"But the more Holland thought about this idea of coherent, self-reinforcing clusters, the more subtle it began to seem. For one thing, you could find analogous examples almost anywhere you looked. Subroutines in a computer program. Departments in a bureaucracy. Gambits in the larger strategy of a chess game. Furthermore, you could find examples at every level of an organization. If a cluster is coherent enough and stable enough, then it can ususally serve as a building block for some larger cluster. Cells make tissues, tissues make organs, organs make organisms, organisms make ecosystems - on and on. Indeed, thought Holland, that's what this business of "emergence" was all about: building blocks at one level combining into new building blocks at a higher level. It seemed to be one of the fundamental organzing principles of the world. It certainly seemed to appear in every complex, adaptive system that you looked at. ... a hierarchical, building-block structure utterly transforms a system's ability to learn, evolve and adapt. Think of our cognitive building blocks, which include such concepts as red, car, and road. Once a set of building blocks like this has been tweaked and refined and thoroughly debugged through experience, says Holland, then it can generally be adapted and recombined to build a great many new concepts... And that fact, in turn, suggests a whole new mechanism for adaption in general. Instead of moving through that immense space of possiblities step-by-step, so to speak, an adaptive system can reshuffle its buildingblocks and take giant leaps."

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, M. Mitchell Waldrop, page 169
COMMUNICATIONS

An interactive system can also be focused around interpersonal or group communication; we've seen many different manifestations of this - e-mail, Usenet newsgroups, chat boards, mailing lists, narrative environments such as MUD's and MOO's, etc. These tools have enabled distributed, self-organized networks: we flock according to our interests, searching out self-similar communicative partners. A/synchronous, instantaneous group communication means all messages simultaneously propagate to all members. As a direct result of the creation of a near instantaneous any-to-any network, we have injected the forces of complexity and chaos into the organizational and communicative structures of our culture. Yet complexity theory alone is inadequate for the task of understanding these phenomenon, as it makes no place for sentience or the vagaries of human perception. At the intersection of complexity, theoretical ecology, cybernetics, media theory and cognitive psychology lies a description of the emerging ecology of information, and of ourselves.
The network itself also engenders interactivity; its nature as a distributed communications medium providing us with easy access to a wide range of information previously unavailable, either due to limited distribution or the economics of print. While the content we're interested in might be quite limited in interactivity, our access to it is a by-product of the technologies of interactivity; our request and the informations return becomes the act of interactivity. The content could, and usually does, mirror the structures of print, but our access to it and the means of delivery are unprecedented.
"(...) we have developed a view of connectedness in ecological systems such that connectedness of a system, whether measured by interaction terms, connectivity, or connectance, has a direct relationship to system stability. (...) "The overconnected condition will often overexcite the parts such that they overstep the organizational constraints of normal functioning of the system. With emergence of an overconnected state the old rules of functioning of the system become irrelevant (Allen and Iltis 1980). (...) In evolution to higher levels of organization the interaction rates associated with the overconnected condition give rise to a mode of system functioning which operates within new organizational constraints (Allen and Iltis 1980)."

Hierarchy: Perspectives for Ecological Complexity, T.F.H. Allen and Thomas B. Starr, 1982, University of Chicago Press, page 223.
"Whenever you look at very complicated systems in physics or biology, he [Stephen Wolfram] said, you generally find that the basic components and the basic laws are quite simple; the complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components interacting simultaneously. The complexity is actually in the organization - the myriad possible ways that the components of the system can interact." - Complexity, pg. 86
HARDWARE

Others have discussed hardware far more elegantly and completely than I am able to here. My main interest here is in hardware and networks as information processing, transmission and storage systems, which also happens to be a way to describe a biological organism. Three main topics are relevant to the larger discussion: the current state of our information storage as effectively random access devices, interface technology, and the relationship between processor speed and visual representation.
RAM (Random Access Memory) represents perceptual instantaneity, an information storage device in which all information is equally accessible and where time and space are effectively eliminated within the confines of the chip. The limiting factors are the assemblies in which memory resides: the hardware architectures which determine the flow of information and the speed with which it can be processed. Representation in RAM, however, is even more fleeting than human short-term memory; turn the system off, and the information is gone. For persistent storage, we turn to disk drives. They are, in fact, linear storage mediums with information retrieval speed limited by the physical movement of a read/write head over a magnetic surface; access to that surface, however, is non-linear; the head(s) can access any point on the disk without having to read the information which resides in the interstitial space, the space between point A and point B.
Digital tools, to adapt a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, are extensions of the human animal, devices which amplify and propagate, as well as transform and add to the capabilities of our bodies. As with any other tool, the interface, the means by which we make the tool function, and the ease with which it maps onto our cognitive structures and senses, determines effectiveness. The interface devices we use to access the digital realm are simultaneously primitive and unnecessarily complex by comparison. The capabilities of our computers are currently limited by the tools and metaphors which we've chosen to use as interfaces. We are at the limits of effectiveness of our current devices, the QWERTY keyboard and mouse. We're beginning to see a proliferation of specialized devices; joysticks and other devices designed for accessing spatial data, speech recognition, pen-based devices which recognize some form of human writing. It's not by coincidence that many of the works in Digital Traces function through novel spatial interfaces; artists are currently at the forefront of research in kinesthetic, performative interfaces. Other artistic examples include Char Davies' Osmose and Ephemere, which draw upon SCUBA diving for inspiration in mapping lung expansion to z-axis movement in a 3D environment, and Toni Dove's Artificial Changelings, which uses pressure pads and motion sensors to control a video-based, non-linear narrative.
the information age
communications
interactivity
connectionism
architecture
hardware
historical context

