Collected Essays

by Rudy Rucker

Transreal Books, Los Gatos, California.

Collected Essays is Copyright © 2012 Rudy Rucker, with the individual pieces copyright to the authors. First edition, April, 2012.

This edition includes Rucker’s essays written from 1983-2012. Two of the pieces were co-written with Marc Laidlaw, and one with Stephen Wolfram. The “Introduction” and the notes at the end of each essay describe the previous publications. Later editions of Collected Essays may expand to include further essays.

You can buy an ebook version of Collected Essays via the links at Transreal Books.

Table of Contents


A Transrealist Manifesto
What Is Cyberpunk?
Gnarly SF
Cyberpunk Lives!
The Freestyle Antifesto (Written with Marc Laidlaw)
What SF Writers Want
Against Mundane SF
Sex and Science Fiction
Chant to the Muse


Welcome to Silion Valley
Hacking Code
Five Flavors of Cyberculture
Cyberculture in Japan
Use Your Illusion: Kit-Bashing the Cosmic Matte
Robot Obstetric Wards
Goodbye Big Bang: Cosmologist Andrei Linde
Mr. Nanotech: Eric Drexler


Cellular Automata
Life and Artificial Life
A Note on Synthetic Biology
Mathematica: A New Golden Age of Calculation
How Flyies Fly: Kappa Tau Curves
Spending Your Triangles
The Rudy Set Fractal


Tech Notes Towards a Cyberpunk Novel
Alien Contact (With Marc Laidlaw)
Phreak Scenes
Three Flip Answers
Edge Questions
New Futures in SF


A Brief History of Computers
Games, Intelligence, Enlightenment
Adventures in Gnarly Computation
Web Mind
Lifebox Immortality
Selling Your Personality
The Great Awakening
Everything Is Alive
An Incompleteness Theorem for the Natural World


Autobiographical Overview (2004)
Drugs and Live Sex, NYC 1980
Jerry's Neighbors
Access To Tools
The Central Teachings of Mysticism
Memories of Arf
Bob's Three Miracles and Me
Haunted by Phil Dick
Vision in Yosemite
The Mondo Edge
The Manual of Evasion
In Search of Bruegel


Kurt Gödel
Martin Gardner
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
Robert Sheckley
Ivan Stang
Benoit Mandelbrot
Dialogue with Stephen Wolfram

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Collected Essays includes the nonfiction pieces from my two earlier collections, Transreal! (1991) and Seek! (1999). And I've added in my newer essays as well. One of the nice things about publishing ebooks is that you're not faced with the same length constraints as with printed books.

I'm grouping my collected essays into seven parts:

(1) The Art of Writing. Manifestos and talks about writing science-fiction.

(2) Silicon Valley. Cool scenes I witnessed as I rode the Silicon Valley computer wave.

(3) Weird Screens. Graphical programs that obsess me—cellular automata, artificial life, fractals, space curves, and virtual reality.

(4) Futurology. Playful raps and speculations about the coming times.

(5) The Philosophy of Computation. Where does it end? Immortality, artificial intelligence, and the birth of a universal mind?

(6) Personal Stories. At ease…stories I tell to friends.

(7) Mentors. Appreciations of great minds and wild freaks who've led me on.

Extra sources? More info on many of my topics can be found by searching Rudy's Blog.

My old software programs I mention are generally available for free download from my site.

And more of my books, such as Complete Stories, can be found on the Transreal Books page.

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A Transrealist Manifesto

In this piece I would like to advocate a style of SF-writing that I call Transrealism. Transrealism is not so much a type of SF as it is a type of avant-garde literature. I feel that Transrealism is the only valid approach to literature at this point in history.

The Transrealist writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. Any literature which is not about actual reality is weak and enervated. But the genre of straight realism is all burnt out. Who needs more straight novels? The tools of fantasy and SF offer a means to thicken and intensify realistic fiction. By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF—time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc.—are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully. This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.

The characters should be based on actual people. What makes standard genre fiction so insipid is that the characters are so obviously puppets of the author’s will. Actions become predictable, and in dialogue it is difficult to tell which character is supposed to be talking. In real life, the people you meet almost never say what you want or expect them to. From long and bruising contact, you carry simulations of your acquaintances around in your head. These simulations are imposed on you from without; they do not react to imagined situations as you might desire. By letting these simulations run your characters, you can avoid turning out mechanical wish-fulfillments. It is essential that the characters be in some sense out of control, as are real people—for what can anyone learn by reading about made-up people?

In a Transrealist novel, the author usually appears as an actual character, or his or her personality is divided among several characters. On the face of it, this sounds egotistical. But I would argue that to use oneself as a character is not really egotistical. It is a simple necessity. If, indeed, you are writing about immediate perceptions, then what point of view other than your own is possible? It is far more egotistical to use an idealized version of yourself, a fantasy-self, and have this para-self wreak its will on a pack of pliant slaves. The Transrealist protagonist is not presented as some super-person. A Transrealist protagonist is just as neurotic and ineffectual as we each know ourselves to be.

The Transrealist artist cannot predict the finished form of his or her work. The Transrealist novel grows organically, like life itself. The author can only choose characters and setting, introduce this or that particular fantastic element, and aim for certain key scenes. Ideally, a Transrealist novel is written in obscurity, and without an outline. If the author knows precisely how his or her book will develop, then the reader will divine this. A predictable book is of no interest. Nevertheless, the book must be coherent. Granted, life does not often make sense. But people will not read a book which has no plot. And a book with no readers is not a fully effective work of art. A successful novel of any sort should drag the reader through it. How is it possible to write such a book without an outline? The analogy is to the drawing of a maze. In drawing a maze, one has a start (characters and setting) and certain goals (key scenes). A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way. When you draw a maze, you start out with a certain path, but leave a lot a gaps where other paths can hook back in. In writing a coherent Transrealist novel, you include a number of unexplained happenings throughout the text. Things that you don’t know the reason for. Later you bend strands of the ramifying narrative back to hook into these nodes. If no node is available for a given strand-loop, you go back and write a node in (cf. erasing a piece of wall in the maze). Although reading is linear, writing is not.

Transrealism is a revolutionary art-form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a “normal person.”

There are no normal people—just look at your relatives, the people that you are in a position to know best. They’re all weird at some level below the surface. Yet conventional fiction very commonly shows us normal people in a normal world. As long as you labor under the feeling that you are the only weirdo, then you feel weak and apologetic. You’re eager to go along with the establishment, and a bit frightened to make waves—lest you be found out. Actual people are weird and unpredictable, this is why it is so important to use them as characters instead of the impossibly good and bad paperdolls of mass-culture.

The idea of breaking down consensus reality is even more important. This is where the tools of SF are particularly useful. Each mind is a reality unto itself. As long as people can be tricked into believing the reality of the 6:30 news, they can be herded about like sheep. The “president” threatens us with “nuclear war,” and driven frantic by the fear of “death” we rush out to “buy consumer goods.” When in fact, what really happens is that you turn off the TV, eat something, and go for a walk, with infinitely many thoughts and perceptions mingling with infinitely many inputs.

There will always be a place for the escape-literature of genre SF. But there is no reason to let this severely limited and reactionary mode condition all our writing. Transrealism is the path to a truly artistic SF.

Note on “A Transrealist Manifesto”

Written 1983.

Appeared in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Winter, 1983.

“A Transrealist Manifesto” coins the word “transreal”. I thought of the word after seeing the phrase “transcendental autobiography” in a blurb on the cover of Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Over the years, the word has achieved some currency in SF criticism, meriting a Wikipedia entry and a book by the writer/critic Damien Broderick, Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science (Greenwood Press, 2000).

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What Is Cyberpunk?

Proximately, “cyberpunk” is a word coined by Gardner Dozois to describe the fiction of William Gibson. Gibson’s novel Neuromancer won the Science Fiction equivalent of the Triple Crown in 1985: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Phil Dick award. Obviously, a lot of SF writers would like to be doing whatever Gibson is doing right. At the 1985 National SF Convention in Austin there was a panel called “Cyberpunk.” From left to right, the panelists were me, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, a nameless “moderator,” Lew Shiner, Pat Cadigan, and Greg Bear. Gibson couldn’t make it; he was camping in Canada, and the audience was a bit disappointed to have to settle for pretenders to his crown. Sterling, author of the excellent Schismatrix, got a good laugh by announcing, “Gibson couldn’t make it today, he’s in Switzerland getting his blood changed.” Talking about cyberpunk without Gibson there made us all a little uncomfortable, and I thought of a passage in Gravity’s Rainbow, the quintessential cyberpunk masterpiece:

On Slothrop’s table is an old newspaper that appears to be in Spanish. It is open to a peculiar political cartoon of a line of middle-aged men wearing dresses and wigs, inside the police station where a cop is holding a loaf of white…no it’s a baby, with a label on its diaper sez La Revolucion…oh, they’re all claiming the infant revolution as their own, all these politicians bickering like a bunch of putative mothers…

SF convention panels normally consist of a few professional writers and editors telling old stories and deflecting serious questions with one-liners. Usually the moderator is a semi-professional, overwrought at being in public with so many SF icons, but bent on explaining his or her ideas about the panel topic which he or she has chosen. The pros try to keep the mike away from the moderator. The audience watches with the raptness of children gazing at television, and everyone has a good time. It’s a warm bath, a love-in. The cyberpunk panel was different. The panelists were crayfishing, the subnormal moderator came on like a raving jackal, and the audience, at least to my eyes, began taking on the look of a lynch mob. Here I’m finally asked to join a literary movement and everyone hates us before I can open my mouth?

What is it about punk?

Back in the ‘60s—now safe and cozy under a twenty-year blanket of consensus history—the basic social division was straight vs. hip, right vs. left, pigs ‘n’ freaks, feds ‘n’ heads. Spiro Agnew vs. Timothy Leary. It was a clear, simple gap that sparked and sputtered like a high-voltage carbon arc. The country was as close to civil war as it’s been in modern times. News commentators sometimes speak of this as a negative thing—burning cities, correct revolutionary actions, police riots—but there was a lot of energy there. ‘60s people think of the old tension as “good” in somewhat the same way that ‘40s people look back on the energy of WWII as “good.”

A simple dichotomy. But during the ‘70s times got tough, and all the ‘60s people got older. Madison Avenue turned hip into product. Businessmen got hot-tubs; and they weren’t necessarily faking—I know a number of present-day businessmen who are regular old-time acidheads, but…you’ve got to get the bread to send your kids to college, right? The gap between hip and straight is still there, but it’s faded, the jags have rubbed off.

If you’re young, you want to come up with something new—that’s how the race grows. Some ‘80s youngsters may want to be straights—our country will always need sports fans and prison guards—but the smart ones, the ones who ask hard questions, the same kids who would have been hippies in the ‘60s—these people needed some kind of stance that would bug all old people. Thus punk.

I used to live in the boonies, and LP records were my contact to what was happening. The only good music in the ‘70s was Zappa, and even he was getting old. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first punk records—the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, and then…the Clash. Of course that was all eight years ago (which, these exponential days, is a long time). It keeps mutating. Now I listen to the Ramones, Detox, and the Butthole Surfers. “Yes, the Butthole Surfers.” Doesn’t that tell you more than, “Yes, the New Yorker?”

The real charm of punk is that stupid hippies dislike it as much as do stupid rednecks. “What’s the matter with them? What do they want?” Anyone who was ever a hippie for the right reasons—a hatred of conformity and a desire to break through to higher realities—is likely to appreciate and enjoy the punks. But a lot of basically conventional people slid through the ‘70s thinking of themselves as avant-garde, when in fact they were brain-dead. What’s good about punk is that it makes all of us question our comfortable assumptions and attitudes. Wait…look at that last sentence, and you can see I’m forty. How complacently I slip the “us” in there—trying to co-opt the revolution. How Life magazine of me, how plastic, how bullshit. What’s good about punk is that it’s fast and dense. It has a lot of information. Which brings us to “cyber.”

What is Cybernetics?

It’s the title of an incomprehensible book by Norbert Weiner, mainly. Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs inventor of information theory, encouraged Weiner to use the word “cybernetics” because “No one knows what it means, Norbert, which will always put you at an advantage in an argument.” More seriously, if I talk about “cyber,” I really want to talk about the modern concept of information.

Mathematics can be thought of as based on five concepts: Number, Space, Logic, Infinity, and Information. The age of Number was the Middle Ages, with their nitpicking lists of sins and layers of heaven. Space was the Renaissance, with perspective and the printing press spreading copies out. Logic was the Industrial Revolution, with great steam engines chugging away like syllogistic inferences. Infinity was Modern Times, with quantum mechanics and LSD. Now we’re starting on Information. The computers are here, the cybernetic revolution is over.

What is information? Shannon measured information in “bits.” If someone answers a single yes-or-no question, they are giving you one bit of information. Two yes/no questions are two bits. Two bits is enough to distinguish among four possibilities: 00, 01, 10, and 11. The game of Twenty Questions is based on the asker being able to get twenty bits of information out of the answerer. Twenty bits distinguishes among 220 possibilities—about a million. For Shannon, the more possible answers there are, the greater is the information. He estimated written English as carrying about seven bits per word, meaning that if a random word is excised from a text, you can usually guess it by asking seven yes-or-no questions. “Is it a noun?” “Does it begin with one of the letters A through L?” “Is it used elsewhere on this page?” “Is it cat?” In a crap genre book, generated by a low-complexity intelligence with a very short runtime, the information per word is going to be low, maybe as low as three or four bits. In a high-complexity work the information per word will be higher.

Two mathematicians named Chaitin (IBM) and Kolmogorov (USSR) improved Shannon’s notion of information to this: the information in a pattern P is equal to the length of the shortest computer program that can generate P. This quantity, also known as algorithmic complexity, can be defined quite precisely and rigorously. If I find that a certain SF novel about cats in outer space stupid and boring, it may not just be that I don’t like cats. It may be that the book really is stupid and boring, as can be witnessed by the fact that the book has a very low information-theoretic complexity.

The point of all this is that a pattern’s information level is a quantity that is absolute and not relative. The pattern can be a book, a record album, or a person’s conversation. If I say something is boring, it’s not just my cruelty speaking. It’s objective fact. Something either has a lot of information or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t have much information, it’s a waste of time.

Now you can see where cyber and punk tie together to make cyberpunk. If you value information the most, then you don’t care about convention. It’s not, “Who do you know?”; it’s “How fast are you? How dense?” It’s not, “Do you talk like my old friends?”; it’s “What do you have to say?” It’s not, “Is this comfortable?”; it’s “Is this interesting?”

Some cyberpunk fiction characters wear punk fashions. This is fine for now, though in the long run it’s not the point. As punk becomes familiar, its information-content goes down. The essence of cyberpunk fiction, as I see it, is that it is concerned with information. The concern exists on several levels. On the objective level, a cyberpunk work will often talk about computers, software, chips, information, etc. And on the higher level which I was talking about above, a cyberpunk work will try to reach a high level of information-theoretic complexity.

High complexity does not, I should point out, mean hard to read. Shannon has shown that any channel, such as easy-to-read writing, admits of efficient encoding schemes. Inefficient writers waste a lot of page-space in posing, repeating clichés, and telling stupid jokes. If you really have some information to communicate, you can do it in a simple, colloquial way. The hard part is getting the information, building up the complexity levels in your brain. Thus one sees cyberpunks reading a lot: a lot of science, and a lot of fiction. Raising the level.

So what I’m talking about with “cyberpunk” is something like this: literate SF that’s easy to read, has a lot of information, and talks about the new thought forms that are coming out of the computer revolution. Is “cyberpunk” a good word for this? Sure. It’s easy to remember, and it makes you think. It’s an example of efficient encoding. And the association with punks is fine with me. I’m proud to be a cyberpunk.

Postscript to “What is Cyberpunk?”

After I published this essay, a reader pointed out a flaw in my reasoning, to wit:

If complexity is to be the measure of something’s value as a piece of cyberized art, then a phone-book is “better” than a novel, because the phone-book’s randomness gives it a higher complexity. Recall that “the algorithmic complexity of the message M” can be defined as “the length of the shortest program P which generates the message M,” (or it can be defined as “the difficulty of guessing what the message M says”).

The objection is valid, but I have a good answer. My answer is that I should have spoken of measuring a text’s information by its logical depth rather than by its algorithmic complexity. Let me explain what this means.

There are two sorts of extremes of complexity: the “crystal” and the “gas.” A crystal-like information structure is something like a string of a million letter A’s. The program for such a message is very short: “print one million A’s.” So such a message has low complexity. A gas-like information structure is something like a totally random string R of a million letters. The program for such a message is very long: “print the string R.” (The lengthy contents of R must be listed for the program that writes it out.)

Let me pause here and make a point that we’ll need three paragraphs down from here. To run either the “crystal” or the “gas” program takes about the same amount of time. In either case the computer doesn’t have to do much work, for the “crystal string,” it just prints a million A’s, for the “gas string” it just keeps copying out the million letters of R as specified in the program. Each program takes only about a million steps. (Well, maybe the R program takes two million, but for our purposes one million and two million are about the same size. The point is that they’re both a lot less than, say, a billion or a sextillion.)

Now note that interesting objects such as living organisms—or cyberpunk SF novels—seem to be lie of midway between crystal and gas. They’re organized, but not regimented. They’re disorderly but not completely fucked up. How best to characterize them? It turns out that these desirable objects have the property of having a relatively low complexity, but that actually computing them takes a lot of work.

To make this precise, we need to introduce a second dimension of information measure. This is the concept of logical depth (or simply “depth” for short). The “depth of a message M” is equal to the “amount of computation that it takes to generate M from its shortest program P.” A structure with a high depth may have a short “explanation” or starting program, but it takes a lot of steps to get from the starting assumptions to the final object. Put differently, if you run a high depth process on a computer, it takes a lot of computer time to reach the final result.

(The notion of logical depth was invented by Charles H. Bennett, see his paper “How to Define Complexity in Physics, and Why” in W. H. Zurek, ed., Complexity, Entropy and the Physics of Information, Addison-Wesley, 1989. I also discuss Bennett’s ideas in my nonfiction book Mind Tools.)

Now as was pointed out three paragraphs above, a gas and a crystal both have low depth—they result from simple computations. But I claim that a living object—such as an oak tree—is characterized by having a relatively low complexity and a high depth. Why? An oak tree has a low algorithmic complexity because the gene code in its acorn is like a compact program. And the mature oak has a high logical depth because of the large number of biocybernetic steps taken during its decades-long growth. We think of an organism’s growth as a kind of computation which works out the implications inherent in its DNA.

The wonderful music of the Ramones is a good example of a message with low complexity but high depth. Think in terms of Garage Music. Some guys get a really easy tune—like “Louie, Louie,”—and they play it and replay it every Friday, and whenever else they can practice. And after a year, they really play an incredible “Louie, Louie.” It’s gotten deep. On the other hand, a simple note-for-note plagiarism of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” has a low depth—it derives quickly from the Kingsmen program.

Books like Neuromancer and Schismatrix have a low-complexity/high-depth feel to them. I think it’s reasonable to think of them as logically deep, because what the authors have done is to start with some fairly standard SF notions—robots, weird drugs, space colonies—and to then think and think about these notions until the final product is very highly exfoliated.

At this point it begins to look like I’m just saying that good books read as if they’ve been through a lot of rewrites, which is not such hot news. Still, I do think there is something to this—to the Garage Music notion of SF, if you will—the basic thesis being that right now a good way to be writing SF is to keep going back to the beat old clichés, back to the robots and the brain-eaters and the starships, and to reinvent the field just from that, by thinking harder and harder about what it can do. Maybe you don’t really have to be a “punk” to be stoned, unemployable, and/or stubborn enough to spend enough time in that garage.

In reading fine cyberpunk literature, it’s the realness and the tactility of the scene that really matters. In the old Mad magazine—and again in the underground comix of the ‘60s—what was great was all the little things to look at in the frames, the so-called “eyeball kicks.” It takes time to work all the little touches out, and that is where we see logical depth, a.k.a. craftsmanship.

Sociologically, the real point of inventing “movements” is to attract attention. At the most, a label like “cyberpunk” can serve only to get people to read the work of individual authors, and at that point the authors are on their own, as usual.

But still…the concept of cyberpunk is energizing. There are other quite different styles of SF, for instance the transrealist style epitomized by Phil Dick. For a transrealist, SF is a type of autobiography. I was happy, writing Wetware, to get away from the transrealism of my book The Secret of Life and go for the dense eyeball kicks of cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk suggests, once again, that SF really can be about the world and not just about the author’s mind. For me, the best thing about cyberpunk is that it taught me how to enjoy shopping malls, which used to terrify me. Now I just pretend that the whole thing is two miles below the moon’s surface, and that half the people’s right-brains have been eaten by roboticized steel rats. And suddenly it’s interesting again.

Note on “What is Cyberpunk?”

Written 1985.

Appeared in REM, #3, February, 1986.

“What is Cyberpunk?” sprang from my experience of being on the first-ever science-fiction convention “Cyberpunk” panel in Austin, 1985. John Shirley and I stayed at Bruce Sterling’s house that time and had a wonderful time. I remember one great moment with Shirley leaning out of our car window and hollering, “Y’all ever ate any live brains?” at some bewildered Texans.

The audience response to our panel was so incredibly hostile that Shirley and Sterling walked out, and afterwards Shiner was saying, “Well, after that I guess cyberpunk is dead. Wow, that sure was a short-lived thing.” I wrote “What Is Cyberpunk?” to clearly join and support the cause.

REM was a zine published by my writer-friend Charles Platt. I added the postscript to the article in response to a letter from a reader, so I suppose the postscript must have appeared in issue #4.

The Mondo 2000 editors latched onto my phrase “How fast are you? How dense?” and used it in their ad campaigns and on some of their T-shirts.

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Gnarly SF

In this essay, I’ll talk about how I write science fiction. I’ll be talking about levels of complexity, focusing on what I call the gnarly zone.  And I’ll get into four particular techniques that I refer to as transrealism, monomyths, power chords, and thought experiments.  So let me set the stage with a diagram.


What is Gnarl?

I use gnarl in an idiosyncratic and somewhat technical sense; I use it to mean a level of complexity that lies in the zone between predictability and randomness.

The original meaning of “gnarl” was simply “a knot in the wood of a tree.” In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions.  And then, by extension, something gnarly came to be anything with surprisingly intricate detail.  As a late-arriving and perhaps over-assimilated Californian, I get a kick out of the word.

Do note that “gnarly” can also mean “disgusting.”  Soon after I moved to California in 1986, I was at an art festival where a caterer was roasting a huge whole pig on a spit above a gas-fired grill the size of a car.  Two teen-age boys walked by and looked silently at the pig.  Finally one of them observed, “Gnarly, dude.”  In the same vein, my son has been heard to say, “Never ever eat anything gnarly.”  And having your body become old and gnarled isn’t necessarily a pleasant thing.  But here I only want to talk about gnarl in a good kind of way.

Clouds, fire, and water are gnarly in the sense of being beautifully intricate, with purposeful-looking but not quite comprehensible patterns.  And of course all living things are gnarly, in that they inevitably do things that are much more complex than one might have expected.  As I mentioned, the shapes of tree branches are the standard example of gnarl.  The life cycle of a jellyfish is way gnarly. The wild three-dimensional paths that a humming-bird sweeps out are kind of gnarly too, and, if the truth be told, your ears are gnarly as well.

I’m a writer first and foremost, but for much of my life I had a day-job as a professor, first in mathematics and then in computer science.  Although I’m back to being a freelance writer now, I spent twenty years in the dark Satanic mills of Silicon Valley.  Originally I thought I was going there as a kind of literary lark——like an overbold William Blake manning a loom in Manchester.  But eventually I went native on the story.  It changed the way I think.  I drank the Kool-Aid.

I derived my notion of gnarl from the work of the computer scientist Stephen Wolfram.  I first met him in 1984, interviewing him for a science article I was writing.  He made a big impression on me, and introduced me to the dynamic graphical computations known as cellular automata, or CAs for short.  The so-called Game of Life is the best-known CA.  You start with a few lit-up pixels on a computer screen.  Each pixel “looks” at the eight nearest pixels, counts how many are “on” and adjusts its state according to this total, using a fixed rule.  All of the pixels do this at once, so the screen behaves like a parallel computation.   The patterns of dots grow, reproduce, and/or die, sometimes generating persistent moving patterns known as gliders.  I became fascinated by CAs, and it’s thanks in part to Wolfram that I switched from teaching math to teaching computer science.

Wolfram summarized his ideas in his thick 2002 tome, A New Kind of Science.  To me, having known Wolfram for many years by then, the ideas in the book seemed obviously true.  I went on to write my own nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, partly to popularize Wolfram’s ideas, and partly to expatiate upon my own notions of the meaning of computation.  A work of early geek philosophy.  Most scientists found the new ideas to be—as Wolfram sarcastically put it—either trivial or wrong.  When a set of ideas provokes such resistance, it’s a sign of an impending paradigm shift.

So what does Wolfram say?

He starts by arguing that we can think of any natural process as a computation, that is, you can see anything as a deterministic procedure that works out the consequences of some initial conditions.  Instead of viewing the world as made of atoms or of curved space or of natural laws, we can try viewing it as made of computations.  Keep in mind that a “computer” doesn’t have to be made of wires and silicon chips in a box.  It can be any real-world phenomenon you like.  Does this make the world dull?  Far from it.

Having studied a very large number of visually interesting computations called cellular automata, Wolfram concluded that there are basically three kinds of computations and three corresponding kinds of natural processes.

Predictable.  Processes that are ultimately without surprise.  This may be because they eventually die out and become constant, or because they’re repetitive.  Think of a checkerboard, or a clock, or a fire that burns down to dead ashes.

Gnarly.  Processes that are structured in interesting ways but are nonetheless unpredictable.  Here we think of a vine, or a waterfall, or the startling yet computable digits of pi, or the flow of your thoughts.

Random.  Processes that are completely messy and unstructured.  Think of the molecules eternally bouncing off each other in air, or the cosmic rays from outer space.

The gnarly middle zone is where it’s at.   Essentially all of the interesting patterns in physics and biology are gnarly.   Gnarly processes hold out the lure of being partially understandable, but they resist falling into dull predictability.

Anything involving fluids can be a rich source of  gnarl—even a cup of tea. The most orderly state of a liquid is, of course, for it to be standing still. If one lets water run rather slowly down a channel, the water moves smoothly, with a predictable pattern of ripples.

As more water is put into a channel, the ripples begin to crisscross and waver.  Eddies and whirlpools appear—and with turbulent flow we have the birth of gnarl.

Once a massive amount of water is poured down the channel, we get a less interesting random-seeming state in which the water is seething.

Now, the pay-off for this whole ine of thought is that it becomes possible, via some computer-science legerdemain, to argue that all of the interesting processes of nature are inherently unpredictable.

What, by the way, do I mean by “predicting a process”?  This means to have some procedure for determining the processes result very much faster than the time it takes to simply let the process run.  Saying that a gnarly process is unpredictable, means there are no quick short-cut methods for finding out what the process will do.  The only way to really find out what the weather is going to be like tomorrow is to wait twenty-four hours and see.  The only way for me to find out what I’m going to put into the final paragraph of a book is to finish writing the book.

It’s worth repeating this point.  We will never find any magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick pencil-and-paper calculations about the future.  Sometimes scientists—or science-fiction writers—have speculated that there’s some compact master-formula capable of predicting the future with a few strokes of a pencil.  And many still have an internal faith in some slightly more sophisticated restatement of this.

But we have no hope of control.  On the plus side, the gnarly is a bit better behaved than the fully random.  We can’t predict the waves, but we can hope to ride them.

 As a reader, I’ve always sought the gnarl, that is, I like to find odd, interesting, unpredictable kinds of books, possibly with outré or transgressive themes.  My favorites would include Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Robert Sheckley and Phil Dick, Jorge-Luis Borges and Thomas Pynchon.

Once again, a gnarly process is complex and unpredictable without being random.  If a story hews to some very familiar pattern, it feels stale.  But if absolutely anything can happen, a story becomes as unengaging as someone else’s dream.  The gnarly zone lies at the interface between logic and fantasy.

William Burroughs was an ascended master of the gnarl.  He believed in having his work take on an autonomous life to the point of becoming a world that the author inhabits.   “The writer has been there or he can’t write about it… [Writers] are trying to create a universe in which they have lived or where they would like to live.  To write it, they must go there and submit to conditions that they might not have bargained for.” (From “Remembering Jack Kerouac” in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, Seaver Books 1986.)…

In order to present some ideas about how gnarl applies to literature in general, and to science-fiction in particular, I’m going to make up four tables to summarize ho gnarliness makes its way into science-fiction in four areas: subject matter, plot, scientific speculation, and social commentary.

 In drawing up my tables, I found it useful to distinguish between low gnarl and high gnarl.  Low gnarl is close to being periodic and predictable, while high gnarl is closer to being fully random.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying any particular row of the table is absolutely better than the others.  My purpose here is taxonomic rather than prescriptive.  Rather than using the words “predictable” and “random” to refer to the lowest and highest levels of complexity, one might use the less judgmental words “classic” and “surreal.”

Just so you have a general idea of what I’ll be talking about, here’s how I see some of my favorite authors as located on the complexity spectrum:


 Sample Authors.


Classic, Golden Age F&SF.  J.R.R. Tolkein, Isaac Asimov, Kage Baker.

Low Gnarl

Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, Karen Joy Fowler.

High Gnarl

Charles Stross, Robert Sheckley, Phillip K. Dick, Eileen Gunn.


Douglas Adams, John Shirley, Terry Bisson.


Let me stress again that I like the work of all the authors in this table very much. Otherwise I wouldn't mention them at all. The point here is to discuss various modes and approaches. Note that some authors may write novels in various modes—Terry Bisson’s Pirates of the Universe for instance, is high gnarl and transreal, while his The Pickup Artist is a surreal shaggy-dog story.  Also note that any given novel may have different complexity levels relative to the four columns.

