Trinity (2010)

Com­plex­i­ty, evo­lu­tion, home­osta­sis … If I had to pick the three things that intrigue me the most, these would be the ones. I’m rather fond of them, and pro­tec­tive. It’s time to rant about mis­use, abuse and curi­ous lack-of-use.

Com­plex­i­ty needs no intro­duc­tion. Any open-mind­ed math or sci­ence course finds some room for esthet­ic and pseu­do-philo­soph­i­cal ram­blings on the damn thing. I guess it’s safe to say that com­plex­i­ty and its bas­tard child emer­gence have, more than any oth­er idea, attract­ed flies look­ing for a trendy, post-mod­ern jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of fur­ry think­ing. Well, at least for­mer run­ner-ups quan­tum physics and chaos the­o­ry can get a rest from harass­ment by quacks and get back to cre­at­ing inter­est­ing t‑shirts.

For the record, I don’t believe in emer­gence in sim­ple sys­tems. Agreed, the unpre­dictable pat­terns cre­at­ed by Lang­ton’s Ant are inter­est­ing but the only way to explain them is by run­ning through the sim­ple steps of the algo­rithm. There’s no high­er lev­el of expla­na­tion, noth­ing beyond the blind fol­low­ing of the rules, no meta sys­tem. I would­n’t call that emer­gence. A real-life ant-hill is anoth­er buck­et of inver­te­brates, the many com­plex inter­ac­tions between the ants result in an enti­ty that can almost be explained as a sin­gle organ­ism, mrs. Hill. Even with­out knowl­edge of the algo­rithm, pheromones most­ly, we can sen­si­bly pre­dict the behav­ior of an ant-hill. Get­ting swarmed and bit­ten in the unmen­tion­ables, now that’s what I call emer­gence! And the human ant-hill, we’re prob­a­bly up five meta’s (ask any soci­ol­o­gist to explain the behav­ior of a mob by elec­tro­mag­net­ic inter­ac­tions). As a plus, swarm­ing and unmen­tion­able bit­ing are far less com­mon…

Nev­er­the­less, com­plex­i­ty in its sim­plest form, small piece­wise algo­rithms build­ing com­plex forms, is a valu­able par­a­digm of gen­er­a­tive art. There’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing in cre­at­ing a set of rules and the beau­ti­ful images that sprout from them. The ques­tion whether art in gen­er­a­tive art refers to the code, or to the results of the code, is a fun one to dis­cuss in mixed com­pa­ny. How­ev­er fur­ther depth can­not be found in fast-and-cheap emer­gence. As in any art, mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance are to be found in the artist and her inten­tions. I for one keep to con­structs, devoid of mean­ing. Yep, I’m shal­low.

Richard Dawkins refers to Dar­win’s idea of evo­lu­tion as an eye-open­er, an idea so pro­found it changes the way you look at the entire world. I know it did for me. The idea itself is remark­ably sim­ple: any repli­cat­ing sys­tem will favor the repli­ca­tor that euh, repli­cates the most suc­ces­ful­ly. I guess it’s more catchy if it involves a gazil­lion species of Gala­pa­gos finch­es… It res­onates with gen­er­a­tive cre­ation, imagery beyond the con­trol of the coder. A sys­tem that evolves will suit itself to pur­pose and cir­cum­stance in ways a design­er could nev­er imag­ine. Not only will the sys­tem work but it’ll keep work­ing after some parts are removed, at least up to a cer­tain lev­el. It will adapt to chang­ing require­ments. If prop­er­ly cared for, it will wag its pos­te­ri­or appendage and shed fur all over your fur­ni­ture.

Yet, despite genet­ic algo­rithms and their like, human endeav­or has only scratched the sur­face. Not only does evo­lu­tion shape organ­isms, it shapes the envi­ron­ment around them. That’s anoth­er meta… The clos­est I’ve seen art approach this lev­el is in inter­ac­tive instal­la­tions. These change the behav­ior of the peo­ple around them, at least very local­ly, and in turn they affect the instal­la­tion. So, if you’ve ever build one of these, I guess you’re enti­tled to a bit of smug­ness. Good for you!

I encoun­tered the con­cept of home­osta­sis only late in my aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits. The abil­i­ty of a liv­ing organ­ism to main­tain a sta­ble, con­stant con­di­tion was the skele­ton onto which my pro­fes­sor phys­i­ol­o­gy built a clear pic­ture of our inner work­ings (most of them rather yucky). Instead of a ran­dom col­lec­tion of bio­chem­i­cal sys­tems, the body sud­den­ly made sense. The sheer ele­gance of the var­i­ous sys­tems that bal­ance each oth­er is an eye-open­er of the same mag­ni­tude as Dar­win’s idea. In fact, one could claim that home­osta­sis is a direct con­se­quence of evo­lu­tion, as any organ­ism that can’t main­tain its own con­di­tion is … doomed. And damna­tion tends to ham­per pro­cre­ation.

<side­track> Why has­n’t any­one writ­ten a gen­er­al audi­ence book on phys­i­ol­o­gy? I mean, cos­mol­o­gy, check, evo­lu­tion, check, pi, check, our own bod­ies, not a sausage. Com’on funky scientist/​surfer charis­mat­ic dudes out there, there’s a gold­mine of won­ders in there, get writ­ing… (I accept Ama­zon gift cer­tifi­cates). </​sidetrack>

<side­track> The uni­ver­si­ty I went to made reli­gion, psy­chol­o­gy and phi­los­o­phy a manda­to­ry part of every cur­ricu­lum. At this stage I’m won­der­ing if it would­n’t be a good idea to add some mod­ern biol­o­gy and phys­i­ol­o­gy. And some­thing arty as well, if you insist. </​sidetrack>

I’m not real­ly plugged in into any scene, but so far I haven’t heard of home­osta­sis as a con­cept in mod­ern design cul­ture. As a buzz­word it def­i­nite­ly has poten­tial. A hint of bio­mimicry, a hint of com­plex­i­ty, a tad of evo­lu­tion, touch­es of dynamism and intel­li­gence. A post-mod­ernist delight. I wish I had an aca­d­e­m­ic career to spend explor­ing home­o­sta­t­ic struc­tures. Build­ings dynam­i­cal­ly and intel­li­gent­ly, sor­ry, redis­trib­ut­ing stress after some part fails (i.e. a floor drops out). Heating/​cooling sys­tems adapt­ing to sup­ply and demand, not just any plain-old adapt­ing, no, home­o­sta­t­ic adapt­ing! Traf­fic mim­ic­ing blood flow, self-reg­u­lat­ing its pres­sure (and vicious­ly attack­ing annoy­ances as-per-spec). Book­shelves chang­ing shape!!! I could even get some eco in there. Now that would be a very lucra­tive book, the eco­home­o­sta­t­ic design par­a­digm. Pity, I have no time to write it.