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University of California Press
Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, Updated With a New Preface / Edition 1

Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, Updated With a New Preface / Edition 1

by Stefan HelmreichStefan Helmreich


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Silicon Second Nature takes us on an expedition into an extraordinary world where nature is made of bits and bytes and life is born from sequences of zeroes and ones. Artificial Life is the brainchild of scientists who view self-replicating computer programs—such as computer viruses—as new forms of life. Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich's look at the social and simulated worlds of Artificial Life—primarily at the Santa Fe Institute, a well-known center for studies in the sciences of complexity—introduces readers to the people and programs connected with this unusual hybrid of computer science and biology.

When biology becomes an information science, when DNA is downloaded into virtual reality, new ways of imagining "life" become possible. Through detailed dissections of the artifacts of Artifical Life, Helmreich explores how these novel visions of life are recombining with the most traditional tales told by Western culture. Because Artificial Life scientists tend to see themselves as masculine gods of their cyberspace creations, as digital Darwins exploring frontiers filled with primitive creatures, their programs reflect prevalent representations of gender, kinship, and race, and repeat origin stories most familiar from mythical and religious narratives.

But Artificial Life does not, Helmreich says, simply reproduce old stories in new software. Much like contemporary activities of cloning, cryonics, and transgenics, the practice of simulating and synthesizing life in silico challenges and multiplies the very definition of vitality. Are these models, as some would claim, actually another form of the real thing? Silicon Second Nature takes Artifical Life as a symptom and source of our mutating visions of life itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520208001
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/29/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 330
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Stefan Helmreich is Assistant Professor of Science and Society at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Computing is still very much a frontier science.

GREGORY J. E. RAWLINS, Slaves of the Machine

Simulation in Santa Fe

SANTA FE IS a small city in northern New Mexico, and it unfolds at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. A pedestrian-friendly knot of buildings sits in the downtown area, and most of the rather dispersed city fans out from there. During the time of my fieldwork, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) rested three miles out of the center of town. Each day I took the Santa Fe Trails city bus to a nearby hospital. From there, I traipsed across the low desert brush between office buildings of lawyers, doctors, and insurance companies to arrive at the unassuming faux adobe complex in which the Institute was housed. The Institute was the anchor point for my study of Artificial Life, the site from which I began my voyages into worlds social and virtual.

    Traditional ethnographies often open with a description of the surroundings in which subjects live. This device has the purpose of grounding the ethnography, showing how peoples' lifeways are constrained and enabled by their environment. I mean to use this device self-consciously, to locate people who sometimes feel they belong to an aterritorial—even acultural—community. In what follows, I describe SFI as a physical location, as an interdisciplinary research center, and as a node in the international networks of Artificial Life. I describe the people who populate SFI, registering the Institute's ethnic, national, gender, racial, and class composition.Moving out from SFI, I situate scientists in the geography and history of Santa Fe and northern New Mexico, reaching back from here into the recent past to retrieve origin stories about both the Institute and Artificial Life. I finish with a portrait of an Artificial Life conference in Santa Fe. The journey has a kind of fractal structure, folding back on itself to show how people are connected to a variety of histories and places on many different scales. I begin now with a picture of the office space of SFI as it appeared during my fieldwork, in the hope that this will give gravity to the social worlds to which I tether the computational worlds of Artificial Life.


SFI's main building has two floors. On the first, there is a public reception area, a set of offices for administrators and staff, a photocopying nook, a kitchen, a pair of sexed rest rooms, and a small room for lectures and workshops. This conference room, equipped with a whiteboard, a television, a VCR, and an overhead projector, holds about thirty people comfortably. When I was at the Institute, it was often stuffed full. On the second floor are the offices and common areas where researchers work. In most places in the Institute cool white walls meet one another at right angles, but in the spaces connecting offices they confederate into octagons to accommodate diamond-shaped skylights and planters full of large-leafed plants. The Institute also occupies the first floors of two adjacent buildings. The publications office is located in one building, and the Institute's small library, filled with a spotty collection of computer science, physics, and mathematics texts, is wedged into the other. The collection is not impressive, since SFI does not care to compete with the libraries of large research institutions.

    The reception area in the main building is the public face of the Institute. Its walls are a quiet pink, and the pillows on the two inviting off-white couches area polite agreement among aquas, mints, and mauves. Above one couch hangs a Navajo rug, and on the cylindrical white end table shared by both couches rests a gigantic quartz crystal, a gift to the Institute from wealthy benefactors. In their rustic simplicity, the rug and crystal evoke both a southwestern and a scientific aesthetic. The rug conjures a romantic vision of the indigenous people of New Mexico whose customs and arts have been appropriated and homogenized in southwestern decor and art—or Santa Fe Style, as it is usually called. The design of the rug also suggests the systematic generation of complexity from the iteration of simple rules; it is possible to imagine weaving such an item using elementary computational procedures. The quartz crystal on the white pedestal stands as a New Age vision of nature's deep wisdom and potentially redemptive power. But its latticed structure also speaks of the discipline and beauty of physics. Throughout the Institute, scientific and southwestern aesthetics alternately bleed into and stand opposed to one another.

    The logo of SFI, which adorns all Institute publications and is displayed on a downstairs wall, is a circular figure based on an ancient Mimbres pottery design (ca. 950-1150 C.E.). This logo is meant to locate SFI as an institution in the southwestern United States, though it references cultural traditions that are not part of the heritage of most of the people of Euro-American descent and identity working at SFI. This referencing of indigenous American cultural forms is common at the Institute. The offices of administrators are decorated with prints of Native American pottery and dolls. On the stairwell that leads upstairs, there is a photograph of Albert Einstein wearing a crumpled suit and a feathered headdress (likely from the Plains peoples), posing with his wife among a number of Hopis (see fig. 1). What makes this photograph appealing and amusing to visitors—and it almost always gets a laugh—is the juxtaposition of Einstein, a symbol of twentieth-century science, with "primitive" Native American clothing and people (posed, we might note, in front of a simulated Hopi dwelling designed in 1904 as a tourist attraction by the Santa Fe Railway [Wilson 1997:113-114]). Einstein's headdress makes him look like a little kid playing Indian. I realized as I saw people respond to this picture that the Hopis, as far as most were concerned, were just part of the landscape. The Hopi faces and what might be read from them were not interesting, a fact that pinpointed the gaze of many of the scientists as a white Euro-American gaze, one that did not see the picture speaking about the relations of inequality, exploitation, genocide, and tourism in which Native Americans and Euro-Americans have existed.

    Upstairs are the sites where researchers do much of the work of computer simulation. Sofas, bookshelves, and computers of various breeds fill the common areas, serving as conversation pieces and places, as distractions and inspirations. Many outsiders find it striking that the only scientific tools in evidence at SFI are computers; there are none of the fixtures usually associated with sites of scientific work, no test tubes, no machines for amplifying DNA, no special sinks. The computers that sit in common areas and in offices are mostly Sun Sparcstations and, continuing the southwestern theme of SFI, are individually named after local tribes or pueblos, like Pojoaque, Picuris, and Nambe. The naming of workstations after Native Americans is reminiscent of the white Euro-American practice of naming sports teams or cars after native groups, a practice connected to the commodified romanticization of these groups in popular U.S. culture (see Churchill 1994). Remarking on this is not to argue that SFI is acting in bad faith but to recognize that a white imagination circulates in the Institute and—as I will argue later—some of its associated science.