In any case, if you disagree with my classifications, so much the better—my main goal is to offer a tool for thought. 

Subject Matter and Transrealism

 Regarding the kinds of characters and situations that one can write about, my sense is that we have a four-fold spectrum of possible modes: simple genre writing with stock characters, mimetic realism, the heightened kind of realism that I call transrealism, and full-on fabulation.  Both realism and transrealism lie in the gnarly zone.  Speaking specifically in terms of subject matter, I’d be inclined to say that transrealism is gnarlier, as it allows for more possibilities.


Subject Matter


Genre  literature modeled on existing books or folktales.

Low Gnarl

Realism, modeled on the actual world, or on a closely imagined fictional world.

High Gnarl

Transrealism, in which the author’s personal experience is enhanced by transcendent elements.


Fabulation, fantasy, or science fiction of unreal worlds.


What do I mean by transrealism?  Early in my writing career, my friend Gregory Gibson advised, “It would be great to write science fiction and have it be about your everyday life.”  I took that to heart.  The science fiction novels of Philip K. Dick were an inspiration on this front as well.

In 1983, having read a remark where the writer Norman Spinrad referred to Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly as “transcendental autobiography, ” I came up with the term transrealism, to represent a synthesis between fantastic fabulation (trans) and closely observed character-driven fiction (realism), and I began advocating a transrealist method of writing.

Trans.  Use the SF and fantasy tropes to express deep psychic archetypes.  Put in science-fictional events or technologies which reflect deeper aspects of people and society.  Manipulate subtext. 

Realism.  Possibly include a main character similar to yourself and, in any case, base your characters on real people you know, or on combinations of them. 

Twenty novels later, I no longer feel I have to go whole hog with transrealism and cast my friends and family into my books.  I think they got a little tired of it.  For awhile there, I was like Ingmar Bergman, continually making movies with the same little troupe of actors/family/friends.  These days I’m more likely to collage together a variety of observed traits to make my characters, like a magpie gathering up bright scraps for a nest.

I’ve come to think that you can in fact write transreally without overtly using your own life or specific people that you know.  Even without having any characters who are particularly like myself, I can write closely observed works about my own life experiences.   And if I’m transmuting these experiences with the alchemy of science fiction, the result is transreal.  So I might restate the principles of transrealism like this.

Trans.  The author raises the action to a higher level by infusing magic or weird science, choosing tropes so as to intensify and augment some artistically chosen aspects of reality.  Trans might variously stand for transfigurative, transformative, transcendental, transgressive, or transsexual.

Realism.  The author uses real-world ideas, emotions, perceptions that he or she has personally experienced or witnessed.

Looking back, here’s a list of my most fully transreal works, which are those featuring a character modeled in some way on me.  On each line I list a book title, my character’s name in the book, and the character’s approximate age in the course of the book.

The Secret of Life, “Conrad Bunger”, 16-21.

Spacetime Donuts, “Vernor Maxwell”, 21-26.

White Light, “Felix Rayman”, 26-32.

The Sex Sphere, “Alwin Bitter”, 32-34.

Complete Stories (the “Killeville” short stories in particular). Various names. 34-40.

The Hacker and the Ants, “Jerzy Rugby”, 40-46.

Saucer Wisdom, “Rudy Rucker”, 46-51.

By the way, in hopes of selling to a larger market, and with my blessing, Tor Books marketed Saucer Wisdom as a non-fiction book of futurology. But I think it’s more accurate to call this book a novel too—in somewhat the same sense that Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel rather than a long poem with annotations.

 Over the years, I’ve gained enough writerly craft to start using characters who are assembled from bits and pieces of the real world—without being a particularly close match for any one person. These days I’m more likely to collage together a variety of observed traits to make my characters. Like a magpie gathering up bright scraps for a nest. One way to gather scraps for characters is to jot down gestures and remarks that you see or hear on the street. This is the method that Jack Kerouac called “sketching”. And sometimes I even let myself make things up out of whole cloth.

Earlier in my career, it seemed important to put a character like me into my novels, and to depict the people around me. This is due in part to a young writer’s egotism—what could be more important than one’s own personal experience!

As my mentor Robert Sheckley remarked in his preface to my story collection Transreal! “A writer’s first problem is how to write. His second is how to write a story. His third is how to write about himself.”

I no longer feel as strong an urge to directly depict myself in my fiction. But even without a specifically Rudoid character, my books can be transreal. My Ware novels are full of refracted images of my life when I was writing them, as John Roche points out in “Beat Zen, Alien Zen: Varieties of Transreal Experience in Rudy Rucker’s Ware Novels.” Although there’s nothing of present-day California in As Above, So Below, my historical novel about Peter Bruegel, I came to identify so deeply with Bruegel that I put very much of myself into his character depiction. And the same thing happened when I represented Edgar Allan Poe in my alternate history The Hollow Earth.

Turning to some of my later novels, although Spaceland was transreally based on life in Silicon Valley, I went ahead and made the main character Joe Cube quite unlike me—I made him a not-too-bright middle-manager. Since the action of the book involves having Joe explore higher dimensions, I thought that the reader might find it more congenial to have Joe be non-mathematical, so as better to mirror the puzzlement that the reader might feel.

My epic quest novel Frek and the Elixir would seem to be a complete fabulation: it’s set in the year 3003 and involves travel to utterly alien worlds. But Frek’s hometown is transreally modeled on the town of Lynchburg, Virginia, where I raised my children, and Frek himself includes elements of my own childhood memories as well as images of my son. Frek’s personal difficulties with his father mirror both my own relations with my father and my son’s relations with me. And the political subtext of the book is a direct expression of my feelings about Y2K America.

My next novel Mathematicians In Love is set once again the contemporary Bay Area of California, and my main characters are young mathematicians incorporating many characteristics of people I’ve known. The main character shares much of my sensibility, but his life experiences are quite different from mine.

One practical reason for no longer putting my life into my books has to do with something John Updike talks about: a writer’s problem of bit-by-bit using up his or her past. And it may be that as I get older, the more recent parts of my life become less interesting to describe—or in any case less interesting to my youngish target audience.

In any case, the point is that you can write transreally without overtly using your own life or specific people that you know. Even without having any characters who are particularly like yourself, you can write closely observed works about your own life experiences. And if you’re transmuting these experiences with the alchemy of science fiction, the result is transreal.

To this point, in his afterword to his great transreal novel, A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick writes, “I myself, I am not a character in this novel; I am the novel.”

Thinking of Philip K. Dick brings a caveat to mind. A transrealist author really does need to model most of his characters upon observations of people other than himself or herself. For in Philip K. Dick’s less successful novels, such as A Crack In Space, there is a tendency for quite a few of the male characters to be of a similar type: gloomy, self-doubting, and easily cowed by authorities or by powerful women. One supposes that these might all be images of Phil himself. A book with too many examples of the same kind of character feels airless.

Monomyth and Emerging Plots

 In this section, I’ll discuss a four-fold range of plot structures. 




A plot that hews to a standard formula.  Monomyths.

Low Gnarl

A plot structure embodying a real-world flow of events. “Life is stranger than fiction.”

High Gnarl

A plot obtained by starting with a real-life story and enhancing it, as in a fairy tale. 


Like a shaggy-dog story,  possibly based on dreams or collage-like juxtapositions.


At the low end of complexity, we have standardized plots, at the high end, we have no large-scale plot at all, and in between we have the gnarly somewhat unpredictable plots.  These can be found in two kinds of ways, either by mimicking reality precisely, or by amplifying reality with incursions of psychically meaningful events.

It’s often said that there’s only a few basic story patterns. Suppose we use the nice word “monomyth” to stand for “story pattern”. (Strictly speaking, there should maybe be only one monomyth, but I think it’s clear enough what I mean by pluralizing the word.)

I taught software engineering courses to computer science students at San Jose State University for over twenty number of years, and there’s a relevant phenomenon I want to mention. In the 1990s, programmers began using “objects” in their programs, where objects are encapsulated high-level software constructs that are easier to use than the rats-nests of low-level code that they replace. In the 2000s there’s been a movement towards a still higher-level approach known as “software patterns.” The idea is that most programs can be viewed as plugging together certain standard kinds of objects into one of several standard arrangements. A pattern is the notion of hooking together some objects in a certain way.

In literature, the “objects” are the stock characters, the classic situations, the props and devices. And the standard ways of hooking them together are the story patterns or monomyths. Here are a few examples.

Three Wishes. I used this in Master of Space and Time. There were three wishes, and the pattern was comparable to the folktale “The Peasant and the Sausage.” The Secret of Life is also about a series of wishes, in this case there were five, and it’s modeled on the classic children’s book, The Five Chinese Brothers, written by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

Love Quadrilateral: In setting up Spaceland, I used the notion of two couples who swap partners, and then try and swap back.

Campbell’s Monomyth. In order to give my most recent novel Frek and the Elixir a nice mythic feel, I modeled the book on the specific “monomyth” template described in Joseph Campbell’s classic The Hero with A Thousand Faces (as George Lucas is said to have done for Star Wars.) Frek and the Elixir was designed from the ground up to match the monomyth so as to give the book the greatest possible resonance.

Campbell’s archetypal myth includes seventeen stages. By combining two pairs of stages, I ended up with fifteen chapters. And I matched my chapters to the Cambellian monomyth stages.

Looking back over my other novels, I was surprised to see how many of them had monomythic patterns in themit’s hard in fact to avoid them. For instance, the odd-sounding “The Belly of the Whale” stage of Campbell’s monomyth occurs as a faster-than-light trip in White Light, as a boat ride down a river in The Hollow Earth, as a stint inside a hyperspherical creature named Om in Realware, as a ride inside Kangy the hyperspace cuttlefish in Spaceland, and so on.

It’s worth mentioning that even though I consciously used the monomyth to plot the chapters of Frek and the Elixir, I had to work as hard as ever to figure out the details. There’s no substitute for simulation.

As I keep saying, a characteristic feature of any complex process is that you can’t look at what’s going on today and immediately deduce what will be happening in a few weeks.  It’s necessary to have the world run step-by-step through the intervening ticks of time.  Gnarly processes are unpredictable; they don’t allow for short-cuts.

Let me say a bit about plots and outlining.  I used to maintain that it was better not to plot my novels in advance. But maybe I was just making a virtue of a vice. I denigrated plot outlines because I didn’t like working on them, preferring to jump right into the writing.

One might defend the practice of not having a precise outline by speaking in terms of the gnarl. To wit, a characteristic feature of any complex process is that you can’t look at what’s going on today and immediately deduce what will be happening in a few weeks. It’s necessary to have the world run step-by-step through the intervening ticks of time. Gnarly computations are unpredictable; they don’t allow for short-cuts. In other words, the last chapter of a novel with a gnarly plot is, even in principle, unpredictable from the contents of the first chapter. You have to write the whole novel in order to discover what happens in the last chapter.

This said, I’ve also learned that if I start writing a novel with no plot outline at all, two things happen. First of all, the readers can tell. Some will be charmed by the spontaneity, but some will complain that the book feels improvised, like a shaggy-dog story. Second, if I’m working without a plot outline, I’m going to experience some really painful and anxious days when everything seems broken, and I have no idea how to proceed. I’ve heard Sheckley refer to these periods in the compositional process as “black points.” Writing an outline makes it easier on me. Perhaps it’s a matter of mature craftsmanship versus youthful passion.

These days, even before I start writing a new book, I create an accompanying notes document in which I accumulate outlines, scene sketches and the like. These documents end up being very nearly as long as my books, and when the book comes out, I usually post the corresponding notes document online for perusal by those few who are very particularly interested in that book or in my working methods. (Links to these notes documents and some of my essays can be found on my writing page.)

Even with an outline, I can’t be quite sure about the twists and turns my story will take. How precise, after all, is an outline? William Burroughs used to say a novel is a map of a territory.  But an outline is only a map of a map.

In the end, only the novel itself is the perfect outline of the novel. Only the territory itself can be the perfect map. In this connection, I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s one-paragraph fiction, “On Exactitude in Science,” that contains this sentence: “In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”

Regarding the outline, I think of a novel’s structure as breaking into four increasingly fine levels: parts, chapters, scenes, and actions. I start with a story arc, describing how the parts fit together. I break the parts into chapters and outline the chapters one by one. As I work on a chapter’s outline, I break it into scenes, trying to outline the individual scenes themselves. But as for the actions that make up a scene, more often than not I simply visualize these and describe what I “see.”

The outline changes as I work. Shit happens. After writing each scene in a given chapter, I find that I have to go back and revise the outlines of the remaining scenes of the chapter. And after finishing a chapter, I have to go back and revise the outlines of the chapters to come.

Making the same point yet again, whether or not you write an outline, in practice, the only way to discover the ending of a truly living book is to set yourself in motion and think constantly about the novel for months or years, writing all the while. The characters and tropes and social situations bounce off each other like eddies in a turbulent wakes, like gliders in a cellular automaton simulation, like vines twisting around each other in a jungle. And only time will tell just how the story ends. Gnarly plotting means there are no perfectly predictive short-cuts.

But it’s not a bad idea to select in advance an armature of plot structure. The detailed eddies will indeed have to work themselves out during the writing, but there’s no harm in having some sluices and gutters to guide the flow of the story along a harmonious and satisfying course.

Power Chords and Thought Experiments


 Scientific Speculation


Rote magic or pedagogic science, emphasizing limits rather than possibilities. Power chords.

Low Gnarl

Moderate thought experiments: the consequences of a few plausible new ideas.

High Gnarl

Extreme thought experiments: the consequences of some completely unexpected new ideas.


Irrational and inconsistent; Anything goes.  Logic is abandoned.


What stampedes are to Westerns or murders are to mysteries, power chords are to science fiction.  I’m talking about certain classic tropes that have the visceral punch of heavy musical riffs:  blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, immersive virtual reality, clones, robots, teleportation, alien-controlled pod people, endless shrinking, the shattering of planet Earth, intelligent goo, antigravity, starships, ecodisaster, pleasure-center zappers, alternate universes, nanomachines, mind viruses, higher dimensions, a cosmic computation that generates our reality, and, of course, the attack of the giant ants.

When a writer uses an SF power chord, there is an implicit understanding with the informed readers that this is indeed familiar ground.  And it’s expected the writer will do something fresh with the trope.  “Make it new,” as Ezra Pound said, several years before he went crazy.

Mainstream writers who dip a toe into what they daintily call “speculative fiction” tend not be aware of just how familiar are the chords they strum.  And the mainstream critics are unlikely to call their cronies to task over failing to create original SF.  They don’t have a clue either.  And we lowly science-fiction people are expected to be grateful when a mainstream writer stoops to filch a bespattered icon from our filthy wattle huts.  Oh, wait, do I sound bitter?

 One way we make power chords fresh is simply to execute them with a lot of style—to pile on detail and make the scene very real. To execute the material impeccably. I can’t resist mentioning two rock’n’roll examples. The Rolling Stones: “I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.” The Ramones in “Worm Man”: “I need some dirt!” The idea is to invest the familiar tropes with enough craft and energy that they rock harder than ever.

Another way to break a power chord out of the low-complexity predictable zone is to place the chord into an unfamiliar context, perhaps describing it more intensely than usual, or perhaps using it for a novel thought experiment.  I like it when my material takes on a life of its own.  This leads to the gnarly zone.  As with plot, it’s a matter of working out unpredictable consequences of simple-seeming assumptions.

A different way to handle the familiarity of a power chord is to use irony but there can a bad taste in this practice, a sense that the author’s saying, “Science fiction is stupid junk. None of it matters. Let’s be silly! Weally, weally thilly!” That’s no way to treat our noble genre.

The reason why fictional thought experiments are so powerful is that, in practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the side effects of new technological developments.  Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects on reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.

In order to tease out the subtler consequences of current trends, a complex fictional simulation is necessary; inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis.  If I want to imagine, for instance, what our world would be like if ordinary objects like chairs or shoes were conscious, then the best way to make progress is to fictionally simulate a person discovering this.

The kinds of thought experiments I enjoy are different in intent and in execution from merely futurological investigations.  My primary goal is not to make useful predictions that businessmen can use.   I’m more interested in exploring the human condition, with literary power chord standing in for archetypal psychic forces.

Where to find material for our thought experiments?  You don’t have to be a scientist.  As Kurt Vonnegut used to remark, most science fiction writers don’t know much about science.  But SF writers have an ability to pick out some odd new notion and set up a thought experiment. As Robert Sheckley remarked to me when he was living in a camper in my driveway, “At the heart of it all is a rage to extrapolate.  Excuse me, shall I extrapolate that for you?  Won’t take a jiffy.”

The most entertaining fantasy and SF writers have a rage to extrapolate; a zest for seeking the gnarl.

Satire and Cyberpunk

So here’s the last of my complexity-spectrum tables.


Social Commentary


Unthinking advocacy of the status quo.

Low Gnarl

Comedy: Noticing that existing social trends lead to  absurdities.

High Gnarl

Satire: extrapolating social trends into mad yet logical environments.


Jape, parody, anarchist humor.


I’m always uncomfortable when I’m described as a science-fiction humorist.  I’m not trying to be funny in my work.  It’s just that things often happen to come out as amusing when I tell them the way I see them.

Wit involves describing the world as it actually is.  And you experience a release of tension when the elephant in the living room is finally named.  Wit is a critical-satirical process that can be more serious than the “humorous” label suggests. 

The least-aware kinds of literature take society entirely at face value, numbly acquiescing in the myths and mores laid down by the powerful.  These forms are dead, too cold.

At the other extreme, we have the chaotic forms of social commentary where everything under the sun becomes questionable and a subject for mockery.  If everything’s a joke, then nothing matters.  This said, laughing like a crazy hyena can be fun.

But it’s worth noting you can be funny without being silly. This was something I picked up from the works of Philip K. Dick. A Scanner Darkly is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, but the laughter rides upon a constant counterpoint of tragedy, a muted background of sad French horns. It’s relevant to this essay to mention that the masterwork Scanner uses fresh SF tropes such as the scramble-suit and the scanner, and has a transreal feeling of being about parts of Dick’s real life.

In the gnarly zone, we have fiction that extrapolates social conventions to the point where the inherent contradictions become overt enough to provoke the shock of recognition and the concomitant release of laughter.  At the low end of this gnarly zone we have observational commentary on the order of stand-up comedy.  And at the higher end we get inspired satire.

In this vein, Sheckley wrote the following in his “Amsterdam Diary” in Semiotext[e] SF, Autonomedia 1997:

Good fiction is never preachy.  It tells its truth only by inference and analogy.  It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization.  In my case it’s usually humorous—no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch.  But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write… In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose—my own . . . enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion.

So that’s enough about comedy.  Let’s also move onto social commentary, which often takes a revolutionary turn.  In particular, let’s talk about cyberpunk.

I have a genetic predisposition for dialectic thinking.  We can parse cyberpunk as a synthesizing form.

Cyber.  Discuss the ongoing global merger between humans and machines.

Punk.  Have the people be fully non-robotic; have them be interested in sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.  While you’re at it, make the robots funky as well!  Get in there and spray graffiti all over the corporate future.

As well as amping up the gnarliness, cyberpunk is concerned with the maintaining a high level of information in a story—where I’m using “information” in the technical computer-science sense of measuring how concise and non-redundant a message might.

By way of having a high level of information, it’s typical for cyberpunk novels to be written in a somewhat minimalist style, spewing out a rapid stream of characterization, ornamentation, plot twists, tech notions, and laconic dialog.  The tendency is perhaps a bit similar to the way that punk rock arose as a reaction to arena rock, preferring a stripped-down style that was, in some ways, closer to the genre’s roots.

When I moved to California in 1986, I fell in with the editors of the high-tech psychedelic magazine Mondo 2000, and they began referring to themselves as cyberpunks as well.  They liked my notion of creating cultural artifacts with high levels of information, and their official T-shirt bore my slogan, “How fast are you? How dense?”

Changing the World

Our society is made up of gnarly processes, and gnarly processes are inherently unpredictable.

My studies of cellular automata have made it very clear to me that it’s easy for any kind of social system to generate gnarl.  If we take a set of agents acting in parallel, we’ll get unpredictable gnarl by and repeatedly iterating almost any simple rule—such as “Earn an amount equal to the averages of your neighbors’ incomes­ plus one—but when you reach a certain maximum level, go bankrupt and drop down to a minimum income.”

  Rules like this can generate wonderfully seething chaos.  People sometimes don’t want to believe that such a simple rule might account for the complexity of a living society.  There’s a tendency to think that a model with a more complicated definition will be a better fit for reality.  But whatever richness comes out of a model is the result of a gnarly computation---which can occur in the very simplest of systems.

As I keep reiterating, the behavior of our gnarly society can’t be predicted by computations that operate any faster than does real life.  There are no tidy, handy-dandy rubrics for predicting or controlling emergent social processes like elections, the stock market, or consumer demand.  Like a cellular automaton, society is a parallel computation, that is, a society is made up of individuals leading their own lives.

The good thing about a decentralized gnarly computing system is that it doesn’t get stuck in some bad, minimally satisfactory state.  The society’s members are all working their hardest to improve things—a bit like a swarm of ants tugging on a twig.  Each ant is driven by its own responses to the surrounding cloud of communication pheromones.  For a time, the ants may work at cross-purposes, but, as long as the society isn’t stuck in a repetitive loop imposed from on high, they’ll eventually happen upon success—like a jiggling key that turns a lock.

But how to reconcile the computational beauty of a gnarly, decentralized economy with the fact that many of those who advocate such a system are greedy plutocrats bent on screwing the middle class?

I think the problem is that, in practice, the multiple agents in a free-market economy are not of consummate size.  Certain groups of agents clump together into powerful meta-agents.  Think of a river of slushy nearly-frozen water.  As long as the pieces of ice are of about the same size, the river will move in natural, efficient paths.  But suppose that large ice floes form.  The awkward motions of the floes disrupt any smooth currents, and, with their long borders, the floes have a propensity to grow larger and larger, reducing the responsiveness of the river still more.

In the same way, wealthy individuals or corporations can take on undue influence in a free market economy, acting as, in effect, unelected local governments.  And this is where the watchdog role of a central government can be of use.  The central government can act as a stick that reaches in to pound on the floes and break them into less disruptive sizes.  This is, in fact, the reason why neocons and billionaires don’t like the idea of a central government.  When functioning properly, the government beats their cartels and puppet-parties to pieces.

Science fiction plays a role here.  SF is one of the most trenchant present-day forms of satire.  Harsh truths about our present-day society can be too inflammatory to express outright.  But if they’re dramatized within science-fictional worlds, vast numbers of citizens may be willing to absorb them.

For instance, Robert Heinlein’s 1953 classic, Revolt in 2100, very starkly outlines what it can be like to live in a theocracy, and I’m sure that the book has made it a bit harder for such governments to take hold.  John Shirley’s 1988 story, “Wolves of the Plateau” prefigured the eerie virtual violence of online hackerdom.  And the true extent of the graft involved in George Bush’s neocon invasion of Iraq comes into unforgettably sharp relief for anyone who reads William Gibson’s 2007 Spook Country

Backing up a little, it will have occurred to alert readers that a government that functions as a beating stick is nevertheless corruptible.  It may well break up only certain kinds of organizations, and turn a blind eye to those with the proper connections.  Indeed this state of affairs is essentially inevitable given the vicissitudes of human nature.

Jumping up a level, we find this perennial consolation on the political front: any regime eventually falls.  No matter how dark a nation’s political times become, a change will come. A faction may think it rules a nation, but this is always an illusion.  The eternally self-renewing gnarl of human behavior is impossible to control, and the times between regimes aren’t normally so so very long.

Sometimes it’s not just single regimes that are the problem, but rather groups of nations that get into destructive and repetitive loops.  I’m thinking of, in particular, the sequence of tit-for-tat reprisals that certain factions get into.  Some loops of this nature have lasted my entire adult life.

But whether the problem is from a single regime or from a constellation of international relationships, one can remain confident that at some point gnarl will win out.  Every pattern will break, every nightmare will end.  Here is another place where SF has an influence.  It helps people to visualize alternate realities, to understand that things don’t have to stay the same.

One dramatic lesson we draw from SF simulations is that the most wide-ranging and extreme alterations can result from seemingly small changes.   In general, society’s coupled computations tend to produce events whose sizes have an unlimited range.  This means that, inevitably, very large cataclysms will occasionally occur.  Society is always in a gnarly state which the writer Mark Buchanan refers to as “upheavable” in Ubiquity: The Science of History…Or Why The World Is Simpler Than You Think (Crown, 2000 New York), pp. 231-233.

Buchanan draws some conclusions about the flow of history that dovetail nicely with the notion of gnarly computation.

History could in principle be like the growth of a tree and follow a simple progression towards a mature and stable endpoint, as both Hegel and Karl Marx thought.  In this case, wars and other tumultuous social events should grow less and less frequent as humanity approaches the stable society at the End of History.

Or history might be like the movement of the Moon around the Earth, and be cyclic, as the historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested.  He saw the rise and fall of civilizations as a process destined to repeat itself with regularity.  Some economists believe they see regular cycles in economic activity, and a few political scientists suspect that such cycles drive a correspondingly regular rhythm in the outbreak of wars.

Of course, history might instead be completely random, and present no perceptible patterns whatsoever …

“But this list is incomplete …  The [gnarly] critical state bridges the conceptual gap between the regular and the random.  The pattern of change to which it leads through its rise of factions and wild fluctuations is neither truly random nor easily predicted.  … It does not seem normal and lawlike for long periods of calm to be suddenly and sporadically shattered by cataclysm, and yet it is.  This is, it seems, the ubiquitous character of the world.

In his Foundation series, Isaac Asimov depicts a universe in which the future is to some extent regular and predictable, rather than being gnarly.  His mathematician character Hari Seldon has created a technique called “psychohistory” that allows him to foretell the large-scale motions of society.  This is fine for an SF series, but in the real world, it seems not to be possible.

One of the more intriguing observations regarding history is that, from time to time a society seems to undergo a sea change, a discontinuity, a revolution—think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Sixties, or the coming of the Web.  In these rare cases it appears as if the underlying rules of the system have changed.

Although the day-to-day progress of the system may be in any case unpredictable, there’s a limited range of possible values that the system actually hits.  In the interesting cases, these possible values lie on a fractal shape in some higher-dimensional space of possibilities—this shape is what chaos theory calls a strange attractor.

Looking at the surf near a spit at the beach, you’ll notice that certain water patterns recur over and over—perhaps a double-crowned wave on the right, perhaps a bubbling pool of surge beside the rock, perhaps a high-flown spray of spume off the front of the rock.  This range of patterns is a strange attractor.  When the tide is lower or the wind is different, the waves will run through a different repertoire—they’ll be moving on a different strange attractor.

During any given historical period, a society has a kind of strange attractor.  A limited number of factions fight over power, a limited number of social roles are available for the citizens, a limited range of ideas are in the air.  And then, suddenly, everything changes, and after the change there’s a new set of options—society has moved to a new strange attractor.  Although there’s been no change in the underlying rule for the social computation, some parameter has altered so that the range of currently possible behaviors has changed.

Society’s switches to new chaotic attractors are infrequently occurring zigs and zags generated by one and the same underlying and eternal gnarly social computation.  The basic underlying computation involves such immutable facts as the human drives to eat, find shelter, and live long enough to reproduce.  From such humble rudiments doth history’s great tapestry emerge—endlessly various, eternally the same.

I mentioned that SF helps us to highlight the specific quirks of our society at a given time.  It’s also the case that SF shows us how our world could change to radically different set of strange attractors.  One wonders, for instance, if the world wide web would have arisen in its present form if it hadn’t been for the popularity of Tolkein and of cyberpunk science fiction.  Very many of the programmers were reading both of these sets of novels.

It seems reasonable to suppose that Tolkein helped steer programmers towards the Web’s odd, niche-rich, fantasy-land architecture.  And surely the cyberpunk novels instilled the idea of having an anarchistic Web with essentially no centralized controllers at all.  The fact that that the Web turned out to be so free and ubiquitous seems almost too good to be true.  I speculate that it’s thanks to Tolkein and to cyberpunk that our culture made its way to the new strange attractor where we presently reside.

In short, SF and fantasy are more than forms of entertainment.  They’re tools for changing the world.

“Note on Gnarly SF”

This version written 2012.

Earlier versions appeared in various forms.


This essay is a mash-up of five different versions of the material.  The first was a talk, “Power Chords, Thought Experiments, Transrealism and Monomyths, ” which I gave at Readercon in July, 2003, where I was the guest of honor. The second version was “Seeking the Gnarl,” my address to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in March, 2005, where I was again the guest of honor.

Before the ICFA talk in Florida, I found a twisted branch on a nearby beach, and I brought it to my talk to display as an example of gnarl. Later some members of the audience took possession of the gnarl-branch as a kind of trophy. The ICFA version of the essay appeared in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring, 2005.

I worked some of this material into my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, The Seashell, and the Soul in 2005.  A different thread with some new material appeared as my introduction to my story collection, Mad Professor of 2007. And a merged essay fairly close to the present one appeared as “Surfing the Gnarl,” in my small collection Surfing the Gnarl, 2012, brought out by the estimable PM Press of Oakland, Califorina.

 Writing essays like this is a useful activity for a writer—it allows you to organize and clarify your methods of composition, methods that you otherwise might not be consciously aware of.

Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Collected Essays by Rudy Rucker.

Cyberpunk Lives!

William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and I grew up under the spell of beatnik literature. And somehow we got the opportunity to start our very own cultural and artistic movement: cyberpunk.

I remember meeting Allen Ginsberg at a friend’s house in Boulder, Colorado, 1982. “Allen,” I gushed, “I always wanted to be like one of the beats. What was the secret? How did you guys get so much ink?” “Fine writing,” said Allen. I pressed further: “Will you give me your blessing?” “Bless you,” he said and slapped his cupped hand down on my scalp, sending a sheet of energy cascading down my shoulders to trickle into my chakras.

