31 October 2012

Neuromancer: A Review

It wasn’t until after eleven years of thriving in the cyberpunk culture –eleven years of being jacked into the internet, networking on MUDs and chat rooms– that I decided to read the originator of its movement. Neuromancer by William Gibson can be described as a book from the future that found its way to print in 1984. Reading it in 2012 was like travelling back to the pure essence of all debates cyberpunk.

The plot is set in 2200 in a world of an online matrix and cyborgs, viewed through the eyes of a cyberspace “cowboy”, Henry Dorsett Case, who has been banned from the matrix for using it for illegal hacking. We start off seeing him mourn the loss of the matrix network. Whereas the internet was a new thing in 1984, in 2012 the pain Case goes through resonated deeply inside me. I’ve recently moved house and have not had internet for three months. Gibsons talk of “meat” and the physical constraints of the real world are not science-fiction anymore. From just the beginning of the commercialization of the internet Gibson managed to extrapolate a future human experience that is now very real to the present connected self.

Neuromancer talks of artificial intelligence, the perception of the real, what it is to be human, machine, AI, the limits of the human body and the vastness of the human mind. Philosophies of Ghost in a Shell, The Matrix, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Deus Ex all weave themselves together into a tight network of understanding. There were various scenes where Case would talk to an AI in the matrix. In a whip of irony, the AI would often be more metacognitive than the human.

The world is essential in the presentation of these topics and the architecture in Neuromancer alone deserves an essay of its own to give it justice: from the intricacies of a virtual dimension, designing for impossible perspectives and the personality and storytelling qualities of the architecture. There is one recurring image that was particularly striking and that is of the hive. Compared to a wasp nest, tightly packed with larvae, Gibson shows us the architecture of a city that has grown into itself. Secluded in their riches, they live in their own realities, preserving their bodies and multiplying their data. 

Having been to various digital expos and computer-related events, the hive felt like a very morbid version of reality. The dream (and sometimes lifestyle) of having a self-sustaining body as your mind wanders the extremities of cyberspace is held by one too many acquaintances including, I must admit, my past teenage self. The hive hit home what might actually become of us should we lose touch with our bodies and with reality. Maybe cutting off on facebook and fanatic videogaming doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

As time moves on, it feels like Neuromancer has not lost but gained in relevancy to our present lifestyle. It is a classic eye opener into our culture and humanity that should be read by all willing to learn about our role in a technological world.


22 October 2012

Utopia and Other Science Fictions

Between scenes of rogue AIs and distopian futures, we are given a brief to design a housing complex for the Barbican in London.

Instantly I am brought to Margaret Wertheim's: "It is just this excluded but irrefutable 'I' that cyberspace seems to provide a home for." The concept that architecure is a slave to our human needs was theorised by Futurists in the sense that they are machines for living. Reading through "The Virtual Dimension" it came to my attention that this concept had evolved to: The architectue is a slave to our human needs. Cyberspace is a slave to our cultural and spiritual needs.

Ironically so, cyberspace has nothing "mystical" about it. Everything that occurs in a computer can be traced down or deduced to the programming code. Sure enough, the resulting behaviour may be more or less dense in complexity creating an illusion of real. We can that way simulate experiences that could otherwise not be encountered in the real world.

Florian Roetzer's argues that "the more uniform the world culture becomes, the more differences between us we desire to have". It is here where I say that an utopia can only exist for the individual. A person's utopia may be another persons dictatorship. In simulation is the only space where we can find utopia.


20 October 2012

The Mother Project

Cities have often been compared with living organisms. [...] However, we would do well to remember that the city does not actually heal or regenerate itself; it relies on the eactive agents (people, policy-makers) within that organism to provoke change.
- London (Re)Generation
David Littlefield

Julie Sumner can be described as a strong woman with a tender care for helpless creatures, weather plants, the elderly or children. She was a member of the maternity committee, making sure mothers and their babies would be treated well during childbirth, and when the olympics knocked on her allotment door, she was the first to stand up for the community.

She described the allotments as a space where her daughter could paint her imagination. She often tells stories of how her daughter learned how to ride her bike there, play with other kids and plant her own vegetables and flowers.

The olympics pulled out her allotment and with it the growing relationship with her only daughter. They destroyed the community and polluted the soil.

Then Julie decided to do something. In the quiet after the storm, she decides to start regenerating a better future for her daughter and she does that in the way she knows best: planting and nurturing.

Using the soil-healing properties of thistle, Julie and her daughter leave fields of legacy; the interior of their vessel a collage of mother-daughter memories. As they brush through the olympic park, planting and growing their relationship, they begin to paint the imagination back into the Lea Valley.


The Luddite Fallacy

There is a concept that AI will eventually replace human brainpower. The field of emergence has been expanding into new technologies, from Selfridge's Pandemonium architecture, SimCity and Nano Quadrotors. The jump from thinking linearly to thinking relationally may be done with a combination of an emergent programming language (we're already halfway there with erlang) that also copies imperfectly. We could even eventually get AI that evolves much like living forms.

Rather than dooms-daying, we're going to have to find our new place in the market.We'll have to find what we can do that AI can't do. At the moment the concept seems bleak: from beating chess masters to AIs coming out in tests as being more human than humans. How is this possible? Is human behaviour really that easy to simulate? Maybe its time we re-conceptualise the Turing test to better define us from AI.