    Amid the computers there are a couple of secretarial desks crunched into the corners of open areas. The walls of the second floor are covered with framed artwork, posters, and bulletin boards. Geometric art and fantastic photographs display mathematical principles and busily call attention to their techniques of creation. At one time, there hung a poster labeled "UNIX FEUDS" that showed a white wizard protecting a light-skinned boy wearing a headband labeled "user" from a horde of belligerent and darker-skinned medieval soldiers fighting under the banners of competing computer companies. Bulletin boards display calls for papers, conference announcements, maps of computer networks, and newspaper cartoons about the quotidian activities of scientists. Coffee tables are arrayed with a scattering of computer science and physics journals, issues of Science and Nature, treatises by famous scientists, environmentalist publications, manuals, and the occasional book on virtual reality and computer games. Blackboards and whiteboards are available so that people can spontaneously jot down proofs, equations, models, and speculations. There are a few coffee machines located around SFI, and people use this ritual drug to give themselves energy for a productive workday.

    Because one of the missions of SFI is to foster interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration, people usually share offices with researchers outside their field. This interdisciplinary mixing is complemented by intergenerational mixing; graduate students in their twenties routinely brush up against seventysomething Nobel Laureates. Most people leave their office doors open, both to invite conversation and to display their collections of posters, computers, and bric-a-brac. More publicly known people have begun to receive letters from bizarre admirers; particularly "kooky" epistles are often tacked to office doors.

    If the interdisciplinary philosophy of SFI is mapped onto an open, socially centripetal architectural space, then the temporariness of most people's time at the Institute is indexed by the hastily laser-printed names affixed to office doors. The flow of people through the Institute generates a quiet confusion and a generally easy attitude toward personal space and property. There seems to be a communitarian ethic about sharing at least some computational resources; people frequently log onto others' machines to use different software, connect to the Internet, and take advantage of the different capabilities of Macintoshes, Sun Sparcstations, and NeXTs.

    But though some people are gregarious, others are so absorbed in their personal projects that it is almost as though they are not really present—and perhaps in some sense they are not. Understanding SFI solely as a physical place is to ignore that for many it is an entry point to the computer networks that tie together their real intellectual communities. The Internet functions as a kind of conscience collective that bands virtual communities together across geographic space. Describing the set of people doing Artificial Life may begin in a physical place but must also record how the community is threaded together through the geography of computer networks.

    That part of the social landscape of the Artificial Life community is situated in international cyberspace does not mean people are not positioned in real spaces structured by complex social relations. Almost all the people at SFI—staff and scientists alike—are white, middle-class, and of Euro-American or European descent (there were two Hispana secretaries at the time of my work). Prevalent U.S. gender inequalities line up fairly neatly with the conceptually and proxemically distinct categories of staff and scientists. Most staff are women and work downstairs. Most scientists are men and work upstairs (about 90 percent of researchers are men, based on informal counts I did repeatedly at conferences, at workshops, and on "In Residence" rosters of SFI). Photographs of scientists are displayed on a bulletin board near the top of the stairs. Each photograph is coupled with an outline of the researcher's interests, leashed to a pin stuck into a world map. A glance at the map reveals a few things. It is a Mercator projection, placing the countries of the north on top and privileging the shapes and sizes of northern hemisphere continents. The distribution of pins on the map reveals that most researchers are from Europe and North America, and while we should be wary of conflating cultural background with geographic provenance (see Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Malkki 1992), the clustering does tell us something about the political economy of science. The map is meant to demonstrate how international SFI is; ironically, it suggests how culturally particular is the science done at SFI, how it depends on economies of privilege, education, and travel that connect elite cultures in Europe and the United States.

    SFI is a bustling place, and a variety of scientists constantly come through, visiting for the day, attending a workshop or conference, engaging in a monthlong collaboration, or settling in for a year of residence. SFI is well known for its small size and attracts economists, computer scientists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and archaeologists from a variety of universities and research institutes. These people meet in interdisciplinary conferences on topics such as computer modeling of nonequilibrium ecological, economic, and technological systems; cultural evolution; and multiagent simulation systems. At any one time there are about forty scientists at SFI, and several are busy with thoughts about Artificial Life.

    The age of scientists at SFI ranges from about nineteen to seventy. At the low end of the spectrum are undergraduate interns. Four or five pass through SFI each summer, working under graduate students or postdoctoral fellows on small, well-defined projects. SFI also hosts a yearly Complex Systems Summer School, which about sixty graduate and postdoctoral students attend—though few actually spend time at SFI, since instruction is held off-campus. Graduate fellows, of whom there are about four or five at any time, are affiliated with a regular university but are in residence for a year or two doing research hard to carry out at their home institutions. During my stay at SFI, I was placed in this category. Postdoctoral fellows, ranging in age from midtwenties to midthirties, are about as numerous as graduate fellows and stay at SFI for about three years.

    The bulk of people at the Institute are between thirty and fifty, and most work as professors at universities around the United States and Europe and visit SFI for a year, a few months, or just a week. The oldest set of people are scientists retired from jobs at Los Alamos or other prestigious research locations. SFI was founded by some of these folks, and they maintain an elder statesman presence at the Institute, offering grand visions of the sciences of complexity and participating in and organizing workshops on topics such as sustainable development. While they are admired for past accomplishments, most younger people at the Institute prefer to collaborate with people in the prime of their research life.

    All these categories are crosscut by gender. Fully half the undergraduate interns are women, somewhat fewer than that among the graduate and postdoctoral fellows and summer school students and fewer still among the set of itinerant and semipermanent faculty. There are no women among the eldest age set of scientists. SFI has expressed its commitment to equal opportunity, and through programs like the summer school, it is making efforts to encourage women to build scientific careers. But SFI is still located in a cultural context that has not encouraged women to enter science, and the historical legacy of this context tells on the distribution of women over different age groups. That women are much more powerfully represented among support staff led one staff woman I interviewed to say that she felt like she was working for all those smart boys she remembered from high school chemistry class. Another said that she was stunned the first time a woman was introduced to her as a conference participant. One woman scientist told me that when she answered the telephone after hours one night, the male scientist on the other end assumed she was a secretary, an assumption that greatly angered her.

    Such incidents are rare, and the Institute nurtures a generally friendly atmosphere. In office memos and the Bulletin of the Santa Fe Institute, the complement of people at the Institute is routinely called "The SFI family." This usage calls on the relations of solidarity that many Americans feel characterize families—though it also papers over the hierarchies that often structure such groups (see Schneider 1968; Collier and Yanagisako 1987). Staff are invited to sit in on scientific workshops, though their office tasks often make this impractical. Many staff listen in on scientists' conversations and are, in various mixtures, skeptical, uncomprehending, and enamored of SFI science.

    Because scientists are at a variety of stages in their careers, their economic positions are various; graduate students struggle to get by while middle-aged and older scientists buy land in Santa Fe and build houses. It is easy to discern the middle-class trajectory and aspirations of SFI researchers. People want to have their own house, car, time and money for vacations, perhaps a place to raise children. Most older researchers who come through the Institute are fairly well-off, and those who come for a short time rent cars and stay in nice hotels (about $100 a night). The Restaurant Guide provided to SFI visitors lists moderately priced places but also includes quite expensive restaurants (about $60 a person). I often heard older people talking about the Santa Fe art scene, and the names of well-respected and pricey artists like Wyeth and Miro were mentioned.

    Most scientists dress casually, in jeans or shorts, T-shirts or button-down shirts. Many look as though they are ready for a short nature hike or jog, and some wear high-tech hiking boots suggesting a typically American penchant for rejoining nature through the use of sleek technology (see Nye 1994). Some men have adopted Santa Fe Style dress and sport bolo ties and turquoise accessories. Because SFI tries to maintain a relaxed feel, women scientists, who might feel compelled in other situations to dress in business attire, feel comfortable wearing casual clothes. At the same time, as several told me, they are careful not to wear too much makeup, and most favor pants over skirts. The women stall wear more stereotypically feminine professional clothing, including heels, silky blouses, and linen blazers. During my work, the few male administrators wore starched dress shirts, ties, sweaters, and slacks.