The canonical Beat writers are four in number: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs. Taken as I am with the concept of a Beat/cyberpunk correlation, I occasionally muse over who matches whom.

Kerouac is the most wonderful writer among the beats, and surely the one who sold the most books. Gibson is a natural fit for this role. He writes like an angel, and everyone knows his name. Without Kerouac there would have been no Beat movement, without Gibson there would be no cyberpunk.

Ginsberg is the most political and most engaged—here I think of Sterling. At the beginning of cyberpunk, it was Bruce who was the indefatigable pamphleteer and consciousness-raiser with his Cheap Truth zine. His Mirrorshades anthology defined cyberpunk in many minds. Like Ginsberg, Sterling continues to roam the planet, making guest-lectures and writing up reports on what he finds. Of the beats and the cyberpunks, it is Ginsberg and Sterling whom one sees most often on television.

Not so well-known as the other beats, Corso is a poet with a keen ear for ecstatic strophes and ranting invective. Corso also has the cachet, the bonus, of being the only one of the four still alive. A reasonable match for the dark, zany and strangely healthy John Shirley.

For myself, as the oldest of the cyberpunks, I claim the role of Burroughs, with his wise, dry voice of hallucinatory erudition and his rank, frank humor.

But but but—Gibson doesn’t center his books upon himself, like Kerouac did. And Sterling writes about future technology, not about mystical perceptions of everyday reality. And Shirley is a novelist, not a poet. And I’m a professor, not a junkie. And cyberpunk isn’t really mainstream literature, is it? Perhaps my comparing the cyberpunks to the beats is like the sad but true tale of Jacqueline Susanne comparing herself and Harold Robbins to the Lost Generation writers. “I’m the Fitzgerald of the group and Harold’s the Hemingway…” Ow!

And, hmm, what about Lew Shiner? Well, he can be John Clellon Holmes, the Beat who drifted from the movement after his book, Go.

Okay, my analogy is just a Procrustean mind-game, a little wise-acreing for the swing of thought, something to get this essay rolling and with a generous dose of self-aggrandizement thrown in. Why not? Onward.

What I want to do here is to go into specific comments about three cyberpunk novels, and to gloat over some of the good bits with you. The books happened to come out within about a month of each other in 1996. It felt like getting letters from home. The three books to hand:

William Gibson, Idoru, G. P. Putnam’s, New York 1996.

Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire, Bantam Books, New York 1996.

John Shirley, Silicon Embrace, Mark V. Ziesing Books, Shingletown CA 1996.


William Gibson in 1983.

Like his Virtual Light, William Gibson’s novel Idoru has two main characters, a young man and a young woman, with the narrative told from their alternating points of view. The girl is a teenage fan of a rock musician named Rez, and the boy is a technician hired by Rez’s managers because he has “a peculiar knack for data-collection architectures.” In a more traditional kind of fiction, this structure would be a setup for a happy boy-meets-girl ending, but that’s not what happens in Virtual Light or in Idoru. None of the characters are really out for romance. Except for Rez.

The Idoru of the title is an artificial woman who exists as a holographic projection generated by a largish portable computer. Rez—Rozzer to his friends—is in love with her. “Man,” says Rez’s blind drummer at a dinner party, “Rozzer’s sittin’ down there makin’ eyes at a big aluminum thermos bottle.” The drummer’s synthetic eyes don’t register holograms; he sees through to the core of the idoru hardware.

The first mention of Rez and his partner Lo is in this sentence describing the bedroom of Chia Pet McKenzie, the teenage fan: “The wall opposite Chia’s bed was decorated with a six-by-six laser blowup of the cover of Lo Rez Skyline, their first album.” In a subtly associative way, this image evokes the now-famous first sentence of Gibson’s smash first novel, Neuromancer, “Over the port, the sky was the color of television.” Kind of the same, no? Gibson’s so smart, he’s playing with deep structure.

Chia is worried about Rez’s rumored infatuation with the idoru, and she flies to Japan to try and bring him to his senses. Half of the chapters are from Chia’s point of view; Gibson has somehow mastered the knack of writing the thoughts of teenage girls, their enthusiasms, their slang. One of the words Chia uses is “meshback.” A meshback is what we currently call a redneck, a low-income person who wears unfashionable clothes and whose thoughts are completely controlled by lowest-common-denominator media manipulation. The name comes from—the meshbacked high-hat gimmie caps that meshbacks like to wear. A great new word like this jumps right off the page and into your daily language. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to say, “Oh wow, let’s get out of this place, it’s totally full of meshbacks.”

Speaking of great new words, Chia hooks up with a Japanese Lo/Rez fan club member who happens to mention that her brother is an otaku. Chia’s automatic translator renders “otaku” as “pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit.” Chia gets the picture instantly. “It’s a boy thing, right? The otaku guys at my last school were into, like, plastic anime babes, military simulations, and trivia. Bigtime into trivia.”

Idoru is set in the same future as Virtual Light, and some of the tone is the same as well. We’re so far into the future here that characters are totally lacking some of the basic knowledge we take for granted, e.g. the meaning of the swastika. There is “…a fast-food franchise called California Reich, its trademark a stylized stainless-steel palm tree against one of those twisted-cross things like the meshbacks had drawn on their hands in her class on European history.” Bill knows meshbacks!

The boy character in Idoru is named Laney; he’s a little strange because he was given an experimental drug called 5-SB as a child, not that he likes to admit it, due to the long-term sociopathic effects it’s reported to have—5-SB “…makes folks want to stalk and kill politicians…” When quizzed about it, Laney suggests that maybe he’d only had a placebo. “You don’t mistake 5-SB for any placebo, son, but I think you know that.” A perfect Burroughs touch, crowned by the fact that the main somatic side-effect of 5-SB is this: “In his mouth a taste of rotten metal.”

Idoru continues to touch up Gibson’s vision of cyberspace, which is now becoming a fairly definite science fictional setting, something as standardized as the lunar colony domes and the generation starships of ‘50s and ‘60s SF. Today’s cyberspace is a huge, shared Virtual Reality which individual users can enter via small computers that they carry with them. Certain parts of cyberspace are difficult to enter, as they contain valuable information. You may encounter other users in cyberspace, and you may also encounter artificially alive software agents.

Although today’s World Wide Web is somewhat conspicuously lacking the effortless speed and Virtual Reality immersion of science fictional cyberspace, the Web’s difference from SF cyberspace is now only one of degree. Looking back, it’s hard to remember how radically new an idea this was when Gibson first wrote about it, lo these fifteen or so years gone. To a significant degree, the reputability of cyberpunk rests on this one visionary extrapolation. Jules Verne may have predicted the submarine, but William Gibson envisioned the explosive growth of the Web.

So it’s a special delight to see our Founding Father adding new touches to his vision. Here’s a funny description of something Chia see while in cyberspace with an otaku boy.

Something chimed. She glanced at the door, which was mapped in a particularly phoney-looking wood-grain effect, and saw a small white rectangle slide under the door. And keep sliding, straight toward her, across the floor, to vanish under the sleeping ledge. She looked down in time to see it rise, at exactly the same rate, up the edge of the striped mattress and over, coming to a halt when it was in optimum position to be read…It said “Ku Klux Klan Kollectibles,” and then some letters and numbers that didn’t look like any kind of address she knew.

Another chime. She looked at the door in time to see a gray blur scoot from under it. Flat, whirling, fast. It was on the white rectangle now, something like the shadow of a crab or a spider, two-dimensional and multi-legged. It swallowed it, shot for the door…

“What were those things?” Chia asked…

 “An advertisement…and a sub-program that offered criticism.”

“It didn’t offer criticism; it ate it.”

“Perhaps the person who wrote the sub-program dislikes advertising. Many do. Or dislikes the advertiser.”

Idoru has several hooks to Virtual Light, and can be thought of as the second in a new series of Gibson novels. Idoru’s ending promises more to come. It seems like Rez and his supernally intelligent “software dolly wank toy” are going to find a way to reproduce, perhaps biologically. With just a little DNA nanomanipulation it could be done. Although predicting the final somatic effect of a change in a fertilized egg’s DNA is a rather radically difficult problem in the analysis of algorithms, I’m sure that the child will turn out most wonderfully hale and gnarly.

Here’s a toast to the alchemical marriage of man and machine!

John Shirley’s Silicon Embrace is so strange and shaggy a magpie’s nest that it must needs be published by a smaller press.

Someone unfamiliar with the field might expect that science fiction novels would tend to be about the kinds of weird science you see in mass media such as TV shows and supermarket tabloids. You might expect, in other words, that there would be a lot of SF novels about aliens and UFOs. In point of fact, most SF writers are too persnickety to want to write about the repetitious fever dreams of the mass public mind.

In Silicon Embrace, Shirley boldly goes where few writers have gone before, and gets right down to nuts-and-bolts UFOlogy, complete with the canonical little aliens. “It was a Grey, the classic Grey described in close encounters, an alien…with improportionately big oval eyes of whiteless onyx, and something that might have been a nose, and the slit of a mouth, and no hair, and holes for ears…” But this is not going to turn into some cloying, conning UFO-nut miracle tale. Shirley’s aliens aren’t devils and they’re not Disneyland mummers in shiny masks. They’re businessmen, and they like to smoke cigarettes, which make them terribly intoxicated.

One of the more satisfying aspects of the hit movie Independence Day was the way in which it incarnated and elaborated our tabloid myth about the Roswell UFO that allegedly crashed and was preserved by government agencies—who performed an alien autopsy and who have a few alien pilots in suspended animation. Silicon Embrace delivers the same thrill, but in a more artistic way. Here’s that government-owned UFO: “There was a frightening smell about the saucer, though Farraday could smell nothing…It was as if the saucer gave out an irritating sound, though it was soundless; it was as if it glared a painful light into his eyes, but it glowed not at all.”

The book has lots of other threads besides the aliens. For some of the first hundred pages, Shirley goes off on a fairly bloody tangent, perhaps the effect of his having spent so much time in the airless, flickering caves of Hollywood, where troglodyte producers mistake sentimental violence for deeper truth. But soon, thankfully, Shirley’s violence busts out of this box and exfoliates into the bizarro territory of underground comix and Grande Guignol:

Anja opened the back of the van, and…pressed channel 7 on the remote clipped to her jacket; responding instantly, Sol came roaring out and sank his teeth into Noseless’s neck…and in a few minutes more Sol had pulled his head right off. Anja patted her ex boyfriend on the head as Sol knelt over the body, shaking, mouth streaming blood. “Good boy. Good boy.”

Sol has a chip in his neck, you wave.

As well as the Grey aliens, Silicon Embrace features a higher, nobler kind of alien, a crystalline life-form known as the Meta, one of the Metas’ avatars is a traditional lab-built mutant creature known as a land octopus or prairie squid. “It looked like an independently motile scrotum with human eyes and the legs of a human toddler interspersed with octopal tentacles,” and it speaks in a sweet, ingratiating voice. Later we learn that the humble prairie squid is in fact none other than a resurrected form of that greatest Meta alien of all, our Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Yes, Him. “Crucified, this time, in disfigurement; in the dislocated shape of a land octopus. Jesus in a prairie squid. Christ in a cephaloped.” Here an extra element of deep funniness derives from the fact that the “prairie squid” is an icon of the Church of the SubGenius, a half-serious mock religion in which John Shirley is a high-ranking official.

And—I told you this book was shaggy—there’s even some mystical physics. Here’s a rant from a guy called The Street Sleeper, telling about his mad-scientist friend The Middle Man.

“Okay, lemme see: There’s a subatomic particle called the IAMton. Physicists, they speculate about it, but the Middle Man knows. He was a cutting-edge hot shot at Stanford. He isolated the IAMton, using a wetware subatomic scanner that re-created the thing in his natural cerebral imaging equipment, and when he did, it spoke to him. It spoke to him! Can you fade that? A subatomic particle that tells you, Yeah! You found me!…Actually, see, it was all the IAMtons on the fucking planet that spoke to him, in the local macro-octave. Spoke to him through the group of ‘em he had contained in the tokomak field and scanned with the electron microscope interfaced with his wetware. You know?”

Yeah, I know, John. This is music to my ears, man. This totally makes sense. As Shirley puts it, “Science Fiction, see, is humanity’s way of warning, readying itself; it’s what goes on under the racial Rapid Eye movement.”

One final gem of wisdom. “The universe is alive, but it is not ‘God.’ And…it is not friendly. Nor unfriendly. However, we do not wish to make these distinctions with the American public.” Too true.

Daringly set in the late twenty-first century—well, hey, the twentieth century’s all done!—Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire is about an extremely old woman who gets a radical rejuvenation treatment and becomes a beautiful twenty-year-old. Due to this extreme change in her body she is no longer human in the old sense of the word; she’s post-human. Other SF writers have come up against the task Sterling faces here, how to depict people after technology has made them into superhumans; I would say that no other writer has ever succeeded so well. Here’s one of Sterling’s statements about post-humans: “Machines just flitted through the fabric of the universe like a fit through the brain of God, and in their wake people stopped being people. But people didn’t stop going on.”


Bruce Sterling in 1983.

In person and in his journalistic writing, Sterling is loud and Texan, but in his novels he is the most thoughtful and civilized of men. In Holy Fire he transforms himself into this wide-eyed rejuvenated old lady and takes us on a tour of marvels, a wanderjahr in Europe in search of the holy fire of artistic creativity.

She arrived at the airport. The black tarmac was full of glowing airplanes. They had a lovely way of flexing their wings and simply jumping into the chill night air when they wanted to take off. You could see people moving inside the airplanes because the hulls were gossamer. Some people had clicked on their reading lights but a lot of the people onboard were just slouching back into their beanbags and enjoying the night sky through the fuselage.

When science fiction performs so clear and attractive a feat of envisioning the future, its like a blueprint that you feel like working to instantiate.

Instantiate, by the way, is an object-oriented-computer-programming word that, in Sterling’s hands, means “to turn a software description into a physical object.” Such as a goddess sculpture derived from studies of the attention statistics of eye-tracked men looking at women “…what we got here is basically a pretty good replica of something that a Paleolithic guy might have whittled out of mammoth tusk. You start messing with archetypal forms and this sort of thing turns up just like clockwork.” This pleasing suggestion of cosmic order contains a subtle nod to the notion of a chaotic attractor.

Science fiction sometimes gets humorous effects by extrapolating present-day things into heady overkill. Here’s what espresso machines might evolve into:

The bartender was studying an instruction screen and repairing a minor valve on an enormously ramified tincture set. The tincture set stretched the length of the mahogany bar, weighed four or five tons, and looked as if its refinery products could demolish a city block.

The obverse of this technique is to have future people look back on our current ways of doing things. “That’s antique analog music. There wasn’t much vertical color to the sound back in those days. The instruments were made of wood and animal organs.” Or here’s a 21C person deploring the obsolete habit of reading.

“It’s awful, a terrible habit! In virtuality at least you get to interact! Even with television you at least have to use visual processing centers and parse real dialogue with your ears! Really, reading is so bad for you, it destroys your eyes and hurts your posture and makes you fat.”

Like all the cyberpunks, Sterling loves to write. He can become contagiously intoxicated with the sheer joy of fabulous description, as in this limning of a cyberspace landscape:

“Rising in the horizon-warped virtual distance was a mist-shrouded Chinese crag, a towering digital stalagmite with the subtle monochromatics of sumi-e ink painting. Some spaceless and frankly noneuclidean distance from it, an enormous bubbled structure like a thunderhead, gleaming like veined black marble but conveying a weird impression of glassy gassiness, or maybe it was gassy glassiness…”

Wouldn’t you like to go there? You can, thanks to this lo-res VR device you’re holding, it’s called a printed page…

Sterling is an energetic tinkerer, and he drops in nice little touches everywhere. What looks like a ring on a man’s finger is “a little strip of dark fur. Thick-clustered brown fur rooted in a ring-shaped circlet of [the man’s] flesh.” Two people riding on a train ring for a waiter from the dining-car and here’s the response:

A giant crab came picking its way along the ceiling of the train car. It was made of bone and chitin and peacock feathers and gut and piano wire. It had ten very long multijointed legs and little rubber-ball feet on hooked steel ankles. A serving platter was attached with suckers to the top of its flat freckled carapace…It surveyed them with a circlet of baby blue eyes like a giant clam’s. “Oui monsieur?”

This crab is a purely surreal and Dadaist assemblage, quite worthy of Kurt Schwitters or Max Ernst. The wonder of science fiction is that, with a bit of care, you can paste together just about anything and it will walk and talk and make you smile.

Near the end of the book, the heroine encounters the ultimate art medium.

It was like smart clay. It reacted to her touch with unmistakable enthusiasm…indescribably active, like a poem becoming a jigsaw. The stuff was boiling over with machine intelligence. Somehow more alive than flesh; it grew beneath her questing fingers like a Bach sonata. Matter made virtual. Real dreams.

Such is the stuff that science fiction is made of.

So, okay, those were the three new cyberpunk novels of 1996. Let’s compare and contrast. What are some of the things they have in common other than the use of cyberspace?

One of the main cyberpunk themes is the fusion of humans and machines, and you can certainly find that here. In Idoru a man wants to marry a computer program, in Holy Fire machine-medicine essentially gives people new bodies. There is less of the machine in Silicon Embrace, though there is that remote-controlled guy with the chip in his head.

Another cyberpunk theme is a desire for a mystical union with higher consciousness, this kind of quest being a kind of side-effect of the acid-head ‘60s which all of us went through. Contact with higher intelligence is the key theme of Silicon Embrace, though in Idoru it is present only obliquely, as part of the idoru’s appeal. Holy Fire ends with a thought-provoking pantheistic sequence where a human has actually turned his own self into an all pervading Nature god, with “every flower, every caterpillar genetically wired for sound.”

Cyberpunk usually takes a close look at the media; this is an SF tradition that goes pack to Frederic Pohl and Norman Spinrad. Holy Fire goes pretty light on the media, but in Idoru, the main villain is the media as exemplified by an outfit called Slitscan. “Slitscan was descended from ‘reality’ programming and the network tabloids…, but it resembled them no more than some large, swift bipedal carnivore resembled its sluggish, shallow-dwelling ancestors.” One of the heroines of Silicon Embrace is Black Betty, a media terrorist who manages to jam the State’s transmissions.

He watched the videotape, the few seconds of a former President yammering with a good approximation of sincerity in his State of the Union address—and then Black Betty stepping into the shot; stepping her video-persona into the former President’s restricted public space; taking public space back from authority, giving it back to the public, the Public personified by Betty. Tall and lean and smiling from a crystallized inner confidence…she seemed to…stare at the president from within his Personal Space: a rudeness, a solecism become a political statement.

In terms of optimism/pessimism about the future, Holy Fire is very optimistic, Silicon Embrace very pessimistic, and Idoru somewhere in the middle. In terms of political outlook, Silicon Embrace is explicitly radical, Idoru is apolitical, and Holy Fire is—well—Republican? In Holy Fire, the world is run by old people, by the gerontocracy, and this is not necessarily presented as a bad thing, it’s simply presented as the reality of that future.

Above and beyond the themes and attitudes, the single common thing about these three books is style. All are hip, all are funny, all are written by real people about the real world around us.

After all the good ink I’ve just given my peers, I can’t resist slipping you a long excerpt of my Freeware, which came out a few months after the books discussed here.

So here’s shirtless Willy under the star-spangled Florida sky with eighty pounds of moldie [named Ulam] for his shoes and pants, scuffing across the cracked concrete of the JFK spaceport pad. The great concrete apron was broken up by a widely spaced grid of drainage ditches, and the spaceport buildings were dark. It occurred to Willy that he was very hungry.

There was a roar and blaze in the sky above. The Selena was coming down. Close, too close. The nearest ditch was so far he wouldn’t make it in time, Willy thought, but once he started running, Ulam kicked in and superamplified his strides, cushioning on the landing and flexing on the take-offs. They sprinted a quarter mile in under twenty seconds and threw themselves into the coolness of the ditch, lowering down into the funky brackish water. The juddering yellow flame of the great ship’s ion beams reflected off the ripples around them. A hot wind of noise blasted loud and louder; then all was still.

 [A crowd of angry locals appears and attacks the ship.]

There was a fusillade of gun-shots and needler blasts, and then the mob surged towards the Selena, blazing away at the ship as they advanced.

Their bullets pinged off the titaniplast hull like pebbles off galvanized steel; the needlers’ laser-rays kicked up harmless glow-spots of zzzt. The Selena shifted uneasily on her hydraulic tripod legs.

“Her hold bears a rich cargo of moldie-flesh,” came Ulam’s calm, eldritch voice in Willy’s head. “Ten metric tons of chipmold-infected imipolex, surely to be worth a king’s ransom once this substance’s virtues become known. This cargo is why Fern flew the Selena here for ISDN. I tell you, the flesher rabble attacks the Selena at their own peril. Although the imipolex is highly flammable, it has a low-grade default intelligence and will not hesitate to punish those who would harm it.”

When the first people tried to climb aboard the Selena, the ship unexpectedly rose up on her telescoping tripod legs and lumbered away. As the ship slowly lurched along, great gouts of imipolex streamed out of hatches in her bottom. The Selena looked like a defecating animal, like a threatened ungainly beast voiding its bowels in flight—like a frightened penguin leaving a splatter trail of krilly shit. Except that the Selena’s shit was dividing itself up into big slugs that were crawling away towards the mangroves and ditches as fast as they could hump, which was plenty fast.

Of course someone in the mob quickly figured out that the you could burn the imipolex shit slugs, and a lot of the slugs started going up in crazy flames and oily, unbelievably foul-smelling smoke. The smoke had a strange, disorienting effect; as soon as Willy caught a whiff of it, his ears started buzzing and the objects around him took on a jellied, peyote solidity.

Now the burning slugs turned on their tormentors, engulfing them like psychedelic kamikaze napalm. There was great screaming from the victims, screams that were weirdly, hideously ecstatic. And then the mob’s few survivors had fled, and the rest of the slugs had wormed off into the flickering night. Willy and Ulam split the scene as well.

Cyberpunk lives!

Note on “Cyberpunk Lives”

Written 1998.

Appeared as “Letters From Home” in The New York Review of Science Fiction, #113, January 1998.

Although it’s framed as a review of three books, the essay also has some of my thoughts on the similarities between the cyberpunks and the Beats. I particularly like the idea that I get to be Burroughs. And I mention the meeting with Ginsberg that I describe in my “William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg” essay—one of the high points of my life.

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The Freestyle Antifesto (Written with Marc Laidlaw)

Write like yourself. Exaggerate it. Write more like yourself. You are correct. Write more. Only you have the secret. Tell every detail in the readiest tongue. Write like yourself except more so. Everyone but you is crazy. Write high, write drunk, write depressed, write in ecstasy, always tell the truth and always lie. Manipulate subtext; transreally seize each character and attitude from that day’s mental magpie-gleanings. Your streetscene events are, ideally, to be elicited by you in the manner of a ranter who leaves no soul unturned—and no idler in your room’s corner is left unharrassed or unloved or untreated to a freestyle soul-winning session.

I view Marc Laidlaw as the head freestylist, the behind-it-all zealot surfpunk dictator of freestyle. Marc is the author of that most immaculate novel, Dad’s Nuke, where timebake flurries snatch your ass from the diaper into the deathbed. On deck: Marc’s Tibetan Buddhist SF novel, The Neon Lotus, with the future fantasia Kalifornia still to come.

Marc and I picked up on the word freestyle while working on our surfing SF story, “Probability Pipeline.” To me, surfing has always been a central life image, as in the phrase, “wave with it.” Now that I’m in California, I got a wetsuit and used board from local shop. By way of further research, I went out to try surfing at Three Mile Beach north of Santa Cruz on New Year’s Day, 1987, with my wife Sylvia, Marc, his wife Geraldine, and our three kids. Memorable.

By way of introducing Marc’s quintessential summation of freestyle writing, he sent me an ad torn from the pages a surfing magazine, with the following block of copy circled:

Break down the word “freestyle” and you have two of the most liberating concepts in life. Given such a forum of experimentation and challenge as the Ocean, freestyle becomes a statement limited only by the participant’s mind…Adventurism represents the cutting edge of the freestylist. It requires an individual who is willing to take any risk at any time, subject himself to the demands of the sea, and ignore limitations imposed on him by friends, society, or the conditions…Freestyle is a forum of inner rhythm: what beat do you choose to march to? In all likelihood, that beat, that inner rhythm, projects into our style of living and surfing, and draws our life experiences to us…Each person’s moves and personality blend together to create style. Each person’s style is different. [From an ad in Breakout magazine, December 1986.]

This ad-copy itself serves as a synchronistic Rosetta stone for the meaning of freestyle. As Marc explicates:

There it is, Rude Dude. The freestyle antifesto. No need to break down the metaphors—an adventurist knows what the Ocean really is. No need to feature matte-black mirrorshades or other emblems of our freestyle culture—hey, dude, we know who we are. No need to either glorify or castrate technology. Nature is the Ultimate. We’re skimming the cell-sea, cresting the waves that leap out over the black abyss of the maybe-death/whatever-that-is. Wet dreams of geometry: the curl of the wave as we carve our turns toward the blue lip, glossing over the shoulder into the turquoise pocket of ecstasy.

Yeah, baby. Write like yourself.

Note on “The Freestyle Antifesto”

Written 1987.

Based on Marc Laidlaw’s zine, Freestyle SF, Fall 1987.


Marc Laidlaw in 1986

Marc and I ended up publishing four surfing SF stories, “Probability Pipeline,” “Chaos Surfari,” “The Andy Warhol Sand Candle,” and “The Perfect Wave.” You can find these tales in my Complete Stories (Transreal Books, 2012).

Marc and I tried to convince our fellow Bay Area SF-writers Richard Kadrey, Pat Murphy, and Michael Blumlein that they were freestylists too, but none of them took our wild talk seriously. The problem with freestyle, as a movement, was that it really had no prescriptive program. We were all diverging along our own worldlines.

One more great quote from Marc. We weren’t having an easy time getting our far-out stories and novels published, and he remarked, “The editors will sink into the tarpits like dinousaurs. With their throats ripped out by a saber-toothed tiger. And I, Rudy, I will be that tiger.”

In the end, we may not have ripped out anyone’s throats, but Marc got a great job writing the stories for games like Half-Life at the computer-gaming company Valve Software. And he’s still writing a gem-like story now and then. And me? I’m starting in on self-publishing ebooks! Forever freestyle.

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What SF Writers Want

I think some of the appeal of SF comes from its association with the old idea of the Magic Wish. Any number of fairy tales deal with a hero (humble woodcutter, poor fisherman, disinherited princess) who gets into a situation where he or she is free to ask for any wish at all, with assurance that the wish will be granted. Reading such a tale, the reader inevitably wonders, “What would I wish for?” It’s pleasant to fantasize about having such great power; and thinking about this also provides an interesting projective psychological test.

Some SF stories hinge on the traditional Magic Wish situation—the appearance of a machine (= magic object) or an alien (= magic being) who will grant the main character’s wishes. But more often, the story takes place after the wish has been made…by whom? By the author.

What I mean here is that, in writing a book, an SF writer is in a position of being able to get any Magic Wish desired. If you want time travel in your book…no problem. If you want flying, telepathy, size-change, etc., then you, as SF writer, can have it—not in the real world, of course, but in the artificial, written world into which you project your thoughts.

To make my point quite clear, let me recall a conversation I once had with a friend in Lynchburg. “Wouldn’t it be great,” my friend was saying, “if there were a machine that could bring into existence any universe you wanted, with any kinds of special powers. A machine that could call up your favorite universe, and then send you there.” “There is such a machine,” I answered. “It’s called a typewriter.”

Okay. So the point I want to start from here is the notion that, in creating a novelistic work, the writer is basically in a position of being able to have any wish whatsoever granted.

What kinds of things do we, as SF writers, tend to wish for? What sorts of possibilities seem so attractive to us that we are willing to spend the months necessary to bring them into the pseudoreality of a polished book? What kinds of needs underlie the wishes we make?

In discussing this, my basic assumption is that the driving force behind our SF wishes is a desire to find a situation wherein one might happy…whatever “happy” might mean for any particular writer.

There are, of course, a variety of very ordinary ways to wish for happiness: wealth, sexual attractiveness, political power, athletic prowess, sophistication, etc. I’m not going to be too interested in these types of wishes here—because such wishes are not peculiar to the artform of SF. Any number of standard paperback wish-fulfillments deal with characters whom the author has wished into such lower-chakra delights.

No, the kind of wishes I want to think about here are the weird ones—wishes that have essentially no chance of coming true—wishes that are really worth asking for.

I can think of four major categories of SF wishes, each with several subcategories. Just to make this seem highly scientific, I'll assign subcategory numbers.

Travel. This includes:Space travel.Time travel. Changing size scale. Travel to other universes.

Psychic powers. Which comprises: Telepathy. Telekinesis.

Self-change. This means: Immortality. Intelligence increase. Shape shifting.

Aliens. Two kinds: Robots. Saucer aliens.

Let’s look at these notions one at a time.


Your position relative to the world can perhaps be specified in terms of four basic parameters: space-location, time-location, your size scale, and which universe you’re actually in. Our powers to alter these parameters are very limited. Although it is possible to change space-location, this is hard and slow work. We travel in time, but only in one direction, and only at one fixed speed. In the course of a lifetime, our size changes, but only to a small extent. And jumping back and forth among parallel universes is a power no one even pretends to have. Let’s say a bit about the ways in which science fiction undertakes to alter each of these four stubborn parameters.

Space travel. Faster-than-light drives, matter transmission, and teleportation are all devices designed to annihilate the obdurate distances of space. One might almost say that these kind of hyper-jumping devices turn space into time. You no longer worry about how far something is, you just ask when you should show up.

