mercredi 22 mai 2013

Generation: a reflection on generative art and our society

- a reblog from -

For my FMX13 talk I’d been think­ing about a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion. Why is the gen­er­a­tive prin­ci­ple gain­ing impor­tance? Sure, the tools are out there in ever increas­ing abun­dance, but so are the tools for the more tra­di­tional approach. And yes, it’s tying nicely with the 3D print rev­o­lu­tion. But again so is tra­di­tional mod­el­ling and design. I got to a point where I have the gen­eral shape of an idea, why it’s not just a fad, why it’s more than a fash­ion­able, tech-savvy hip­ster thing, why it can be a form of art. I didn’t really get to mak­ing my point at the pre­sen­ta­tion, so here’s another go… a silent under­cur­rent in the evo­lu­tion of human society.

A silent rev­o­lu­tion of narrative

We have long been a peo­ple of sto­ries. Narrative told us how the world works and per­haps more impor­tantly, how we were sup­posed to behave. There was no real rea­son to look fur­ther, the story was both rea­son and expla­na­tion. Things are how they are because that’s how they are. Because the sto­ries were invented and told by us, their per­spec­tive is uniquely human. The nar­ra­tive was rec­og­niz­able and believ­able, often involv­ing scaled-up exager­ated per­sonae, the Greek big-bearded godly bas­tards, the West African spi­der über­prankster Anansi, the Christian/Muslim/Jewish let’s-not-go-there… These sto­ries built our soci­ety, embed­ded rules in daily lives, com­manded unques­tion­ing respect, gave author­ity — often to the story teller.
But things hap­pened. One by one our POV biased world views floun­dered, held up to harsh imper­sonal light and found to be faulty. Useful mod­els for daily life but empty of deeper truth.
The flat world stretch­ing around us turned out to bend under­neath our feet in appar­ent absur­dity. We lost our seat at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Our sun was demoted to a close star. Our glo­ri­ous Milky Way, just one of many. Cosmologists describe our uni­verse itself as only a bit of froth in a seething mul­ti­verse. Not con­tent with tear­ing down our sur­round­ings, we also tar­get our­selves. Our mind and soul were seized from the aether and con­fined in soft, squishy and above all, mor­tal mat­ter. Humanity itself reclas­si­fied as a species, endowed with excep­tional poten­tial yes, but from a bio­log­i­cal point-of-view in no way more evolved than the pets we mas­ter, or the pests we exterminate.
But sci­ence, that cul­prit sci­ence, didn’t stop there.The sen­si­ble but cold mechanical/chemical sta­tic uni­verse of the 19th cen­tury was fur­ther denied to us. Quantum mechan­ics ripped deter­min­ism from the very (sub)atomic fab­ric of our exis­tence. Thankfully, our cats remain bliss­fully clas­si­cal. But even here at our own scale, where at least the clas­si­cal, deter­min­is­tic pic­ture still holds, we had to relin­quish pre­dictabil­ity to the gib­ber­ing jaws of chaos the­ory. (Gibbering might seem too graphic, but chaos the­ory is single-handedly respon­si­ble for al those gar­ishly col­ored Mandelbrotian hor­rors inflicted upon the unfor­tu­nate non-colorblind.)
Where does that leave us with our sto­ries? For ages we believed that to under­stand any­thing we just needed to know it. To pre­dict the future: study the past, mea­sure the present… Establish rules and con­trol the sys­tem. And we seem very resis­tant to let­ting the sto­ries go. So we kept the sto­ries around. Probably we’re too scared to cast them aside. Perhaps believ­ing, mis­tak­enly, that our soci­ety, our laws, our morals are founded on the sto­ries them­selves, rather than on the things they were orig­i­nally meant to allegorize.
But surely, exotic math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tems might behave oddly and philoso­phers delight in aca­d­e­mic dis­cus­sions of prin­ci­ple, but that has no impact on the real world, has it?