    Another set of people gather around the Institute: the contracted gardeners, cleaning people, mail carriers, and trash collectors. These people are not considered part of the SFI family. They are mostly working-class and of Mexican descent. When gardeners are present on the periphery of outdoor functions, they are ignored by researchers.

    My own movement as an anthropologist into SFI was facilitated by the fact that I fit well into existing categories and dispositions. My presence as a long-haired Stanford-affiliated white male in his midtwenties was easy to assimilate, especially when people did not know I was an anthropologist, which not everyone did, simply because there were too many people coming through. At many moments, I had to make it a point to introduce myself as an anthropologist, something that often got a response not too far off from what happens when I do this in everyday life: people ask what geographic area I study or say something about bones, archaeology, or nonhuman primates. Once researchers understood what I was doing, they often joked that Artificial Life scientists were indeed an odd "tribe," a description that, while playful, imagines the objects of anthropological inquiry inhabiting bounded spaces, possessing consistent mythologies, and leading lives distinct from others'. Though the Artificial Life community does have a certain coherence, it is also located in a net of larger and smaller cultural groupings and realities. Isolated tribes are largely an anthropological fiction, and I do not care to perpetuate it here (see Wolf 1982). That said, my first steps toward locating Institute Artificial Life scientists in a wider world require us to take a trip through the city of Santa Fe.


Santa Fe, capital of New Mexico, is home to about 63,000 people and inherits a host of different histories, including those of the Pueblo and Athabaskan (Navajo and Apache) peoples, the Spanish conquistadors and their descendants, the Mexicans, and the U.S. settlers who participated in projects of Western "frontier" expansion. Santa Fe was named by Spanish colonists and means "Holy Faith." The city is in a spectacular setting. Seven thousand feet up, it lies in a bracing high desert valley, saddled between the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, which are spotted with pinon and juniper. It is pleasantly warm in summer and brightly snowy in winter. What one notices most on arriving in the city is that almost all the buildings are made to look as though they are constructed of adobe (a building material consisting of sun-dried earth and straw)—that is, are made to conform to an image of Pueblo-colonial Spanish architecture. But the present look of the city is not from mere preservation of existing buildings. Santa Fe has actually seen many attempts to eliminate adobe construction. In the years following New Mexico's 1912 statehood, however, architects like John Meem revived and elaborated the style, with the result that the architecture of Santa Fe references a prior reality that never really existed in quite the way it has been refabricated (see Wilson 1997). Today, according to the Santa Fe, New Mexico, Fact Sheet, 1992-93, "preservation of historic buildings is widespread and strict zoning codes mandate the City's distinctive pueblo and territorial styles of architecture." Santa Fe is in many ways a perfect place for a science based on simulation, a science in which practitioners try to make their simulations become real.

    Close to 50 percent of the people in Santa Fe are of Spanish or Mexican descent. These people are often referred to as "traditional" or "nativo" by themselves and others and are the stable reference point people contrast to "outsiders" and "Anglos." A great many call themselves "Hispano" to emphasize lineal ties to Spanish families who owned a lot of land during the time Santa Fe was part of New Spain (see Nostrand 1992). Others use "Mexican-American," "Hispanic," Latino," or "Chicano" for the various political purposes these signifiers have. All these groups are being marginalized as land prices and property taxes are driven up by well-off outsiders who consider Santa Fe a fashionable place to live. As wealthy whites "improve" their property (often, ironically, by making it conform to mythic Pueblo-Spanish architectural style), it is becoming impossible for many "traditional" people to stay on land that may have been in the family for years. Older people are losing their land, and younger ones are losing hope of buying land. Many are forced to move out of the historic center of town into the far southern outskirts, a place of strip malls, fast food, and trailer parks. There is an explicit racial element to all of this, and some longtime residents have complained of a "white invasion." The economic and racialized inequalities of Santa Fe have contributed to a city that suffers strong de facto segregation and territorialization. There are efforts to solidify community centers and churches in Hispano neighborhoods, but these communities are under siege by real estate developers, by unfavorable city planning, and by white newcomers who are buying up land and transforming portions of old neighborhoods into exclusive gated communities.

    Most SFI researchers do not live in Hispano neighborhoods, in part because there are few rentals in these areas, but also because the Institute often finds housing for visitors. During my summer of preliminary fieldwork, I was placed in a well-ordered neighborhood in the process of gentrification. When I returned to Santa Fe to begin my year there, I asked where I might go for listings and was referred to upscale health food stores and coffee shops. SFI has an enormous effect on how scientists are placed in the city. The Institute encourages scientists to traverse the same ethnic space as white tourists; in fact, the tourist guide to Santa Fe, which is written for an audience of suburban U.S. families, is distributed to scientists when they arrive. A walking map of Santa Fe's "Historic Guadalupe District," centered around the oldest shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the United States, explicitly does not include the adjacent predominantly Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican-American neighborhood.

    Only 2 percent of people living in Santa Fe are Native American. Most Native Americans live out of town, on reservations or in other nearby settlements. Those who live in town are mostly Pueblo and Navajo. The Native American presence in Santa Fe manifests itself mostly for non-Native Americans through the annual Indian Market, the vendors who sit in front of the Palace of the Governors on the city's central plaza, the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum downtown, the nearby pueblos visited as tourist sites, and the Native American art and designs that decorate the buildings and fill the stores of Santa Fe. In recent years, some native groups have protested against their representation in Santa Fe tourist culture, making activist art and withdrawing participation from the city's annual Fiesta, an event that often celebrates Hispano culture without recognizing its roots in Spanish colonialism (see DeBouzek and Reyna 1992).

    Although Native American motifs figure greatly in the Institute's image, no Native Americans work at SFI. Many scientists who come through Santa Fe visit the Indian Market, and some make a point of buying "authentic" crafts or attending local powwows at which they can experience Native American culture as a kind of edifying entertainment. For one SFI gathering in downtown Santa Fe, held at the Palace of the Governors, a site that has acted as the seat of Spanish, Pueblo, Mexican, and U.S. rulers, the Institute hired Albert Cata, a Pueblo-Seminole, to tell traditional stories to scientists and their guests. SFI sponsors occasional field trips to Native American archaeological sites, some of which are managed by Native Americans, like the Puye Cliffs in Santa Clara Pueblo, administered by the Tewa.

    There is a thriving gay, lesbian, and bisexual community in Santa Fe, mostly white and affluent. Each year there is a substantial pride march, and there are a few openly gay-owned businesses in the city. Though there are and have been a number of gay people at SFI, most choose to remain closeted or silent about their sexuality. One scientist passing through the Institute told me that he wore a pink triangle for a while but soon felt uncomfortable and sensed that this was not an appropriate venue for a statement of this "private" aspect of his identity. Heterosexual identity is of course quite public, as I was reminded again and again at SFI by email messages that announced the births of babies to straight couples.

    About half the population of Santa Fe is white, primarily of Euro-American descent. Local parlance refers to these people as "Anglos," a term that is also "used colloquially to refer to anyone who is neither Hispanic nor American Indian, even if that person does not have a northern European heritage" (Hazen-Hammond 1988:1). This group includes ranching families that have been in the area for generations. It also includes folks who arrived early to midcentury as anthropologists, and whose kindred descendants gravitate to the School of American Research, a famous anthropological research center. Santa Fe has also become a mecca for artists, and is the second-largest art market in the United States (after New York City), a fact tied to its status as a place of unconventionality and style and ultimately to the fame of the New Mexico artists Georgia O'Keeffe and R.C. Gorman.

    Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, a new set of mostly white people began trickling in who saw Santa Fe as a spiritual center. People arrived who were interested in "getting back to the land" and in exploring alternative lifestyles, religions, and healing. Some studied Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American religion. These folks have become the foundation of what might loosely be called a New Age community, which from modest beginnings has become rather large, even quite an industry (see Brown 1997 for an anthropological account of New Age culture in Santa Fe and elsewhere). During the time I was in New Mexico, the Whole Life Expo, "the world's largest exposition for holistic health and new age awareness," was held in Santa Fe (there are ten to twenty such events every year, in different cities). It was filled with exhibitions on astrology, alternative medicine, ecological home design, and crystals, as well as lectures on UFOs, tantric sex, channeling, past lives, and how to achieve physical immortality. Talks on how to use psychic power for financial gain indexed the way much New Age practice revolves around self-help rhetoric, a language that embeds particularly American ideals of success through individual effort. This language offers optimism to the largely white-collar baby boomer constituency of the New Age in Santa Fe, a group brought up to expect fiscal stability but who now find themselves forced to move and change jobs a good deal.

    Most scientists at SFI are wary of any association with New Age movements, but because SFI tries to sell itself as doing cutting-edge, ecologically and socially concerned science, even, sometimes, "fringe" science (during my fieldwork an article on SFI appeared in Omni, which regularly takes UFO claims seriously), many of its formulations find resonance in the New Age community, something Institute scientists are continually on guard against. The social theorist Andrew Ross has argued that New Age culture exists in inevitable complicity with rationalist science even as it attempts to dispute its claims. It is "a social movement founded on an alternative scientific culture, distinct from dominant values, that is increasingly obliged to wage oppositional claims lucidly obedient to the language and terms set by the legitimate culture" (Ross 1991:532; see also Hess 1993). New Agers are constantly appropriating the language of technoscience to speak of how individuals might reprogram themselves, how people might take control of and guide the future evolution of the human species, and how virtual reality might be used to usher in an era of electronic shamanism. Ross writes that "New Age rationality ... can be seen as a countercultural formation in an age of technocratic crisis. This crisis appears at a time when the official legitimacy accorded to technology-worship has guaranteed it the status of a new civil religion in North America" (1991:533). SFI scientists are aware of how science has sometimes acted as a force of destruction—it's part of the reason they tackle problems like sustainability, with an idea that this might contribute to kinder, gentler science. A few Artificial Life researchers share interest in alternative healing and thinking, and some embrace the chance to go to Zen retreats, to practice Buddhism, to do Sufi dancing, or to talk freely about experiences with psychedelic drugs. Often, they consider these to be private interests separate from their public lives as scientists.

    The disdain with which many scientists regard the New Age community masks some of the links between alternative spirituality communities and SFI. Scientists and New Agers share common class and ethnicity positions, though most of the scientists are male, and there is a skew toward more women in the alternative healing communities. The New Age community, like the SFI family, fixates on lessons we might learn from "nature"—often understood to be a self-regulating system with a certain wisdom. Both New Agers and SFIers share a romantic view of Native American cultures and imagine them as well bounded, pristine, closer to nature—an image that has been produced by anthropologists of the Southwest, among others. And both New Agers and Artificial Life scientists refer to the potential existence of extraterrestrials to motivate their interests in theorizing alternative forms of life. It is not surprising that Santa Fe has been home not just to SFI but also to the Space Sciences Center, a nationally famous UFO museum.

    There is a set of more recent white arrivals to Santa Fe: the relatively well-off people who come here to retire and participate in Santa Fe Style. Santa Fe's downtown is overrun by high-priced boutiques and galleries selling southwestern potteries, reproductions of Native American clothing, Kachina dolls, cowboy hats and expensive leather goods, and romantic paintings and sculptures of generic Native Americans. The growth of this well-off community and the tourist industry has created a spectrum of low-paying service jobs, occupied predominantly by local Hispanos, Mexicans, and whites who work at sequences of temporary jobs well below their educational and experience levels. A few older SFI researchers socialize with the wealthy new arrivals, and some have close connections to real estate dealers in town.

    I have left out an important thread in the history of white migration into Santa Fe, and this is the line that follows the movement of scientists into the city. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, with the Manhattan Project and its spin-offs, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratories started to move into Santa Fe. As nuclear weapons research became a permanent feature of the northern New Mexican economy, many people arrived from metropolitan centers. For those bound for weapons work and physics research in Los Alamos, Santa Fe became a haven from the militarized and business-oriented world of the lab town, which was crosshatched by security fences and checkered with unremarkable prefab homes and offices. The relatively high salaries of physicists at Los Alamos allowed many to purchase homes in Santa Fe, just under an hour's drive south.

    For many white arrivals in New Mexico, Santa Fe represents the Old West, the "American frontier," and unspoiled nature. One Artificial Life scientist in his early forties complained to me about the disappearance of nature in the modern era and said that he chose to live in New Mexico because there were still some bits of nature "unsullied by man." From his yard he said he could see the moon and the Milky Way, and this made him feel connected to something "primitive." Another said that it may be that SFI scientists who are interested in studying nature are interested in coming to "a place where there is a lot of it." If SFI were in Detroit, he said, it wouldn't have worked. SFI literature itself has been explicit about the role of "nature" in drawing people to the place, as a snippet from a brochure about the new SFI campus suggests:

SFI's visiting scientists have also expressed excitement that they will be in touch with the restorative powers of Santa Fe's natural beauty. The facility is located in the middle of hills covered with pinon and juniper. For those who need the occasional walk to stimulate thought, or to clear the brain, nature awaits just outside the door. Others will step outside to sit under the wide portals surrounding the south and west of the house and let the view over the Rio Grande Valley and Santa Fe work similar rejuvenation. (Santa Fe Institute 1994a)

Nature and its life-giving (even rebirthing) power are highlighted here, echoing a sense that the projects of SFI are to be life-affirming. SFI is sometimes considered the good twin of Los Alamos, concerned with the technology of life rather than the technology of death. The nature imagined by SFI, stationed on a pure and untainted frontier, is a vision most characteristic of urban and suburban white Americans, for whom nature reserves and national parks are manufactured as pristine memorials to an "original" nature, a nature empty of politics and other people (i.e., Native Americans). The appeal of Santa Fe to scientists from Los Alamos is a crucial part of the story of the Institute, and it is worth traveling up the road to the lab to see how SFI was founded and how Artificial Life emerged from projects under way at Los Alamos in the late 1980s.


SFI was founded in 1984 by scientists affiliated with Los Alamos. George Cowan, Murray Gell-Mann, David Pines, and Phil Anderson were theoretical physicists reaching a time in their careers when they could entertain the idea of founding an interdisciplinary research center. The credit for the initial idea usually goes to Cowan. Using their prestige (Gell-Mann and Anderson both received the Nobel Prize in physics), these men enrolled a number of others, including the Los Alamos senior fellows (a group of older scientists released from administrative duties). All these men were well connected in academia and, because of their association with Los Alamos, also had contacts and friends in funding agencies and the government. Cowan had been head of research at Los Alamos and had served on the White House Science Council.

    The idea behind the Institute was to foster interdisciplinary research in what were coming to be called "the sciences of complexity." These scientists were interested in applying their thinking to grand problems in neuroscience, economics, evolution, and the information sciences. They had a faith that brains, economies, organisms, ecologies, and societies were all entities that could be considered "complex systems." Such systems were characterized by the fact that they were made of simple interacting elements that produced through their aggregate behavior a global emergent order unpredictable simply through analysis of low-level interactions. Brains were composed of neurons, economies of individuals and companies, ecologies of interacting species, and in none of these systems were global patterns predictable from constituent components. These systems were also called nonlinear, since relationships between variables were not straightforward and could not be described with linear equations. The scientists believed that the computer would be a perfect tool with which to study such systems, since nonlinear equations are difficult to solve by hand and computer modeling allows one to simulate consequences of nonlinear interaction without fully solving equations. Some felt that computers were themselves complex systems and that this made them perfect objects of study in their own right. The hope that complex adaptive systems from ecologies to economies might have something in common was fueled by the existing knowledge that many nonlinear problems in different fields, such as fluid dynamics and thermodynamics, had been described using cognate mathematical structures. The advent of computers capable of running an enormous number of calculations simultaneously and of churning through thousands of iterations very quickly also made feasible a science based on simulation. As the institutional voice of SFI put it in one annual report, "Modeling can provide approximations of solutions to problems that are otherwise intractable or can offer insights by simulating the behavior of systems for which a solution is not a well-defined concept" (Santa Fe Institute 1994b:4).