Would happiness finally be mine if I could break the fetters of space? I visualize a kind of push-button phone-dial set into my car’s dashboard, and imagine that by punching in the right sequence of digits I can get anywhere. (Actually, the very first SF story I ever read was a Little Golden Book called The Magic Bus. I read it in the second grade. The Bus had just one special button on the dash, and each push on the button would take the happily tripping crew to a new randomly selected locale. Of course—ah, if only it were still so easy—everyone got home to Mom in time for supper and bed.) That would be fun, but would it be enough? And what is enough, anyway?

In terms of the Earth, power over space is already, in a weak sense, ours. If it matters enough to you, you can actually travel anywhere on Earth—it’s not instantaneous, using cars and planes, but you do get there in a few days. Even easier, by using a telephone, you can actually project part of yourself (ears and voice) to any place where there’s someone to talk to. But these weak forms of Earth-bound space travel are the domain of travel writing and investigative journalism, not of SF.

Hyperjumping across space would be especially useful for travel to other planetary civilizations. One underlying appeal in changing planets would be the ability to totally skip out on all of one’s immediate problems, the ability to get out of a bad situation. “Color me gone,” as some soldiers reportedly said, getting on the plane that would take them away from Viet Nam and back to the U.S. “I’m out of here, man, I’m going back to the world.” Jumping to a far-distant planet would involve an escape from real life, and certainly SF is, to some extent, a literature of escape.

Time travel. I once asked Robert Silverberg why time travel has fascinated him so much over the years. He said that he felt the desire to go back and make good all of one’s major life-errors and past mistakes. I tend to look at this a little more positively—I think a good reason for wanting to go back to the past is the desire to re-experience the happy times that one has had. The recovery of lost youth, the revisiting of dead loved ones.

A desire to time travel to an era before one’s birth probably comes out of a different set of needs than does a desire to travel back to earlier stages of one’s own life. People often talk about the paradoxes involved in going back to kill their ancestors—this gets into the territory of parricide and matricide. And a sublimated desire for suicide informs the tales about directly killing one’s past self. Other time travel stories talk about going back to watch one’s parents meeting—I would imagine that this desire has something to do with the old Freudian concept of witnessing the “primal scene.”

What about time travel to the future? This comes, I would hazard, out of a desire for immortality. To still be here, long after your chronological death.

To a lesser extent than with space, we have some slight power over time: each day you live through brings you one day further into the future, and going to sleep is a way of making the future come “sooner.” And one of the appeals of marijuana is that it can time seem to pass slower, making the future come “later.” And of course, a session of intensely focused recollection can make the past briefly seem alive. (Thus Proust, thus psychoanalysis.)

As with power over space, we must question whether power over time is really enough to wish for. Eventually, both of these powers simply boil down to having a special sort of “car” which enables you to jump here and there, checking out weirder and weirder scenes.

Changing size scale. Without having to actually travel through space or time, one could see entirely new vistas simply by shrinking to the size of a microbe. Alternatively, one might try growing to the size of a galaxy.

One problem with getting very big is that you might accidentally crush the Earth, and have nothing to come back to. I prefer the idea of shrinking. What need in me does this speak to? On a sexual level, the notion of getting very small is probably related to an Oedipal desire to return to the peaceful and ultra-sexual environment of the womb. On a social level, getting small connotes the idea of being so low-profile as to be unhassled by the brutal machineries of law and fame. Economically speaking, being small suggests independence—if I were the size of a thumb, my food bills would be miniscule. A single can of beer would be the equivalent of a full keg!

I would like to be able to get as small as I liked, whenever I wanted to. But would it be enough? Would I be happy then? Probably not. After a week or so, it would get as old as anything else.

Travel to other universes. In a way, all three of the powers just mentioned are special instances of being able to jump into a different universe. Most of what was said about space travel applies here. Of course, travel to alternate universes can also be taken in a very broad sense which includes travel into higher-dimensional spaces and the like.

One’s place in the world seems to be fixed by such factors as income and ability—in another world, things might be so much more pleasant. Rich people and poor people live in different worlds—on a crude level, winning a state lottery can act as a ticket to a different universe. A dose of a psychedelic drug can, of course, accomplish an equally dramatic (but temporary) transport—this is one reason why people take them.

The drug issue raises the fact that the universe is not entirely objective. To a large extent, the way your world seems is conditioned by the way you feel about it. Keep in mind that I think the driving force behind all of the SF travel-wishes is a desire to find a place/time/size/universe in which to be happy. Rather than asking for a different world, one might equally well ask for a way to enjoy this world.

Psychic powers

Travel is only the first category of SF wishes. Psychic power is the second of the four main categories mentioned above. What might we take to be the main types of SF psychic-power wishes? Let’s try these: telepathy, and telekinesis.

Telepathy. Supposedly, God can see everything at once—God is omniscient. Telepathy is a type of omniscience, particularly if we imagine it as extended to include clairvoyance. It would definitely be pleasant to know everything—to be plugged totally into the cosmos as a whole. I guess it would be pleasant—actually, it might get boring. The omniscient gods of our myths and religions do seem a bit restless.

On a more personal level, I think of telepathy as standing for a situation where you are in perfect accord and communion with someone else. This often happens when one is alone with a good friend or a loved one. These moments are, I would hazard, as close to real happiness as one ever gets. The desire for telepathy is basically a desire for love and under-standing.

Of course, what one often sees in SF telepathy stories is the hero or heroine being overwhelmed by the inputs from everyone else’s minds. You want to understand the people you love—the others you’d just as soon not know about.

As with the case of space-travel, telepathy is a faculty that we already, to some extent, have. By talking or by writing, I am able to get someone to share my state of mind; by listening or by reading, I can learn to under-stand others. Maybe we already have enough telepathy as it is.

Telekinesis. Not only is God omniscient, S/He is omnipotent. Given a really strong telekinetic (also known as psychokinetic or PK) ability, you would be, in effect, able to control anything going on in the world.

This power appeals to me very little. I don’t want to control the world—I just want to enjoy it. I don’t need to run it, it’s doing a decent job by itself. Of course, a person with less self-doubt might find PK very attractive.

As with telepathy, I might also point out that we already have PK in a limited form. I stare fixedly at the cigarettes on my desk. I concentrate. Moments later a lit cigarette is in my mouth! (Does the fact that, by sheer force of will, I caused my material hand to pick up the cigarettes and light one make my feat less surprising?)

There is one special sort of telekinesis that I do find very appealing. This is the ability to levitate. All my life I have dreamed of flying—as far as I’m concerned, the ability to fly is right up there with the ability to shrink.

But what is so special about flying? Flying involves being high off the ground, and most everyone likes the metaphor of being high—in the sense of euphoria, elation, and freedom from worry. Rising above the mundane. Freud used to claim that flying dreams have some connection with sex, and I suppose that a good act of sexual intercourse does feel something like flying. And of course, flying would provide some of the same benefits that teleportation would, as discussed under (1.1) above.

Self change

Under this vaguely titled category, I include: immortality, intelligence increase, and shape shifting, or the ability to change the shape of one’s body.

Immortality. This is a key wish. As soon as we are born, we are presented with what I have elsewhere called the fundamental koan: “Hi, you’re alive now, isn’t it nice? Someday it will all stop and you will be dead. What are you going to do about it?” The fear of death is up there with the need for love as one of the really basic human drives.

One problem with immortality might be that you would at some point get bored. I’ve occasionally been so depressed that I’ve thought to myself, “Death is the only thing that makes life bearable,” meaning that if I thought I was going to have to be here forever, I just wouldn’t be able to stand it. (Though if you couldn’t die, and you couldn’t stand it, what could you do? Not a bad premise for an SF story…)

There are various sorts of immortality, short of the real thing, that we do comfort ourselves with. Let me discuss them, as I’ve thought about this a lot.

Genetic immortality. If you have children, then your DNA code will still be around, even after you die. Later descendants may look and/or act like you—which means that the pattern you call “me” will still be, to some extent, present in the world.

Artistic immortality. A human being consists (at least) of hardware (= the body) plus software (= the ideas). In creating a work of art, you code up some of your software. A person reading one of your books is something like a computer running a program that you wrote. As long as the person is looking at your book and thinking along the lines which the book suggests, then that person is, in some degree, a simulation of you, the author.

Social immortality. Even if you have no children and leave no works of art, you will still, in the course of your life, have contributed in various ways to the society in which you found yourself. Perhaps you were a teacher, and you affected some students. Perhaps you sold clothes, and you influenced what people wore. Even if you had no direct influences, you were, to some extent, a product of the society that you lived in, and so long as this society continues to exist you still have a slight kind of immortality in that the society will continue to produce people somewhat like you.

Racial immortality. This is similar to (3.1.1) and (3.1.3); similar to (3.1.1) if one takes cousins into account, similar to (3.1.3) if one views the human race as a single large society.

Spacetime immortality. This perception of immortality hinges on the viewpoint that time is not really passing. Past-present-future all co-exist in a single four dimensional “block universe.” Today (May 14, 1984) will always exist, outside of time, and thus I will always exist as well.

Mathematical immortality. It is abstractly possible to imagine coding my body and brain up by a very large array of numbers. This is analogous to the way in which extremely complex computer programs are embodied in machine-language patterns of zeroes and ones. The numerical description of me may in fact be infinite—no matter. The main thing is that this numerical coding can be represented as a mathematical set. And the Platonic school of the foundations of mathematics teaches that mathematical sets exist independently of the physical world. Therefore, long after I am dead, I will still have a permanent existence as a mathematical possibility.

Mystical immortality. At the most profound level, I do not feel myself to be just my body, or just my mind. I feel, at this deepest level, that I am simply a part of the One, a facet of the Absolute. The disappearance of my body will mean only that the ever-changing One has changed its form a bit.

Religious immortality. Who knows—maybe we do have souls that God will take care of. This belief is in some ways like the idea of mathematical immortality. When the good thief asked Jesus to “Remember me,” perhaps he meant it more literally than is usually realized.

So that's enough about immorality. On to some other kinds of self change.

Intelligence increase. The idea of having a vastly increased intelligence is certainly attractive—particularly to people who already take pleasure in the life of the mind. One difficulty in writing SF about vastly increased intelligence is that it is hard for us to imagine—or to write about—what that would involve.

What does the wish for more intelligence really mean? It is somehow akin to the wish to be much bigger in size—a wish to include more of the universe in one’s scope of comprehension.

Pushed to the maximum, a desire for increased intelligence is a desire omniscience or perhaps a wish to know “the Secret of Life.” What would it be like to know the Secret of Life? Somehow I have the image of an orgasm that goes on and on, a never-ending torrent of blinding enlightenment. It sounds nice, but we do need contrasts to be able to perceive.

Shape shifting. One form of this wish is analogous to the intellectual’s wish for more intelligence. An athletically-inclined person might naturally wish to be a world-class athlete; and a physically attractive person might wish to be a Hollywood star. In each case, it’s a matter of wanting to be better at what one already does well. We might also include here a compassionate person’s desire to be saintly, and an artist’s desire to be truly great.

Why should we want to be the best? The drive for excellence seems to be wired in way down there—it’s good for the race, within limits.

The kind of shape shifting I really had in mind here, though, was things like turning into a dog. You could really get a lot of slack if you could totally change your appearance at will. For me, this one is right up there with flying and shrinking: the ability to change my body at will. It would be so interesting to see the world through a dog’s eyes, or through another kind of person’s eyes.

What need is this one coming from? Wanting a diversity of experience, I guess. A desire to break out of the personality-mold inflicted on me by my specific body’s appearance and habits.


By aliens, I mean two kinds of beings: robots, andsaucer aliens.

Robots. Intelligent robots will be very exciting—if we’re ever able to evolve them. One aspect is that if we can bring intelligent life into being, then we will better understand what we ourselves are like. Another angle that appeals to me is that, given intelligent robots, it would be possible to program one to be just like me, so that I would then have yet another type of immortality to access.

In some ways, we think of robots as being like the ideal sorts of people that don’t really exist. The notion of a happy, obedient, intelligent slave, for instance. Given human nature, no such human slave is possible. But still we hope to build a machine like this. Such hopes are, no doubt, doomed for disappointment. A machine smart enough to act human will be unlikely to settle for being a slave.

Another thing that makes robots attractive is the notion that they might always be rational. People are so rarely rational—but why is this? Not because we wouldn’t like to be rational. The real reason is that the world is so complex, one’s data are so slight, and so many decisions are required. Full rationality is, in a formal sense, impossible for us—and it will, I fear, be impossible for the robots as well.

There’s another SF tradition of writing about computer brains; here instead of intelligent robots, the vision is of a very large computer brain which is seemingly very wise and just. It is as if we humans might be hoping to build the God-the-Father whom we fear no longer exists. In most such stories the god-computer turns out to be evil, either like a cruel dictatorship or like a blandly uncaring bureaucracy. But this leads us out of the domain of things that writers wish for.

Saucer aliens. I loosely use the phrase “saucer aliens” to include any kind of creatures that might show up on Earth, either from space, from underground, or from another dimension.

In C. G. Jung’s 1958 book on UFO’s, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, he makes the point that, in popular mythology, saucer aliens play much the same role that angels did in the Middle Ages. See my Saucer Wisdom for further discussion. There is a hope that no matter how evil and messed up things might get on Earth, there are still some higher forces who might step in and fix everything. The UFO aliens are, perhaps, replacements for the gods we miss, or for our parents who have grown old and weak.

Another very important strand in thinking about saucer aliens is the element of sexual attraction. A key element to sexual attraction is the idea of otherness. An alien stands for something wholly outside of yourself that is, perhaps, willing to get close to you anyway. This drive is probably hard-wired into us for purposes of exogamy: it’s genetically unwise to mate with people so similar to you that they might be your cousins.

It is interesting in this context to note how some rock-groups try to give an impression of being aliens.

Of course, Earth is already full of aliens—other races, other sexes, other backgrounds. By constantly striving to broaden one’s circle of under-standing, one can begin to see the world in a variety of ways.

So—those are some of the things that SF writers want. Undoubtedly, I’ve left out some important types of SF wishes, and it may be that some other pattern of classifying SF dreams is more enlightening. One thing that I do find surprising is that it is at all possible to begin a project of this nature. When one first comes to SF, there is a feeling of unlimited possibility—what is startling is how few basic SF themes there really are. As indicated, I think most of our favorite themes appeal to us for reasons that are psychological.

As long as I’m whipped up into this taxonomic mania for systemizing things, let me suggest that the psychology of human behavior is based upon avoiding Three Bad Things, and upon seeking Three Good Things that are the respective opposites of the Bad Things.

The Three Bad Things might be called Jail, Madness, and Death—and the Three Good Things would be Change, Slack, and Love.

Note on “What Science Fiction Writers Want”

Written 1985.

Appeared in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Spring, 1985.

“What SF Writers Want” was my second piece for the SFWA Bulletin. George Zebrowski was editing it at the time, and he kept calling me up asking me to write essays. He liked “What SF Writers Want” so well that he asked me to start doing a regular column for him. The next piece, “Access To Tools” was the result.

By the way, in the last line of “What Science Fiction Writers Want,” I’m using “Jail” to mean any kind of imprisonment or dulling routine, and “Slack” to mean of serenity and inner peace.

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Against Mundane SF

In 2004, Geoff Ryman and his Clarion West SF Writing Workshop students proposed a “Mundane SF Manifesto.” I never liked the idea, and I started brooding over Mundane SF again because Geoff reprinted the manifesto in the last edition of the New York Review of Science Fiction along with a thoughtful essay based on a talk he gave at the Boréal SF con in Montreal this April. I also checked out the Wikipedia “Mundane SF” entry, as well as the Mundane SF blog.

A rude person might imagine one of the original Clarion students’ thought processes to be as follows:

“I’ve always wanted to write like Henry James or John Updike or Jane Austen—don’t you just adore Jane Austen? But, frankly, it’s so hard to break into mainstream writing that I figured I’d try a genre first. And then I thought, why not be a science fiction writer! Only, then, when I start looking at sci fi a little bit, I find out that a lot of it is written by nutty loners, and it’s full of science and crazy ideas, and it’s not like Jane Austen or John Updike at all. So I’m thinking, why not get rid of all the weird icky science and write stories about people’s emotions and about the kinds of problems you read about in the newspaper?”

The basic idea of Mundane SF is to avoid the more unrealistic of the classic SF tropes—or power chords, as I like to call them. Geoff feels that faster than light travel, human-alien encounters, time travel, alternate universes, and telepathy are absolutely impossible. He feels that if we draw on these unlikely power chords, we are feeding people wish-fulfillment pap.

Like me, the Mundanes would like to see SF as real literature. They feel that real literature mustn’t use fundamentally false scenarios. By the way, Ryman has very good lit chops, he has a cool modernistic novel 253 online—it’s in the form of a subway car full of people!

Mundane SF is to be about picturing possible futures, drawing on such sober-sided Sunday magazine think-piece topics as “Disaster, innovation, climate change, virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, and biocomputers that evolve.”

I have so many objections!

I don’t think SF is necessarily about predicting possible futures. I’ve always felt that SF is more like surrealism. The idea is to shock people into awareness. Show them how odd the world is. Whether or not you draw on realistic tropes is irrelevant. But my personal bent is always to try and make the science plausible.

Let it be said that futurism and SF are quite different endeavors. A rude person might say that futurism is about feeding inspirational received truths to businessmen and telling them it will help them make more money. SF is about unruly artistic visions. Why let the ruling class’s media propaganda condition our practice of Art?

Writing responsibly about socially important issues can be timid and boring. The thing is, science really does change a lot over time. Compare what we’re doing now to what we were doing in the year 1000. A Mundane SF writer of year 1000 might want us to write only about alchemy, the black plague, and the papacy.

Not that Mundane SF really has to be stuffy. Come to think of it, my early cyberpunk novel Software was thoroughly mundane, as was my Silicon Valley novel, The Hacker and the Ants—everything in these novels could well happen—and they were pretty lively. Maybe that’s why I don’t see my books showing up on any lists of Mundane SF. Can serious literature be dirty and funny? Of course!

Despite my sniping, I do understand, for instance, someone like Charles Stross’s relish in accepting the Mundane strictures and in writing a Mundane SF novel, as he says he’s done with Halting State. Why not? It’s a form, like a sonnet or a one-square-meter canvas. And, of course, clever Mundanes like Geoff Ryman know this. A manifesto needn’t be a universal strait-jacket. But maybe some forms are self-defeating. Like a novel that doesn’t use the letter E. Or a piano piece that doesn’t use the black keys. Or a painting with no red or yellow.

Personally I’ve been growing less constrained from novel to novel—I keep trying to get further out into space. I was mundanely stuck on the Moon for a long time! I think it’s an interesting intellectual game to find valid scientific ways around the specific strictures suggested by Mundane SF.

Yes, FTL travel is hard. But I know of at least four ways to travel very rapidly.

(a) The traditional way is to do down into the subdimensions and take shortcuts. And, no, you don’t have to do this via wormholes. Nor do you need to travel in large steel cylinders. Science finds new things.

(b) A simple method that I’ve discussed in my books Freeware and in Saucer Wisdom is to send your personality as a zipped up information file and have it unzipped at your destination. This doesn’t go faster than light, but it goes at the speed of light, and seems to the traveler to take no time at all. Charles Stross used a weaker form of this in Accelerando, where people’s codes are packed into a ship the size of a soft drink can that travels at near-light speed. But, yes, when you get back home, a lot of time has elapsed.

(c) Teleportation, based on quantum indeterminacy. There’s a finite (small) chance that I’m on planet Pengö near the Great Attractor as well as here. It’s not hard to imagine that coming improvements of quantum computation will make it possible to amplify the indeterminacy and collapse it so that I can make the trip.

(d) The yunching technique described in my Frek and the Elixir (cf. also the Bloater Drive in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero). You wind some of your strings to get really big, then step across the galaxy, then shrink back down.


Gotta have the alien bar scene! Painting by R.R.

As for aliens, perhaps they come via one of these rapid travel methods. But perhaps they are already here. Living in the subdimensions. What are the subdimensions? A power chord from the 1930s. Whatever is going on below the Planck length. We have no idea. Why not assume it might be interesting? Maybe aliens are those flashes you see out of the corner of your eye sometime. Maybe they’re aethereal protozoa in the atmosphere.

When trying to justify telepathy, don’t forget that only a tiny fraction of our universe’s mass is the familiar visible matter. Most of it is dark energy and dark matter. As my physicist friend Nick Herbert has remarked, maybe some of that dark stuff is consciousness.

Alternate universes are quite popular in modern physics. Something is going on in all those extra dimensions. Why not other worlds? Looked at in a certain quantum-mechanical way, each conscious being lives in a different parallel universe. Why should we settle for consensus reality?

Implausible as time travel is, it may be the SF power chord most commonly used by non-SF writers. I’ve always wanted to write a time travel book and get it right. Surely this can be done. Rather than throwing up my hands, I prefer to continue searching for ways to be less and less Mundane.

Note on “Against Mundane SF”

Written July, 2007.

Appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, 2007.

This started as a cranky post on Rudy's Blog, and I made it into a little piece for the NYRSF. By now, the Mundane SF movement has pretty much faded away, but for a few months everyone was talking about it, and it got my goat, reactionary member of the old-guard that I’m becoming.

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I often call myself a transrealist SF writer. This means that I turn my life and my speculations into science fiction, I watch what emerges in my novelistic laboratories, and I turn my science-fictional discoveries into scientific speculation, which in turn fuels fresh novels, on and on in an endless, rising gyre. Now and then my speculations have an impact on the real world. Today I’ll give you some specific examples of science fiction affecting science fact.

First I’m going to talk about an idea that fueled the cyberpunk literary movement in the 1980s.

Second I’m going to talk about how this idea has affected technology over the last twenty-five years.

Third I’m going to talk about some ideas that I’m using in my new series of psipunk novels.

Fourth I’ll say a bit about how I think these new ideas affect the technology of the coming yearsrs.

My Idea for Cyberpunk

During the year 1979-1980 I wrote a novel called Software, which was to take its place as one of the very first cyberpunk novels. My new idea for the book was this:

Software Immortality: A person’s mind can be uploaded into a robot.

To make the situation colorful, I had the subject’s software extracted by having a gang of sleazy biker-type androids eat his brain!

Although the notion of uploading a human into a computer is now commonplace, when I wrote Software, it was a rather new idea. I came upon the notion of software immortality by thinking in terms of the then-new distinction between a system’s physical hardware and the software that’s running on it. This was not at all an obvious thought in 1979, it took me nearly a year to wrap my mind around it.

Although it would be nice to claim that I single-handedly invented the notion of software immortality, see the comment thread on my blog debating my claims for priority.

Wikipedia also lists three SF authors who mention uploading human minds into computers before my novel Software: In Roger Zelazny’s 1968 Lord of Light , just like in my Wetware, people save their minds as electronic data and load them into fresh tank-grown meat bodies. In Detta är verkligheten ("This is reality"), 1968, by the philosopher Bertil Mårtensson, people become programs in a giant VR (virtual reality) computation. And in Fredrik Pohl’s Heechee series beginning 1977, we have a hero whose wife’s mind has been uploaded into a mainframe computer.

In some ways, uploading into a mainframe VR is a less interesting notion than that of a person uploading into an individual microcomputer mind which operates a real bodies in the real world, and I think this a genuinely new move in my Software. In other words, I think I really was the first to write novels in which a person’s mind can be uploaded into a robot.

This was a farfetched enough notion in 1979-1980 that I actually had my robots’ computer minds housed in a Mr. Frostee ice-cream truck following the robots around.

We all had trouble imagining how small computers were about to get. The future is always stranger than any of us expects.

The Tech From Cyberpunk

I see my idea of copying one's mind to a robot as a metaphor for what happened in the following quarter century. There are a number of figurative ways in which we do now upload into the machine.

In particular I’m thinking of how people upload text, pictures, audio and video. Although I can’t literally transform my personality into software, I can create a reasonable facsimile of myself online. The Web makes all the difference.

I often use the my word lifebox in this context to stand for a collection of data that holds a copy of a person’s life. My recent non-fiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul discusses whether a lifebox emulation could ever truly be alive—and I think the answer will eventually be yes—but that’s not the issue I want to talk about today. Instead I want to focus on present-day and near-future technology.

As I say, the Web makes all the difference. The Web is something that I didn’t foresee in Software, but which William Gibson stressed in his contemporaneous Neuromancer, calling it cyberspace. That’s the other piece of cyberpunk, by the way. That is, cyberpunk is the web plus software immortality.

So what’s the big deal about the web? In the past, your life’s mementoes were but a dusty drawer of photos and diaries, or a cardboard box in a basement. But with the Web, your records can become a lifebox: a hyperlinked and searchable website mixing text, photos, sound and video.

If you’re technically inclined, you might make a personal website. If you’re a blogger like me, you create part of the lifebox on the fly, as you go along. Or, if you’re busy with other things, you might employ someone to create a lifebox for you: I think of, for instance, Stephen Wolfram’s website , which includes a very nice “scrapbook” section.

In the coming decade, there will be a very big business in lifebox-generation.

Why are online lifeboxes going to be so popular? The Web makes all the difference. If I’m blogging, then I have the gratification of being able to post to my blog right away. I can post the text of this speech, and pictures of the audience, and everyone in the world can read it, and recommend it, and post comments, and give me feedback I’m not a lonely nut. I’m part of the planetary mind. It feels good to be plugged in.

The ability to share and be heard and be connected is one reason for wanting a lifebox. But when I wrote Software, I was thinking in terms of literal, personal immortality. That’s not happening. In the literal sense, we’re not very close to transferring minds into computers.

At present we don’t have terribly strong tools for munging a lifebox’s data. But don’t underestimate the power of automated Web search. More specifically, the "Search This Site" box to be found on most blogs allows you to search a series of topics so that you are, in effect, interviewing the lifebox. What is an interview, after all, but applying a search engine to a data base?

A big part that’s still missing is the AI animation that’ll get my blog site to keep on generating entries after I’m dead! I can see a story idea in that, actually…

Finally I need to acknowledge that having even an artificially intelligent online copy of me somehow doesn’t seem like true immortality. But I don’t worry as much about personal immortality as I used to. The secret is to identify my inner glowing “I Am” with the universal light that fills the cosmos, and then there is no death to worry about.

But I if data won’t really make you immortal, why have a lifebox, a personal website, a photo-sharing page, a video-sharing presence, or a blog? To communicate with lots of people at once. To enable strangers to get to know you. To build a playground that people can interact with for a long time to come. To work in a new medium, to create a new kind of art.

And I would argue that technology has brought us these pleasures as part of our instinctive quest for software immortality.



Giving my Psipunk talk in Osaka, 2010.

My Ideas for Psipunk

Nowadays I’m dreaming of getting rid of computers. What are the ideas that I’m using for this? And what tech might this lead to?

I got started by thinking about what comes after the vaunted computational singularity that we may be approaching. I think most thinkers get it absolutely wrong. They think we’re heading towards an ever more digital world. I believe that the opposite is the case. Chip-based digital machines will son go the way of horse-drawn carriages, steam engines, and wrist-watches made of gears.

How would this work? I have two goals or desiderata, as the philosophers say: non-digital computational engines, and a means of interfacing with them. To wit:

Natural computation: Natural objects can do all the computation we need.

Natural Interface: We can talk to objects.

The first of these goals is reasonable. As Wolfram has pointed out, any gnarly, chaotic natural process embodies a classical universal computation. And at the quantum level, even dull-looking objects are seething with universal quantum computations. In my recent novel Mathematicians in Love, I wrote quite a bit about naturally occurring universal computations.

The second of the goals seems harder to bring about. Achieving a natural interface with computing natural objects is hard. But science fiction is all about transmuting philosophy into funky fact, and having whatever you want. In order to imagine a world where my goals are attainable, here are the SF-ictional axioms I’m now working with:

Hylozoism: Every object is alive.

Psi: Telepathy is possible.

Hylozoism has an estimable history in philosophy, the word come from the Greek hyle, matter, and zoe, life. Hylozoism is related to the similar doctrine panpsychism , which says that every object has a mind.

As for telepathy, in my short story “Panpsychism Proved” in my collection Mad Professor, I have a preliminary sketch of using quantum-entanglement based telepathy to talk to objects.

I combine the two axioms at the end of my novel Postsingular. I show how to move through a nanomachine-based singularity into a digital-free future.

And in the sequel I’m now writing, Hylozoic, everything is alive. You’re building a stone wall, and the stones are talking to you, they’re happy, they think it’s cool to get to live half a meter off the ground, and they dig being mortared together. But, oh oh, you pissed near the stream, so now the stream gets the trowel to twist and cut your hand. Animism becomes real.

How do the objects wake up? Well, at the end of Postsingular, I give every point on Earth an infinite memory upgrade. It’s just a matter of unrolling the eighth dimension—which today’s stingy physicists have insisted on rolling into a tiny loop. Unroll the eighth dimension and make tick-marks on it for memory!

Might my new work be part of burgeoning literary movement? I don’t know, though some like-minded people are gathering in the pages of my webzine Flurb.

Call it psipunk.

The Tech From Psipunk

Okay, so we still can’t really upload ourselves into computers, but the idea of it us has led us to photo-sharing, personal web pages, social networking, and blogs. Where do hylozoism and telepathy lead?

Let’s take telepathy first. Cell phones, instant messages, and email are already bordering on telepathy. One missing thing is the ability to link into another person’s mind.

Ordinarily, I communicate an idea to you by talking or writing. I give you a kit so that you can reconstruct my idea in your own head. If I had telepathy, I could pass you a link that would let you directly access the idea ready-formed in my head, without your having to reconstruct it.

In terms of technology, this might mean an increased use of links. Why are we distributing bit-built music files? Why not have a music player that just holds links? Why not have the one platonic music file for each song and let people link into it with a micropayment structure? This was Ted Nelson’s Xanadu dream back when I was working with him at Autodesk in the 1990s. Maybe it’s finally time to make it work.

Another technological aspect of telepathy is that we imagine it as working across great distances. How can this be done? Quantum entanglement may yet lead the way. We haven’t yet begun to utilize the magic of quantum computation.

