Today, life seems increasingly prescribed, recursive, normalizing. Stories depicted by mainstream media are increasingly divided. What are the conditions that enabled such narrowing experiences?
Pervasive computing is a term first created by Mark Weiss, the then CTO of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in 1988. Commenting on cumbersome mega computers that were difficult to be adapted into everyday life, Mark described the original intention of pervasive computing as “A less-traveled path I call the ‘invisible’: its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.” Mark Weiser’s new vision was widely influential in Silicon Valley. Software processes such as machine learning and AI are integrated into analog objects, making them automated, assistive, and “smart”. For example, a smartwatch can vibrate and discretely remind us to end meetings on time. A smart mug can keep our coffee warm. A smart car can steer away from obstacles the drivers might have overlooked.
However, pervasive computing paints a very different picture when it’s applied to cultural production — a territory previously rarely traversed by algorithms. According to AI Now Institute of New York University, an increasing amount of employers are integrating pervasive computing as part of their HR hiring process. Through AI algorithms such as classification, employers can potentially extract patterns of social media content from any potential employee and compare that with patterns from their own company’s social media account. Then, a probability of likeness is calculated. Trained from past behavioral data, this process naturally mirrors the historical trends of employment. Women, minorities, and other historically underrepresented populations will continue to be portrayed as less fitting. Software predicts the future based on fixed patterns from the past. As a procedural language designed to administrate systems, it produces solutions instead of experiences. It narrows conditions instead of broadens perspectives.
What Is A System?
A system is an entity made up of interrelated, interdependent parts, members, or agents. The word system first appeared in publications in 1948. Biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy used the term to in order to create a universal language to describe various organismic scientific phenomenons he had observed.
The human body is one of the most ubiquitous biological systems we encounter on a daily basis. When we feel cold, our muscles shiver to generate heat and warm up our body. When we are hot, we sweat and evaporates heat from our body. Without us paying conscious attention, our body automatically maintains a normal range of temperature to keep us comfortable and healthy. Since this type of system always takes actions to cancel out excessive effects in order to bring the current state back to its norm, we refer to the canceling actions as negative feedback. Systems involving negative feedback have a tendency to resist change in order to maintain a stable, relatively constant internal environment. System theory refers to this tendency as homeostasis, and the stabilizing state the equilibrium state.
Besides natural science, negative feedback is also widely adopted in engineering processes and machines. For example, there is a cruise system built into cars. When turned on, it uses control actions to ensure a stable driving speed without any delay or overshoot. Cybernetics is the science of exploring regulatory, purposive, and normalizing systems. Today, the advance of cybernetics research allows us to enjoy precision and predictability with a level of efficiency we could not have imagined. Self-driving cars automatically steer directions to avoid obstacles and optimize routes. Social media algorithms recommend new youtube videos, shopping lists, and even new friends based on our past behaviors. Digital writing software suggests words we are more likely to type to each other. In the past, we had difficulty making sense of the world. Today, we live in a world that’s filled with buttons, solutions, and answers, but feeling more looped than ever.
However, systems do not always narrow, or normalize their internal states. Sometimes, when a system’s members interact with each other, it could result in entirely new properties of the system which could not be anticipated from the characteristics of the individuals alone.
In order for Emergence to happen, we first need a group of people willing to act together. According to American sociologist Neil J. Smelser, if there is a group of people who can communicate with each other, facing the same constraints, believing in similar ideas to change these constrains, having the agency to take individual actions, they will inevitably act together, motivated by the desire to create change.
Historically, artists from different artistic moments have adopted collaborative making as a powerful mode of redefining the boundary of creativity. For example, Cadavre Exquis (exquisite corpse)is a collaborative drawing approach first invented by surrealist artists Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s. Bounded by the limitation of a single person’s imagination, they jointly created a new game, or system of collective drawing. Each previous drawer folds up the sheet of paper, revealing only a small portion of his/her drawing at the end, before passing it on to the next drawer for further contribution.
Because of the unique perspective introduced by each collaborator, systematic collaborative drawing generates bizarrely imaginative compositions beyond outcomes planned by a single individual. Hiding contents when transitioning between drawers temporarily cuts off logical causes and effects, allowing each individual contributor to “escape beyond” one’s own thinking mind. Meanwhile, the small portion of content revealed to subsequent drawers loosely binds independently contributed visual elements into a coherent meta-composition.
Today, collaborative making processes are increasingly facilitated by technological platforms. Inspired by Cadavre Exquis, I conducted a small experiment online. The goal is to rephrase a famous quote by Yoda, a fictional character from the Star Wars movie, among 160 members all belonging to the same private social media group.
The original quote reads:
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The instruction I posted in the social media group is:
Each new writer would contribute a sentence with the structure “____leads to ____.” The first blank is the last word from the previous writer. The second blank is a new word contributed by the new writer. This experiment extended for three days, transforming the original Yoda quote into a wildly expansive version:
Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Sandwich. Sandwich leads to Truth. Truth leads to Boredom. Boredom leads to Impotence. Impotence leads to Wealth. Wealth leads to Separation. Separation leads to reproduction. Reproduction leads to Hotpot. Hotpot leads to Diarrhea. Diarrhea leads to Petting Cats. Petting Cats leads to Moving In. Moving In leads to Earth Quake. Earth Quake leads to Economic Crisis. Economic Crisis leads to Withdrawing from School. Withdrawing from School leads to Soda. Soda leads to Urbanization. Urbanization leads to Low Morality. Low Morality leads to Stock Market Shorting, Stock Market Shorting leads to Inflation. Inflation leads to Stupidity, Stupidity leads to World Peace……
— Collectively Authored by Members from A Private Social Media Group
Comparing to the drawings from the 1930s, this collective anadiplosis experiment produced an emergent narrative with different characteristics. The 1930s version revolved around topics such as religion and industrialization. Since this group is formed online in the 2000s, some terms reflected a sense of collective unsettlement of its own time, such as Bordome, Stupidity, and Separation. The collection also invited expressive comments from members who were otherwise reserved from posting comments. This could be partly due to the formulated writing format and partial anonymity of the online member status.