A silent rev­o­lu­tion of science

The slow change of thought is clear­est in sci­ence. Let’s take biol­ogy. Long con­sid­ered a sen­si­ble sci­ence for sen­si­ble mus­ta­chioed men, great minds cat­a­logu­ing species and record­ing behav­ior, enjoy­ing invig­o­rat­ing rival­ries whether skele­tized spec­i­men A was a rather large pyg­mee vole or — obvi­ously — a sickly giant vole. Glass-eyed corpses in the stately nat­ural his­tory muse­ums around the world tes­tify to the titanic efforts of our fore­fa­thers. Measuring, labelling, argu­ing, fix­at­ing… grow­ing and prun­ing the tree of life, a hier­ar­chy of sta­tic species.
With Darwin came a rev­o­lu­tion of thought, sud­denly the tree was no longer a hier­ar­chy but a trac­ing of com­mon ances­try, por­tray­ing rela­tion­ships between ani­mals. The the­ory suffered/suffers from many mis­con­cep­tions, but worst of all, a major point is often over­looked: the fun­da­men­tal con­cept of a sta­tic species is faulty. In fact one widely held argu­ment against evo­lu­tion was that species could not arise from other species. A child can not be another species than its par­ents, the very thought. Serious sci­en­tists tried to defend evo­lu­tion by rec­on­cil­ing it with dis­crete species: the idea of macro-mutations, rab­bit and hare spring­ing from a com­mon ances­tor in an extremely unlikely freak event; or the inher­i­tance of acci­den­tal traits picked up dur­ing life (a stretched out neck or lost tail). But those efforts missed the point, evo­lu­tion runs into prob­lems with our pre­con­cep­tions because our pre­con­cep­tions are wrong. There’s no leafy tree of ances­try, each leaf a species, there’s only a con­tin­uüm, ever­grow­ing and divid­ing branches, each of us a point along the line, but never a leaf. The human nar­ra­tive had a clear pur­pose for dis­tinct species, a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, a cop­ing mech­a­nism for an incom­pre­hen­si­ble com­plex out­side world.
So the use­ful story turns against us when we take it too far. But that’s sci­ence, the world of aca­d­e­mics, sep­a­rated from us by sen­si­ble, engineering-type men that cull the use­ful bits and turn it into tech­nol­ogy. These word-games and math­e­mat­i­cal con­structs wouldn’t affect our daily lives, would they?

A silent rev­o­lu­tion of society

I’m guess­ing that they do. A com­mon thread in our his­tory of under­stand­ing is the steady decline of the sta­tic, the “state”, and the accom­pa­ny­ing increase of the dynamic, the “process”. Of course, state and process are linked, but the state itself doesn’t tell you the process, and the process doens’t always allow you to pre­dict the next state. There’s more to under­stand­ing than mere cat­a­logu­ing and observ­ing. Perhaps even more impor­tant, there’s more to con­trol than know­ing the cur­rent state and know­ing the rules.
Take our sorry, global econ­omy. An artif­i­cal con­struct built on sen­si­ble rules, yet some­how it turned into an unsta­ble beast, almost actively resist­ing inter­fer­ence, as unpre­dictable as the weather. Or our pre­cious democ­racy, like­wise based on sen­si­ble, ratio­nal rules, but some­how inca­pable of giv­ing us sus­tain­able lead­er­ship — but very good in pro­duc­ing peo­ple whose only tal­ent is to get elected. So what is turn­ing our soci­ety into its strange cur­rent state: seem­ingly unsta­ble but at the same time resis­tant to change. Where does the chaos come from? Surely time and scale are a fac­tor in this. But that can’t be all there is to it — that sounds too much like another human story, age­ing, the steady decline of everything —
Allow me another guess: feed­back. “In olden days” events were scru­ti­nized after they hap­pened. Wars, régime changes, tri­als, polit­i­cal deci­sions, these have always been news. The news led to reac­tions. The reac­tions lead to changes in future behav­ior. But all in all the news itself didn’t really affect the event. But we have closed the feed­back loops all through soci­ety. The mere report­ing of events, and the reac­tions, and the reac­tions on the reac­tions,… are so fast and all-pervasive that more often than not the reported event is being changed. The ironic thing is that although the feared quan­tum ran­dom­ness turned out not to affect our cat, we nonethe­less man­aged to turn our clas­si­cal real­ity into a quan­tum real­ity, the obser­va­tion chang­ing the thing observed. This kind of feed­back can lead to sta­bi­liza­tion but more often than not leads to chaotic behav­ior, in a math­e­mat­i­cal sense. We still know the rules, but we no longer con­trol the system.

So with this world view in mind, what bet­ter art form to arise than the art of rules, of sys­tems, of inter­ac­tions, of com­plex­ity and emergence…



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