Rough Draft of the first half of my senior paper

Will Farrell
Senior Paper
My background is in sailing. I see sailboats as the most natural machines that exist
in the artificial world. Being in a sailboat doesn’t feel like being in any other type of
vessel, there is a harmony that comes from harnessing the wind and the water to
achieve mobility. Sailboats have been evolving since the dawn of civilization. As
their materials become more and more inorganic they’re given way to more natural
forms. Older boxlike shapes above and below the waterline have given way to more
natural curves that have come to bear a resemblance to fish and birds. Like fish and
birds boats have undergone their own natural evolution in a fraction of the time.
Yet even though they are constructed by people the same curves that have emerged
from millions of years of animal evolution have also emerged from thousands of
years of intelligence based evolution. To me it is this commonality of emergence that
characterizes the new kind of nature that defines the world we live in.
Our reality is equilibrium between the artificial world and the pre artificial world.
The artificial is not distinct from nature but a subset of it. Everything that humans
construct is a part of a living organism. In his book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins coins the term meme to refer to reproducing units of
human culture. Dawkins writes, “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes
propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or
eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to
brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” (Dawkins,
Memes are not unique to humans - bird tunes can replicate independent of genetics.
Internet memes, computer viruses and software all exist in a cybernetic medium
that is both human and machine. Stephanie Forrest, a computer scientist who
worked on the Apache web server argues that a biological approach is necessary for
developing a computerized immune system to protect against malicious code. In
her essay “Computation in the Wild” she writes, “Successful individuals reproduce
more frequently, passing on their genes to future generations. Similarly, in our software
ecosystem, reproductive success is achieved when software is copied, and evolutionary
dead-ends occur when a piece of software fails to be copied—as in components that are
replaced (or “patched”) to correct errors or extend functionality.” (Forrest, 7) Through
the medium of the human species, computer code functions as living matter that
evolve as an extension of natural life.
The human consciousness is a relationship between the artificial and organic, the
memetic and genetic. If the ecosystem we live in is any reflection of that dynamic,
then our perspective is completely out of balance. Although pollution can be
perceived as evidence of human corruption of the environment I think it’s
symptomatic of a bigger problem: we view ourselves as distinct from our
environment. With my project I plan on growing an organic plant and an artificial
plant in a symbiotic relationship with one another. The two will communicate with
each other in a feedback loop becoming a part of a system that symbolizes humanity
and our environment; both cybernetic entities.
Computational differences between machines and nature.
Natural and mechanical computers handle different types of data. Mechanical
computers store data in the form of Natural numbers through binary strings of 0’s
and 1’s. Nature
One example that conveys this difference visually is the difference between
measuring the lengths of natural objects as opposed to man made ones. Measuring
something like the side of a building is a simple as taking a ruler, counting the
number of times the ruler can fit across that side, and multiplying that number by
the length of the ruler. A shorter ruler might allow for a more accurate
measurement but for the most part the measurements should be similar.
Measurement of a coastline however is a far more complicated problem. Measuring
a coastline with two different sized rulers will give two completely different results.
If a mile long ruler is used it will fail to take into account the jagged rocks of the
jetties that elongate the coastline by bending it. If an inch long ruler is used it will
fail to take into account the grains of sand that also bend and elongate the coastline.
Coastlines are infinitely complex and attempts to represent them in discrete terms
will always fall short. To measure the coastline with complete precision requires a
ruler that is infinitely small being used an infinite number of times. If it were
possible for a computer to attempt such a problem it would take an infinite amount
of time to complete it (Flake, 57).
In this metaphor the length of the building represents discrete data, the type that
mechanical computers handle, and the length of the coastline represents continuous
data, the type found in nature. Calculating irrational numbers such as the square
root of 2 and pi is a similar process to measuring coastline. Mathematics constructs
these numbers by applying a formula to a discrete number, getting the result, and
then applying that same formula to the result recursively forever. To calculate these
numbers with a conventional computer not only requires that the computer run
forever but also makes it impossible for the computer to know it will run forever.
The Mathematician Goerg Cantor was the first to discover the difference between
these two types of numbers. He proved that there are an infinite and countable
number of rational numbers (such as 2, 1/3, 4.5) but that the number of irrational
numbers is not only infinite but also uncountable (Flake, 35).
It’s important to note that there have been recent advances in computing that have
been able to escape some of the limits of conventional computing. One example is
the DNA computer and its ability to solve the traveling salesman problem. In this
problem a traveling salesman must pick a path to visit a specified number of cities in
the shortest path possible. As the number of cities increases the problem takes
exponentially more time for a conventional computer to solve and the human brain
begins to outperform the computer by picking shorter paths in less time. In 1994,
Leonard M. Adleman a professor at the University of Southern California managed to
solve this problem by using DNA nucleotides to represent the lengths between each
possible city. Adleman synthesized strands of DNA that represented each possible
overall route the salesman could take and picked the shortest one. This solution
effectively gave Adelman the fastest computer at the time (Adelman, 3).
Computer Based Models of Nature
In 1967 Benoît B. Mandelbrot developed an effective method for measuring
coastlines that involved using fractals to approximate their shape. Fractals are
objects that exist in between dimensions, two and a half as opposed to three, and are
similar to their parts. Nature is composed mostly of fractals in some form or
another. Coastlines don’t appear to be self-similar but statistically they are
(Mandlebrot, 29).