Compared to the drawings from the 1930s, this collective anadiplosis experiment produced an emergent narrative with different characteristics. The 1930s version revolved around topics such as religion and industrialization. Since this group was formed online in the 2000s, some terms reflected a sense of collective unsettlement of its own time, such as Boredom, Stupidity, and Separation. The collection also invited expressive comments from members who were otherwise reserved from posting comments. This could be partly due to the formulated writing format and partial anonymity of the online member status.
As we have seen, Cybernetic systems have a tendency to perpetuate their normalized state, and collective actions can sometimes generate emergent forces to counter this tendency. Every time we dance, we are countering our body’s tendency to remain on the floor. Every time we work on a file on the computer, we are countering its tendency to perpetuate a mechanical way of organizing data. Social scientists have attempted to theorize this transcending motivation. Two of such theories are Contagion and Convergence.
In sociology, Contagion refers to a special form of emergence whereby individual members seems to have temporarily surrendered individual consciousness, and repeat the crowd action unconditionally. Similar to how viruses automatically spread when their hosts come into contact, human beings have a natural tendency to mimic each other’s actions. A classic Contagion phenomenon happened during the Dutch Gloden Age when prices for tulip flower skyrocketed and plummeted within a single month in February 1637.
At the peak of the bubble, the price of a single viceroy tulip reached five times the worth of an average house at the time. The Contagion Theory was originally developed by Gustave Le Bon. Dutch psychologist Jaap van Ginneken compared Le Bons theory to “Hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer”(Ginnkeken, 1992). Le Bon’s theory is widely criticized by twenty-first-century crowd psychologists such as Stephen Reicher. Reicher claims that members did not lose their agency, but rather were motivated by distant causes that did not seem to be immediately connected to the collective action itself.
Another theory is that like-minded members of a group can draw from each other’s presence. Originally developed by Floyd Allport in 1924, the convergence theory was expanded upon by Neil Miller and John Dollard in 1941. When seeing others acting in similar ways, individuals can feel that the responsibility of the actions is shared by multiple actors, instead of him or herself alone. This can generate a sense of security, revealing hidden tendencies of individual members who haven’t previously acted in a certain way, and intensify a sentiment shared among group members.
A World Is Not A System
Collective actions among human members do not take place in well defined biological or mechanical systems. They happen in a world. A world shares many similarities with a system. Similar to a system, a world has boundaries that separate it from the outside environment. Similar to a system, a world takes actions and maintains its own balance. Similar to a system, a world is not static, but in a constant state of flux. Similar to a system, once in a while, a world emerges from the pain of growth, transcending into a new realm. However, artist Ian Cheng thinks that a world should also contain mystical figures(Cheng, 2019).
A World manifests evidence of itself in its members, emissaries, symbols, tangible artifacts, and media, yet it is always something more.
— Ian Cheng, Artist
Systems are abstracted versions of the world. The world is a system rendered with uncertainties, vulnerabilities, sometimes trauma and catastrophe. A world is a piece of music, a series of oscillations between stable octaves. A world is both harmony and chaos, weaven together through seredipitous encounters of mystical creatures living inside. A world is both a tool and an effect. A world is a hazy zone of ambiguity — always there but never completely revealed. A world grants its occupants permission to do things that are inexplicable. A world is sometimes slow and useless, defying all explanations. A world has a tendency to be stagnant. It’s inhabitant posses the secret power to activate it in times of need.
Architecting Emergence through Computational Simulation
Worlding is the active making of worlds. In ancient times, worlds were made with blades and scrapers. In modern times, worlds were made with machines. The world we live in today is constructed through pixels, soundbites, data, and algorithms. We interact with the world and each other through computers, a set of containers, rules, and relations. To be in an active relationship with the world, one must erase the world, subjecting it to various forms of manipulations, preemption, modeling, and synthetic transformation(Galloway, 2012). In order to restore the magic back into the world, instead of allowing it to grow narrower, less colorful, we must embark on a journey of Collaborative Worlding.
ThingThingThing is a computational system that invites audiences to take part in collective world-making. It is built with easily-accessible tools and interfaces, allowing everyone to contribute a computational object of their own. All computational objects created by audiences are integrated automatically by the software algorithms. The result is an ever-evolving, never concluding, three-dimensional system of instantiations, created by everyone yet owned by no one.
Many contributors from around the world have shaped ThingThingThing. ThingThingThing is currently on view at http://worldonawire.net/, an exhibition curated by Rhizome of New Museum. A workshop will be held in order for more audience to help activate the world of ThingThingThing. Please RSVP at https://worldonawire.net/#events
Galloway, A. R. (2012). The interface effect. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Cheng, I.(2019 March 5), Worlding Raga: 2 — What is a World?. ribbonfarm. https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2019/03/05/worlding-raga-2-what-is-a-world/
Thompson, E(2007), “The tulipmania: Fact or artifact?”(PDF), Public Choice, 130 (1–2): 99–114, doi:10.1007/s11127–006–9074–4, S2CID 154546566, Retrieved August 15, 2008