American Cyborg
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 36. Boids

by Bluebird, December 2017


Note: This is a repost of an early American Cyborg piece written by Nora N. Khan, Laura Greig, and Alexander Iadarola. It was originally published in Rhizome in January 2015. We are revisiting it now because our project Rookery was just funded, and flocking behavior is on our mind.

You're a small triangle in flight across a screen, four pixels wide and eight pixels tall. Your lot in life is to be an (x,y) pair. Your velocity has a fixed range. After the chaos of your origin at a random point in this field, your path is wholly determined by the triangles flying closest to you, and your path influences them in turn.

You are both an instantiated object and a member of a flock, a class, a school. You follow three rules: separation, alignment, cohesion. These three rules collaborate to update your position—helping you avoid collision, target a collective goal, stay close to friends.


Tokyo-based online sound gallery EBM (T), run by Nozomu Matsumoto and Nile Koetting, is currently hosting a sonic enactment of Boids: 85 CE 86 EE 4B B1 72 9B 0A AD 15 46 47 33 2C 30, by data composer TCF (Lars Holdhus). EBM (T) is designed as a "virtual aural room," an intimate listening experience. In its past programs, this has allowed for an amphitheater organized around singular object-themes—from the chess-inspired musique concréte of Jeff Witscher to field recordings of authors typing—to emerge. TCF's contribution turns the sound gallery into a bestiary of -oids, articulating the hidden language of machine flocking as a highly listenable audio composition.

Boids are programmatic objects whose movements are defined by three arbitrarily weighted functions (separation, alignment, cohesion). The cluster of triangles (boids) coasts and drifts around the screen, refreshing thirty times a second. Every refresh, each triangle compares its vector (speed and direction) and location (x,y coordinate) to those of every other triangle. The vectors update; each boid blips to a new location.  

Reynolds' Boids simulator code reads like a poem. It tells the story of the flock as it draws itself: Add an initial set of boids into the system … Add a new boid into the System … Nascent animal-objects join the school. The group is steered and sped, balanced and weighted along the three vectors.

When we get to the line passing the entire list of boids to each boid individually, we begin to suspect there is some hidden life here: the life of an -oid, a synthetic object.

Over 85 CE 86...'s 18 minutes of audio, TCF's boids are slowly given life: forms to deploy, space to express themselves within, and a community of like creatures to travel with. The opening is all abrasive discovery and chaos as the entities interact and test boundaries. In the first five minutes, the listener descends into abyssal deep sea, between thick, pressurized curtains of fogbank drone. Strange intonations emerge from the algorithmic depths. Initially, these calls test intelligibility and strain haptic sense, demanding empathic acclimation. In our correspondence about the work, Koetting wrote that these "may be the cries of the trilobites and marine plants from the Cambrian multiplying in cyberspace."

Gradually, a language emerges. The piece transitions into a smooth, cohesive set of harmonies, a cinema of boids in operatic flight. Fluttering whirrs, tortured chirps and wails suggest forms of intelligent life unknown to us. The orchestra dives, splits and coalesces with the sea around as its sheet music. At points, we feel fear, thinking of the predatory flocking in Hitchcock's The Birds; elsewhere, awe, recalling YouTube videosof starling murmurations against a gaining sunset. Ultimately, the tone darkens, closing 85 CE 86... with cacophonic scenes of machine dominance.

It's our choice to hear an -oid: hearing this menagerie of aquatic boids, registering them as alive, is an intentional act.

We might consider how these schools are a type of carpentry, Ian Bogost's term for objects that do theoretical labor when our frameworks fail. Well-known proponents of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a computer-inspired subfield of philosophy, argue that in considering the lives of objects, we gain novel paradigms through which to interpret human action and belief.

85 CE 86... subtly immerses the human subject, until her head is turned completely: until she finds herself looking through the eyes of a boid. She can't always see the greater drama of her entropic flock. The push and pull between order and disorder can remain unseen. Her flock morphs, splits, and blurs with others in an obscure succession of operating logics.

We might think on how animal migration patterns are altered by technology on time-transcendent scales. We might think of the bees.

If we can consider the practice of object-oriented coding as a metaphor for worldly experience, humans are boids, too. We may not have a list of cumbersome rules, if-then statements for every encounter. But we do have certain core functions—survive, seek endorphins, reproduce.

The human group soars along on an unspecified journey. Single human boids make breakaways that are necessary for the species to survive. Early humanity's evolution depended on such radical departures from the herd in search of resources. Listening, we sense the will to split off, guided by instinct, by forces more complex than the three rules.

Algorithmic culture can feel scary, robotic. We fear becoming cogs, clutching shreds of agency, seeking synchronicity with group rule. This composition asks us to consider the flip side, the automated life. It imagines the bot's existence with dimensionality, full of beauty.

Boids have a simple life, but not a limited one. The code that drives them is elegant; their individual chirps converge in a harmony only audible to something greater. In practicing boid empathy, we find a salve to a particularly modern anxiety: you're not a subway commuter at rush hour, but a glorious salmon fighting upstream, fulfilling its destiny, enacting its program.

