mitchell whitelaw on Fri, 25 Sep 1998 10:31:40 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> a-life and online nature

a-life and online nature
by mitchell whitelaw

Cyberspace habitually adopts the image of nature. Gene Youngblood proposed
"The Intermedia Network as Nature" in 1972; twenty years later Douglas
Rushkoff coins the "datasphere" and populates it with viral memetic
replicators. A handful of parallel devleopments suggest that somehow,
these metaphors are being literalised. The web has been infested with a
population of agents, virii, bots and crawlers; virtual spaces have begun
to sprout artificial life, and a-life itself has begun to talk about the
net as a prospective habitat, a virtual ecosystem.

Implicit in these phenomena is an unstated fantasy of virtual nature, an
online garden formed as two imaginary spaces merge as cyberspace meets
the simulation-space of a-life. At its most extreme this fantasy promises
a virtual Eden infused with evolutionary autonomy, a space with all
cyberspace's aspirations to be ubiquitous, communal and transparently
accessable. It would mean an end to cyberspace as an artefact, a
construction; rather it acquires its own internal, natural logic. This
would be the ultimate garden: a natural space where nobody gets hurt;
plentiful, complex, immersive and utterly benign. We could safely thrill
at its autonomy, its emergent behavioural surprises, because it would be
safely, computationally caged. And this fantasy eliminates the
uncomfortable conflict between the forces of capital and the wellbeing of
nature; in fact, capital buys computer power, and with more power you get
more simulated detail, higher resolution, a richer artificial ecosystem.
Virtual nature can be unproblematically bought and sold: the lion lies
down with the lamb: a-life thrives beside secure credit-card transactions;
our computers serve banner ads and render foliage while they burn fossil

Attacking this fantasy is easy because it's an overstatement, a rhetorical
overconstruction, an attempt to solidify a nebulous conjunction. But
what's interesting about a-life is the way the ideas underlying it slip
away from this critique, based as it is on an opposition between the
artificial and the natural. The dynamics of complex systems, their
properties of self-organisation and emergent structure, suggest an
immanent machinism, a way of understanding the flows of matter and energy
which simultaneously produce "nature" and "culture". A-life in this
paradigm is just another self-organising flow, tightly connected to
specific flows of culture, technology and capital. Contemporary
net.culture uses a-life as a container for a romantic, idealised notion of
Nature; the imaginary online Garden grows as naive toy-natures intersect
with the rush towards life in cyberspace, and answer cybertopian desires
for an anthroponature. But the more cyberculture invests in a simulated
life-space the more it will be distracted from the dynamics of its own
concrete life-space, and the complex processes which ground one in the

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