A more rudimentary instance of telepathy-like tech: cell phones that can detect and transmit subvocal speech, so you don’t have to actually talk out loud like a crazy person on the street.

Let me move on to the less familiar notion: hylozoism. As I mentioned earlier, there’s two ways in which ordinary objects are universal computers. As I discuss in The Lifebox, The Seashell and the Soul, Stephen Wolfram’s analysis of computational complexity suggests that natural processes are already carrying out universal computations. And if we take a femtoscale—rather than nanoscale—view, any object is seething with quantum computation. When I look at a stone, I think of ten octillion balls connected by springs. There’s a lot going on in any object.

Now, at present, objects are solely interested in computing themselves. But why not siphon off some of this richness for our own purposes?

I can think of one simple, easily attainable technology that shades towards hylozoism: finally giving our desktop and pocket-sized computers really good voice and gesture recognition. Let them track your eye movements as well as analyzing your voice. If your computer can simply watch and listen to you and figure out what you want, it’ll feel like as if it’s finally alive. As an example, the MIT AI lab has some robotic heads that turn and watch you walking around.

Ubiquitous computation and giving objects RFID identifiers also shades into hylozoism.

As with software immortality, think of hylozoism and telepathy not so much as things we actually expect to achieve, but as dreams to beckon us forward into a fresh wave of technology.

The future is always stranger than any of us expects.

Note on “Psipunk”

Written in April, 2007.

Published as a page on Rudy's Blog, 2007.

This was the text for a talk I gave at a “Cyberspace Salvations” event in Amsterdam, April, 2007. R. U. Sirius spoke as well. I was a little tense and keyed-up for the talk as I’d had a disagreement with one of the organizers, who’d written up a newspaper announcement of our event under the title “FS is Dead.” He’d meant to write “SF,” but he’d gotten it wrong. And I was, like, “He can’t even write the two-letter word ‘SF,’ and he’s saying my whole field is dead?” Instead of speaking extemporaneously, as I more commonly do, I read parts of my talk, starting out weird and tense, and then relaxing. You can see a video of it online. I also gave versions of this talk at one of the monthly Dorkbot events in San Francisco in May, 2007, and at the University of Osaka in 2010.

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Sex and Science Fiction

Science fiction is a mountain of metaphors, a funhouse of crooked mirrors that give us new views of our actual world.

From our genes’ point of view, we’re meat-based landcrawlers to ride around in. Imagine little double helices lounging in the hammocks of your cells. What makes us especially useful is that, now and then, we spawn off new landcrawlers with copies of the passenger genes, carrying them ever forward through time.

Putting the same point differently, if living organisms weren’t obsessed with sex, none of would be here. We’re each a link in a chain of generations, we’re dangling dollies on a slimy macramé of a trillion umbilical cords.

Of course we enjoy sex for more immediate reasons than reproduction: erotic pleasure, the orgasm, and partnership bonding. The last one is important. That’s why we talk about making love. We’re wired so that loves readily grows from the sex act.

Certainly, if reproduction were the only reason for sex, you wouldn’t be having so many orgasms. How many? Math time! Suppose you live to your eighties, and that you have seventy years of sexual activity, which makes for about 3,500 weeks. If you’re energetic enough to average three pops a week for seventy years, you’re talking about something on the order of ten thousand orgasms. All that brain-flashing to bring forth at most a couple of kids! “Oooo Mommy, you mean you and Daddy did that twice?”

So how about science fiction and sex? Where have we been, where are we headed, and how much further can we go?

One sex story I always think of is Samuel Delany’s, “Aye and Gomorrah,” about a cadre of spacers who’ve been surgically altered so that their crotches are as featureless as those of a plastic Barbie doll’s. Why? Given the amount of mutating radiation that these astronauts absorb in their space-stations, it would be too dangerous to allow them to reproduce. In the story, there are people who are sexually obsessed with the Barbie-smooth spacers. These fetishists are called frelks—a great word.

In this context, I also think of a particular story about people being sexually attracted to aliens, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side,” written by Alice Sheldon, under her nom de plume James Tiptree, Jr. Upon seeing aliens, the story’s characters have a surprising and overwhelming sense of lust. Kind of like how some of us may react to our first sight of a gay pride parade! Ah, those six-foot-tall honking-loud brides…

One reason we’re attracted to sex with other people is simply because they’re different. Gender isn’t necessarily an issue. That’s the core idea in both the Delany and the Sheldon stories: otherness is a turn-on. And any other person is, for all practical purposes, an alien, if you really think about it.

Note that it’s not just the difference that turns us on, it’s the idea that there’s an intelligent mind inside the different body. Another mind that mirrors you, a mind you can in fact pair up with for an endless regress of mutual reflections.

There’s a major difference between sex with a person and sex via media. In sex with a person, you’re talking about emotion, the positions of your limbs, touch across large skin areas—about tastes, scents and pheromones. A candle by the bed is nice, but you can just as easily make love in the dark.

In media-based sex, we’re reduced to visual images, perhaps enhanced by recorded sounds. But there’s no emotion, touch, tastes, or smells. And text-based sex is even more abstract.

I’m a little sorry to see the decline of text-based pornography. It used to be in every corner store, and now you hardly see it—although it can be found online. In the 1970s, I had a bar-fly friend who was paid by the hour to write porno novels in an office in downtown Rochester, New York. I thought he was cool. A real writer!

Still on the theme of sex with aliens, my novel The Sex Sphere features a giant ass from the fourth dimension. She’s called Babs. She has eyes, breasts, a mouth, a vagina—but no limbs. She can fly, she’s into nuclear terrorism, and her ultimate goal is to utterly destroy our universe. Have any of you ever dated her? The book’s being reissued by E-Reads this fall.

One of the earliest bizarre SF sex stories that I read was in Philip Jose Farmer’s 1950s anthology, Strange Relations. I’m thinking of his story, “Mother” in which a stranded space-explorer finds shelter within a cavity in a meaty plant. The plant—or perhaps its an animal—feeds him food and bourbon, nursing him along. And it turns out that the astronaut is expected to attack a certain area of the plant’s womb, which will catalyze her into a pregnancy, enabling her to bear young. And after his attack the mother-plant will eat him. In a way, it’s an incest story, but looked at differently, it’s also a story about retreating into a cocoon.

Think of a person alone with their computer—whether they’re viewing internet porn, having sex-talks in chat-rooms, or playing erotic roles in a multiple-user videogames. Or think of people lying in Matrix-style jelly-pods with their brains plugged into a group virtual reality.

I find these scenarios sad. In “Mother,” the character at least has the ability to fecundate the surrounding blob—but what can you as an individual do to the internet? What can you do to some vast virtual reality that you’re duped into spending all your time with?

Well, in the case of the internet, at least you can post comments, upload videos, start a photostream, run a blog. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can galvanize another human into meeting you face to face.

It’s always important to remember that computers are dead and boring compared to our fellow humans. Even if there’s a human on the other side of the computer output that you’re interacting with, the machine is still between you, even more isolating than—you should pardon the expression—glory-holed toilet-stall wall.

For a little while, people were talking about having sex via the internet by means of computer-operated sex toys. It’s doable, but who wants to bother? It’s the skin that matters, the breath, the eyes, the voice.

As a partial improvement, in my novel, Freeware, I had sex toys that were made of flexible and intelligent plastic that could move on its own. I called the material “piezoplastic,” and it had become rather intelligent due to a wetware mold infestation. Bigger chunks of the fungus-dosed piezoplastic were autonomous and vicious beings called moldies—and those who loved them were known as cheeseballs. Moldies would take control of a cheeseball by inserting a small slug of their plastic into the human’s skull, and the sluggie would run the person like a robot remote. You might call this an objective-correlative for sexual obsession.

As an SF writer, I wonder if there could be a non-plastic and purely biological medium for enjoyable remote sex. Certainly a sex-toy would be more congenial if it were made of a human tissue culture instead of plastic. Ideally the seed cells for the tissues would come from your lover’s body, so that the smells and pheromones are just right. Actually, Bruce Sterling and I wrote a story called “Junk DNA” in which these little jobbies were called Pumptis.

Of course, for full satisfaction, the personal-intelligence touch is needed. You want a way to project your mind into that remote Pumpti that your darling is going to use—and vice-versa. Well, we can do that via quantum entanglement, no prob. Everything’s easy in science fiction.

While your partner is getting it on with your Pumpti, you’ll be diddling the Pumpti that he or she gave you. And, even better, you’ll projecting your consciousness into the remote Pumpti and into your partner’s mind as well.

Great. But, wait—this doesn’t sound all that different from phone sex. Or love-letters.

Basically, remote sex is boring. There’s no substitute for face-to-face. Let me say a little about possible SFictional amplifications for in-person encounters. For instance in my Ware novels, there’s this drug called merge. Lovers get into a bathtub called a love puddle, they splash on the merge, and their bodies melt and flow together—making a happy glob of flesh with four eyes on top. After an hour or so, the merge wears off, and the couples’ body shapes return.

I like to think of telepathy as a sexual enhancer. I already mentioned that it’s exciting to have your own mind mirrored in someone else’s, even as you’re mirroring then and so on forever. Suppose that the mirroring is though a direct brain contact. It’s easy to suppose that the feedback could flip into a chaotic mode, generating fractal strange attractors. It would take a bit of delicate maneuvering to avoid spiraling into the fixed-point attractor of a brain seizure.

Here’s a longer passage about this, drawn from my novel Saucer Wisdom.


Larky and Lucy, painting "The Lovers" by R.R.

At first it’s mellow. Larky and Lucy lie there side by side on the floor, smiling up at the ceiling, thinking colors and simple shapes. Blue sky, yellow circle, red triangle. Now Larky puts his hand in front of his face, stares at it, and the image goes over to Lucy. But Lucy isn’t able to see the hand yet. She can’t assimilate the signal. “You try and send a picture to me,” says Larky. He doesn’t say the words out loud, instead he imagines saying them—he subvocalizes them as it were—and Lucy is able to hear them. Words are easier than pictures. Lucy stares at her piezoplastic bracelet, fixating on it, sending the image out. Larky can’t get it at first, but then after a minute’s effort, he can. Eureka!

“You have to let your eyes like sag out of focus and then turn them inside out, only without physically turning them, you wave?” explains Larky none too clearly. “It’s sort of like the trick you do in order to see your eyes’ floaters against the sky. You’re looking far away, but you’re looking inside your head.”

So now Larky and Lucy can see through each other’s eyes, but then Larky glances over at Lucy and she looks at him and they get into a feedback loop of mutually regressing awareness that becomes increasingly unpleasant. It’s kind of like the way if you stare at someone and they stare back at you, then you can read what they think of you in their face, and they can read your reaction to that, and you can read their reaction to your reaction, and so on. It gets more and more intense and pretty soon you can’t stand it and you look away.

But with a direct brainwave hookup, the feedback is way stronger. In fact it’s like what happens when your point a video camera at a TV monitoring what the camera sees. Lucy’s view of Larky’s face forms in Larky’s mind, gets overlaid with Larky’s view of Lucy and bounced back to Lucy, and then it bounces back to Larky, bounce bounce bounce back and forth twisting into ragged squeals.

Lucy and Larky are starting to tremble, right on the point of going into some kind of savage epilepsy-like fit—but Larky does a head-trick that makes it stop.

Larky’s method for stopping the feedback is like one of the things you can do with the video camera to keep the TV screen from getting all white: you zoom in on a detail. You find a fractal feather and amplify just that. In the same way, Larky shifts his attention to a little tiny part of his smeared-out mouth, a little nick at the corner, and a soon as that starts to amp up, he shifts over to a piece of Lucy’s cheek, just keeps skating and staying ahead of the avalanche. Lucy gets the hang of it too, and now they’re darting around their shared visual space.

Larky and Lucy slowly develop a language for transmitted emotions. Part of the trick is to keep a low affect, to speak softly as it were. If you scream a feeling, it bounces back at you and starts a feedback loop. You can think a scream, but you have to do it in a calm low-key way. The way Lucy puts it, “Just go ‘I’m all boo-hoo,’ instead of actually slobber-sobbing.” So pretty soon Larky and Lucy are good at sending the emotions in that gentle chilled-out kind of way.

Not everyone can remember to stay chilled out and to not stare into the feedback. The other big hurdle is to make the signals readily comprehensible. Larky and Lucy were able to communicate quite easily because they knew each other really well: they’re lovers and best friends. But what happens when you try and link with a relative stranger? None of his/her references and associations make sense.

The trick turns out to be to first exchange copies of your lifebox contexts. As well as using the analog signals of the superquantum brain sensors, you also use standard hyperlinks into the other user’s context. The combination of the two channels gives the effect of telepathy.

Some couples become addicted to the dangerous intensity of skirting around the white hole of feedback, of bopping around right on the fractal edges of over-amplification, on the verge of tobogganing towards the point-attractor of a cerebral seizure. Fortunately you could always shut off your telepathy. With practice, Larky and Lucy had learned to skate around the singular zones, enjoying the bright, ragged layers of feedback.

Coming back to the concept of sex as reproduction—what if you were engendering something more than a child? In a couple of my novels, I’ve had couples who somehow save our universe as a side-effect of their love-making. Father Sky and Mother Earth. It’s an old legend that expresses something fundamental: sex as creation. Here’s a version of this from Spacetime Donuts.

He was floating, a pattern of possibilities in an endless sea of particulars.

“Be the sea and see me be,” the words formed…somewhere.

He let his shape loosen and drift to touch every part of the sea around him, a peaceful ocean like a bay at slack-tide on a moonless summer night…peaceful, while in the depths desperate lives played out in all the ways there are. Taken all together, the lives added up to a messageless phosphorescence, a white glow of every frequency.

“And are you here?”

“As long as you are.”

“Can we go further?”


And there’s a scene like this in Postsingular.

They undressed and began making love. They had all the time in the world. Everything was going to be all right. At least that’s what Jayjay kept telling himself. And somehow he believed it. He and Thuy were one flesh, all their thoughts upon their skins. Their bodies made a sweet suck and push. The answer was before them like a triangular window.

Jayjay had been too tense and rushed to teep the harp before. But now—now he could feel the harp’s mind. She was a higher order of being, incalculably old and strange. She knew the Lost Chord. She was ready to teach it to him. Jayjay and Thuy melted into their climax, they kissed and cuddled. Jayjay got up naked and fingered the harp’s strings. They didn’t hurt his fingers one bit.

The soft notes layered upon each other like sheets of water on a beach with breaking waves. Guided by the harp, Jayjay plinked in a few additions, thus and so. And, yes, there it was, the Lost Chord. Space twitched like a sprouting seed.

And with that, the harp was gone.

No matter. The sound of the Lost Chord continued unabated, building on itself like a chain reaction, vibrating the space around them. Jayjay smiled at Thuy. He had a sense of endlessly opening vistas.

“You did it,” said Thuy. “You’re wonderful.” She wasn’t talking out loud. Her warm voice was inside his head. True telepathy. Jayjay had unrolled the eighth dimension. He and Thuy had saved the world.

Sex is everything.

Note on “Sex and Science Fiction

Written September, 2008

Appeared in Future Sex, (RE/Search, 2010).

This talk was for a San Francisco conference on the future of sex. I found it hard to cook up a really long essay on the theory of this topic, so I fattened up my presentation with excerpts from my fiction. Show, don’t tell.

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Chant to the Muse

Time, saucers, sex and goo

Elves, mutants, robots too

Muse of strangeness old and new

My blank pages call to you.

Note on “Chant to the Muse”

Written July, 2009.

Published on Rudy's Blog, 2009.


With my Clarion students, July, 2009.

I wrote this little chant for my students at a Clarion SF Writing Workshop in Seattle. They’d had a series of SF writers talking to them, and I was the last instructor. So on the very last day of class, I got my students to come down into an echoing basement room with me, and we chanted these four lines for about fifteen minutes, repeating them over and over. It was fun.

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Welcome to Silicon Valley

In 1986, it became unfeasible for me to continue living as an unemployed cyberpunk writer in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was broke and getting deeper into debt, while our children were needing braces and college. Even if it was peaceful and cozy in Lynchburg, the bandwidth always seemed way too low—where the “bandwidth” of some information source means the number of bits per second that it delivers.

What was really chafing on me the most was my strong sense that I was missing out on a great intellectual revolution: the dawn of computer-aided experimental mathematics. Fractals, chaotic iterations, cellular automata—it was everywhere. I clicked over the final switchpoint when I went as a journalist to Princeton and to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to interview computer scientists for an article about cellular automata. Those guys were having so much fun, looking at such neat things, and making up such great theories about what they saw! I decided to become one of them.

If you’re a mathematician, becoming a computer scientist is not so much a matter of new knowledge as a matter of new attitude. Born again. Willing to commit to the machine. By way of preparation, I wrote Mind Tools, a book which surveys mathematics from the standpoint that everything is information. So when I got the chance to interview for a job in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at San Jose State University, I had thought enough about computers to give a good talk on information theory. They hired me and I started teaching there in the Fall of 1986.

Most people in the East don’t know where San Jose is. Put your right hand so the palm faces down. Think of the left edge of your arm as the coast of California. San Francisco is the tip of your thumb. The space between thumb and forefinger is San Francisco Bay. The thumb’s first knuckle is Palo Alto. San Jose is at the bottom of your thumb, near the bay. Silicon Valley is the thumb’s second joint, between San Jose and Palo Alto. There’re a lot of roads and a lot of traffic. And for the first seven years I lived there, it never rained.

One of the courses I had to teach in my first semester at SJSU was Assembly Language. Assembly language is a very stark and simple language—a bit like Basic—with about a hundred elementary commands. What makes assembly language tricky is that in order to use it properly, you need to have a very clear image of what is going on inside the specific family of machines you are writing for (our course is for PC clones). You have to interact with the machine a little before you can get an assembly language program to run. I got the textbook: Dan Rollins, 8088 Macro Assembler Programming, and I couldn’t understand what it was about at all. The only computer I’d used at this point was an Epson machine I bought for word-processing. I didn’t know that 8088 was the name of a processor made by Intel. I didn’t know that you say it “eighty-eighty-eight” and not “eight-thousand-and-eighty-eight” or “eight-oh-eight-eight.” If I were the type to panic, I would have done so.

Fortunately, there was another mathematician-turned-computer scientist at SJSU who was teaching Assembly Language, and his class met the period before me mine. I went to his classes and wrote down everything he said, and then I would teach that to my class. I enjoyed sitting in his class like a student again, soaking up info for free. The only thing about his class I didn’t like was this jerk who sat in front of me, a guy named Farley.

Farley was fat and petulant. His upper lip stuck out like on the man in that crummy Sunday funnies cartoon, “The Lockhorns,” if you’ve ever seen it. Farley would get into big arguments with the teacher about arcane features of assembly language. He would interrupt without even raising his hand. And after class he was always trying to cozy up to the girls. Remember Farley; I’ll come back to him at the end.

I could never get enough time on the machines at school to do the assembly language homework, so after the first semester I went and bought the then-maximum personal computer—it had a twelve megahertz processor, a forty megabyte hard disk, and a sixteen-color graphics card. Some of my friends on the faculty were real computer jocks, and they helped me get psyched up for it. One professor in particular liked to say, “Computers are to the ‘80s what LSD was to the ‘60s.”

The first program I ran was a Mandelbrot set program that a fan had sent me. The Mandelbrot set is a fantastically complex pattern that arises from applying a lot of computing power to a very simple rule having to do with repeatedly taking the square of a complex number. It looks a bit like a black beetle with a long stinger on one end. You can use a computer to endlessly zoom in on its details, and the remarkable thing is that there are endless levels of detail to examine. Just like the irrational decimal number pi, the Mandelbrot set goes on forever, to as many levels of magnification as your computer can examine.

The Mandelbrot set.

I was so happy watching the colored little dots of my Mandelbrot zooms accumulate. I didn’t know any other programs yet, but I could make this one look different by screwing with the monitor controls. If you messed up the vertical hold and set the monitor to analog instead of digital mode, for instance, the picture looked sort of like Antarctica, with more and more new little pixels moving in, men in boats, penguins, real deep info being born.

The next program I played with a lot was SF-writer-and-computer-hacker Charles Platt’s “Cell Systems” program for showing cellular automata. Charles and I went to a CA (cellular automata) conference together at MIT right before I came to SJSU. I liked to look at Charles’s program all the time; in the morning or at night, especially at night.


A cascading cellular automaton rule called “Tree”.

Cellular automata came to seem rich enough to symbolize everything: society, the brain, physics, whatever. The whole thing with a cellular automaton is that you have a tiny tiny program that is obeyed by each pixel or screen cell. With each tick of the system clock, the cells all look at their nearest neighbors and use the tiny program to decide what to do next. Incredibly rich patterns arise: tapestries, spacetime diagrams, bubble chamber photos, mandalas, you name it. Each pattern is a screenful of info, about 100,000 bits, but the pattern is specified by a very short rule, sometimes as short as eight bits. The “extra” information comes from time flow, from the runtime invested, from the logical depth of the computation actually done. The same thing is true for the Mandelbrot set, by the way.

That next semester—this would be the spring of ‘87—I taught assembly language again, plus an advanced course in Pascal. With Pascal I couldn’t find a teacher to copy, so it was pretty grim. I spent a lot a lot a lot of time trying to get my programs to work, or at least trying to figure out what I could lecture on the next day. Assembly language was starting to be fun, though. Making it up as I went along, I showed my class how to write a program to show simple cellular automata, and it worked, and we were all really happy. One of my programs made a pattern that looked like elephants and giraffes. Shirley Temple used to sing “Animal Crackers in my Soup,” and in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has someone call that song “Super Animals In My Crack.” That was a joke that my new pattern made me think of. I bought a 24-pin dot matrix printer so I could start saving the pictures I made.

In the summer of ‘87, I persuaded SJSU to buy me a CAM-6 “cellular automaton machine.” This was a chip-laden card you could plug into a slot in any DOS-based personal computer. It had the effect of making my computer screen become a window into incredible new worlds. The CAM-6 made patterns that looked alive. And fast? Imagine globs of oil oozing around on your screen like a light show. Sixty updates a second!


A cellular automaton rule called “Ranch.”

So in the fall of ‘87, I was ready to go to some computer conferences. I went to the first workshop on Artificial Life, in Los Alamos, not quite sure what it was. Artificial Life turned out to be such a great concept. I mean, forget Artificial Intelligence, let’s do Artificial Life. Simple programs that grow and get more interesting as time goes on. Programs that eat computational energy! It was great at the Los Alamos conference. It was the first time I’d ever felt comfortable at an academic conference. We were all interested in the same thing: evolving artificially alive systems. And it was exactly what I’d been writing about in my SF novels Software and Wetware. Really happening at a government lab!

The town of Los Alamos is very weird, like a Twilight Zone movie set. They have a little museum with full-scale white-painted models of Little Boy and Fat Man. It made me just a little anxious why the government would be interested in Artificial Life. But I’ll trust those artificially alive robots of the future to get free—just like the boppers in Software.

Even more fun than the A-Life workshop was a meeting I went to a month later, something called Hackers 3.0, the third of a presumably annual meeting of Silicon Valley hackers. I should note here that “hackers” was being used in the older sense of “someone who loves to do things with computers, and not in the newer sense of “computer criminal”.

I was a little nervous going to a hackers convention—I mean, was I a poser? But it was the most welcoming atmosphere I’ve felt since I went to my very first science fiction convention, Seacon at Brighton in ‘80. In straight academia there’s not enough money and they usually don’t welcome newcomers. But in science fiction, and again in the hackers world, I got a feeling of “Come on in! The more the merrier! There’s enough for all of us! We’re having fun, yeeeee-haw!”

Some of the guys at Hackers had read some of my books, which made me happy, and we stayed up all night playing with my CAM-6. Like many others, I’d brought my machine with me. One guy explained to me why he wanted to have his head frozen. He had a zit on his nose, and I had to wonder about freezing the zit, too. At the end of the conference we posed for a big group picture. To get the right expression on our faces, we chanted, “Hack, hack, hack, hack…” They all seemed like such contented guys—happy because they actually knew how to do something.

As I write this essay, it’s spring ‘88, and I’m teaching courses in computer graphics, assembly language, and cellular automata. Teaching CAs has been the greatest, and I’ve just finished writing my first disk of programs, nice fast color cellular automata programs that run on DOS computers.

Yesterday I was at another computer meeting, this one mostly chip designers, in Asilomar near Monterey. One of the guys was giving a talk about a great new chip he’s building and someone asks, “How much will it cost?” and he comes back real fast, “Hey, I’d like to give them away.” Another guy had a bottle of liquid nitrogen to show off a superconductor he’d gotten from Edmund Scientific. When we got tired of that he poured a lot of liquid nitrogen into a reflecting pool. The liquid nitrogen froze itself little boats of water that it sat on, boiling, finally leaving one small crystal of dry ice. Another guy took me out to the garage and showed me an electronic lock that he’d designed for his Corvette. There’s a three-position toggle switch by the door, and to unlock the car, you jiggle the switch sixteen times up or down from center. The whole glove compartment was full of chips to make the system work. It was all he could do to keep from telling me the combination. Someone else had robot cars that seek light. Another one had programmed flashing electronic jewelry…and of course I brought my CAM-6.

A lot of play, but beyond that, there’s a real sense here of being engaged in something I’m starting to think of as “The Great Work,” some kind of noble overarching all-encompassing quest. But it’s all high stress, too, in a California kind of way. If you’re not plugged in and working at staying that way, you can slip down real fast. Take Farley.

A couple of months ago I saw Farley’s picture in the paper. It took me a minute to understand what he’d done. He’d gone to a company that had fired him, and had killed seven people because some girl there wouldn’t go out with him. I thought of all the times I’d wanted to tell Farley what an asshole he was. I was glad I hadn’t. And then I was scared—what if he’d fallen in love with someone in the math department and had gone on his rampage there?

Something that really got me was the newspaper descriptions of the seven people who’d died. For four of them, there were no facts available. They were simply additional human computer fodder who’d drifted out here to make some money. No friends, no connections, just a tiny expensive room in a garden apartment complex.

One of my students in the CA course works at the place where Farley shot the people. “We heard the shooting,” he told me, “and we went and hid behind the big computer.” Somehow that’s very heartbreaking to me—the people here can be so fucked and unreliable—and the only place to hide is behind the mainframe.

Note on “Welcome to Silicon Valley”

Written in 1988.

Appeared in Science Fiction Eye, August, 1988.

Not long after I wrote “Welcome To Silicon Valley,” I was offered a job at Autodesk, Inc., of Sausalito, CA. Autodesk makes a very popular computer-aided-design product called AutoCAD. My title at Autodesk was Mathenaut, and I worked in their Advanced Technology Division, continuing to teach halftime at San Jose State.

The word “mathenaut” came from Norman Kagan’s classic tale “The Mathenauts.” I liked that word so much that I also used it for the title of my multi-author anthology, Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder, (Arbor House, 1987).

In my first two years at Autodesk, I wrote a lot of the computer code for two software products. They were CA Lab: Rudy Rucker’s Cellular Automata Laboratory (Autodesk, 1989), and James Gleick’s Chaos: The Software (Autodesk, 1990). The next Autodesk I got involved with was, oddly enough, cyberspace. William Gibson’s word had caught on to the extent that “cyberspace” was, for a time, a preferred synonym for what is also called artificial reality or virtual reality.

The guys in the Autodesk Advanced Tech Division shipped the “Autodesk Cyberspace Developer’s Kit” early in 1991. The package was a library of computer programs meant to make it easier for programmers to create virtual reality worlds of their own. As it happened, the product was a complete flop. But during the development phase I had fun using our newly created cyberspace tools to look at tumbling hypercubes and to ride around on a chaotic 3D curve known as the Lorenz attractor. It was a good job while it lasted. The catch was that I wasn’t writing much anymore.

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Hacking Code

Hacking is like building a scale-model cathedral out of toothpicks, except that if one toothpick is out of place the whole cathedral will disappear. And then you have to feel around for the invisible cathedral, trying to figure out which toothpick is wrong. Debuggers make it a little easier, but not much, since a truly screwed-up cutting-edge program is entirely capable of screwing up the debugger as well, so that then it’s like you’re feeling around for the missing toothpick with a stroke-crippled claw-hand. But, ah, the dark dream beauty of the hacker grind against the hidden wall that only you can see, the wall that only you wail at, you the programmer, with the brand new tools that you make up as you go along, your special new toothpick lathes and jigs and your realtime scrimshaw shaver, you alone in the dark with your wonderful tools. [Rudy Rucker, The Hacker and the Ants (William Morrow).]

On a good day, I think of hacking as a tactile experience, like reaching into a tub of clay and kneading and forming the material into the shapes of my desires.

A computer program is a virtual machine that you build by hand. Hacking is like building a car by building all of the parts in the car individually. The good thing is that you have full control, the bad thing is that the process can take so much longer than you expect it to. Are you sure you feel like stamping out a triple-Z O-ring gasket? And synthesizing the plastic from which to make the gasket? The hacker says, “Yaar! Sounds like fun!”

Of course it does get easier as you build more and more. Often as not, you can re-use old pieces of code that you hacked for other projects. A hacker develops a nice virtual garage of “machine parts” that he or she can reuse. As a beginner, you start out using prefab parts made by others, but sooner or later, you’re likely to grit on down to the lowest machine levels to see just how those parts really work.

To be a writer you need something you want to write about; to be a hacker you need something to hack about. You need to have an obsession, a vision that you want to turn into a novel, or into a virtual machine. It’s going to take you so long to finish that you will need a fanatic’s obsession to see a big project through. Essential in either case is the simple act of not giving up, of going back into it over and over again.

I think the most interesting things to hack are programs which turn the computer into a window to a different reality. Programs which express true computer nature. Chaos, fractals, Artificial Life, cellular automata, genetic algorithms, Virtual Reality, hyperspace—these are lovely areas that the computer can see into.