Fractals are used to approximate a wide variety of forms in nature, particularly
plants. Models of plants will vary greatly from one context to another. Biologists
are more concerned with scientific data than visual appeal. Animators need their
models to react to forces such as wind while rendering them realistically. The first
simulations of growth stemmed from cellular automata, systems on a grid divided
into cells that grow based on very simple rules. From these simple rules chaotic
complexities can emerge that mimic nature. The biologist Astrid Lindenmayer
developed a similar approach that represents the plant as a series of objects that
change based on a set of simple mathematical rules. These objects can spawn more
objects with different characteristics and after some time vast complexities can
emerge out of a simple system (Deussen, 63). Biologists use Lindermayer systems
to produce very accurate data about plant growth.
When artists such as animators and videogame designers began representing plants
with computers they used a myriad of approaches to visually convey computergenerated plants. Today most cinema production houses use the Xfrog software
environment to develop ultra realistic looking models of nature (Deussen, 89).
Xfrog uses a combinatorial approach based on L systems and cellular automata to
create an end product that has an intuitive interface and creates plants that can be
efficiently rendered. Since plants obey different rules at different scales, a
hybridized approach is necessary. Since Xfrog doesn’t allow plants to grow, its users
are mostly artists and not biologists. Some plant growth can be achieved by using
keyframes to create different plant models for each frame that are slightly different
than the previous ones.
Cybernetics and Cyborgs
Closely tied to the concept of emergence is the idea of cybernetics. Originally used
by Plato in his treatise “The Laws,” cybernetics refers to the concept of intelligence
materializing within a system arising from communication between many different
interconnected parts. Plato originally used the term to describe the idea of
government as an intelligence that emerges out of a mass of people. Today
cybernetics is applied to many different subject areas ranging from artificial
intelligence to biology. Through Cybernetics, artificial intelligence systems have the
ability to learn and adapt to their environment based on the evolution of complexity
from simple rule based systems. Machines no longer require people to adapt to
their environment because systems are constantly changing themselves based on
interior communication between their parts. Artificial intelligence can be generated
by simple rules and initial data the same way that beautifully complex plants can be
created from Lindenmayer systems and cellular automata.
Modern humans live at the intersection between two types of cybernetic systems;
the biological and the artificial. We’ve managed to reduce our biological systems
into terms that we used to define our artificial systems. In “The Cyborg Manifesto”
Donna Haraway writes, “In modern biologies, the translation of the world into a
problem in coding can be illustrated by molecular genetics, ecology, sociobiological
evolutionary theory, and immunobiology. The organism has been translated into
problems of genetic coding and read-out. Biotechnology, a writing technology, informs
research broadly. In a sense, organisms have ceased to exist as objects of knowledge,
giving way to biotic components, i.e., special kinds of information-processing devices”
(Haraway, 164). Haraway sees human beings as an extension of the integrated circuit in a
constant biomechanical feedback loop. Computers are not a separate species but a part of
the human identity. Haraway continues, “The machine is not an it to be animated,
worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our
embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us.
We are responsible for boundaries; we are they” (Haraway, 181). To Haraway, the
condition of the cyborg is a metaphor for the role of women in society. To her women
can’t be defined by a “universal, transhistorical, necessary cause or constitution of gender
identity or patriarchy". In Cybernetics intelligence cannot be defined distinctly from the
communicative system in which it lives. Haraway makes the same argument for women.
Andy Goldsworthy
Situating his art to its specific environment, Andy Goldsworthy creates compositions
from material he finds at the sites where he works. For him the process of creating
his works is just as much a part of the piece as the final product. Goldsworthy’s
media is inseparable from the environment. He chooses to work with found
materials such as icicles, leaves, stones and anything natural that he finds on site.
Most of the work is done with his bare hands but he uses a camera to capture the
finished product on film.
Even though the materials are natural the forms Goldsworthy creates are
unmistakably man-made. In Collaborations with Nature, Goldsworthy writes “the
ball, pitch, line, arch and spire are recurring forms in my work. It is as if I find
myself in deep water and these forms are familiar rocks that I can always put a foot
to. In that respect they are important and probably necessary” (Goldsworthy, 3).
Geometrically these shapes are fairly simple. They are not the complex fractals that
we see in coastlines and plants and are more frequently seen in urban settings than
in nature.
Despite the fact that all the materials are found at the site there is a distinct line
between those works and the environment, they are not continuous extensions of
nature but new discrete forms. Goldsworthy’s statement hints that he is grounded
in civilization. He goes into a natural surrounding alone but keeps his artificial
construction of the world with him. Like a pioneer’s flag planted atop a mountain
peak, Goldsworthy’s work plants the distinct mark of civilization onto nature.
Yet this distinction between his works and their surroundings is not one of
opposition. The pieces live in harmony with their surroundings and pay tribute to
the harsh realities of their setting.
Spiral Jetty
In this production Robert Smithson takes a very different approach to creating
environmental art. Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot long jetty coiled up into a spiral, is
environmental art on a much bigger scale produced by using dump trucks to unload
rocks into the great salt lake. Jetties are meant to reduce turbulence in the water by
breaking the waves, yet in this case Smithson uses them as a symbol of disorder. The
New York Times writes, “He embraced the idea of entropy, accepting that his
sculptures would change with the cycles of nature and the elements. His allusions
were cosmological, postindustrial and primitive - to ancient civilizations and
geological forms.” Rather than seeking to impose order upon the environment,
Smithson takes the jetty and uses it to contribute to the disorder of the lake.
16 miles from the nearest paved road, Spiral Jetty is “about as remote as a sculpture
can be within the contiguous United States.” For many years the Jetty had been
completely submerged, only visible in droughts. This uncertainty of Spiral Jetty’s
exhibition further integrates this piece into its environment.