The work of philosopher Manuel De Landa is of critical interest to artists
working with networks as medium. In his latest work,
One Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
, De Landa examines the relationship
of societies to the flow of matter, energy, information and the related
bifurcations into higher order paradigms. In his previous book,
War in the Age of Intelligent Machines
, he had explored the life-like qualities
of physical phenomena at points of singularity and the physics of military
conflict viewed from various organizational levels. This investigation enabled him to speculate the convergence of the biological phylum and machinic
phylum in a contingent and ultimately inseparable evolutionary complex.
There are interesting perspectives here for anyone interested in net.art,
not only because the computer technology used derives from military origin,
but because the art of the network is being created from within the same
Q: (B.S): This question relates to your indication that you are
not currently making art, instead concentrating on your writing and research.
In your writing, you perform a historical analysis of how socially pervasive
military organizational behaviors are at the intersection of the machinic
phylum. In the course of that activity you indicate something about how
these organizational systems are projected (in forms of self-similarity)
across the broader cultural spectrum. One example: this morning I became
aware that the generic shampoo I shower with every day is distributed by
the *National Procurement and Logistics Company*. To an extent, military
systems are so completely ubiquitous that they take on a tacit quality.
How do you evaluate the "artworld" in this context, and does
that analysis relate to the reasons that you are not making art?
De Landa: Well, the main reason I stopped being active in the
art world was that I realized that, even when I was an artist ( a filmmaker)
I was more interested in theoretical questions about the medium than in
the films themselves. When I got involved with computers, in 1980, the
theoretical dimension (computer programing, computer science, cognitive
and analytic philosophy) became even more important. Also, I had been reading
people like Michel Foucault ("Discipline and Punishment") and
had become aware of the role of military discipline in so many areas of
civilian life, that when I stumbled on the military origin of computers
I was not surprised, and ready to follow the trail. It was following that
trail that the "War" book got written, but following the trail
led me away from art, except as a means to make a living.
Q: (M.H.): What role do you imagine that machine intelligence
will play in the arts of the future? Will autonomous software agents one
day fulfill the same roles as contemporary artists do, or will the very
notion of being an artist be subsumed in the ontological changes brought
about by artificial intelligence?
A: I rather envision artists and populations of autonomous software
agents interacting with one another in complex ways. As with most complex
systems that cannot be controlled in detail, the question is to find ways
to maneuver or shepherd the spontaneous behavior of a system, for example,
the materials the artist uses, towards some goal. The process of production
of form needs to be half planned and half self-organized. The materials
(whether hardware or software) must be allowed to have their say in the
final form produced.
Q: (G.W.): In your essay, Markets and Antimarkets in the World
Economy, you address several concepts, such as markets, antimarkets and
self-organizing systems, which could be applied to the internet. In particular,
how do you think these concepts apply to art on the internet?
A: Well, the internet itself is a mostly self-organized, dynamical
system. Artists that operate in the Net must understand its nature as a
medium, and create forms which exploit the resources of this medium, as
a material. I think this is fairly obvious, and lots of people have understood
this already. What is not obvious are the details of implementation, just
how to determine the Net's properties and how to deal with it as a raw
material for art. The main question now is to understand the consequences
of the Net in every area of our lives. I have concentrated on the economic
consequences, so I have not much to say about its aesthetic ones, but I
am sure some connections can be found.
Q: (G.W.): In a 1992 interview in Mondo 2000, you spoke of the
processes of stratification (destratification, restratification, bifurcation)
in ongoing dynamical systems. How do you think art works within these processes?
A: Those terms refer to the more or less permanent structures
(or "strata") that emerge from the self-organization of matter-energy.
Strata may be geological, biological or social, but in all cases they represent
a way of constraining the spontaneous creativity of matter-energy, of linking
it to stable, durable, stratified forms. (rocks, plant or animal bodies,
social institutions). In nature there are also, destratifying processes,
which detach a particular structure from it fixed function, and open it
up to a new one, like the mouth of a bird which is detached from a flow
of food, a purely digestive function, to become linked to a flow of song,
a more expressive function, used to mark a territory and seduce mates.
The artist is that agent (human or not) that takes stratified matter-energy
or sedimented cultural materials, and makes them follow a line of flight,
or a line of song, or of color.