See also: "Radical Ethology: Jussi Parikka's Insect Media" by Jacob Gaboury.


Schiaparelli Crater

by Albatross, March 2017

schiaparelli_basin_crater (1).jpg

♪ Come all you tired farmers
Who should grow free from care
Who thought you'd purchase passage
To a world both red and fair
Gather 'round and listen
To the tale of my travail
And never sign with Earthlings
And of Schiaparelli lands beware

Oh when we sailed from Earth and home
To the ports on Luna where
We searched for work at Copernicus
Or any other Mare
But they shut the door upon the poor
And once again we were driven away
By all the Earthlings there

We made our way to Phobos
At the town of Stickney there
Was nought to do but drink and curse
For soon we were aware
Not a thing will grow on dark moon glow
And broke, a man said sign with me
And you'll sail without a fare

Oh trust me sons and daughters
There was an Earthling there
We indentured ourselves all to him
This barbarous billionaire
We're lashed along, starved if wrong
They rank us up like robots
As we choke upon the dust in Schiaparelli air

At times when I am sleeping
And my dreams break through despair
I'm with my sweet in some wonderful place
I hope exists somewhere
Now you've listened along so heed my song
And never sign with Earthlings
And of Schiaparelli land beware ♪



The Black Box Gets Bigger

by Bluebird, February 2017


I’m pretty sure my dog could survive in the wild if he needed to. It’s part of why his breed appealed to me: they’re genetically robust. They’re little house wolves. He’s a good problem solver, navigates streets and trails well, and he’s a picky eater. This means he doesn’t get tangled up or stuck in things, he doesn’t overeat or get into things he shouldn’t. He’s low-maintenance; self-sufficient. But he also knows when to come to me for help. One of my favorite puppy memories is when he came to me with a Milkbone lodged perfectly in the roof of his mouth. It’s something he couldn’t fix himself — he couldn’t even express the problem. I was only able to solve it by knowing his face well enough to notice his mouth was the tiniest bit askew. It was a serious bonding moment for both of us.

There are plenty of ways we can apply lessons from the domestication of animals to the anthropomorphization of technology, but I want to focus on this one: fixing technology helps us bond with it.

We used to have a more intimate relationship with our cars because there were more parts for drivers to touch. I’ve changed tires and bulbs, checked oil and fuses … but I never got to do that 60s movie thing of fixing a fan belt with the leather belt I wore with my jeans for years just in case. That’s because cars are better now. I can barely drive a stick for the same reason. I love the idea and challenge of a standard transmission, but there’s no denying that cars are better at shifting themselves. I’d just be trading safety for pride. So instead of moving back towards the Model Fords, with an air intake valve on the dashboard, let’s look forward to how AI can help us help it.

Though cars have fewer touchable parts now, they have just as many consumable parts. I have to just trust the mechanic that tells me I need some new filter. Why doesn’t my car tell me? I’d like a car that teaches me to be a better owner.

This is especially important now, as we transition from drivers to owners. People keep their cars for decades, entrusting their lives — it’s a very pet-like relationship. As our cars gain AI, we should design them to exchange information with their owner as seamlessly as they learn from the engine.


The Warp and the Weft


Madame Defarge’s Pussy Hat

by Bluebird, January 2017


I went on a beautiful beach vacation with my family over the holidays, and spent most of my time furiously knitting and expressing my increasingly-radical leftist politics. Mom started calling me Madame Defarge.

Madame Defarge is a character in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. She represents the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, when those revolting against the nobility became violent. Madame Defarge was one of the tricoteuse: women who would sit at the guillotine and knit as the heads rolled. She even encoded kill lists into her patterns.

I’m so excited to read this book; I remember being fascinated by the French Revolution in high school history class, and the French Rebellion in high school existentialism (which should be a requirement, by the way). Americans need to collectively study history right now, and France, our oldest ally, is an important place to look. I sympathize with Madame Defarge — at least from the summary, even though it labels her a villain — but I am not a violent person. She is deeply traumatized and we have to understand what that does to a person, how it can make them violent, how trauma and violence get passed through generations. I do understand the strategy of punching a bully in the face, but it’s only a short term solution; they’re often traumatized too. Giving a bully a safe space to talk about their problems, to meditate even, works much better. I don’t want to help usher in an era named something like the Reign of Terror.

I love the symbolism of the knitted hats at the Women’s March. First of all, they honor the history of revolutionary women and textiles, like the suffragettes and their flags. Second, they are such a perfect antidote to the made-in-China, polyester red slogan caps. They are a softer in color and texture, they keep you warm, they were hand-crafted by a citizen with aspirational love. The photos of old women smiling and knitting them, and of young women out in the streets singing and dancing in them, and vice-versa, are beautiful.

Finally, as I begin to learn these cozy crafts, I really appreciate the immense patience and skill they require. Learning to read the patterns alone is a challenge, and it’s an unforgiving medium. The textiles women have created to wrap their loved ones in are even more lovely to me now. Propers to the men who brought us sewing and knitting machines as well; beautiful and fascinating in their own right. And thank you to everyone for the internet tutorials.