Technology Recapitulates Phylogeny

Installation View

Circuit Board, detail

Night view, wall projections

Worm Clumping, detail

Root Base, detail

Worm Clumping, detail

Brain Cell

Quick Time Movie


As you approach this piece a sensor turns a light on which projects the worms and tree forms onto the walls and ceiling. The tubefex worms which are the stars of this piece demonstrate a form of supra organization in which these single tubefex worms act together to form a group consciousness of thousands of worms. The gaggle sends out exploratory tentacles projecting from the edge of undulating masses which resemble magnified striated muscle cells. These collective fingers project over the edge of the plate and back into other writhing masses. If you touch one worm in a bunch the whole mass contracts like a flinching muscle. Five and six clumps will form in a dish like mini sea anemones, and when one swarm reacts the few worms that are invariably touching the other clumps contract and soon the whole plate has exploded with worms heading off every direction; a kind of primitive escape mode. Soon the worms have collected together again to act as a single creature.

The roots, worms, and circuit boards in this work point to the all pervasive tree structure as a most efficient matter, energy and information distribution network. Tree structures are forms that recur consistantly in organic and inorganic systems alike. They may appear as fingers of rivers, cracks in rocks, branches of roots, snowflakes, cytoskeletons, braincells, clumps of worms, circuit boards, and very large scale integrated circuits (VLSI), and internet connection networks.

Technology Recapitulates Phylogeny is both an observation I've made and a play on Ernst Haeckel's notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," in which the ontogeny, or growth of the fetus in the womb recaps certain phylogenetic stages through which life has evolved. During gestation, humans progress from a single cell to a time when the fetus has rudiments of gills and a tail. Before Haeckel's ideas surfaced, Aristotle believed there was an analogical relationship between organic history and human development. Pre-Socratic thinkers like Anaximander, Anaximes and Democritus postulated an analogy between cosmic history and human development.

In our time, with human cultural development so inextricably intertwined and dependent on technology, our existence surrounded in a strangely comfortable embryonic sack of chips and wire, it is no wonder that a relationship between technology and phylogeny seems evident. Strangely, there are now hybrid forms which one cannot readily identify as being either technological or biological. Neural network computers composed of bacteriorhodopsin, a bacterial-based molecule derived from the chromophores (molecules that allow us to see color) in mammalian eyes, are used for storing images. These bacterial molecules switched on (red) and off (green) are manipulated to store information in binary forms. Dupont has recently created artificial spider silk based on research into real spider silk production, rumored to be twenty times stronger than steel of the same width. Neural nets, micromachines and cybernetics are a few more contemporary examples of researchers looking to natural systems for modeling.

There seems to be an inevitable and overall natural evolution and human coercion toward intelligent systems, both biological and technological. It seems humans are increasingly realizing the exquisite natural models available from carbon-based life forms. This would stand to reason, as biological forms have had a 3.5 billion year head start to explore molecular variation. While genetics have permitted the passing of biological heredity from parent to child, what has truly distinguished humans from our past kin is not our 100,000 year old biological selves (as indeed we reveal little biological difference to our ancient forebears), but instead the cultural memory which has followed humans in the form of cultural memory augmentation devices.

Computers can certainly be considered as cultural and memory augmentation devices. Hans Morovic is one researcher who has observed: "cultural development proceeds much faster than biological development" Structurally, computers continue to develop, and seem to mimic the successive stages of development that less evolved forms have gone through, progressing from single transistors (cell) to very large scale integrated circuits (neuron) to massively parallel neural networks (brain). Many would say, that what is still lacking in computers, are the body and sensory elements that would allow computes to develop a form of consciousness. I believe we represent that body as a remote sense extension, which rejoins with the computer as information processor and integrator. We further act as that body by continually researching, manufacturing and modeling ever-faster hardware and software. Theorists like Roy Ascott are further citing the web as an expanded form of an emerging consciousness. He calls this a "Noetic network" in which our minds and the information networks come together to create a new space of consciousness.

When looking at Moore's law (that we double the number of transistors on a chip each 18 months) and current human brain power, Hans Morovic believes that there is a genetic takeover underway and that within fifty years computers will:

    "...take pride when they look back at us and refer to themselves as our descendants."

Artists like Stelarc manifest these notions when they reference the body as "obsolete" and ask when body replacement parts and microrobots will colonize to improve the species.

    "It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated... it is only when the body becomes aware of its present position that it can map its post-evolutionary strategies."

Still, we must remember that computers are the first human made systems that have the ability for symbolic processing a function of more advanced biological beings. As computers reach higher densities of transistors through miniaturization, and computer structure looks to neural networks for modeling faster more interconnected and interstitial architectures, computer consciousness will arise.



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