Q: (B.S.): In your writing, chaos theory is central to your analysis
of the historical foundations of military history. If we imagine that a
continuum exists between the allegorical use of chaos theory and mathematical
models of the social physics of chaos, then at what approximate point on
this continuum is your research best described?
A: Well, I try to be as literal as possible, to use as few metaphors
as possible, and instead try to use diagrammatic thinking, such as thinking
in terms of phase space and the attractors that structure it. So I am trying
to do serious social physics. Philosophically, however, the important question
is to discern the nature of attractors in general, and not chaos in particular.
The key is to think of phase space as a space of possibilities for a dynamical
system (whether geological, biological or social) and attractors as special
places in this space that trap systems and hence reduce the number of possible
behaviors. It is this reduction that we as observers see as the emergence
of order . If a system wanders all over phase space, it would look to us
as random, but if it's behavior is pinned down to a few states, then it
will look ordered. Hence, for an attractor in general to produce visible
order it needs to be small relative to the space in which it's embedded
(e.g. a 3D attractor in a 100 dimensional space). Also, attractors trap
systems in a completely deterministic way (they are destinies for the system)
yet because they always come in bunches, there are always alternative destinies.
These are the issues that matter philosophically, hence the need to never
speak of "chaos" and always use the term "low-dimensional
deterministic chaos". (Only a small chaotic attractor can produce
order, and this is the key to this theory, not any butterfly effect or
stuff like that.)
Q: (K.C.): "...several feedback loops have been established
between the growth of armies and the development of the economic infrastructure
of Western societies."(War in the Age of Intelligent Machines p.106)
In light of the fact that the economic infrastructure of Western societies
is inextricably bound to a global economy, how might the presence and the
influence of these feedback loops be thought of on a global scale? With
this in mind, how might the machinic phylum be contextualized and described
beyond the bounds of Western culture/society?
A: Well, my new book ("A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History")
deals with these questions, except that it sees globalization as a much
older phenomenon. The book explores the energetic, biological and linguistic
history of the millennium, and finds global connections (in disease pools,
for example, or in ecological and linguistic colonialism) that have existed
for centuries. What may be going on now is not so much globalization, but
the reaching of a threshold in the connectivity of global links, a bifurcation
to a new state. On the other hand, as I stress in the book, other bifurcations
like this have ocurred in the past (like the onset of the Industrial Revolution)
and what matters is to stop seeing these transitions as global stages of
development for humanity (eras or ages) and see them as marking the emergence
of novel structures (steam motors, computer nets) that, as they come to
existence, fully coexist with what is already there, and interact with
what is already there. In other words, industrial and informational technologies
do not mark the start of a new era, but simply add themselves to a complex
soup of interactions. (Industrial methods, for example, giving rise to
complete new strains of antibiotic resistant germs, or DDT resistant insects.
Q: (G.B.): In your book "War in the Age of Intelligent
Machines", you refer to Napoleon's brain as the "central information-processing
machine" limited only by the available communication technologies
of the time. My question is: Was he a man of great strategy, able to grasp
and understand the technological limitations of his time, or was he simply
a pawn in the evolution of technology during that point in history, consequently
being in the right place at the right time? In other words was Napoleon
a strategist/tactician who could be moved to any point in history with
similar historical outcomes?
A: This connects back to the question above on maneuvering or
guiding self-organizing processes that have a direction of their own. These
interventions into reality, to trigger bifurcations or to switch a system
from one attractor to another, I see as similar to catalysis, what enzymes
do to control or guide self-organizing processes inside your body. Napoleon,
in this case, was a necessary catalyst for several processes (which did
not depend on him) to come together and interact in the appropriate way
to give birth to a completely new war machine.
Q: (A-M.S.): You assume the role of robot historian at the beginning
of "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines". Is this type of
role play intended to undermine a deterministic view of historical trajectories?
How is this addressed in your new book, "A Thousand Years of Non-Linear
A: In the new book, the history of the millennium is told three
times, each chapter starting in the year 1000 and ending in the present
time. One chapter is told from the point of view of rocks (hence it's all
about humanity's mineralization in urban centers running on fossil fuels),
another from the point of view of germs and plants (diseases, food, population
movements) and another from the perspective of linguistic norms. So I use
a similar device to try to achieve a non- anthropocentric (let alone Eurocentric)
view of our past.
Manuel De Landa