    Although Los Alamos already supported a set of people working in nonlinear, chaos, and complex systems research, the founders of SFI felt that a new research center could provide an open, unclassified, and truly interdisciplinary site. It could orbit around Los Alamos, using some of Los Alamos's computational and personnel resources, but exist for itself. It would not be cannibalized into an existing university, since it would be too far from the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque and certainly too far from major research centers on the East and West coasts. One person I interviewed said that SFI occupied a Legrangian point between Los Alamos and UNM, far enough from both not to get pulled into the gravitational field of either. The presence of Los Alamos has been crucial in getting SFI off the ground, and SFI still shares researchers and resources with the lab. People told me that researchers enjoy being at SFI more than Los Alamos since there are no security clearances required and it is not necessary to work on projects attached to military interests. And one can always telecommute to Los Alamos from picturesque Santa Fe.

    The broad intellectual charter for SFI, which was to have an important effect on how Artificial Life settled into the Institute, was framed in 1984 when Murray Gell-Mann spoke at SFI's founding workshops. Gell-Mann outlined what he saw as the emergence of new syntheses in science. He contended that since World War II the physical, life, and social sciences had been drawing closer in a "striking phenomenon of convergence in science and scholarship" (1987:1). He credited the use of computers as theoretical and experimental tools with fostering cross-disciplinary conversations and with revealing deep similarities across the object domains of the sciences. One of these similarities he tagged as the idea of "surface complexity arising out of deep simplicity" (1987:3). Gell-Mann unabashedly designated himself a reductionist and made his belief in a connected unity of science evident by suggesting that all scientific explanations could be harmoniously integrated and then melted down en masse into the unifying pot of particle physics.

    In this first gathering around the concept of the Santa Fe Institute, held at the School of American Research, before SFI had quarters, Gell-Mann spelled out what a typical SFI conference might look like:

Conferees will listen to reports on game theory strategies in biological evolution, the coevolution of genotype and phenotype in biological evolution, theoretical and experimental results on chemical or prebiotic evolution, the development of foraging strategies in ant colonies, strategies for the evolution of new algorithms in artificial intelligence (using crossing-over and natural selection in computer programs), models of human learning, the mathematical theory of regeneration in the visual cortex, discoveries on cellular automata and Turing machines, stability of deterrence and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms competition, spin-glass models of neural networks, and other diverse topics. Yet the discussion is to be general, with physicists, mathematicians, population biologists, neurophysiologists, social scientists, computer scientists, and engineers all trading questions and comments. (1987:6)

There are many precedents for trying to unify the sciences, and many depend on physicalist reductionism, but what makes the effort of SFI substantially new is the use of computers as tools for facilitating dialogue across disciplines and for committing researchers to a view of their different domains as permutations of the same underlying informational processes.

    While the notion of the Santa Fe Institute was being consolidated by older men like Gell-Mann, there were a few people, also at Los Alamos, of a different age set hatching ideas that were to be the beginnings of the venture of Artificial Life. J. Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, Chris Langton, and Steen Rasmussen were among a set of physicists and computer scientists in their late thirties who were becoming interested in how computers might be used to study biology. In September 1987, the first conference on Artificial Life took place at Los Alamos, cosponsored by Los Alamos's Center for Non-Linear Studies, the newly formed Santa Fe Institute, and Apple Computer. Here again among the core group was a set of mostly physicists fixing their attention on exciting new problems. And here again was a group of confident men forming a kind of brotherhood around a new and exciting concept, a brotherhood of men all socialized to take risks in life and career. The masculinity of the tale is highlighted by various popular science books about Artificial Life and SFI, in which we are introduced to key figures described as "maverick" heroes questing for new knowledge. This vision was reinforced by tales told to me about how all-male camping trips and skinny dipping helped some members in this group bond. In my interviews, I discovered that early incarnations of the Artificial Life group often included the computer scientist Stephanie Forrest and the neuroscientist Valerie Gremillion, a fact that is frequently erased in popular accounts. A 1992 issue of the Whole Earth Review devoted to Artificial Life contained interviews with the above-mentioned men (along with some others), leaving figures like Forrest and Gremillion aside. Both have continued work in Artificial Life, however, with Forrest going on to be prominent in the area of adaptive computation.

    While the Artificial Life fold soon expanded to include many computer scientists and became articulated to a set of projects that had been under way internationally in theoretical biology, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics, it is important to understand the place of Los Alamos theoretical physicists in the consolidation of these projects under the catchy moniker "Artificial Life." This shapes the ambition of the project, its focus on understanding biology as located in a world governed by the physics of information, its domination by men (theoretical physics is almost entirely male), and its claims to be a biology that will be true anywhere in the universe, just as physics is true everywhere in the universe. After the Los Alamos conference, Artificial Life, in its New Mexico incarnation, became ever more closely associated with SFI. Artificial Life scientists described biological systems as nonlinear and, of course, modeled such systems using computers.

    The connection of Artificial Life in New Mexico with Los Alamos and with SFI means that Artificial Life is served by many of the sources that fund these two entities—though the field has had virtually no specific support from the lab and has had some difficulty getting funds even at SFI. Artificial Life is sufficiently new that many funding agencies do not know what to do with it. SFI is considered a nonprofit organization and is funded by a number of sources. In 1993, when I began my work, SFI's annual budget hovered around $3.4 million (by the time SFI entered 1997, it had increased to about $5.5 million). A large portion of money comes from the private-sector MacArthur Foundation and from the U.S. public-sector National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and Office of Naval Research. The Institute also maintains what it calls a business network, and contributors include Citibank/Citicorp, Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Interval, John Deere, Shell International B.V., Xerox, and a variety of financial advising companies. Member companies are expected to give at least $25,000. This entitles them to receive SFI publications, to send one company member to SFI workshops and conferences, and to maintain an account on SFI's computer network. Through this program, some SFI scientists have taken on consulting jobs with companies interested in using complex systems ideas in manufacture and management. Individuals also contribute to SFI, including many SFI scientists themselves. Early on, the CEO of Citibank/Citicorp became interested in SFI and helped begin SFI's program in understanding the world economy as a complex evolving system. Individual researchers also bring money for specific projects. SFI sponsors a series of lectures for the public in an effort to locate itself in the community and to find new benefactors.

    SFI and Artificial Life are sold to funding agencies and to the public as projects in frontier science. This goes some way toward explaining why the history of Artificial Life is often told as an American success story, as the tale of pioneering scientists seeking a new creation. It also helps us to understand why other lineages for the field are ignored in popular and internal accounts. Thinking about biology as continuous with nonorganic process and using computers as models for organisms are enterprises that have been under way internationally for a long time. In part, Artificial Life at SFI is able to move forward without referring to this work because of an ethnocentric amnesia about these precedents (served by a U.S. science education that continually erases the recent institutional and international history of ideas) and because of its distance from big universities. The formation of Santa Fe Artificial Life as a kind of American story of self-made men wedded to a do-it-yourself aesthetic is an important part of this tale.


