Izel Sulam firstname.lastname@example.org
This essay is strictly a temporary placeholder.
He is meant merely to keep Professor George Landow happy, to chew away at valuable hard disk space, to unnecessarily consume poor little Ursula's processing powers (for the uninitiated, the Cyberspace Web resides on a server known as ursula.stg.brown.edu to the TCP/IP protocol and as sexy Ursula to her acquaintances), and to gobble up some much-needed network bandwidth as computers from around the globe suck away at the Cyberspace Web in order to quench their thirst for information, insight and inspiration. This essay is essentially expected to bum around, frolic and procrastinate until his older sister finally arrives to replace him.
His sister, Ms. Multimedia-Enhanced Essay, could not, unfortunately, make it in time, due to a rather catastrophic accident whereby my computer experienced a quick yet unendurably painful death on the night of Wednesday, April the 1st, 1998. I had decided to install a newly-bought TV card while the computer was on, which is one feature that Windows 95 'officially' supports, although he probably secretly prays that you never, ever, ever actually attempt to use it. I therefore haplessly proceeded to turn the PC on, unaware of what would happen next.
During the installation of the card, which my PC seemed to be enjoying as much as I was, things suddenly turned weird. The image on the monitor began to pulsate, the hard disk started to shudder, and the power supply sizzled, in what was later going to turn out to be the death throes of this woeful being. My poor PC clawed away in intolerable pain, she rolled around in infinite agony, she screamed desperately to a deaf universe, before finally choking, sputtering, falling silent and ... giving up her soul.
I was devastated.
Fortunately, the PC's rather untimely death - as I would later find out - was due to a short circuit within her power supply. Upon having taken her to the repair center, I was duly assured that she would be resurrected within a few days, to return fine as a fiddle, so that I could finally drag out my multimedia-enhanced essay from the deep recesses of her 10-Gig bowels. Until then, I will leave you alone with Ms. Multimedia-Enhanced Essay's little brother. Say hi, Temporary Essay.
The attentive reader will note that, in the above paragraphs, Professor George Landow remains the only entity that is truly and not anthropomorphically alive, alive in the conventional sense of the word - or at least, so we hope. Indeed, inanimate beings assuming the qualities of the living often seem amusing or playful when they do not pose a threat to us (Consider Bandai's Tamagotchis or PF. Magic's Catz, the adorable little darlings).
Cogito ergo sum...
Personification also appears to be an intuitive way to deal with inanimate objects, but for some indescribable reason (hubris? insecurity? fear? lust?) this method still remains mildly disconcerting. That certainly seems to be the case in the above passage, where entities composed of information (i.e. the essays, the operating systems, the machines) come alive, as it also does in the Ghost in the Shell, in Max Headroom, in Blade Runner, in Bubblegum Crisis, and overall, in much of cyborg cinematography. I will argue, however, that although the anthropomorphization of the machine appears to be somewhat disturbing, it is readily comprehended as an intuitive idea for a very good reason - simply because information is life.
Rather than expending some potentially CTS-inducing keystrokes and tiring poor little Temporary Essay's lazy-ass bytes on lengthy discussions, however, I will simply sketch out a few points which appear to be most integral to the connections between information and life. Rest assured that the below arguments will ultimately evolve into higher forms of discourse.
- Some biologists regard any organism as a tool designed to improve or, in the very least, communicate the information encoded within its chromosomes. Evolution favors specific individiuals within a population, those which evolve into fitter individuals (improve the code) or those which nevertheless survive long enough to produce the maximum number of offspring (duplicate and disseminate the code). For a fascinating treatment of this view, I recommend Timothy Leary's Design for Dying. The book also deserves mention in that the hardcover edition possesses the most psychedelic book cover I have ever seen.
- Chaos theory categorizes all mathematical functions, which are believed to model natural phenomena, into three groups. The first group represents a class of static functions - the y values are either stiflingly predictable or else, they do not change at all. The final group includes chaotic functions - those that churn out meaningless, random values. Teetering between absolute order and absolute chaos lies an intermediate set of functions, those that produce seemingly arbitrary results although their graphs possess attractor regions, as is the case with Mandelbrot and Julia fractals. Some experts, particularly those in the newly-emerging field of Artificial Life, regard these functions as the equivalent of life - orderly enough to converge to particular values for relatively extended periods, yet chaotic enough to evolve or mutate when substantial changes within the environment require it. Such hypotheses are not limited to computer-science related disciplines with catchy names, however. Simon Penny, whom Matt extensively discusses in his essay, creates works of art, unusual engineering projects, that are autonomous, interactive and evolutionary. Most people are compelled to think that these works are... dare we say it... alive?
- Most information that has been produced by humanity until the late twentieth century appears to be quite lifeless. This is not an opinion so much as it is an observation - most works from the aforementioned era are either too authoritative or too algorithmic in nature. They belong to the first class of functions explicated in the above bullet point, they assert too much and leave too little to the reader, they weave their own fate and therefore prepare their own suicide since their life span is limited by their length. They aspire to be the alpha and the omega, to embody all three weird sisters at the same time, to explain life, the universe and everything between the two covers. However, they ultimately experience the death of a salesman since the reader's imagination can always run faster, reach farther - or simply think of a relevant point or a cool twist the author hadn't considered in the first place. Literary and computational products that are being produced as we approach the beginning of a new millennium offer much more hope in this respect, however. We see more works that are hypertextual or artificially intelligent - in a word, evolutionary. Each hypertext comes alive and evolves anew with every new reading. Although possible individual readings may be enumerated for smaller webs, as the size of the web grows, so does the number of potential readings - so quickly that the number soon becomes virtually infinite. Many of the most recent artificial intelligence algorithms adopt self-modifying code - these programs learn from their mistaks, they adapt to their environment, they evolve. The hypertext and the AI algorithm both live. They don't have bodies made of flesh and blood, of course, but that can surely be arranged in time.
Maybe we should worry a little less about whether Deckard is a replicant or a human. Maybe we need not try so hard to define when memories are real and when they are artificial, when something is conscious and when it isn't. Borderline cases may not be so borderline after all. The question of whether being a replicant would make Deckard less human, or whether Rachel, for some reason, is more human than other replicants, may well turn out to be a non-question.
When information is equated with life, beauty becomes truth, truth beauty. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then, surely, it must be a duck.
Can you think of an exception?No nootropics were consumed during the production of this document.
[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]