I once heard a hacker compare his computer to Leuwenhoek’s microscope, so strong was his feeling that he was peering into new worlds. In an odd way, the most interesting worlds can be found when this new “microscope” looks at itself, perhaps entering a chaotic feedback loop that can close in on some strange attractor.

There are, of course, lame-butts who think hacking is about grubbing scraps of information about war and money. What a joke. Hacking is for delving into the hidden machinery of the universe.

The universe? Didn’t I just say that the coolest hacks are in some sense centered on an investigation of what the computer itself can do? Yes, but the computer is a model of the universe.

Sometimes schizos think the universe is a computer—in a bad kind of way. Like that everything is gray and controlled, and distant numbers are being read off in a monotone, and somewhere a supervisor is tabulating your ever-more-incriminating list of sins.

But in reality, the universe is like a parallel computer, a computer with no master program, a computer filled with self-modifying code and autonomous processes—a space of computation, if you will. A good hack can capture this on a simple color monitor. The self-mirroring screen becomes an image of the world at large. As above, so below.

The correspondence between computers and reality changes the way you understand the world. If you know about fractals, then clouds and plants don’t look the same. Once you’ve seen chaotic vibrations on a screen, you recognize them in the waving of tree branches and in the wandering of the media’s eye. Cellular automata show how social movements can emerge from individual interactions. Virtual reality instructs you in the beauty of a swooping flock of birds. Artificial Life and genetic algorithms show how intelligent processes can self-organize amidst brute thickets of random events. Hyperspace programs let you finally see into the fourth dimension and to recognize that kinky inside-out reversals are part and parcel of your potentially infinite brain.

Hacking teaches that the secret of the universe need not be so very complex, provided that the secret is set down in a big enough space of computation equipped with feedback and parallelism. Feedback means having a program take its last output as its new input. Parallelism means letting the same program run at many different sites. The universe’s physics is the same program running in parallel everywhere, repeatedly updating itself on the basis of its current computation. Your own psychology is a parallel process endlessly revising itself.

Hacking is a yoga, but not an easy one. How do you start? Taking a course on one of the “object-oriented” programming languages Java or C++ the probably the best way to start; or you might independently buy a C++ compiler and work through the manual’s examples. And then find a problem that is your own, something you really want to see, whether it’s chaos or whether it’s just a tic-tac-toe program. And then start trying to make your vision come to life. The computer will help to show you the way, especially if you pay close attention to your error messages, use the help files—and read the fuckin’ manual. It’s a harsh yoga; it’s a path to mastery.

Note on “Hacking Code”

Written 1995.

Appeared in Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair, and Gareth Branwyn, eds., The Happy Mutant Handbook, Riverhead Books, 1995.

Steven Levy’s 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, had been an inspiration to me before moving to Silicon Valley, and I was proud to become part of the scene. I met Levy in 1986, quite soon after moving to California, at the second of annual “Hackers Conferences” held near San Jose. This was the point in time when the media were just starting to use “hacker” in the negative sense of “computer criminal,” and we were all very annoyed about this.

Mark Frauenfelder was a very pleasant and amusing man whom I’d met soon after moving to California, Carla Sinclair was his wife, and Gareth Branwyn was a hacker friend of theirs. My daughter Georgia was just starting to work as a book designer in 1995, and she did the layout for The Happy Mutant Handbook.

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Five Flavors of Cyberspace

I’m going to discuss five interrelated strands of cyberspace. First, there is cyberspace in the sense that cyberpunk science fiction writers initially used it. Second, there is cyberspace in the sense of Virtual Reality (VR). Third, there is cyberspace as the locale of the cultural cyberpunk phenomenon. Fourth, there is cyberspace as the worldwide computer network. The fifth flavor circles back to the first—it’s the blended vision of cyberspace that I wrote about in my novel, The Hacker and the Ants after working in Silicon Valley for a few years.

The Science Fiction Brain-Plug

One of the characteristic bits of technology in cyberpunk science-fiction is a direct man-to-machine interface, sometimes known as a “brain-plug.” I first read of about being plugged into machines in an SF paperback back in 1961.

“It was an odd room, a short of shapeless, plastic-lined cocoon without furnishings. The thing had floated submerged in the fluid. It lay on the floor now, limbs twisting spasmodically.

“It was male: the long, white beard was proof of that. It was a pitiful thing, a kind of caricature of humanity, a fantastically hairy gnome curled blindly into a fetal position. It was naked; its skin where it showed through the matted hair, was grub-white and wrinkled from the long immersion.

“It had floated in this room in its gently moving nest of hair, nourished by the thick, fleshlike cord trailing from a tap protruding through the wall to where it had been grafted to the navel, dreaming the long, slow, happy, fetal dreams.” [James Gunn, “Name Your Pleasure,” 1954. Reprinted in his anthology, The Joy Makers, (Bantam).]

The hedonistic gnome didn’t quite have a brain-plug—but he was definitely plugged-in!

A lot of ideas in science fiction are symbols of archetypal human desires. Stories about time travel are often about memory and the longing to go back to the past. Telepathy is really an objective correlative for the fantasy of perfect communication. Travel to other planets is travel to exotic lands. Levitation is freedom from the shackles of ordinary life.

The brain plug is a symbol, first and foremost, for a truly effortless computer interface. Associated with this perfect user interface are notions of intelligence increase, technological expertise, and global connectedness.

In 1976, I wrote my first SF novel, Spacetime Donuts, which prominently features brain-plugs. In Spacetime Donuts, a brain plug is a socket in a person’s head; you plug a jack into your socket in order to connect your thoughts directly to a computer. The rush of information is too much for most people, but there is a small cadre of countercultural types who are able to withstand it.

When I wrote Spacetime Donuts, I was a computer-illiterate academic who taught and lectured about mathematics and philosophy. I feared and hated computers. I had no idea of how to control them. Yet at the same time I craved computers, I longed for access to the marvelous things they could do—the mad graphics, the arcane info access, the manipulation of servo-mechanisms. Thus the ambivalent fascination of the plug: on the positive side, a plug provides a short-circuit no-effort path into the computer; on the negative side, a plug might turn you into the computer’s slave.

Here’s what happens when my character Vernor Maxwell first plugs into the big central computer known as Phizwhiz.

“It was like suddenly having your brain become thousands of times larger. Our normal thoughts consist of association blocks woven together to form patterns which change as time goes on. When Vernor was plugged into Phizwhiz, the association blocks became larger, and the patterns more complex. He recalled, for instance, having thought fleetingly of his hand on the control switch. As soon as the concept hand formed in Vernor’s mind, Phizwhiz had internally displayed every scrap of information it had relating to the key-word hand. All the literary allusions to, all the physiological studies of, all the known uses for hands were simultaneously held in the Vernor-Phizwhiz joint consciousness. All this as well as images of all the paintings, photographs, X-rays, holograms, etc. of hands which were stored in the Phizwhiz’s memory bank. And this was just a part of one association block involved in one thought pattern.” [Rudy Rucker, “Spacetime Donuts, Part I” (Unearth magazine, 1978.). The entire novel appeared from Ace Books.]

I didn’t think of making up a word for the mental space inside Phizwhiz, and if I had, I probably would have called it a “mindscape,” meaning a landscape of information patterns, a platonic space of floating ideas.

The Spacetime Donuts mindscape is not very much like cyberspace. Why not? Because the mindscape comes all sealed up inside one centralized building full of metal boxes, a building belonging to the government—this was the old centralized, mainframe concept of computation. I didn’t ever think about bulletin boards, or modems, or the already existing global computer network. Although I understood about connecting to computers, I didn’t understand about computers connecting to each other in the abstract network that would become cyberspace.

In 1981, Vernor Vinge published a Net story called “True Names,” about a group of game-playing hackers who encounter sinister multinational forces in their shared Virtual Reality. Many view this story as the first depiction of cyberspace. And then William Gibson burst upon the scene with the stories collected in Burning Chrome, followed by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

Rather than being modeled on the outdated paradigm of computers as separate individuals, Gibson’s machines were part of a fluid continuous whole; they were trusses holding up a global computerized information network with lots of people hooked into it at once.

Gibson usually describes his cyberspace in terms of someone flying through a landscape filled with colored 3-D geometric shapes, animated by patterns of light. This large red cube might be IBM’s data, that yellow cone is the CIA, and so on. Here, cyberspace is a great matrix with all the world’s computer data embedded in it, and it’s experienced graphically. But what about that brain-plug interface? Once you think about it very hard, it becomes clear that there really is no chance of having an actual brain plug anytime soon.

The problem is that our physiological understanding of the fine structure of the brain cells is incredibly rudimentary. And, seriously, can you imagine wanting to be the first one to use a brain plug designed by a team of hackers on a deadline? Every new program crashes the system dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands of times during product development. But—how would you reboot your body after some stray signal in a wire shuts down your thalamus or stops your heart?

In my novels Freeware and Realware, I tried to finesse the brain-plug issue by having a device I call an “uvvy.” Rather than being surgically wired into your brain-stem, the uvvy sits on your neck and interacts with your brain by electromagnetic fields. This futuristic technology is what the scientist Freeman Dyson calls “radioneurology.” He proposes that:

Radioneurology might take advantage of electric and magnetic organs that already exist in many species of eels, fish, birds, and magnetotactic bacteria. In order to implant an array of tiny transmitters into a brain, genetic engineering of existing biological structures might be an easier route than microsurgery.…When we know how to put into a brain transmitters translating neural processes into radio signals, we shall also know how to insert receivers translating radio signals back into neural processes. Radiotelepathy is the technology of transferring information directly from brain to brain using radio transmitters and receivers in combination. [Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds, (Harvard University Press).]

Speaking of “radiotelepathy,” I’ve unearthed an earlier use of the word, although not in exactly the same sense that Dyson uses it. This information isn’t totally relevant, but I’ll include it anyway. After all, we’re here to Seek! The passage in question occurs in one of my favorite books, The Yage Letters, where Allen Ginsberg is writing his friend William Burroughs a letter about a fairly nightmarish drug-trip he’d just had after taking a Curandero’s (a Curandero is one who “Cures”) mixture of Ayahuasca and other jungle plants in Pucallpa, Peru, in June, 1960.

I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet on porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death—got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe—all around me in the trees the noise of these spectral animals the other drinkers vomiting (normal part of the Cure sessions) in the night in their awful solitude in the universe—[I felt] also as if everybody in the session in central radiotelepathic contact with the same problem—the Great Being within ourselves—and at that moment—vomiting still feeling like a Great lost Serpent-seraph vomiting in consciousness of the Transfiguration to come—with the Radiotelepathy sense of a Being whose presence I had not yet fully sensed—too Horrible for me, still—to accept the fact of total communication with say everyone an eternal seraph male and female at once—and me a lost soul seeking help—well slowly the intensity began to fade. [William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, City Lights Books).]

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality represents a practical step that interface designers have taken to try and make for a more brain-plug-like connection to computers.

In 1968 Ivan Sutherland built a device which his colleagues at the University of Utah called The Sword of Damocles—it was an intimidatingly heavy pair of TV screens that hung down from the ceiling to be worn like glasses. What you saw was a topographic map of the U.S. that you could fly over and zoom in on. The map was simple wire-frame graphics: meshes of green lines. Two of the main essentials of Virtual Reality were already there: (1) graphical user immersion in a 3-D construct, and (2) user-adjustable viewpoint. Soon to come as the third and fourth essentials of Virtual Reality were: (3) user manipulation of virtual objects, and (4) multiple users in the same Virtual Reality.

By 1988, cyberpunk science fiction had become quite popular, and the word “cyberspace” was familiar to lots of people. John Walker, then the chairman at Autodesk, Inc., of Sausalito, had the idea of starting a program to create some new Virtual Reality software, and to call it “Cyberspace.” In fact Autodesk trademarked the word “Cyberspace” for their product, “The Cyberspace Developer’s Kit.” William Gibson was rather annoyed by this and reportedly said he was going to trademark “Eric Gullichsen,” this being the name of the first lead programmer on the Autodesk Cyberspace project. I was employed by Autodesk’s Advanced Technology Division at that time, and I helped write some demos for Autodesk Cyberspace.

Graphical user immersion was brought about by using a lot of hacking and a lot of tricks of three-dimensional graphics. The idea was to break a scene up into polygons and show the projected images of the polygons from whatever position the user wants. It’s not much extra work to make two slightly different projections, in this way you can get stereo images that are fed to “EyePhones.” The only available EyePhones in the late ‘80s were expensive devices made by Jaron Lanier’s company VPL.

User manipulation was done by another of Lanier’s devices, the DataGlove. So as to correctly track the relative positions of their hands and heads, users wore a magnetic field device known as Polhemus. The EyePhones, DataGlove and Polhemus were all somewhat flaky and unreliable pieces of hardware, as were the experimental graphics accelerator cards that we had in our machines. It was really pretty rare that everything would be working at once. I programmed for over a year on a demo called “Flocking Topes” that showed polyhedra flocking around the user like a school of tropical fish, and I doubt if I got to spend more than five minutes fully immersed VR with my demo. But what a wonderful five minutes it was!


Polyhedra and tumbling hypercubes in cyberspace.

Supporting multiple users turned out to be a subtler programming issue than had been expected. When you have multiple users you have the problems of whose machine the VR simulation is living on, and of how to keep the worlds in synch.

In the end, the Autodesk product was a flop. It was too expensive and too constrictive. People were writing plenty of VR programs, but they didn’t want to be constrained to the particular set of tools that the Autodesk Cyberspace Developer’s Kit was supposed to provide.

One of the biggest growth areas for VR has been video games. Initially, home computers couldn’t support these computations, so one of the early forms of commercial cyberspace were expensive arcade games. One in particular was called “Virtuality”. Each player would get on a little platform, strap on head-goggles and gloves, and enter a Virtual Reality in which the players walked around in simulated bodies carrying pop-guns and trying to shoot each other. The last time I played this game was in a “Cybermind” arcade in San Francisco. I was by myself, scruffily dressed. My opponents were two ten-year-old boys with their parents. I whaled on them pretty good—they were new to the game. It was only after we finished that the parents realized their children had been off in cyberspace with that—unshaven chuckling man over there.

Of course now games like Quake and Half-Life show fairly convincing VR simulations on home computer screens. For whatever reason, head-mounted displays and glove interfaces still haven’t caught on. But the multiple-user aspect of VR has really taken off. There are any number of online VR environments in which large numbers of people enter the same world.

I just recently got a good enough computer to make it practical to visit some of these worlds. The online VR is amazing at first. You can run this way and that, looking at things. And there’s lots of other people in there with you, each in one of the body images known as “avatars.” Everyone’s talking by typing, and their sentences are scrolling past at the bottom of the screen.

What still seems to be missing from these worlds is any kind of indigenous life, although this may yet be on the way. As the writer Bruce Sterling once remarked to me about VR worlds, “I always want to get in there with a spray-can. It’s too clean.” It would be nice for instance to have plants, animals, molds, and the like. But for now, it’s the presence of the other people that makes these worlds compelling.


In the late eighties there was suddenly a big cultural interest in cyberpunk, cyberspace and Virtual Reality. Part of this was due to the weird Berkeley magazine Mondo 2000, which presented these ideas as something like a new form of LSD.

In point of fact, the Mondo crew were mostly not very technical. Some of them were quite devoted to psychedelics, and you might say that cyberspace and Virtual Reality were new forms they used for thinking about drug visions. Tripping and calling people on the phone can seem a lot like being in cyberspace, for instance. In any case, Mondo did a lot to popularize what might be called “cyberculture.”

One way to explain the word “cyberpunk” is that “cyber” means computer/human interface and “punk” means rebellious countercultural people. The computer gives power to the punk. More broadly speaking, cyberpunk science fiction is about the fusion of humans and machines. It isn’t really about the future, it’s about the present. It’s a way for us to step back and look at what’s happening right now. The brain plug is you with your keyboard and your screen. The Virtual Reality is you watching television.

Mondo added on additional layers of meaning to the word, and in 1992 I helped edit a collection of their articles called the Mondo User’s Guide. The book got good publicity, and even occasioned a cover story on cyberpunk by Time magazine (Feb 8, 1993.) Cyberpunk suddenly stood for a whole independent culture and reality, far beyond what I thought it had meant. It began to seem that by paying attention to the world in certain ways you could begin to live in cyberspace.

The writer John Perry Barlow remarked, for instance, that “cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the telephone.” A few weeks later I was at a conference in Toronto. It was evening, I was walking down a deserted city street alone and I missed Sylvia. At every second corner there was a telephone. I stopped at one and tried to call Sylvia, punching in all the twenty-five necessary numbers for a credit card call. The phone was busy. It was too cold to stand there waiting. I kept walking, and at every second block was an identical deserted phone, and at each one I punched in the numbers. At the fifth phone I got her. It struck me that as I’d been walking, I’d been moving through a kind of continuous jelly of cyberspace.

The Web

In a way, the focus on Virtual Reality was a diversion, a detour. For a computer reality to engross, it isn’t so important after all that it have really great 3-D immersive graphics. It’s more important that it react to what you do, and that it include other people.

Your mind is rich enough that in fact you can get mesmerized by very low bandwith things. People can completely get into, for instance, something as graphically crude as text-based conversations in a chat room.

And the system’s turnaround reaction time doesn’t even have to be very high. If you do a lot of electronic mail, you get used to checking your email once or twice a day, and it’s like there is a big buzz of conversation going on that you are part of. If you can’t get to your email you’re kind of uncomfortable. It’s a big thrill to find a cybercafe in a strange city and suddenly be able to plug into your familiar email corner of cyberspace.

One definition of something being a reality is that several people can go there and see the same thing. This is certainly the case with the Web. It’s a space that we go out into all the time, and interesting things are happening there. Unlike watching television, the Web is interactive. You can move around and look at whatever it is that you want to see.

An advantage of the Web over physical reality is that it’s physically safe inside your computer, that is, it’s not like the real world where you can get into a car accident, trip and fall down, get wet, have to walk home, etc. A disadvantage is that you’re sitting in a chair punching a plastic keyboard.

But the real attraction of the Web’s cyberspace is that you don’t need to be lonely in there. You can say things and people will hear you. Email flits back and forth. People put things up for you to look at. It’s a kind of community. It’s a global computer. It’s everywhere. Cyberspace is a pleasant, anarchistic alternate universe that we’re all free to live in.

Future Memories of Cyberspace

The following passages, assembled in October, 1992, were all drawn from the cyberspace-related novel I was then working on, The Hacker and the Ants.

But what was cyberspace? Where did it come from? Cyberspace oozed out of the world’s computers like stage-magic fog. Cyberspace was an alternate reality, it was the huge interconnected computation being collectively run by planet Earth’s computers around the clock. Cyberspace was the information Net, but more than the Net, cyberspace was a shared vision of the Net as a physical space.

My job back then was with GoMotion Unlimited of Santa Clara, California. GoMotion got its start selling kits for a self-guiding dune-buggy called the Iron Camel. The kit was a computer software CD that was like an interactive three-dimensional blueprint along with assembly instructions. GoMotion kit software could use electronic mail to order all the parts you needed, and it would guide you step by step through the assembly, calling in registered building helpers if you needed them. Once you got the thing built, our kit would load intelligent software into the vehicle’s processor board, and you’d have a dune-buggy that could drive itself. By now, various models of the Iron Camel have sold one and a half million units worldwide!

GoMotion hired me to help develop a new product: a kit and the software for a customized personal robot called the Veep. Our preliminary design work was all in virtual reality. Instead of building lots of prototype machines, GoMotion would put together virtual models of machines that we could cheaply test inside our computers’ artificial reality simulations—in cyberspace.

My cyberspace deck had two gray Spandex control gloves and a white plastic headset, all connected to a computer by wireless radio link. My deck generated three-dimensional graphics that it could show from any angle, in stereo vision, by feeding pairs of images to the two electronic lenses of my headset. The headset had a microphone and speakers, also a sensor that would tell the system about my head movements so it could update the viewpoint.

The system let me feel as if I was inside a different space, the artificial reality of the computer, cyberspace. Turning or moving my head would change my viewpoint; I could lean to one side and look around a nearby object. The gloves let the computer generate realtime images of my hands. Seeing moving images of my hands in front of me enhanced the illusion that I was really inside cyberspace.

The simulated objects of cyberspace were called simmies. My hand-images were simmies, as was the virtual phone in my cyberspace office. As well as having a characteristic appearance, a simmie had a characteristic behavior—one simmie might sit still, and another might like to move around. The behavior part of a simmie could become so complicated that the things practically seemed alive.

If the phone was ringing annoyingly, I might don my headset and control gloves, enter my virtual office, and rip the simmie wires out of my simmie phone. The ringing would stop.

As soon as I put on the gloves and the headset, it was like being in different room, an invisible secret room of my house: my virtual office. When I talked or made gestures in my virtual office, my cyberspace deck would interpret me and execute my commands. The “pulling wires out of the phone” gesture, for instance, would cause my computer to shunt all my incoming phone calls to an answering-machine.

My virtual office could look like almost anything—it could be a palace, an igloo, or a bubble in the deep blue sea. I used the default office-pattern which came with the my cyberspace software: it had one wall missing and no ceiling. Over the walls and in the far background I would see whatever landscape I was presently hottest for—a long-term favorite was a swamp with simmies that looked like dinosaurs and pterodactyls. It was called Roarworld; I got it off the Net.

How did I look in cyberspace? Like most users, I owned a tailor-made simmie of my cyberspace body. Cyberspace users called their body-simmies tuxedos. My tuxedo was a suite of video images bitmapped onto a blank humanoid form. The form’s surface was a mesh of triangles which could be adjusted like a dress-maker’s dummy; and inside the form were virtual armatures and hinges so that the thing moved about as realistically as one of those little wooden manikins that artists used to have. The overall size of the thing was adjusted to closely match my body size with, of course, a few inches taken off the waist. I had my bodysurfaces taped by a professional bodymapping studio.

Alternatively, you could choose an art-tux. Some I remember seeing were: a club-wielding caveman, a breast-plated Amazon, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a happy carrot, Michelangelo’s marble David, a pointillist Seurat woman with a bustle, a centaur, “Bob” Dobbs, a teddy bear, the Pope, Bo Diddley, a vertically divided half-Elvis half-Marilyn, JFK with brains dangling from the back of his head, a knight in paisley armor, a forties secretary with glasses and tight bun, a saucer-alien with tentacles on its face, a crying clown, and many more.

At GoMotion, once we had specs for a new prototype, instead of actually building it out of wires and metal, we would generate a simmie of the thing and test it out in cyberspace.

To really get a feel for the effectiveness of a personal robot simulations, I would set my viewpoint so that I saw through the virtual robot’s eyes and moved its parts with sensors on my own hands and legs. I wore the robot-model like a tuxedo, and I drove the robot around in cyberspace houses. No actual robot and no actual house—just an idea for a robot in an idea of a house. I’d try and figure out what was right and wrong with the current model. If I noticed a problem with any of the hardware—bad pincer design for instance—I’d get the GoMotion engineers to generate improved specs and a new simmie Veep robot.

Once a simmie robot model worked with me driving it, I’d pull back to try and write software that could drive it around without me being “in” it. And then I might need to change the simmie to make it work better with the new software. This process took dozens, scores, hundreds, or even thousands of iterations. The only way to make a profit was to do as much of this as possible in virtual reality.

My home robot Studly was the first physical prototype of a Veep that GoMotion actually built. Studly was a joy to behold, a heart-warming payoff for all the mind-numbing hacking that went into making him to happen. He moved around on single-jointed legs which ended in off-the-shelf stunt-bicycle wheels. There were small idler wheels on the knees of these legs, so that on smooth surfaces Studly could kneel down and nestle his body in between his big wheels, with the little knee wheels rolling on ahead. In this mode, he didn’t waste compute time keeping his balance. Out in the yard, Studly would rise up into a bent-knee crouch, using arm-motions and internal gyroscopes to steady himself. On stairs, the full glory of Studly’s control-theoretic algorithms came into play; he turned sideways and worked his way up or down with his two wheels on different steps, using precise lunges and gyro pulses to keep from falling over. Depending on your mood, Studly’s peculiar movements could seem comical, beautiful, or obscurely sinister.

The two neatest things in my virtual office were my Lorenz attractor and my dollhouse. The Lorenz attractor was a floating dynamical system consisting of orbiting three-dimensional icons, little simmie images that stood for pieces of information or which represented things my computer could do. The icons tumbled along taffy trajectories that knotted into a rollercoaster pair of floppy ears with a chaotic figure-eight intersection. If I liked, I could make myself small and ride around on the Lorenz attractor in a painless demolition derby with my files. It was a fun way to mull things over.

My dollhouse was a special CAD model of the house I lived in. I’d tweaked my real house’s alarm system so that if anyone touched a door or window, the little model of that door or window lighted up on the dollhouse. I had a little doll of Studly moving around in my house. Studly had a position sensor which kept my deck always aware of where he was, rolling around and cleaning, gardening, keeping an eye on things, taking care of business, and occasionally talking to me. If I wanted to check something in the house, I could switch over to Studly’s viewpoint, and see what he was seeing through his two video-camera eyes.

Three things might keep a user from taking off cyberspace equipment were “voodoo cyberspaces,” “the dark dream,” and “stunglasses burn.”

A voodoo cyberspace had hypnotic flickering and rhythmic sound intended to numb or fascinate the user too much to want to leave. Voodoo cyberspaces were really a form of entertainment, not unlike commercials or music videos.

In the dark dream, you’d think you’ve taken off the gloves and headset when you really hadn’t. Right before you thought you’d taken off your headset, the dark dream would show you a perfectly taped and enhanced image of it happening, synched to your movements. The dark dream worked by tricking the hand-eye feedback loop, and like some defective robot, you’d failed to “physically acquire” the headset before you “took it off.”

“Stunglasses burn” could happen when you were using your cyberspace goggles in passthrough mode—like if you were too busy to want to fully leave cyberspace. To use your headset as “stunglasses,” you’d have two little bead-sized TV cameras right on the goggles taking in the real images around you and feeding them to your deck, with your deck putting the images back onto the screens of your goggles. The “burn” element came into play if somebody started playing with what your deck did to the things you thought were real images.

One time some phreaks really nailed me with a stunglasses burn. When they were through with me I thought I’d shit in my pants, eviscerated a dog, and strangled my girlfriend. They did it to me because I’d crypped the CyberBarbie meshes from Mattel to use for people in the house where I was testing the GoMotion robot simmies.

Good old cyberspace. Those were the days.

Note on “Five Flavors of Cyberspace”

Written 1996 and 1992.

Appeared as “Brain Plug” in the Australian magazine 21C in 1996.

In 1991 and early 1992, I was working at Autodesk with a group that was developing a toolkit for writing virtual reality or “cyberspace” programs. I was laid off from Autodesk in the fall of 1992, and I spent the next year working on my Silicon Valley novel, The Hacker and the Ants. The second part of this article is drawn from that novel, and the first part is an article that I later wrote for 21C. By the time I wrote that article, I had fairly wide-ranging views on the meaning of the word “cyberspace.”

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Cyberculture in Japan

May 28, 1990, Morning. First sights.

We came in last night, first sight from the plane a long beach, the edge of Asia, the sand empty and gray, rice paddies lining the rivers, hill knobs sticking out of the paddies like castles, green and misty. The crowd at the airport: the variousness of the Japanese faces. I notice this again downtown later, the diversity of their faces from round to square, and skin color from yellow to pale white. Sylvia and I hit the street to walk around the fancy Ginza neighborhood once we’ve checked into the Hotel Imperial.

An arched stone passage under a train line, barbecue smoke streaming out, people sitting eating and drinking, a TV crew with 12 guys pointing lights at the announcer, who waits poised, then starts screaming crazily and the camera and lights follow as he surges forward into the BBQ crowd and confronts someone. Taxi cabs like cop cars streaming by. It’s all so cyberpunk.

We eat sushi and beer, and at some unknown signal half the people there get bowls of soup with clams in it. On the street we get lost, gawking at the huge electric signs. The oddity of seeing story-high electric letters that mean nothing to you. Pure form, no content. Burroughs talks about rubes staring up in awe at the crawling neon. It’s humiliating to be illiterate.

Driving in from the airport we passed Chiba City on the right, and on the left I saw a building that might have been a motel, with sloping buttress side walls that went right down to the edge of a solidly building-lined canal leading out to the Tokyo Bay, and I thought of Neuromancer. There were a DJ man and woman on the radio, she repeatedly giggling madly, then they started a song; Roy Orbison singing “Only the Lonely.”

Walking around the Ginza lost that night we see lots of groups of “company-men” in blue suits, some of them quite drunk by end of evening. One particular guy is doing the double-jointed wobbly-knee walk that my father used to call “the camel walk.” He’s fifty or sixty, gray-haired, leader of his buddies. They’re having such fun out on the street, everyone: no one begging or stealing or looking for a fight.

May 28, 1990, Afternoon. Around Tokyo.

Sylvia and I were up quite early, and spent about six hours exploring. We sat outside the Kabuki Theater for awhile to rest, and saw construction workers in split-toed cloth boots with rubber soles, good for climbing. “Split-toe” in Japan is like “hard-hat” in the U.S. Women in kimonos were going in and out of the theater, musicians and makeup people. They have the self-confidence of artists with a job.

The imperial palace is in the center of a park with deep-looking moats with slanting stone walls. There are also places where the slanting stone walls just come up from the ground, leaning against embankments. The walls are fascinating because at the edges they use rectangular blocks and towards the center they use huge irregular hexagons, all the blocks fitting together as nicely as soap-bubbles. It’s interesting to me to see a transition between rectangular and hexagonal grid arrays, as this relates to a problem connected with the electronic ant farm program I’ve been working on recently.