The core group of people in Artificial Life in Santa Fe—that handful instrumental in leading the first conferences, in writing mission statements, in making sure that Artificial Life had a home in New Mexico—are overwhelmingly physicists from Los Alamos, and almost all floated around their midforties when I did my fieldwork (there are about five or six of these people, all or almost all of them men, depending on who's counting and how). The men who compose the nucleus of this group came of age in the late 1960s or early 1970s and have partaken in various ways of the ethos of the white counterculture of that era. Many experimented with different lifestyles, and each one has a biography that takes him through a landscape of alternative communities, relationships, life paths, and careers. Most protested against the Vietnam War (Langton was a conscientious objector). All tell stories about themselves as questioning authority and make this an ingredient of their narratives about their paths to science. Some have taken circuitous paths to academia, paths made possible by flexibilities in the U.S. university system. Almost all told me stories about processes of self-reevaluation that had led them to see the world as full of alternative possibilities, both for constructing personal identity and for understanding reality itself. I think it would be fair to say that they see convergences between their involvement in "the sixties" and their involvement in a science they take to be about alternative and unorthodox ways of thinking about life. Several came to Los Alamos to work in sections of the lab "outside the fence," in nonclassified, nonmilitary applications research. Chris Langton, the figure most associated with organizing Artificial Life into coherence, exemplifies some of the characteristics of this cohort of scientists. A roughly sculpted man who still wears his hair long and often accents his denim look with turquoise jewelry, Langton came to his graduate study of computer science in his midthirties, after spending much of his youth traveling around the United States doing odd jobs, playing music, hang gliding, and sporadically attending college.

    Los Alamos is clearly connected to the technoscientific military projects of the United States, which people usually associate with nuclear weapons. Computers have played a key role in this research and have been used not only for nuclear physics simulations but also for exploring issues in other branches of physics. All the men in Artificial Life who came through Los Alamos have done extensive simulation work. The lab has a long tradition in the simulation of physical systems reaching back to the 1940s, so it is no surprise that these people should have become attracted to this traditional tool. But the connection to computers is not simply institutional; computers have also figured prominently in these people's individual lives. Without exception, they bought personal computers sometime around the late 1970s or early 1980s, just as they were first becoming available.

    The anthropologist Bryan Pfaffenberger (1988) has argued that the personal computer (PC) was marketed as a tool for realizing dreams of self-empowerment, self-realization, creativity, grassroots politics, and democracy. Compared to the mainframe computer—a forbidding symbol of hierarchy and cold rationality—PCs were friendly. The PC was in many ways targeted at people who came of age in the 1960s who were looking for ways to square their idealisms and distrust of central authority with the increasingly normal suburban lifestyles in which they found themselves. The PC is an important figure in the story of Artificial Life; many people I interviewed told me that without their own computers, they would never have been able to do their early experiments in simulating self-reproduction and evolution. In a letter written in the early 1980s to a professor in whose work he was interested, Langton wrote, "I purchased a small Apple computer and started studying simulated models of evolving colonies of 'bugs,' which would make copies of themselves by copying tables of information which described their behaviors with respect to a simulated environment" (n.d.). Many also saw a link between their view of themselves as iconoclasts and the ways they appropriated the PC, and some connected their use of the PC directly to countercultural experiences. One researcher of the 1960s generation saw programming artificial worlds as akin to an experience with LSD, "a spiritual experience." Here one could experiment with a variety of different and alternative versions of reality. Larry Yaeger, an Artificial Life researcher in the same age range as the SFI cohort, told me over email, "Only after about a decade of scientific programming on mainframes, minis, and supercomputers did I finally acquire an Apple II+. It was invigorating, exciting and life-altering. The feeling that computers were tailored to the idiosyncratic concerns of budding Artificial Life scientists was fostered by commercial work done to make computers seem user-friendly, even "natural" in operation (the name "Apple" alone summons forth images of the organic world). It is not surprising that PCs should have been written into people's countercultural dreams about new ways of living and of viewing their relationship with the natural world.

    But the meanings PCs were marketed with, and out of which they came, did not simply rearticulate dreams of the white counterculture; they also recombined ideas important in mainstream American political culture: individualism, the realization of democracy through electricity and the connection and communication it makes possible, and self-empowerment through mastering new technologies. Some people might cynically say that the proper frame in which to understand PCs is as part of the transmogrification of 1960s counterculture into an ethics of self-help and individualism, of social rebellion into commodified counterculture, and of collective lifestyles into small-company entrepreneurship (see Ross 1991).

    The American ideals embedded in the PC are not generic; they also refer us to a culture in which individual autonomy and creativity is premised on a masculine picture of what it means to create and become adult. While the appropriation of PCs empowered women in various ways (in a rather traditional example, allowing some to work at home while caring for children), it was also done in a rather masculine key.

As Sherry Turkle has shown, many of the men who purchased the first home computers ... bought the computers as a way of acquiring what were to them important symbols of prowess and prestige in an increasingly secular world. Such self-administered rites of passage are hardly surprising in a culture where, as Cynthia Cockburn has argued persuasively, technical skill and high-tech artifacts are widely considered to be the exclusive possession (and constitutive symbol) of male maturity, potency, and prestige. (Pfaffenberger 1988:44, references omitted)

The Artificial Life scientists I am writing of might have had reason to be interested in computers beyond desires to enact a practice of masculine accomplishment, but their masculinity is not incidental. Many told me that their wives complained when they stayed up all night programming. One said, "I think she is jealous of the computer." Beneath discourses of counterculturality there can survive quite traditional structures of feeling (see Bourdieu 1972).

    Artificial Life scientists self-consciously purvey an image of themselves as rooted in the 1960s. One Scientific American article captured this perfectly when the author called an Artificial Life conference, "a Woodstock for computer hackers" (Corcoran 1992:17). The 1960s ethos was remarked on by one of the younger people I interviewed, a computer scientist with training in physics. He said that Artificial Life was begun by a bunch of ex-hippies who hoped to do to science what they felt they had done to society in the 1960s—revolutionize it. He commented that one could see this in how open the field was; people were invited to participate who had no background in biology and who sometimes did not even have a rigorous computer science background. A few were people whose primary experience was designing computer games. An established older biologist, echoing these thoughts, wrote of the third meeting on Artificial Life, "Since access to computers, workstations, and mainframes is fairly widespread, and since the equipment is so universal, this is a rather egalitarian branch of science, as contrasted with those in which very large set up funds and costly equipment are needed. As a result, many of the participants are somewhat idiosyncratic, and others seem downright flaky" (Morowitz 1992:15). Some of these people might also be described as fitting into the first wave of "hacker" culture, a culture of computer aficionados obsessed with building and understanding unruly systems, often to a degree that sacrificed their sleep and social life. Several people of this profile spoke to me of the addictive qualities of programming and mentioned that in their more euphoric moments they were transported to science fiction fantasies in which they created new worlds in computers. This mixture of science, engineering, art, and fantasy makes Artificial Life an interesting specimen. It is also what has led some to label the field "fringe." Langton has remarked, however, invoking Darwin, that he feels that embracing the fringe is necessary for Artificial Life to get a good pool of efforts from which to select.

    In spite of the out-there character of some Artificial Life, or more likely because of it, many younger scientists are attracted to the field and to SFI. Gerald, one of the younger people in the field said to me, "I was originally somewhat taken in by the 'coolness' of ALife research: the hacker mystique, the romance of power associated with high-speed computers, the cachet of robotics, the visual pyrotechnics of ALife videos. But I wouldn't have stayed in the field if there weren't more substance to it." Whereas the core, now middle-aged, group of Artificial Life researchers in Santa Fe came primarily from theoretical physics, the newer, younger people in the field are computer scientists, with little training in physics or biology. Certainly this is not too surprising, since SFI is a research center organized around the computer and since in almost all fields of science there is a growing focus on the use of computational techniques.

