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Old Technology and New Biology
Are they really so different?
I first learned the word “Umwelt” from Brenda Laurel, a software developer I profiled in my first book, Broad Band. Brenda has had a long career in video and computer game development, virtual reality, and web design, but these days she’s mostly a theorist of what she calls “Gaian interaction design,” a way of thinking about the design and development of user interfaces, interactions, and technological systems that mirrors the larger biological systems of which we are all part.
From her earliest writings, Laurel has argued that software—and the experience of interacting with software—is a powerful model for reality, and that the decisions we make about how software should work both reveal our position in the world and provide an opportunity to model new values. This all remains quite abstract, of course, until we begin to trace our own spheres of perception.
Our umwelten, as Brenda put it to me.
The word is German (literally, “surround-world”) and it came into Brenda’s lexicon from Jakob von Uexküll, a Baltic German biologist who wrote extensively about the subjective world of nonhuman organisms. In any given ecological niche, von Uexküll observed, there may be thousands of umwelten: distinct spheres of perceptions which, for the organisms concerned, constitute reality itself. In an influential book, he describes a flowering meadow, abuzz with insects and birds, encouraging the reader to imagine a bubble around each living thing. “A new world arises in each bubble,” he writes. Each is a perceptual reality, a looking-out-from. Imagine being an eyeless tick gripping the swaying end of a blade of grass, awaiting a whiff of the butyric acid that signals the presence of warm, blood-rich mammalian skin. Imagine being a common limpet, groping across a cliff bottom’s bare rock at low tide. Imagine being human.
Brenda was thinking about von Uexküll in 1993, the year she made Placeholder, an early virtual reality artwork, at Banff Centre for the Arts, in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In the piece, which she co-created with the filmmaker Rachel Strickland, users temporarily embodied the umwelt of several critters. Approaching a crow, they became the crow; instead of speaking, they cawed, and when they flapped their arms, they took flight. “Employing virtual environment technology to explore alternate umwelten has been one of our irrepressible motives,” Strickland wrote, in a 1994 paper about the project. “It was a spiritual quest to see how close the digital could get to the experience of being in the natural world,” Brenda Laurel told me.
It was an audacious experiment, and one that has rarely—if ever—been replicated. Modern processing power should have, in theory, made computationally-assisted interspecies empathy possible. It could have helped us to conceive of a perceptual world beyond our own. It could have, as Brenda later wrote, given us goggles on life: made us capable of seeing the vibration of every molecule, or the sap coursing beneath a tree’s bark. Perhaps it might even have brought us into a strange, new, mediated relationship to the world, one in which we regularly chat with the compost heap and get our history lessons from plants.
Of course, that’s not how we use technology. Rather than slipping into the skin—or sap—of other beings, sampling their lived experiences in order to understand them, we have largely used our formidable technology to silo ourselves from the natural world, of which we have always been an inextricable part.
Not that this is new. Rene Descartes compared the cries of a wounded dog to the sound of an improperly functioning machine; his philosophy dispensed entirely with the inner lives of animals, calling them bêtes-machine. “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing,” wrote the French natural philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, one of Descartes’ inheritors. In the late nineteenth century, Behaviorists reduced the complexity of animal behavior to stimulus and response, as in Ivan Pavolv’s salivation experiments on dogs. As the animal ethologist Frans de Waal writes, for much of the twentieth century, scientists largely shared this mechanistic view of animals, seeing them as either “stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.”
That this line of thinking should have persisted for so long, in the face of ample evidence to the contrary (and surely rendered questionable by the experience of any human being who ever has invited a pet or working animal into their lives) is a matter of convenience. It’s far more challenging to conduct experiments on animals—or to consume them as food—when you understand their suffering to be like your own. This understanding lifts a veil that is difficult to replace. Once you accept that any nonhuman being can hurt, the entire planet, even on a good day, screams out in pain.
We seem unable to see or listen to the world as it is, and the technological tools we once hoped might help us to understand reality have imprisoned us in a reality of their own. Meanwhile the world continues its cycles, its entanglements, and, even as it spins out of balance, its wholeness. Never have human beings had more control over the material reality of our planet; never have we been less integrated with it. A few days before I sat down to write this, I read that the sum total mass of manmade material on Earth—asphalt, alloys, and airplanes—now equals the sum total of natural matter. As you read this, it will doubtless have surpassed it. We so long to be outside of this world that we are building ourselves a new one.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I’m turning my worldview inside-out. You may have subscribed to this newsletter (if it looks different, that’s because I’ve just switched from Mailchimp to Substack) because you liked Broad Band, and were interested in reading my further writings about old technology. I hope you will stick around as I begin to look into much older technologies still: the processes underlying life itself. In this pandemic year, I’ve re oriented my research towards overlaps between computation and biology, and have busied myself writing about slime mold computers, evolutionary simulations, and living robots. This is only the beginning of my journey into a new computational wilderness. Along the way, I hope I can begin to see—and share the view from—other bubbles than my own.