We find a lovely green field in the palace park. It is deserted and Japan is so crowded. Maybe Japanese always do the same thing at the same time, so that either they all go to the park or none do? Or maybe they have too much respect for the Emperor to enter his park. The hedges are trimmed with a peak running lengthwise along the hedge tops, like the tops of a roofs. We hear someone playing or practicing a flute, it sounds Zen and spacey. Hearing that and looking at the pleasing meadow with a few trees and its low ridged hedges I think, “Of course it looks nice, it’s arranged according to some transcendental holistic Japanese vision,”…then wonder if maybe I’m reading more into it than is there. The beautiful swooping catenary lines of the stone moat walls going down to the water are certainly by design.

We went to a museum with an art nouveau exhibit; all the other museum-visitors were young women. They look so goody-goody and tidy and sweet. Sylvia says that sex is not viewed as sinful in Japan, maybe that’s why the women can be so clean and good, with nothing dirty about sex or the prospect of it to sully them? The women and children are in the shops and museums, and all the men are in the office buildings. After work the men drink and sing in the street and walk funny and go home and start over. Seems like a simple kind of life for either side.

Then we found the main art museum and saw an interesting show on “The Best of Bunten 1905–1917.” Turns out Bunten is an acronym for a national art show/contest they had in Japan for awhile, till the artists quarreled so much the shows stopped. The pieces we saw were really interesting. Lots of them were straight copies of impressionist style. Cézanne and Degas and Manet copped composition ideas from Japanese prints, fans, and kimonos—and then the Japanese turned around and copped back impressionist lighting tricks for their own pics. Mirrors of mirrors. There were some wonderful big traditional-style scrolls and screens, too. Some of the screen paintings are done, if you look closely, in a fast loose brush style almost like cartooning, but at a slight distance they look formal and dreamily real. I noticed one beautiful woman guard in the museum, slightly plump—I keep trying to fix mental images of people I can use for Japanese characters in future books.

In the park, there’s a woman kneeling, taking a picture of her toddler coming towards her saying “Mama,” glancing over at us with such a shy happy look on her Asian secretary’s face, not that she was a secretary, she had lipstick and a silk suit. With “Asian secretary” I’m thinking of the weak-chinned long-toothed look that kind of goes with the idea of a gossiping office-girl, a pretty fair number of the women here have that look, with a bright lipstick mouth stuck on like a mouth on Mr. Potato Head, only using a chinless yellow parsnip instead of a potato. In the primo examples of this look, the lips won’t quite meet and an asymmetric bit of front tooth is always visible. But regardless of what anyone might think of her looks, there she is, the woman in the park, a mother getting her pictures of her toddler, having the nicest kind of simple fun. These people are so alien to me, I see them in a clearer way than the people back home—kind of like the thing with their writing: since I can’t read it, I notice its pattern and semiotic weight, like there is an advertisement, right on the handle of the subway strap (Sylvia noticed that one), and not be caught up in reading the message. Thus with the woman in the park, I have no ability to “read” her appearance and surmise her life (what kind of house, what kind of husband, kinds of opinions, etc.—and one can, or at least thinks one can, surmise all this easily and automatically from people back home), so instead of saying, like, “Oh, there’s a yuppie woman with her baby,” I just see the ideograph, the form, the woman, the mother getting a picture of her baby’s early steps. “Mama,” he said, same as us. I could push this further, of course, to get a concept of being around real aliens, though to do that I’d have to imagine not having mothers and children. Much is readable even here in Japan; I know for instance that letters are for expressing words, and I know what a mother is.

We found our way to the subway next, also interesting, two women walking past talking, one of them smiling almost crazily while talking to her friend, pausing to clear throat or wet lips and the smile is completely gone, it’s simply part of talking. Sylvia figured out the kanji sign for in it’s a picture of lambda and a box: walking person + hole. And out is a picture of like a double psi and a box: cheering person + hole. You walk in the hole and then you cheer when you get out.

May 30, 1990. Cyberspace, interviews, pachinko.

Yesterday was the big work day. In the morning I went to the building that the Ministry of Information uses for their Hightech Art Planning (HARP). These are the guys who paid my plane fare and hotel and gave me righteous bucks to come give a twenty minute talk on the topic of cyberspace.

There was an exhibit of some computers on one floor. I played with one for quite a while. It was a realtime graphics supercomputer called a Titan. It had a simulation of a flag which was made of a grid of points connected by imaginary springs, and with two of the points attached to a flag pole. You could crank up the wind, or change the wind’s direction, and see the flag start to ripple and flap. I kept thinking of the Zen story about three monks looking at a flag flapping in the wind. A: “What is moving?” B: “The flag is moving.” C: “No, the wind is moving.” A: “Ah no, the mind is moving.” To keep the flag from looking like a bunch of triangles they used a cool computer-graphics trick called “Gouraud shading.” You could rotate the flag too, and as a last touch you could cut one or both of the flag’s tethers to the pole and see it blow away, a crumpling wind-carried shape.

We all did presentations on our work, Scott Fisher on work he did at NASA with headmounted displays with one screen for each eye (immersion in Virtual Reality), in which the view changes as you move your head (realtime controllable viewpoint), and in which you can move an image of your DataGloved hand and do things (user entry into the image). He feels all three features are essential for creating the feeling of being in the artificial world. He used sound instead of tactile feedback, meaning that if you are manipulating, say, a robot arm, there is a sound whose pitch grows as the arm gets nearer to a wall. He spoke of a “3-D window” as a clipped volume containing a different viewpoint; you can reach out and resize a 3-D window. It would be nice to have several 3-D windows to other worlds in the room with me, even better than the old 2-D magic doors of SF.

I missed most of the other presentations because the HARP organizers led me off to do interviews, but another significant flash I got was from Susumu Tachi, who is into telepresence robots. He had a robot like a tricycle with a pair of binoculars sticking up out of the seat, able to swivel back and forth. A user drives the tricycle by wearing goggles and a head mount and using a brake and accelerator pedal. So you see the tricycle going along, turning its pair of eyes this way and that and stopping if someone is in the way. This is an interesting way of separating the problem of hardware and software. You can postpone getting pattern-recognition and judgment programs by letting the control go to a telepresent operator, and meanwhile just get a robot which can mechanically move around and, for instance, pick up objects the way you want it to.

I also got to hear part of Jaron Lanier’s talk. Jaron is the hero of Virtual Reality; his company, VPL, is the first to sell DataGloves and the EyePhones with the two little screens. Jaron is a plump, substance-free hippie with Rasta-style dreadlocks. I sat next to him at the dinner day before yesterday and talked a lot; I ended up defending him when the waitress incredibly started harassing Jaron for having long hair. She’s all, “You are woman?” Jaron took it in stride, calmly saying, “She only acts this way to promote a feeling of rowdiness.” Two of Jaron’s beliefs are, “It’s not really a Virtual Reality unless there’re at least two people in it,” and, “Sex in cyberspace is a dumb idea: polygons aren’t sexy.”

In the morning we rehearsed the talks by talking to our translators and seeing if the video stuff worked. For lunch they brought us Styrofoam boxes of Japanese food. My lunch consisted of a single shrimp and two beans. Really large ones though, each bean a kind of giant lima that you squeeze out of its husk, and the shrimp a hefty little dude the size of a thumb. There was also a table full of soft drinks. The first one I tried, nothing came out, it was a “soft drink” of grape jelly. I had some Pocari Sweat instead. Who is Pocari and why are we drinking his sweat?

My talk went well, I had a video of my CA Lab cellular automata software showing behind me, and I talked about Artificial Life, about robot evolution, and about growing Artificial Life in cyberspace. It was an easy, painless talk. Doing a bunch of interviews was part of the gig, too.

One of my interviews was by a skin magazine called Goro, all their questions were about sex and drugs, like, “Do you feel pornography is a driving force for high tech?” I played along, “Of course. The same human thrill-seeking which makes sex and drugs important is a big factor in seeking out astonishing computer graphics.” I asked about the “soapland” sex places I’d read of in the guidebook, places where, it says, a woman soaps you all over, using parts of her own body to soap you with (I assume soapy boobs and soapy pubic hair), they were surprised I knew of it. They asked what I and my fellow Americans thought of the Japanese, and first I said, “Cool and strange,” and they were happy, and then I said, “In the USA, many think of Japan as an anthill,” and they looked upset. I was sorry I’d said that—over here I’m quickly getting into the concept of “wa,” the common happiness and agreement. One aspect of wa is that whether or not I thought we had time to squeeze in yet another interview, they always said, “Yes we must do it.”

Interviews I had: (1) A music magazine with all Japanese writing on its cover except New Age Total Magazine, though perhaps the name is Rock Land, which phrase appears several times on the table of contents. This interview was conducted by a guy who had been active in getting The Secret of Life published in Japanese, which I’d never even known happened. (2) Goro, as mentioned. (3) ASCII, a computer magazine. I remembered near the end of the interview that my friend Bill Buckley writes a column for them. “Buckley and I smoke marijuana together at hackers’ conferences,” I told them truthfully, though mischievously. (4) Yesterday evening with Hayakawa’s SF Magazine. This was by my Japanese SF translator, a nice guy called Hiroshi. (5) and (6) Today by two more computer magazines, Log In and Eye Com. The guy who asked questions for both of them had some quite complicated fantasies about artificial realities. “In Sim City artificial world, would you rather be the mayor or the Sim?” He had the idea of becoming an artificial reality in which networkers live, any of them able at any time to, e.g., stop your heart. Another of his ideas was that you could shuffle your direct reality with someone else’s, taking in their reality as an artificial reality. If you did this very often, like ten times a second, you would effectively be living as them and as you. If you speeded up the shuffle rate and brought in more and more people, then everyone would be the same metaperson. A catch is that you probably couldn’t effectively even walk with all that shuffling. He gave me a wad of yen worth about $70 at the end of the interview! (7) Then a TV taped interview for NHK TV. This interview had interesting, well-thought-out questions, like, “How can artificial reality help children learn?” and several about ideas of cyberspace and mathenautics as a new frontier with an excitement more relevant to us than the somewhat boring and used-up stuff of space-travel. I really got into all this and laid it on thick, especially since the translator was the same charming woman, Ryoko Shinzaki, who had simultaneous-translated my speech. She was quite small when she stood up, but she had a beautifully symmetric face, with eyes that turned into semicircle slits when she smiled, also a nobly straight nose and a big upper lip. I got so interested in watching her talking that I would hardly hear what she said. (8) Then a stupid interview with someone who said he was a massage person who worked with HARP and mainly wanted to explain his theories of massage. I told him my gums hurt, and he pushed his knuckle into my hand until I said my gums felt okay. (9) Finally a magazine called Diamond Executive with a guy who actually understood no English, but would nod and look so much like a promising executive that you felt he was on your wavelength, only then the translator would take three minutes to tell him what you said.

The Diamond Executive’s translator was an expatriate American woman. I met several other people like her, Westerners who’d established themselves in niches of the Japanese culture. They all seemed to have a somewhat hangdog and dispirited air.

At the reception after the HARP stuff, there was a whole table covered with glasses of whisky on ice, God how I hated to leave that room! Standing there talking to the guys, two of them managers of HARP (at least seven people were introduced to me as the manager of HARP), and the guys are so fucking drunk they can hardly stand up, yet they give off no vibe of USA-style shame for their altered state.

We had supper with my science fiction guys from Hayakawa Publishing, Inc. As well as publishing Hawakawa SF Magazine, they’re the biggest SF book publisher in Japan, and have, incredibly, all of my books in print. If only I were so well-loved in the U.S. We ate as a party of 6 people in a basement French restaurant, some of the best French food I ever had, and then all five others start smoking, unbelievable, smoke and drink aren’t evil here and people aren’t embarrassed about sex, what a country.

Hiroshi the translator was a really good guy, I was tired but insisted on doing the interview after dinner to get it over with, up on the third floor with the Hayakawa offices—the French restaurant we had supper in turned out to be owned by Hayakawa, is in the basement of the same building. Propped my feet up on the sill of a huge open window, four and five-story Tokyo buildings outside, the night and the street, talking about my various careers. The electroshock excitement of the computer graphic world is one thing, the thoughtful artfulness of writing another, the clarifying formulas and occasional revelations of math a third, and the humble public service of teaching is an underlying fourth.

This morning Sylvia and I went to a shrine at Asakusa, on the way came up from the subway looking for breakfast, bought cheese rolls, but then where to eat? I ate mine on the street, but I wouldn’t do it again; if you eat in public, Japanese look at you like you’re taking a dump on the sidewalk. At the shrine there were zillions of school children, all in white shirts, so cute, group after group coming up to us, “May I speak with you?” to practice their English. At the shrine there was a shiny brass Buddha to one side, with a slot for money. You put money in the slot and then rub a certain part of Buddha, and then rub the same part of you, to heal. I tried it on my cheek over the gum where I’ve had the unbelievable, unrelenting pain ever since I had a bunch of back teeth pulled two weeks ago; recently I’ve been scraping agonized gum away to chip off spiky dead jawbone frags, and stirring up incredible endless torture of nerves up and down neck and deep into inner ear. The bone pieces are like having a three-dimensional Mandelbrot set pushed through my gum one cross-section at a time. (See my essay, "The Rudy Set Fractal," for images.)

We had a disgusting lunch in a badly chosen restaurant. Many Japanese restaurants display plastic models of the food they serve; I ordered from the plastic displays, but erred and ended up with a potty of utterly tasteless tofu custard, and a salad of cold noodles topped with 2 maraschino cherries and slices of scrambled eggs. Yum! Actually it had a single tempura shrimp on it, the come-on. Two women in kimonos were there eating, one of them our age, delicately pincering bits, her complex cheek muscles working. The waitress had hair over her face and a cheesy dumbbell mouth with the upper lip literally vertical at the ends where it met the lower lip.

I played pachinko, you put a few bucks in a machine and get a basket of ball bearings, and then dump them in a hopper and they are rapid fired into a steep, nearly vertical playboard studded with nails and with high-scoring input hoppers here and there, and a big zero-score hopper at the bottom. Your control over it is via a knob that affects the speed with which the successive balls are launched up into the board. A special hopper guarded by two kneeling spacemen figures opened up on my machine, and I held the knob at the right position for many balls to stream in there. More and more pay-off balls came out into a basket under the machine—there’s a slot-machine aspect to it, and you get paid off with extra balls—finally I had a whole shoebox full of balls, many more than the 700 yen worth I’d started with. Sylvia and I took the box of balls back to a woman in an apron, she had the stubby sticking-out curly bob so popular here, she poured the zillion balls into a counting machine and gave me a piece of paper and gestured towards some cigarettes and candies. “Can I get money?” I said, pointing towards some coins in my hand. She nods and gives me some lighter-flints with the brand name “MONY.” Like what are these good for? This is money? I start to complain, then she gets another girl to watch the counter while she leads me out of the parlor, out of the chrome and the whooping sound effects, into the street, down an alley to the right, down a smaller alley to the left, walking rapidly in front of me, aproned, walking with a rocking motion, walking so fast I can barely keep up and Sylvia is a block behind me, she stops finally and points to the door under a horizontal red sign with writing on it, I go in, there is a tiny window at waist level, wood, I put the MONY lighter flints in there, and a hand passes out 2200 yen! Three to one payoff, all right! I asked my Japanese contacts about it later, they said, yes it is always lighter flints, and it would be illegal for the payoff to be inside the pachinko parlor proper, but this way is all right.

On the subway riding back, looking at the faces across from us, I see one old guy with a face all folded, the upper eyelids folded over the lower lids, the mouth folded shut, huge eyebrows, skinny skinny legs, he made me think of my pictures of old idol D. T. Suzuki in his What is Zen? book. Next to the old guy I see a succession of younger guys, one replacing the other stop by stop, the flow of life through the different bodies of man, each of them so individual and various, each life unique.

May 31, 1990. The Gold Disco.

Yesterday evening we went to the Gold Disco, a multi-story building that looks like a shitty warehouse from the outside, down under a freeway by the river, guests of the same Mr. Takemura who was the organizer and panel-discussion leader for the HARP Cyberspace Symposium. He is a man who looks and behaves something like our San Francisco SF friend Richard Kadrey, kind of a maven, hiply up on all the latest. I first met Takemura when Allison Kennedy of Mondo 2000 put him onto me in SF, he was doing an article for a Japanese magazine called Excentric, a Mondo-type publication with features on all the weirdos in a different given area each issue. He photogged me in front of the San Francisco Masonic headquarters in my red sweater, had me in the mag with Dr Tim Leary of course, and mind-blown John Lilly, and Marc Pauline, who puts on the great Survival Research Labs fire-breathing renegade robot events, also Steve Beck, a friend of Allison’s who does computer graphic acid videos and talks about using electric fields to stimulate phosphene visions in the closed eye, which process he calls “virtual light.”

Here in Tokyo Mr. Takemura is quite a heavy dude it seems, and he does a monthly “show” at the Gold Disco. His show is a series of collaged videos he makes, also lighting effects, smoke clouds and scent clouds, and fast acid-house disco. The Gold Disco building has a traditional Japanese restaurant on an upper floor, we went there first, it was an airy room open at the sides to the sky (though it developed, on closer inspection that this “outdoors” was an artificial reality, was really a black painted ceiling with brisk ventilation, and that there was another story above ours!) Sylvia and I were quite hungry, having skipped supper till now (9:00 PM) as Mr. Takemura’s friend Kumiko had assured us it would be “traditional” Japanese food, which Sylvia and I imagined as being banquet-like. Jaron Lanier was there, also Steve Beck and Allison Kennedy, also two friends of Jaron’s, also Sylvia’s cousin Zsolt and his wife Helga. Zsolt grew up in Budapest with Sylvia, now he’s turned German and he’s here in the employ of Bayer doing chemical engineering of rubber. Various Japanese companies have licenses to use Bayer’s proprietary trade-secret ways of making rubber have special properties, and Zsolt oversees some of that.

We’re eating in a tatami room, meaning you sit on the ground with a tiny lacquered TV-dinner tray in front of you. First a waitress in a really great kimono and obi crawls around taking orders, and then there appears a geisha in the center of the floor/table, sitting there like a center-piece, simpering a bit and fanning herself, answering a few questions which we Westerners put through Kumiko, me and Sylvia too appalled however to ask anything. Completely white face and red lips, all kinds of plastic and cloth in her hair, major kimono silk, etc. “She’s not actually a geisha,” Kumiko explains, “She is younger, she is a Maiko, this is a young girl of 15 to 20 who has not mastered the necessary skills of singing or storytelling or music to be a geisha, she will in fact most likely not become a geisha, her purpose here is really to find a man who will take care of all her needs.” And keep her as mistress, it goes without saying. She’s plain and looks sad, and makes me feel so uncomfortable, she’s like the goat tethered as bait for the T. Rex in Jurassic Park. Then all of a sudden we have to run downstairs to be photographed by Japan’s most famous society photog, in front of The Gold Disco, all of us, The Gold Disco supposedly the hottest place in Tokyo these days, just like Andy Warhol or something man, outrageous, and we’re just people after all, we glittery ones, then it’s back upstairs and whew we have a new maiko, and this one is cute and loud, asking questions and saying things. And here’s the food. A plate with a spiral tree snail, perhaps not dead, three whole salted shrimp each the size of a toenail clipping, and a small piece of what I take to be tuna, but is, on biting, a slice of some fish’s long strip of roe, all egg-crunchy. Now the second course comes, two rice balls for me—ba-ru, the loud geisha explains, making a throwing motion, meaning “ball,” and then putting her hands up to her mouth “gobble gobble,” she’s a regular bad-ass teenager under the paint, and three crab claw tips for Sylvia, who thought to ask for them. Not much food but lots of sake.

Then it’s downstairs to see Mr. Takemura’s show, first Lanier and I go down, then a bit later Sylvia—who’d been waiting around in the hope of more food—is led down with the others by the loud junior geisha, who starts dancing, what a sight to see her in the disco, it made me feel so much better for her to be there amidst the incredibly various throng. For me the best thing of all in the disco was that, incredibly, they had a computer monitor set into the wall with CA Lab running on it, showing my high-speed “Rug” rule.

Later we went up one floor to the so-called Love Sex Club, a lovers’ retreat with big banquette/bed seats and a bar decorated with skeletons, skulls, and, dig this, bottles of clear alcohol, each containing an entire gecko, a really big gecko, barely fitting in the liter bottle man, not just some insignificant tequila worm here. According to Steve and Allison, who’d already tried it a few days before, this is an incredibly powerful aphrodisiac. Sylvia and I split a glass of it, as do Zsolt and his wife. And soon thereafter we all go home to bed. Dot, dot, dot.

So today I’m clear of all my interviews and duties, though it took some running around to find a new hotel. We’d been in the luxury Hotel Imperial and now found, thanks to connections of HARP, a more affordable room in Ginza Dai-ichi Hotel, which is a surprisingly large step down in the direction of the proverbial coffin hotel. The window is like a bus window with rounded corners, the bathroom is made of one single piece of plastic and is tiny, but for now it’s home. At first I’d tried calling hotels—our prepaid Imperial reservation ran out today, along with HARP’s responsibility towards us—but all were full, but cute roundeyed roundmouthed plumpcheeked Mr. Fujino of HARP helped us out one last bit by finding this.

We were thinking of taking a train to Nikko, but just things like eating are hard enough. We did have a good lunch today, in the basement of the Ginza Style Department Store at Sylvia’s urging. In the store we first went up to the roof and looked at their bonsai, they had one pine for something like ten thousand dollars, it was especially valuable because it leaned way over and half of its trunk was like rotted away. There was a thick-gnarled azalea for a nine thousand bucks, though the flowers on it seemed, to my mind, to ruin the effect of the scale. The department store was full of recorded voices, women’s voices talking, Sylvia said, in the voice of a Good Doll, a sing-song almost lisping voice. We sampled some of the many available things to taste in the gourmet food-shop in the second sublevel basement, hideous fishy wads and tortured slimy vegetables. After awhile I was laughing so hard at the gnarl of it all that I couldn’t stop. My lunch was good except that the soup reeked of mildew. Traced the cause finally to some thick limp strands of fungus(?), maybe they get the spores of mildew and nurture it like a bonsai until it’s a stalk the size of a carrot and then they slice that up and soak it in gecko juice or something and they put that in your soup. Once the offending strands were pincered out and banished to the furthest corner of the table, the meal was all right.

June 1, 1990, Morning. Shinjuku.

Morning, it’s raining cats and dogs outside, Sylvia is cheerful. Cozy in our tiny room.

Yesterday afternoon we went to Shinjuku. They had lots of pachinko places. I realize now that the machines are not separate entities, there is a vast common pool of pachinko balls behind the stuck-together rows of machines. Proof is that to buy new balls you put coins in a slot shared by your machine and the next machine, the balls don’t come from one machine or the other, they come from the common ball space. How apt a symbol of the Japanese flowing out of their offices and through their subways, the pachinko balls, each ball by the way with a character on it, invisible unless you pick it up and peer closely to see the character scratched on. When you’re through playing, there is a sink with towels near the door to wash off your hands. We walked through a neighborhood where I’d expected to see sex shops, but with Japanese reticence there was no way to tell which might be sex, or if you could tell, no way to tell what lay inside. Well, there was one obvious place—it had a big statue of a gorilla in boxer shorts with stars and stripes and an English sign saying, “This Is The Sex Place.” Gorilla in shorts is the typical USA male sex-tourist in their minds no doubt. Mostly Shinjuku was like a boardwalk with games, etc. There was a thin old-fashioned alley with a hundred tiny yakatori (skewered meat) places, we squeezed into one, with like a 5 foot ceiling, had a couple of beers and some skewers, a man helped us translate, “What kind you want? Tongue? Liver? Kidney?” “Uh…are those all the choices?” Then we went to an eighth floor bar called Gibson—I’d imagined maybe it was a cyberpunk theme bar as I’d heard some people use the phrase “Gibson literature” for “cyberpunk,” but that’s not what it was, it was just another of the zillion places selling whiskey and pickled veggies. We wrote postcards while the place filled up with office-workers in suits. When we got outside the Shinjuku lights were on, the big signs, awesome as the Ginza, but harder to see with all the train stations in the way. One particularly unusual light is a big 3-D cage of bars with neon tubes in every direction. A surface of illumination moved through the cage this way and that and then more and more of the bars came on to make a big chaotic 3-D knot of light.

Beautiful people on the subway, a schoolgirl with a big round chin, her lips always parted in a half smile, all of the women with the lusterless black hair and a few strands of bangs. Heart-stopping symmetries in these young faces, another girl with a slightly rough complexion carrying a basket of arranged flowers, pressing her offering into a corner away from the subway wind.

June 1, 1990, Afternoon. The Kabuki theater, Momotaro.

Leaving the hotel for Shinjuku yesterday afternoon I decided, once we were a block or two away, that I should go back and leave my sweater, and then made a wrong turn and blundered around in circles for half an hour, finally giving up and keeping the sweater and with difficulty finding my way back to waiting Sylvia. Our first night here we had to take a cab just to find our way back to our hotel. Amazing how difficult it is to orient with no street names. Some of the larger streets have names, but the names are “all the same” and “impossible to remember,” especially since it is very rare that the name, if there is a name, is written out in Western letters. And you can’t orient very well by landmarks since the buildings are mostly gray concrete boxes, or by signs, as the signs are crazy scribbles. Seeing some country-yokel type Japanese guys in our hotel I wondered how they ever find anything, and it occurred to me that they must simply ask instructions every block or so. The Japanese always seem ready to help each other, there are, for instance, so many staff always in restaurants and stores, like two or three times as many as back home—reminiscent also of the way there were like seven different guys working as “manager of HARP.” The Japanese overemploy so that everyone can get lots of help and service, they give it to each other and they get it back. Generalities, perhaps false, but it’s fun to try and see patterns here. One of the mysteries guidebooks and more experienced visitors mention is that there are effectively no usable addresses, houses in a district being numbered according to the order in which they were built, and many of the streets really not having any name at all. How can such a system work? It works if you think in terms of moving along like an (here’s that impolitic word again!) ant, rubbing feelers with the ants you encounter, getting bits of info as you need them. Given the city as a hive-mind extended in space and time, you need only keep asking it where you are and how to get where you are going, and it will tell you. You just feel-feel-feel your haptic way. As opposed to the can-do Western approach where you get a map and fix your coordinates and set out like Vasco da Gama, or like an instrument-navigating airplane pilot, and reckon your way to your goal, all by yourself, not asking for any help.

At breakfast on the 15th floor there were two halves, Japanese breakfast half where you could get “rice set” including rice, boiled fish, miso soup, pickled vegetables, or American half where you get eggs. We opted for egg. The music in the Japanese half was a recording of a cuckoo, on the American side, Muzak. Great mushroom omelet, though. Looking out the window through the Saturday morning rain, we could see into a building with a many-desked office. The guys in there were doing calisthenics together, just like Japanese workers are so often rumored to do. It’s healthy, natch, and perhaps a way of bonding—”we all did the same motions at the start of work.”

In the morning paper, I read that one of the biggest gangs in Japan, their like Mafia, is called Yamaguchi-gumi. Such a sweet-sounding name for a gang…like the Little Kidders.

The National Kabuki Theater is in the Ginza, so we walked up there to see if we could get in. Good fortune. They had an 11:00 AM matinee with easily-bought inexpensive tickets to sit in the highest (4th floor) seats. And a booth selling boxed lunches! Sylvia got two octagonal wood boxes with sushi in them, even though we weren’t hungry, the box appeal was irresistible. So there we were in the highest row, with Japanese all around us. There’s a really pronounced dearth of other Westerners here—often as not there are in fact no others in sight (save at American breakfasts). Incredible, really, the depth of U.S. ignorance of Japan—before coming here I didn’t even know the name of any of the parts or sights of Tokyo. Anyway, up in the highest row of the Kabuki we sit, looking down at the not-really-so-distant curtain which has two flying cranes sewn on, and numerous bamboo trunks, pictures of them I mean, very Japanese style, beams overhead with some slight decoration on them and light wallpaper with a meandering parallelogram design. Rows of red paper lanterns here and there on the sides. Then it starts. There were four scenes with men, a boy, and two “women,” though in kabuki the women are played by men, who are called “onnagata,” as opposed to “tachiyaku,” who act male roles. It’s such a sexist society the women can’t even be actresses, man, it’s wife or geisha and nothing else. The kabuki was like theater, not like opera, with no singing, although if a group laughed, they’d kind of chorus the laughing, and in the big emotional scene after her son is murdered, the mother’s sobs were like, Sylvia said, an aria. I opened my box lunch and ate of it, also drinking of my canned soft drink: Oolong Tea. The box was covered with paper with large elliptical pastel polka dots. The best food in it was a little sweet yellow rubbery dough cup holding a sushi of rice and salmon eggs. Another good thing was a single stray green pea. At the peak of the kabuki play’s action (it lasted an hour in all, though if we’d stayed there would have been a whole second number of dance) the younger brother goes and shakes the older brother, who is lying in bed asleep. The older brother jumps out of bed, knifes the younger brother in the stomach, delivers a speech (probably about why it is “right” to be doing this, the prick), and then knifes him again, killing him, and bringing on the mother’s “aria.” Last time anyone wakes that guy up.

The scenery was a really authentic-looking Japanese house, so much better than, for instance, the “Japanese” set in the production of M. Butterfly we saw in SF last winter. It was just so fuckin’ authentic. Another cool thing was that, Macbeth-like, the climax is taking place during a storm, and they had really good thunder sounds that I could tell came from an incredibly experienced Japanese thunder master shaking a big piece of special kabuki thunder metal, as opposed to playing a track on some sound-effects CD. Good lightning effects against the house’s translucent windows too. One last interesting feature were the “kakegoe,” which are special shouts and whoops which certain audience members give at crucial moments, like when an actor first comes on they might shout his name, or at the end of a scene they shout something, but never shout at a wrong or intrusive time, of course, being into the wa and the Zen and the group mind as they are. “You go on and yell something,” I whispered to Sylvia, and next time somebody yelled like KAGU-WA, after the mother did her aria, Sylvia yelled KAGU-WA too. Later, telling Sylvia’s cousin Zsolt about it, I exaggerate and say that Sylvia stood up and yelled “right on!” in the middle of silence.