    SFI undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows take Artificial Life as an already established, if somewhat new, field. This means that they are not as invested in defending it as their immediate elders, and it means that they are comfortable criticizing and rethinking received ideas. The younger researchers do know that associating themselves exclusively with Artificial Life is risky, and most come to SFI to attack problems in more traditional computer modeling. Their resumes recount in deliberately unspectacular language their work with evolutionary algorithms, or with less controversial but still novel search techniques. Some consider themselves primarily computer programmers and see Artificial Life as an interesting way to explore and expand their skills in simulation. All of the young people have grown up with computers and take them as a fixture of their everyday world. Like me, many reported that they were excited by Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, and found compelling the book's ornamented analogies between DNA and computer programs. A few worked with Hofstadter in their early graduate years. Virtually none had any training in biology; most relied on memories of high school and popular biology texts or on conversations with biologists to implement their Artificial Life systems. Some might also be classified as matching the hacker stereotype; a few have histories of playing Dungeons and Dragons (a game in which one creates a medieval fantasy world for one's friends to inhabit and explore) and of designing their own video games. Younger scientists at SFI often enjoy mathematical games and music and like to talk about whether physics in science fiction books is realistic.

    Whilemany young people had a profile not far off from what one might expect for those doing cutting-edge computer work, there were a few who came armed with a highly ironic attitude about Artificial Life. These people had read a good deal of cyberpunk literature, a genre of science fiction whose subject is dystopic futures in which multinational biotech and computer corporations have reshuffled the ways humans and machines are connected and constituted. Younger folk immersed in this literature enjoyed a certain reflexivity about the ambiguous resonances of SFI work, its troubling connections—institutionally and financially—with Los Alamos, and the ways simulation was a perfect postmodern tool for relativizing, reimagining, or reinforcing the realities we inhabit. Whereas the fortyish people were aware of the ethical dilemmas that might be produced by Artificial Life, these younger people had a much more profound sense of how polyvalent ideas might be, how even the most ecologically correct idea might be appropriated by multinational capitalism. Whereas older people invoked morality tales like Frankenstein and urged caution in the creation of artificial life forms, many younger people focused on how Artificial Life technologies might be used for the nefarious purposes of military simulation, for waging wars by remote control, or for organizing, searching, and maintaining IRS and credit card company databases. At the same time, they saw the potential for novel and subversive uses of these technologies, envisioning the possibility of new modes of embodiment, new transgendered and transorganismic subjectivities and cyborg sexual practices. A few read magazines like Mondo 2000 and boing boing that track the multiple and ironic mixings of technoculture, art, science, psychedelia, and countercultural criticism.

    For the most part, the younger group at SFI were fairly liberal in their politics. Some reported that Artificial Life should help us to think more ecologically, that computer simulations can help us to recognize the essential interdependence of all life. Here Artificial Life is inspirited with the environmentalist zeitgeist that began to inhabit popular politics in the 1980s. Gerald said that his politics and his interest in Artificial Life were entwined, and here I want to flag how some people make explicit the diverse cultural threads that lead them to Artificial Life—even if, in the end, they argue that it is science that grounds their beliefs. I include an extended quote from an email interview with Gerald because I found him an articulate spokesperson for a set of positions I heard gathered together in many other younger people's words.

My libertarianism, environmentalism, respect for ordinary human behavior, respect for free markets, feminism, respect for animal rights, fascination with evolution, and fascination with simulation all grew up more or less simultaneously. They seem to be natural complementary ideas to me. My main relevant social concerns are (1) fostering an appreciation of biological complexity so humans don't permanently screw up the environment and extinguish too many species, and (2) fostering a more detached, self-aware, ironic attitude towards our own evolved mental adaptations, emotions, motivations, concepts, etc., so we don't take them so seriously. I focus on investigating our evolutionary heritage because I think it provides the only post-religious, post-metaphysical foundation for a concept like "universal human rights." There is a kind of wonderful tension between the notion of human artificiality and the notion of biological nature. It's a productive tension because I think it creates a conceptual or imaginative space where the complexity of biological systems can be compared directly to the complexity of human-engineered systems. And the human systems almost always end up looking ludicrously simple, inadequate, inelegant, and clumsy by comparison. By allowing such comparisons, my hope is that the sort of rationalistic, technophilic scientists that get drawn into computer simulation will develop a deeper respect for animals and ecological systems. So I see artificial life as potentially a way of converting "hard scientists" to a greater ecological awareness and sensitivity.

Ken Karakotsios, also a fairly young scientist, told me in one interview, "I believed, and still do believe, that if people can play with ecologies, they'll get a better sense of how their own behavior can become magnified and affect the planet's ecosystems. I also believe that by playing with evolution, people can develop a larger sense of what nature is all about."

    Most of those in their fifties and sixties who have become associated with Artificial Life come from rather traditional computer science and have an interest in Artificial Life because they see it charting new approaches to Artificial Intelligence. They have been persuaded that expert systems that simply represent knowledge have limited use and are ultimately too rigid. Artificial Life has been sold as a successor to Artificial Intelligence, as a computational practice that will begin to build intelligent agents from the bottom up. There are a few who remain skeptical of the role of simulation in science; they are not happy that new mathematical tools may need to be developed to understand simulated worlds. They still have a commitment to a "real" world in Which things can be tested, and they are very uncomfortable with the notion that simulations can provide a middle ground between theory and experiment, that simulations might be considered alternative worlds (see Casti 1997). Many are more interested in what Artificial Life will do for computation than in what sorts of questions it will answer for biology, which they consider to exist in the world outside computers.

    There are other ways to tell the story of who comes to the overlapping worlds of Artificial Life and SFI, and a social history would look different if started elsewhere. Many Artificial Life scientists from Europe come through the Institute and have diverse opinions and effects on research at SFI. A few are interested in holistic approaches in the discipline and hope that Artificial Life might show us how organisms and ecologies are interdependent. Some think that Artificial Life is perfectly poised to go up against neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, emphasizing chaos and indeterminacy against the teleological and ideological stories of progress embedded in most evolutionary simulations. At the same time, they see old neo-Darwinian formulations being reinvented in Artificial Life and have definite opinions about why this is happening and how it resonates with barely secularized Protestant U.S. political culture. My final chapter contains closer writing about European arenas of Artificial Life research. I close now with a description of events that took place at a major Artificial Life conference in Santa Fe, picking out moments that speak to the social constitution of the Artificial Life community as it exists in the United States and as it often coalesces around SFI.


In the summer of 1992, an enthusiastic assembly of some five hundred computer scientists, biologists, chemists, physicists, and others converged on the Sweeney convention center in downtown Santa Fe for the third U.S.-sited conference on Artificial Life. For a community dispersed around the United States and around the globe, this is an event that can engender feelings of solidarity. It is a ritual that creates a sense of cohesion; it is a lens through which people can see what they have in common and how they differ.

    When I arrived, the convention center was abuzz with energy, as people milled about, waiting for talks to begin. The crowd was young, and some people had a decisively tattered appearance. The gathering had the feel of a science fiction convention, a rock concert, and a scientific conference all swaddled together. People had a sense that they were participating in something cool, as was evidenced by long lines in front of the booth that sold black Artificial Life III T-shirts. The T-shirts displayed a beetle transforming into an insectoid robot (see fig. 2). I purchased the T-shirt myself, and was surprised at the uneasy reactions of my nonscientist friends when they saw it on my body. Many pointed out that it was the sort of shirt that only little boys into insects and robots could love. This reminded me then, and does now, that the conference was overwhelmingly populated by men.

