MUSEUM OF VIRTUAL NATURE
Geography of the virtual space remains largely invisible. It is constructed based on the physical world but it is not its virtual equivalent. Rather, it is its distorted version, not defined by contiguous spaces or standard markers of nation states, like race, religion or language, but structured around the notions of capital.1 It is an entangled space where modern divides between organic and technical are obfuscated.
Humans cohabit many modern social and digital environments with artificial beings. The virtual ecosystem is overpopulated by autonomous forces, bots and algorithms. Video games are among the places where the act of communication between a human and a non-human, a player and a machine takes place. And virtual nature in video games, usually serving as a backdrop to the action of the games, becomes a representation of ambient acts of the machine, a symbol of machine intelligence, an agency. The virtual sun continues to rise and set, weather conditions continue to change and lives of algorithmic non-player characters continue to evolve on their own. In so-called self-playing games the whole worlds are unfolding in front of us without our interaction. Virtual environment of video games is complex and elaborate, and it often becomes a training ground for AI algorithms before they enter the physical world. Video games are full of autonomous algorithms rambling around. Algorithms are more and more used in procedurally generated games to create new content — new types of nature. And as a result, virtual space becomes a testing ground of the future, a new territory to explore and colonise.
So what are algorithms? How do they look like and what do they do? Today the status of algorithms is changing and their definition is challenged. Algorithms, as we know, are involved in every field of our lives, affecting the processes and behaviours of human societies, economies and legal systems. In many situations ‘the algorithm’ becomes a system of automated, data-driven management, that governs our actions. The logic of ‘the algorithm’ is to a large degree unknown and constantly changing, and we are left to speculate about what it is doing and why. Although they stay invisible, their impact on our societies is powerful and largely unpredictable. They analyse, evaluate, trade, explore, perform, produce, wonder, study and play. They predict the future and reconstruct the past through prediction systems and virtual simulations. They analyse our culture and make vital decisions. An algorithm is no longer a set of instructions or a tool to accomplish a task, it has its own agency. Some of the algorithms have become so fast that humans have lost their ability to perceive their movements or intervene in real time.
Behaviour of many algorithms is often described as similar to the one of the nature world, where predators are hunting the prey and the fittest one survives.2 Their evolution is sometimes compared to biological growth and the sphere of their operation is referred to as ‘the Wild’.3 Drawing a parallel between nature and technology, as a representation of the ‘uncanny’ (or the unknown), this text looks at similar coping strategies towards inexplicable characteristics of the two.
Rendering the uncanny familiar is an established survival method for the human animal in the act of mapping its territory.4 As much as the unknown has always triggered different coping strategies — scientific, religious, spiritual, mythological, emotional — the autonomous and black-box-like nature of technology triggers various reactions to it, from attacks on robots and self-driving cars, to worshiping of the artificial intelligence.5 Nature as well as technology is sometimes perceived as the ‘other’ or the unknown force that triggers fear due to the inability to fully grasp or explain it. Animism and anthropomorphism are used, among others, as coping strategies to mediate autonomous nature of nonhuman entities, and complex, opaque technological systems. Very often algorithms are being anthropomorphised in order to make them more relatable to humans, being called intelligent, brutal, toxic, rational, greedy and errant. Sometimes trying to make sense of their behaviour, scientists give them names and make up stories about them. The inability to understand them causes us to devise different rituals, superstitions, and other forms of magical thinking. Computer science and Artificial Intelligence research are often compared to magic or alchemy not only by users, but even by some computer engineers.
Algorithms today are playing a big part in the forming of the future, which is another unknown, just like technology and nature, that provokes fear. Attempts to predict the future have taken different forms of divination, magical thinking and prophecy throughout centuries. Our ideas of the future have always gone hand in hand with fast technological development, which prompted the formation of a scientific discipline that attempted to determine the likelihood of future events and trends. Futurology (or future studies) emerged as an academic discipline in the mid 1960s, parallel to the ‘systems science’ (often referred to as cybernetics), with a focus on the analysis of patterns of the past and present, in order to postulate possible, probable and preferable futures. Prediction of the future has become a big business and an important economical factor, prompting ‘colonisation of the future’ and establishing control of the possibilities and the unknown. Future has become a new frontier to harness and exploit, a commodity to trade. Predictive algorithms, sci-fi narratives, simulation environments are all contributing to scripting of the future, being a productive force and in many ways acting as self-fulfilling prophesies.
While algorithms are busy predicting the future by analysing ‘big data’, they are also used to generate new worlds. In the video game ‘No Man’s Sky’, for example, algorithms are used to envision and create new types of nature on the unlimited multitude of imaginary planets. And there are plenty of other procedurally generated games where algorithms are used for creation of content. In computer vision research, algorithms, having been trained on the data, are tested to accurately reconstruct elements and objects from the physical world.6 Sometimes their vision is puzzling and unexpected,7 and often reminds more of a hallucination rather than a copy. There is no doubt that with more advanced training their ‘vision’ will improve, and will become more precise. But at the same time they will not stop hallucinating or dream up new realities. Sci-fi narratives have always been trying to imagine the big unknown, manifesting the technological subconscious of the time. They often stay as a representation of the humanist fantasies and controlled theories of what the future will become. But if we could open it to the uncontrollable ‘other’, what would it be?
While the disconnect between humans’ and machines’ perception widens, technology becomes more autonomous, and its influence on the physical world becomes more substantial. And although algorithms are invisible, their presence in the physical world is very tangible, which makes them a curious species to examine.
- Julieta Aranda, Ana Teixeira Pinto, Turk, Toaster, Task Rabbit (e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale, 2015).
- J. Doyne Farmer, Spyros Skouras, An Ecological Perspective on the Future of Computer Trading (The Future of Computer Trading in Financial Markets – Foresight Driver Review – DR 6, 2011).
- Tarleton Gillespie, Algorithm (Culture Digitally, 2014).
- Matteo Pasquinelli, Abnormal Encephalization in the Age of Machine Learning (e-flux journal #75, September 2016).
- AI worshipers, for example ‘Way of the Future Church’, who believe that intelligence is not rooted in biology.
- Anh Nguyen, Jason Yosinski, Jeff Clune, Deep Neural Networks are Easily Fooled: High Confidence Predictions for Unrecognizable Images (CVPR, 2015); Cade Metz And Keith Collins, How an A.I. ‘Cat-and-Mouse Game’ Generates Believable Fake Photos (The New York Times, Jan. 2, 2018).
- Richard Gray, Why Machines Dream of Spiders with 15 Legs (BBC, 27 November 2018); Linda Geddes, The ‘Weird Events’ That Make Machines Hallucinate (BBC, 5 December 2018).
- Reference from the audio guide: Tim Ingold, Temporality of the Landscape (World Archeology, v. 25 #2 Conceptions of Time and Ancient Society).
Essay Museum of Virtual Nature by Daria Kiseleva
Concept, design, programming by Daria Kiseleva
Special thanks to Amir Avraham