press 1993.

13 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1994, p346ff.

14 For a more extensive debate, see my article ”The Imaginary of the Artifi- cial: Automata, Models, Machinics – On promiscuous modeling as precondition for poststructuralist ontology.” Forthcoming, in Thomas W Keenan & Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (eds), New Media, Old Media. Interrogating the Digital Revolution. Routledge 2004.

15 C.f. John von Neumann, “The General and Logical Theory of Automata”, in William Aspray & Arthur Burks (eds), Papers of John von Neumann on Computing and Computer Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press 1987, p.418ff.

16 C.f. John von Neumann, “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata”, in Aspray, op.cit.,p.432ff.

17 Von Neumann, “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata”, p.483.

18 Edgar Morin, La méthode. I. La Nature de la Nature. Éditions du Seuil 1977, pp.160-161.

19 Ibid., p.161ff.

20 Ibid., p.169.

21 Breton, Op.cit.

22 Ibid., p.102.

23 Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Imaginary: Creation in the Social-Historical Domain,” in Cornelius Castoriadis: World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (David Ames Curtis (ed)). Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.4.

24 Ankie Hoogvelt: Globalisation and the Postcolonial World. London: Macmillan Press 1997, p.80ff, p.81.

25 Cefn Hoile, ”Black Shoals: Evolving Organisms in a World of Financial Data. No publication data ( Text supplied to the author by Black Shoals project.

26 Ezio Manzini: Artefacts. Vers une nouvelle écologie de l’environnement artificiel. Les Essais. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou 1991, p.52.

27 Email from Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway to the author.

28 Although the quasi-subject tends to disappear almost completely for the machinehappy Latour. Cf. Latour, Op.cit.

29 Donna Haraway: Simans, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Associations Books 1991, p.180.

30 Ibid., p.177.

31 See also my article, “Afirmación Technológia Postmoderno/Postmodern Technology- Affirmation,” in En Reconocimiento de la Historia/ In Recognition of History. Atlantica Revista de Arte y Pensamiento, Numéro 30 Otõno 2001. Las Palmas (Gran Canaria): Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno – CAAM. Webversion on http://www.caam. net/en/atlantica.htm – search on title or author.

32 Ibid., p.157.

33 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999.

34 Ibid., p.10.