    Nestled between and alongside the many talks given at the conference was a seminar on how to build a simple robot. Managed by people from MIT, its aim was to give people the tools they needed to construct robots using Lego, the logo programming language, and circuit boards. Tables were arrayed with electronic detritus, and the small conference room looked like a sixth-grade science classroom retrofitted to speak to the desires of Radio Shack frankensteins. The seminar depended on participants having some familiarity with Lego and home electronics. Before people were released to plunder the Lego and circuit boards to make their own R2D2s, however, a video was shown to illustrate what sorts of robots could be built. It showed MIT-built robots in competition to perform various tasks. In one sequence, robots vied with each other over a collection of Ping-Pong balls while their human makers cheered them on. The event had the character of a cyber-cockfight, with programmers' prestige deeply bound up with the play and performance of their creations. This segment of video was accompanied by the Billy Joel song "Pressure," lending a distinctly masculine sound track to the robot competition it recorded. The video told us that the competition had a traditional "heats and elimination" structure, just like a sporting event.

    As the robot builders toiled, people in the main auditorium gave and heard an avalanche of scientific talks on Artificial Life. Several focused on robots, some on bioengineering, but most centered on computer simulation of evolutionary dynamics. Larry Yaeger spoke on his artificial world, PolyWorld, and of how he had evolved populations of polygon-shaped creatures that ate, mated, jogged, and sometimes gobbled each other up (see fig. 3). Yaeger, with his long gray hair and T-shirt, looked like a beardless hacker rendition of the fatherly God of Judeo-Christianity. Younger Ken Karakotsios spoke of his creation, SimLife, a software toy for exploring evolution. He called SimLife "ALife for the masses" and argued that it could help people understand the interconnectedness of things in ecological systems. "If people understand complex systems," he suggested, "they might think twice about buying a gas-guzzling car." Charles Taylor of UCLA spoke of using computer simulations to model and control the growth of malaria-carrying mosquito populations in California and Mali. Craig Reynolds spoke of how flocking and schooling behaviors had emerged in a program populated with digital models of birds called "boids" (see fig. 4), and he dazzled the audience with images of flocking bats he had helped generate for the popular film Batman Returns (more recently, he has worked on the wildebeest stampede in Disney's Lion King). And Tom Ray spoke on new results in Tierra.

    One of the most popular talks, "A Case for Distributed Lamarckian Evolution," was given by the computer scientist David Ackley (who coauthored the associated paper with Michael Littman). He declared that Darwinian evolution, which disallows evolution within an organism's lifetime, sounded "stupid" from a computer science perspective. Computer life-forms should have no need to wait until death to evaluate whether their genetically encoded survival strategies are fit; they should, given direct access to their genetic code, modify their genetics as they go along. Unlike Darwinian evolution, Lamarckian evolution (named after the pre-Darwinian naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck) could allow organisms to transmit characteristics acquired during their lifetimes to their offspring. Noting that in any evolutionary process you want to "squeeze out the idiots," Ackley described evolution as a process of optimization and argued that this optimization could be more efficiently done when organisms "had no bodies." Ackley cut an amazing figure. Speaking bullet fast with a brilliant sense of comic timing, he lurched around in his bulky black-clothed frame, his long black hair and pointy beard moving to punctuate his points. Ackley talked about programs that "had sex," that could be described as related like "father" and "son." And he spoke of how the diversity maintained in marginal populations could be important for evolutionary innovation. As he put it, in a sentence that drew cheers from an audience that liked to imagine itself as somewhat crazy, "Instead of viewing the lunatic fringe as a sad necessity, we see it as a repository of innovation." (Just what the difference was between lunatics and the idiots Ackley had mentioned earlier was not made clear.)

    The roboticist Mark Tilden, giving a talk that seemed engined by a desire to escape his body, tickled the audience with robots created from old calculators and radios. His presentation included a discussion of the "disadvantages of biology," among them "the 'emotion' thing." Tilden wore a tight ponytail and resembled nothing so much as a thirty-year-old kid, all grown up and continuing childhood fascinations with robots. He showed a set of photographs of his new creations, and he toted them around as might a proud parent. He beamed as he showed one of them, "This creature right here is just a few weeks old." Tilden's visions of what robots might do sounded as though they were generated to speak to an audience of ecologically minded survivalist bachelors. He said "We want robots that are autonomous and that can survive if cut off from their buddies. Robots to clean up oil spills, terraform Mars, and clean the bathroom and vacuum." These robots would be more robust than those constructed following the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics. Asimov's laws declare that robots' first duty should be to serve and protect humans. "Tilden's Laws of Robotics" would be "1. Protect thine ass, 2. Feed thine ass, and 3. Look for better real estate."

    While there were moments when Artificial Life practitioners fairly bludgeoned the audience with images of themselves as out-of-control boys playing at single-handedly fathering new life, this interpretation misses many other meanings in play at this gathering. Some saw Artificial Life as fostering a more participatory view of life and ecology. Several spotlighted their concern with ecology and with Artificial Life as a path toward thinking of nature in a less dominating mode, as a tool for recognizing that we are always part of nature, and most so when we presume to design and interpret it. These people, most of them men, sometimes advocated a sort of Gaian, eco-feminist vision of the world, one that went to another extreme, assuming not a hostile nature but a nature acting with good intentions.

    One highly visible person was a white environmental activist and computer scientist in his thirties, Howard Perlmutter, who had just returned from the 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. Though not a scheduled speaker, Perlmutter rose from the audience repeatedly to promote ecological points of view and to argue with scientists he felt were ignoring potentially ecological morals emergent from their own research. Over a special lunch he organized, and which I attended, he read biodiversity treaty statements and talked about differences between North and South interpretations of environmental crisis. He read the Malaysian critique of the Rio conference, which pointed to the place of colonial relations, northern overconsumption, and unequal political-economic and industrial relations in exacerbating environmental problems. He tied environmental politics to ideas about "emergence" in Artificial Life and took Artificial Life's focus on the generation of complex behaviors from local rules to be aligned with a politics of acting locally and thinking globally. He chided Artificial Life researchers for not recognizing what was obvious to him, that a definition of life would be more of a value judgment than an empirical question. When he intervened, he was often dismissed, perhaps in part because his self-presentation bordered on the New Age; he wore a tie-dyed shirt and casual, colorfully striped Guatemalan pants. He did not highlight the fact that years earlier he had started a software development company in Santa Cruz called Soft-weaver, which was devoted to a practice of programming wedded to a holistic philosophy of life and electronic communalism (see Stone 1995). Many people at the conference simply regarded him as a "politically correct" ideologue.

    So it was that the Santa Fe conference attracted a group of people with a certain eclecticism, but a group that connected well with the SFI Artificial Life group I have described, a group committed to computer worlds, but also on occasion to ecological agendas and concerns. At a few moments during the conference, I asked researchers to characterize the differences they saw between the researchers present. Only a few touched on the sociological aspects I have sketched here; most focused on more internalist distinctions. One Institute-affiliated man said that as far as he was concerned, most differences between people boiled down to differences in the questions they were asking: Artificial Life meant something different to a roboticist, a computer scientist, and an evolutionary biologist. Being interested in metabolism, self-reproduction, or flocking will lead one to different issues and to different conclusions about what is essential to life. When this person went to his first Artificial Life conference, he said that he thought the robotics people were not doing Artificial Life at all. Robots could not self-reproduce, he said, and so should not count as alive. Gradually, it occurred to him that people were just focusing on different aspects of living systems. He saw Artificial Life III as sensibly organized to bring people with these different approaches into dialogue. But like many at Santa Fe, he thought that simulation was really the heart of the enterprise.

    The five-day conference wound down, participants exhausted. Chris Langton sent us on our way, saying, "So these are the survivors. You all go on to the next generation to have offspring." This was a joke, of course, but suggested that those who attended the conference would reproduce the ideas presented there—reproductions that would take place, among other sites, in the virtual worlds of computers. It is to the topologies of these silicon second natures that I dedicate my next chapter.

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