Digital Traces version a1.1; authors: Vicky A. Clark, Jason Simmons

 

The Print Worldview

This system and the tools tied to it are inextricable from the medium which is their subject: the printed word and image. Print is, of course, a technology, a means to store and transmit information, to externalize thought and experience. The variety of print experiences is the result of a complex interplay of feedback loops: we create technology, the technology changes us, we change the technology which in turn changes us again, etc. The delivery medium dictates form (paper and pages) and the tools we use to generate those pages dictate functionality and aesthetics (lead type vs. digital design). We develop methodologies for creating content for those pages, and our thinking is shaped by it all. The architecture of print, the primary information storage device of the past 500 years, is one-dimensional, a line extended through space and a supreme act of reductionist representation.
Not all libraries work on an organizational system like the Dewey Decimal system. Aby Warburg, an art historian known for iconography, created his library in an idiosyncratic and associative way. It is still loosely organized by subject, but it follows his research: one book or subject led to another for him in a series of associations. The reader gets to retrace his thoughts when using the collection at the Warburg Institute in London, accessing information in a way that has more in common with contemporary data retrieval made possible by computers.
Ordering Systems

Take, for example, a well-developed system of analog information technology, the library. The Dewey Decimal System provides a means of ordering printed matter by author, subject, and title; prior to digitization, an analog information storage device-the card catalog-provided an interface to this system. We search for data about a book by any one of three variables, organized alphabetically, obtain the book's unique identifying number, cross-reference this with information about the physical layout of the library, move through space to the location of the book. The book itself presents us with several different systems by which we can access its content: a table of contents for significant subdivisions and an index for specific references. This is an information architecture.
THE INFORMATION AGE

By now, we've firmly accepted the notion that the industrial Age - the age of machines - is over, and the age of information - the age of the computer and the network - has begun. The line of demarcation is not clear, but in the 1990s, it has become clear that things are changing. After 50 years of developments in information technology, it has finally reached a point of criticality and exploded into mass consciousness, promising, like previous technological leaps, to transform the underlying architecture of our culture. The world seems less like a machine and more like an organism. Digital technology affects, and perhaps even drives, the economy; that same technology enables us to communicate with each other in new ways, and we interact with new forms of representation in art, media, and entertainment. The speed and scope of change is palpable. The only certainty is that things will be different tomorrow.
ARCHITECTURE

The appropriation of the term architecture by the information industries is indicative of
a necessary preoccupation with structure or, more specifically, systems of structure.
INTERACTIVITY

Digital Traces is about a new category of experience: digitally mediated interactivity. We are proposing interactivity as both a distinct realm of artistic creation - a new medium - and one of the fundamental mechanisms underlying the restructuring of knowledge, information flows, and ultimately society itself. A generic definition of interactivity could be: an information-based or controlled system which takes input from users in order to create or alter the form of its output. This definition forces a common analytical framework for the full range of interactive experience, from word processing to the art presented in Digital Traces. The digital realm becomes a site of mediation between human intent and the user, interpreting a set of instructions for receiving input from the user and making a decision about what information to return. In varying degrees, the user determines the character of their experience, becoming an active agent in its construction. The framework presented here is a sketch, and an incomplete one at that; feedback is welcome.
More precisely, interactivity is a metamedium, a medium which contains other mediums and places them within a connective tissue of computer code. As a metamedium, interactivity is an inherently syncretic discipline, simultaneously absorbing and transforming the functionality and grammar of the mediums incorporated. The numbers of skills required to realize interactive works of sufficient scale often requires new working processes, new collaborative models. The primary transformation is tied to the digital realm's non-linearity and instantaneity.
Interactivity is still a largely unexplored territory. At this moment in its evolution, it is akin to photography in the 1850's or film in the 1910's, still largely tied to the paradigms of pre-existing media, and lacking a developed critical language. We've only begun to grasp its implications.

CONNECTIONISM

In removing information from static storage mediums such as paper and videotapes and placing it within a digital, random access storage medium, any addressable point within that information becomes instantaneously accessible. A paragraph, a sentence, a word, a region of an image, a specific time or region of a video clip, or an XYZ coordinate in a 3D spatial representation - all become potential communicative objects, connectable to any other object. This is hypermedia. Why and how these objects are connected is today largely determined by conscious, human intent. This is interaction design. As the scale and complexity of our information repositories grows, human intent must betranslated into systems of structure and often a form which can operate beyond human perceptual capabilities. This is information architecture. An example is Amazon.com's "Customers who bought titles by/about (insert Variable) also bought:" links.

There are certainly precedents in analog media for non-linear access to discrete points within a larger information entity, as well as intertextual references: alphabetical indexes and content listings joined with page numbers, and footnotes and bibliographies. These devices and the means of utilizing them are tied to the physicality of the storage medium: paper. The transmission of the information contained within the book is limited primarily by accessibility: how many copies were printed, and where are they stored? Time-based media have developed their own structures as well; TV Guide and the Preview Channel, for example, provide access to discrete units of information called programs, which occur at a specified point in time, for a defined interval of time. Time and space are the fundamental units by which we order our environment.
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