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  • Modeling the Emergence of Complexity:Complex Systems, the Origin of Life and Interactive On-Line Art
  • Christa Sommerer (bio) and Laurent Mignonneau (bio)

The origin of this paper lies in the fundamental question of how complexity arose in the course of evolution and how one might construct an artistic interactive system to model and simulate this emergence of complexity. Relying on the idea that interaction and communication between entities of a system drive the emergence of structures that are more complex than the mere parts of that system, the authors propose to apply principles of complex system theory to the creation of VERBARIUM, an interactive, computer-generated and audience-participatory artwork on the Internet, and to test whether complexity can emerge within this system.

The Internet seems especially suited to interactions and transformations of data. Internet users can be considered entities or particles who transmit information (e.g. written texts or images). As these data or entities are transferred from location to location they could, in principle, change in status and value. One could imagine a system that could increase its internal complexity as more and more users interact with its information. Just like a genetic string or "meme" as described by Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins [1], these strings of information would change and mutate as they were transmitted by the users; they eventually could create an interconnected system that, similar to the models presented by Stuart Kauffman [2], features a phase transition toward more complex structures. Based on these considerations, we propose in VERBARIUM a prototype system for modeling a complex system for the Internet; we also introduce its construction principles and translation mechanisms and analyze how the data it produces have changed over time.

Conceptual Objective

The aim of the research presented here is to construct an Internet-based interactive artwork that applies and tests principles of complex-system and origin-of-life theories to the creation of a computer-generated and audience-participatory networked system on the Internet. Complex systems theory is a field of research that studies simple subsystems as they increase in complexity. Such increases in complexity can take place as phase transitions, when particles in a network switch one another on or off to catalyze or inhibit one another's production. There are various definitions and qualities that characterize complex systems, and this paper proposes to test whether some of these principles can be applied to an interconnected web of people who can transmit visual and written information over the Internet. As the information is transported from location to location, it would be transformed, creating an interconnected, open-ended system featuring phase transitions toward more complex structures. Before investigating how our prototype system was built, we present a short summary of the theories that ground this research proposal.

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Fig. 1.

Screenshot of the VERBARIUM web site at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, 1999. (© Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau) <>.

[End Page 161]

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Fig. 2.

An example of VERBARIUM's growth structures.

Origin of Life Theories

The search for "laws of form" that explain the patterns of order and complexity seen in nature has intrigued researchers and philosophers since the Age of Enlightenment. These researchers have included such famous scholars as William Bateson [3], Richard Owen [4], Hans Driesch [5], D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson [6] and Conrad Waddington [7]. Their quest could generally be subsumed under the term Rational Morphology, a counterpart to the functionalistic approach of the Natural Theology promoted by Charles Darwin [8] and Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins [9]. While Natural Theology considers form mainly a function of natural selection and adaptation, Rational Morphologists emphasize the creative principle of emergence that accounts for the order of structures found in nature. The quest for the laws of form is closely linked to the question of the emergence of life. The discussion on how life emerged has a long history and basically involves two opposing views: the Aristotelian and the Platonic. These two views of the natural world have dominated science over the past two millennia, as described by Roger Lewin [10]. Herrick...


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pp. 161-169
Launched on MUSE
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