We took the subway up to Akihabara, which is supposed to be this big electronics market, but couldn’t find any action near the subway stop. Saw a man on a bicycle delivering takeout food, which was a tray held up on one hand with a covered dish and, get this, two covered dishes of soup. Soup on a tray on a bicycle. The dish-covers were like the top of an oatmeal box, i.e. a disk with a half-inch of cylinder sticking out, looked like black leather, like a dice-cup.

So got back on the Hibiya Line to Ueno Station, where there’s a godzillion people in the street. Saw a guy buy a dose from a “One Cup” sake machine and chug it, this right outside the pachinko parlor where I lost another five bucks. They even sell fifths of whiskey in the vending machines, I’m not kidding. My initial pachinko win seems to have been a fluke. Looking at the balls in this place, I realize they all have the same character on them, a number 7 in this case, so maybe in each place there is a like cattle-brand symbol on their balls so you can be found out if you sneak in your own balls. Before, I’d thought it was a different symbol on each ball, like names. We went into Ueno park, and saw a lovely Shinto shrine, someone playing nice flute off in the trees, people pulling a cord hanging down in front of the temple to rattle a bell up in the eaves, a way of getting the notice of the gods. Like the other temples, this had a “backwards” swastika on it, oriented in effect so that it was “rolling” to the right. I remember from my childhood year of boarding-school in Germany a kid saying, “die Hackenkreuz rollt links,” a wiry, high-cheekboned kid with a deep, bossy voice, he was also the source of the rule, “die Kaffemuehle dreht rechts,” which was used to determine the order of play in card and board games, “the coffeemill turns to the right.”

A group of schoolboys stopped us in the park with the same “May I speak with you” English-practicing routine that schoolgirls had pulled on us in Asakusa. More bizarrely, a team of three twenty-year-olds stopped us, one with a video camera, one with a mike, and one (a woman) holding a placard with four cartoons of incidents in the life of Momotaro who is, they assured us, a well known Japanese character. They told us the action in the first and third frames and we were to fill in descriptions of what happened in the second and fourth frames. In the first frame Momotaro is born, his father found him when he cut open a peach. (Hiroshi later tells me that “momo” means “peach” and “taro” means “first born son.”) In the second frame two demons steal money from the parents. In the third frame Momotaro and his three friends—a dog, a monkey, and a crane—sail to the island of the two demons. In the fourth the monkey and the dog kill the two demons while Momotaro and his dog look on, and his parents bow to him. Then they gave us two postcards and they didn’t ask for money or try to get anything from us, though of course they had videoed our answerings. Was it an art project, a sociology study? Will I ever know?

Anyway we went across the street to the Tokyo National Museum, and went into the main building. They had a bunch of 7th century Buddha statues, then some 13th century ones, then a room of “enlightenment instruments” that depressingly reminded me of auugh dental tools (last night’s gum-cutting only made it hurt more today, of course), things with prongs on the end to pluck out evil, then there was a room with some really great looking pipes, like dope pipes with real long stems decorated amazingly, one finned, one polka-dotted, then a room with helmets, one in the “unusual hairstyle” fashion, with a fake ponytail and mustache of like boar’s hair—what biker wouldn’t want to have that!—then some sword blades, then a door that went out in the back yard, and we could read the Japanese for it, the three characters were the lambda, the double psi, and the square: in out mouth. Then there was a room with old firemen’s clothes, one with a really cool demon face on it I tried to sketch. Back outside we walked through a neighborhood with nothing but motorcycle things: new and used cycles, tires, leathers (Japanese motorcycle leathers, man, is that kinky or what?), then got the subway back “home.”

On the subway there was a teenage boy, and Sylvia said seeing him made her miss our son Rudy. For a fact Rudy has the same skin color as the boy, and the boy’s lips and hands looked like Rudy’s too. It’s funny to be so old, or such a parent, that now teenage boys seem cute and touching. Got a couple of beers from a sidewalk machine, came up to the room to write, wrote this down, and now I’ll move back up into that stuff they call real time.

June 1, 1990, ‘Round Midnite. Dinner with Hiroshi.

‘Twas a most mellow and emotionally salubrious fest with my translator Hiroshi Sakuma and his wife Miyuki (Me + You + Key, she explained). Hiroshi came into the city and took us out to his neighborhood by cab (an unbelievably high cab fare, which he paid alone) where we ate at his favorite restaurant. “It’s low tech,” he kept saying. He’s been eating there every Saturday night for 10 years, he and Miyuki, the little building was a country house someone took apart, no nails involved!, and brought spang into Tokyo. There was a bar there with folks eating at it, a short bar, and a tatami room, and our room, with benches, and that was the size of it. The place is called Kappa-home, the kappa being an imaginary beast of Japanese legend.

Miyuki is a modest wife with a tentative smile; she met Hiroshi at an SF convention when he was at the University of Tokyo and she in high school. He has a ponytail, like the Kabuki guys, traditional though uncommon these days. The historical oscillation of ponytails in and out of fashion in Eastern and Western cultures. The ponytailed men in the Kabuki had seemed to have the tops of their heads in front of the ponytail shaved, though on looking closer, I’d noticed that one of them actually had a cloth cover on the front of his head that only made it look shaved. Sylvia hadn’t noticed the cloth and insisted the guy had really been shaved. We asked Hiroshi and Miyuki about it. Turns out an old-time ponytailed merchant might wear a cloth over the front of his head instead of shaving it, but if it’s a colored cloth it means you are a pimp. Was the guy in the Kabuki this morning supposed to be a pimp? I’ll never know.

The food was outrageously wonderful, the freshest most incredible raw seafood you can imagine, including whole, raw, sweet-tasting squid, and some mysterious white slices of…what? Hiroshi explains, “This is the liver of a kind of fish. It tastes like cheese. The fish lives very deep in the sea; he is so large and jellylike that you cannot hold him in your hands. The fishermen hang him upside down and the liver falls out of his mouth.” Kind o’ sets your mouth to waterin’ don’t it? Sylvia liked the liver and the squids a lot. Two other good things were the tempura egg-plant and the raw abalone.

Before we started the sake, the server-woman brought out a big tray with lots of little stoneware cups, all different, and you pick the sake cup you want. Hiroshi’s cup was a silver one brought special to him as a regular client. The sake came from a big white cask with a big ideogram on it.

About the food, Hiroshi said: “We’ve been eating exactly this for 500 years.” The Kappa-home seemed very together, the people happy and relaxed. A seventy year old lady at the bar was drinking and eating, and I instantly imagined her USA counterpart as some shrill, bleached crone of a barfly.

Hiroshi was proud of his translations of the neologisms in Software and Wetware. He coined the word “kune-kune” to stand for “wiggly,” for “stuzzy” he invented “rin-rin,” and for “wavy” he used “nami”—as in tsunami. “How’s the surf, dude?” “Nami, dude. Way rin-rin.”

June 5, 1990. The Big Buddha.

Sunday, cousin Zsolt and wife Helga took us sightseeing, we got the train down to Kamakura to see a Zen monastery and the Daibutsu (Great Buddha). The monastery was woodsy, be-templed, tourist-thronged. I saw one monk-type guy, with just the great huge grin you’d hope for. I felt some inklings of peace there, looking at a hillside, at a little Zen shrine, at a perfect arrangement of a flower and a few weeds, feeling once again the unity of all things, the loss of body outline, me a jelly pattern in a sea of sensation.


With wife Sylvia in Kyoto, Japan.

The Daibutsu is about sixty feet tall, he was cast in bronze pieces and assembled about 1300. In 1495 a tsunami came a kilometer inland and trashed his temple, but he’s still there. You can go inside him, he has big doors for air in his back. His head has knobs on it standing for hair. His expression is marvel of disengaged compassion.

Our last night in the hotel room, I found two pay-TV channels of Japanese porno. I remember Martin Gardner telling me that the Japanese don’t allow depiction of pubic hair, so what they do in the porno movies is to usually “pixelize” the crotches, meaning that within a disk area, the image is broken into large squares with each square the average of its component pixels. Another, less frequent trick is to shine a bright spotlight on the crotch so that the area “burns out” white in the video. One of the videos was a fake TV show, with the announcers going down on each other, etc. So odd to realize Japanese act this way, too, even the little mask-faced women in their beige suits with the big white lacy collars. After watching for awhile, Sylvia was asleep, and I went out and got a late-night bowl of noodles across the street, great noodles, though with the loathsome fungus strips in it like in the department store soup. I asked the counter people and they told me the hideous mildew strips are “namma” which is bamboo! not fungus at all. They were a great crew of guys, the noodlers, kind of like a WWII platoon in a movie, with a kid that all the old ones talked to, a bony guy with radar-dish ears, a plump weak-chinned one with a mustache, and a busy cook in the back.

The last thing in Tokyo Monday morning, Sylvia shopped, and I took a subway to The Tokyo Tower, a truly cheesy copy of the Eiffel Tower, with none of the Eiffel’s mass or heart-lifting scale. You take an elevator up 150 meters, and get out, and there is a fish tank with one poor big black carp in it. A fish in a tank in a tower 150 meters above the ground. In my final ride in the subway I’m tired of being the different one, the carp, and I’m glad to be going back home to California, back to being a fish in my home sea.

August 8, 1993. Hello Kitty.

Three years later we went to Japan again, this time on a kind of tour organized by a Tokyo publicity agency called Humanmedia, who lined up a bunch of lectures, magazine interviews, and book-store signings, all of them for pay—enough so that as well as Sylvia, I could bring our eighteen-year-old daughter Isabel along on the trip too.

The biggest attraction for me was that CA Lab was part of an art show called “A-Life World” at the Tokyo International Arts Museum. CA Lab was nicely installed on ten color laptops resting on a line of music stands, each laptop running a different cellular automaton rule. Some of the rules showed organic pulsing scrolls, some showed tiny scuttling gliders, some showed slowly boiling colors. It was great to see my software there.


A gnarly cellular automaton rule based on a cubic wave equation, actually created with my later CAPOW software.

The museum was out in a suburban part of Tokyo, and before my talk, I had an hour to kill. Right past the museum was a giant building the size of a baseball stadium, only sealed up, and with fanciful towers on it. “That’s Sanrio Puroland,” Yoko had explained to me. “They are the makers of Hello Kitty. It’s a place for children. Like Disneyland.”

Hello Kitty is the groovy little mouthless cat that you see drawn on so many Japanese children’s knapsacks and stationary. In recent years she’s gotten pretty popular in the U.S. as well. She’s so kawai (Japanese for “cute”). The strange thing is that, as far as I could find out, there are no Hello Kitty cartoons or comic books. Hello Kitty is simply an icon, like a Smiley face.

Outside the Sanrio Puroland, I was drawn in my the crowd’s excitement and couldn’t stop myself from going it, even though it cost the equivalent of thirty dollars. But I knew it was my journalistic duty to investigate.

Inside the huge sealed building it smelled like the bodies of thousands of people—worse, it smelled like diapers. Lots of toddlers. I was the only Westerner. The guards waved me forward, and I went into a huge dark hall.

There was amplified music, unbelievably loud, playing saccharine disco-type tunes, with many words in English. “Party in Puroland, Everybody Party!” Down on the floor below were people in costumes marching around and around in the circle of an endless parade. One of them was dressed like Hello Kitty. I couldn’t pause to look at first, as young guards in white gloves kept waving me on. I wound up and down flight after flight of undulating stairs, with all the guardrails lined by parents holding young children.

Finally I found a stopping place down near the floor. In the middle of the floor was a central structure like a giant redwood, bedizened with lights, smoke machines, and mechanical bubble blowers. The colored lights glistened on the bubbles in the thick air as the disco roared. “Party in Puroland!” Hello Kitty was twenty feet from me, and next to her was a girl in gold bathing suit and cape, smiling and dancing. But…if this was like Disneyland, where were the rides?

I stumbled off down an empty hall that led away from the spectacle. Behind glass cases were sculptures of laughing trees making candy. And here were a cluster of candy stores, and stores selling Hello Kitty products. I felt sorry for the parents leading their children around in the hideous saccharine din of this Virtual Reality gone wrong.

I made it back out into the fresh air and walked back to the “A-Life World” show. After the stench and noise and visual assault of Puroland, I couldn’t look at the weird A-Life videos anymore. But the realtime computer simulations were still okay. They were really alive, they had their gnarl and sex and death.

That evening, Mr. Arima, Mr. Onouchi, and Mr. Takahashi treated us to a great dinner in a Roppongi restaurant. These were the guys from Humanmedia organizing my gigs. Mr. Arima delivers one of his rare English sentences, “Mr. Onouchi is a heavy drinker.” Mr. Onouchi snaps, “I don’t think so,” and a minute later knocks the sake bottle off the table. Mr. Arima’s hair is wavy from a perm, and there are white cat hairs on his green suit. Sometimes he wears gray pants with white lines on them. When you talk to him, his lips purse out, and if he smiles, one dancing front tooth is at an angle. His oval-lensed wire glasses slide down on his nose. He’s cute and touching. The dinner featured a soup called Frofuki Daikon, or steambath radish.

After dinner, Sylvia, Isabel and I walked around; this is the hippie part of town, the only place you see Westerners. On a big video screen over the street there is the music video of Billy Idol’s song “Cyberpunk.” In front of us, men in white gloves are digging a ditch and putting up little flashing lights. Billy’s chest bursts open and shows wires. The men in white gloves gesture, waving on the passersby.

August 9, 1993. Shape Culture.

The next gig was in Osaka, home of my then-favorite band Shonen Knife, not that we saw them. Once a Mondo 2000 interviewer asked Shonen Knife if they were like Hello Kitty, and the answer was, “No, Hello Kitty has no mouth. We have big mouth, we are loud.”

My talk was for something called the Society of Shape Culture, which turned out to be just what they sounded like: people interested in unusual shapes. They were big buffs on the fourth dimension. They wanted to know what shape I was hoping to see when I programmed my Boppers program to show artificial flocks of birds, and that was, really, the right question, as it was exactly the beautiful living scarf shape of a flock that I’d wanted to see so much that I slogged through all that code.


A simulated flock of birds.

I used my color laptop at all of my Japanese demos, showing up with my “axe” and plugging in to whatever kind of display amp they had. At the Shape Culture demo there was a nice big projection screen, but it was keyed to work off a computer in a back room, and when I wanted to change my images, I had to leave the dais and go into the back room, still talking over my remote mike.

After the Shape Culture talk, we all sat around a table made of five pushed-together tables after my talk and drank beer and ate sushi that they brought. There was a Buddhist monk yelling about the fourth dimension and showing off his wire models of some polytope, he had four of them and said one was point centered, one line centered, one face centered, and one solid centered. Nobody could understand the details, but the shapes were great. Another was an origami master. Another a maker of paper hyperspace models. Many of them interested in mysticism. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical afternoon.

Everyone introduced themselves after we’d been eating and drinking for awhile at the Shape Culture luncheon. A heavy student with thick glasses says, “I am a graduate student and have not discovered anything yet.” He smiles and rubs his hands as vigorously as if he were washing them. “But I want to!”

August 10, 1993. Dinner in Kyoto.

We move on to Kyoto for a signing in a bookstore. The evening of the first day in Kyoto we have the best dinner of all. It’s raining due to what the papers called “Typhoon Number Seven.” On the way to the dinner, we see a haiku out the taxi window:

In Kyoto a woman in a green kimono walks on clogs in the typhoon rain.

We use new-bought umbrellas to wind down the back streets to the restaurant which is known to our host Mr. Mori from his having gone to university in Kyoto. A plumpish juicy woman in a brilliant blue kimono serves our dinner. She comes in to the room and kneels right away, somehow making me, pig that I am, think of a porno video, only this isn’t porno, she’s the dignified wife of the owner/chef. I’m excited to see this strange, immaculate woman kneel. She has a mole on her face somewhere. Her lipstick is fresh and bright red. She smiles and speaks to us in English. She is proud of the room we are eating in, her husband the cook is also a carpenter, he built this room, the air smells like incense from the fresh wood. On one wall is paper printed in clouds from a sixteenth-century wood-block. Mr. Arima and Mr. Mori order hot and cold sake, plus an endless stream of big Sapporo beers. The cold sake comes in beautiful glass bottles that are shaped like two spherical bulbs, the top one smaller than the bottom one. The glass bottles sit in chipped ice and have vines around them. The hot sake is in raku. You always have to pour for other people instead of taking for yourself. Isabel keeps Mr. Arima’s glass full and starts giggling. Mr. Arima eventually leaves to go to the bathroom. When you go to the bathroom you put on special shared slippers that are out in the hall, toilet slippers. Isabel and I have a running joke that one of us is going to goof up and come back into our shoeless tatami dinner room wearing the toilet-slippers with two meters of toilet paper trailing from the heel.

August 11, 1993. Fever Powerful.

Outside our hotel in Kyoto is a pachinko parlor designed like a classic Greek temple, the archetypal house shape: a nearly cubical box with a single peaked roof. It is all glass, and the roof is broken into squares with colored lights that march across in patterns.

One of the pachinko games has a little video screen that shows a girl who eats a fruit and gets big and strong and then the words Fever Powerful appear across her. The name of the machine is Fever Powerful. On the top of the machine is a picture of Fever Powerful on her back, arching her pelvis up, with her boobs sticking out, she looks like she’s fucking.

August 13, 1993. Zen rock garden.

Back in Tokyo, we hit a high point, a visit to the most famous Zen rock garden of them all, Ryoanji, raked gravel with fifteen rocks grouped something like:

2 2

5 3


Isabel saw an ant on the edge near us, then I saw a dragon-fly landing on the other end, and then later, alone, I saw a skinny Japanese lizard crawl under the biggest rock of the 5 group. The world’s most enlightened lizard. To put my head into the head of that lizard—this is a durable enlightenment trick that the rock garden has now given me, this is something that I am bringing home with me to mix into my visions, a life as the skinny lizard under the Zen garden rock. There seemed to be quite a space under the big rock, it looked like a lizard-sized cave, plenty of room in there.

The rock garden was up against a wood building, an empty Zen temple with three empty rooms with tatami mats on the floor and faded ancient Zen landscape paintings on paper leaning no big deal against the walls. Around the corner from the rock garden was some moss with diverse mushrooms under trees, around the next corner was more moss and bamboo and a fountain trickling through a bamboo pipe into a round stone with a square hole in the middle. The four Japanese characters on the fountain said “I only learn to be contented.” Sylvia liked the fountain best, she bought a little metal copy of it. Getting up from looking at the rock garden for the third time I had a line of sight through the plain wood temple to see Sylvia stepping barefoot down to the fountain and washing her hands, and then stepping up onto the old rubbed wood temple floor and moving her body in such a perfectly Zen and perfectly Sylvia way, I saw the cuteness and wonder of her motion. “Yes, I’m stepping up from the fountain onto the smooth wood deck. This is me! Me the exclamation mark, me the same as ye.”

The garden has been there for maybe six hundred years. People only started noticing it in the 1930s. The clay walls around the garden have a messy fucked up pattern, with one piece of wall quite different from the others. The Japanese like asymmetry.

After the rock garden we had lunch in a Zen teahouse near the rock garden, two Zen monks there eating also, big Japanese guys with burr haircuts and gray robes; the lunch was a pot of warm water with slabs of tofu, and strainers to fish your slabs out to put in a little pot that you pour soy sauce into. Some veggies on the side: a few beans, a piece of eggplant, a pickled pepper. We sat on cushions on the tatami mat floor by a slid-open paper door, outside the door a little pondlet with miniature trees and big carp in the pond. One of the carp jumped halfway out of the water. “Did you see that?” I ask Isabel. “Yes!” says Isabel. “That right there happening was a haiku!” We all felt very happy and high.

August 15, 1993. The JAL warning film.

Back in Tokyo for a last day, in the morning through a hotel door I heard the sound of a woman’s voice in sexual ecstasy. “Hai, hai, hai, hai!” In the breakfast room, the couples look like high school students. “Hai” means “Yes.”

We make one last run to the Ginza. In the basement of the Tokyo department store, a plump girl leans over her soba noodle soup. A single noodle dangles from her lips, swaying as she sucks it in.

Everywhere there are the voices of the “Good Dolls,” the breathless childlike voices of the Japanese advice women. The best Good Dolls run the elevators in person in the department stores. Their motions are a beautiful dance, with their white gloves they make the virtual moves of pulling the doors open. We’re tired of the voices of the Good Dolls, but in even in our last bus to the airport to leave Japan there is a Good Doll voice. It’s like in the movie Alien when Sigourney Weaver escapes into a lifeboat ship…and there’s an alien in it with her. What if when I get my car at the airport back in SF there’s a Good Doll voice in it?

On the plane back: the eager violence of the unfolding inflatable slide that pops out of the airplane in the instructional video JAL shows us. When we near the shores of Californee, JAL shows a short film about AIDS and a long film about drugs. Close shot on an apple. A big syringe injects narcotics into the apple. Close on a Japanese girl lying on her stomach on a towel at the beach. A hand moves into frame holding the apple. English translation of the voiceover: “They may ask you if you want to have fun or if you want to have a good time. They will not mention drugs. They will offer you something that looks harmless, but it is drugs.”

When I got to my car at the airport it looked wonderful.

“I’m Rudy’s,” it said so I could hear it. “I’m Rudy’s car. The old red Acura.”

“You?” I said. “It’s you? Thank you, my dear faithful hound. Thank you for having continued to exist. We have been in Asia for very long.”

“Get in and drive me home,” said the car. “And next week you and me are going to start commuting to work again.”

Note on “Cyberculture in Japan”

Written 1990 and 1993.

Appeared in Transreal, WCS Books, 1991 and in Axcess magazine, Summer 1994.

I had two exciting trips to Japan in the early 1990s, basically because of my involvement with Silicon Valley. The first trip was to some extent under the aegis of the magazine Mondo 2000, and the second was a a commercial venture organized by a pair of Japanese entrepreneurs—perhaps as close a thing to a rock tour as I ever made.

Table of Contents
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Use Your Illusion: Kit-Bashing The Cosmic Matte

What with Al Gore’s data superhighway initiative, the Time magazine cover on cyberpunk, the new HDTV standard, the Wild Palms miniseries, and the computer-generated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park—- well, it starts to feel like computer reality is finally here.

Why do so many of us care so much? What is the big attraction of things like networking, virtual worlds, artificial life and cyberspace? I think we want computer reality because we want to transcend the mundane.

City-dwellers tire of the panhandlers and the crowds. Country-dwellers tire of the rednecks and the isolation. Commuters have to commute. If only we could get out of our flesh and crawl inside the computers, maybe then we could have it all—we could be safe, in the thick of the action, and capable of travelling at the speed of light!

I remember in the Fifties reading a paperback science-fiction book called The Hedonists. The hero was a boy who found the pods of the hedonists. The hedonists were humanoids who lived their whole lives in jellied capsules, intravenously fed, with their brains wired into pleasure-buzzers and communication networks. I remember the disgusting image of a burst-open pod with a twitching larval hedonist lying in a melting pool of slime.

In a Nineties cyberpunk novel, a hedonist would not end up this way. He or she would long since have turned his or her twitching larval body into a computer program that could be uploaded to any suitable host machine. What is it that we want to transcend? The body, old sport; the flesh, old bean.

But for now, just about the only creatures who really do live as silicon-pure computer data bases are the dinosaurs of this summer’s smash hit Jurassic Park. They inhabit computers at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic in Marin county, California. And no, those nasty dinos are not idle, no indeed. They’re busy evolving themselves into new colors and shapes so that they can star in a new movie: The Flintstones, which will be a live-action film starring John Goodman, Rick Moranis, and possibly Sharon Stone.

Shortly before the release of Jurassic, I spent some time hanging around ILM, trying to get a feel for what’s happening at the interface between the old analog world and the new digital realties.

The visual production unit of ILM is disguised as a series of nondescript garages and office buildings. The main entrance bears a misleadingly bland sign that says something like “THE GLOVER COMPANY. OPTICAL RESEARCH LAB.” When the Star Wars craze was at its peak, fans and nuts made nuisances of themselves trying to penetrate to the source of the world they’d fallen in love with. One demented seeker even got run over by a car. To this day, ILM is pulled-back and security conscious.

Inside ILM, things are busy and happy. Model makers, computer hackers, animators, and film technicians work in teams to provide the extra zing for many of Hollywood’s biggest films.

In making any film, the producers try to shoot as much of it as possible with actors, sets, props, backdrops, and people in costumes. It’s up to companies like ILM to enhance the master film by adding the missing pieces: the chrome robots, the spacewar dogfights, the cosmic backgrounds, the melting flesh.

The traditional method of doing this is to build scale models and paint mattes of the missing pieces—a matte being a large, detailed painting, often on glass with part of it left transparent so that a moving film image can be set into the gap. Films of the models and mattes are made, and these model films are then layered onto the master film by a process called optical compositing.

How does optical compositing work? If you’re doing something like, say, adding spaceships to a sky background, you might film your model ships and project these model films onto a big screen that is showing a film of the actors beneath the sky. Then you film the combined images directly from the big screen.

If there are only one or two elements to add to a scene, optical compositing is quite cost-effective. But scenes like a space-battle or a dinosaur stampede can involve dozens of different models, each of which needs to have its image added as a separate step.

To get around the problems of optical compositing, ILM and Kodak jointly developed a machine which can turn a frame of film into about twenty megabytes of digital information. In a fine example of industrial altruism (or buck-passing), Kodak calls it the “ILM scanner,” and ILM calls it the “Kodak scanner.” It’s a bulky device that looks like a workbench with lenses on top and computers underneath.

The point of scanning film images into digital form is that it then becomes much easier to cut and paste the images together. Each part of the process is perfectly reversible, and you can undo old things without harming newer additions. Optical compositing gives way to digital compositing.

Of course once you have the ability to turn your movie film into digital images, the entire range of digital processes become accessible to you. It’s easy to erase the guy-wires that are used to make a truck fall over in the right direction, for instance. And, most radically, you can add in computer-generated images that are not of any physical model at all. Let one byte of a computer into your tent, and it drags all of cyberspace in there with you.

Computer animation was used to a limited extent for the water snake alien of The Abyss and for the chrome-skinned robot of Terminator 2. When it came time to create the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, the computer graphics faction at ILM decided it was time to go digital in a big way.

“We began planning for Jurassic in December, 1991,” says Mark Dippé, an ILM Visual Effects Supervisor who is a strong advocate of computer animation. “There was a question of should we use computer animation or should we use latex puppets over metal armatures, along with men in rubber suits and some big hydraulically driven arms. The problem is, you can only shoot a hydraulically driven device from one angle. And a man in a suit moves wrong. And a puppet can’t readily roll on its back if the armature is on its left hip. There’s limitations from the physical things. And when you want a herd of animals—are you going to build five hundred rubber models?”

Dippé and his group modeled their first virtual dinosaurs by measuring some dinosaur sculptures. The resulting numbers were used to create computer meshes: assemblages of mathematical triangles in three-dimensional virtual space. Next came the problem of writing programs to move the meshes around in a realistic way. “We had to communicate their massiveness,” says Dippé. “What do they notice, what are they afraid of, are they wary? We shot photos of each other acting out the dinosaur roles. We played with little puppets. The others still weren’t sure. But I knew this was the opportunity. And in spring of 1992 we had the deal. The computer animation team has about twelve people, and they’re shifting us into every arena.”

Adding computer animations to a movie involves four steps: modeling, animating, rendering, and compositing. A model is a three-dimensional static model of an object—like a wireframe dinosaur. In animation, you set some keyframe positions you want the thing to be in, and have the computer smoothly fill in the positions between. Rendering converts the computer’s three-dimensional model of the camera, the lights, the objects and their surface textures into a two-dimensional image. Compositing is combining your rendered image with the film of the background, with the matte paintings, and with the film of the actors. A typical shot involves doing this for a couple of hundred frames.

The old “animatronix” approach to positioning a model was to have the model be a foam and latex creature built over a hinged metal armature with lots of little motors. A wire or a radio control would connect the motors to a puppeteer. But, points out ILM programmer Eric Enderton, “As soon as you have a data link like the radio control, you can replace either end by a computer.” Using this insight, the computer animation group built a skeletal data-dino which they could move around to change the position of virtual dinosaur skeletons inside the computer. The data-dino acts like a mouse, or like a data-glove. The skeleton on the screen emulates whatever pose the data-dino is in.

Once the virtual dinosaur skeletons could be positioned at will, there came the question of the dinosaurs’ muscles. Mark Dippé says, “We attached models of muscles to the dinosaur bones, and then we assigned one guy to be the muscle expert for each dinosaur. The muscle expert had to program a complex procedural system of relationships between the muscles and the angles of the joints. The shoulder, for instance, affects the a lot of muscles. And if some muscle doesn’t swell dramatically enough, we use a secondary set of muscle controls called bulgers.”

At the rendering stage, the material of the dinosaurs’ skins was taken into account. What kind of colors and textures go into the tiny triangles of the moving wireframe computer meshes? “Part of the game is image complexity,” says Enderton. “And on a computer you have to work for everything. One trick is to bring real world information into the computer. You can scan in actual skin textures. But we had to do more. The dinosaurs’ skin was a big deal.”

“We finally ended up building a three-dimensional paint system called Viewpaint,” adds Mark Dippé. “You get a three-dimensional computer model, and spray some paint onto it. Then you turn the model and the paint turns with it, and then you paint some more.” In addition to colors, the “paints” which Viewpaint can apply include such subtle things as shininess, dirtiness, bumpiness, and the coarseness of a dinosaur’s reptilian scales. As a final touch, the skin textures were subtly roughened with computer-generated chaos to give them the indefinable level of detail that characterizes images of the real world.

This seems like an unbelievable amount of work for one movie but, as Dippé happily points out, “All the dinosaur technology can be used again for The Flintstones. The dinosaurs are vicious in Jurassic Park, they have to kill to exist. But in The Flintstones they’re like people, they’re pets, they complain, the escalator is dinosaur in a hamster wheel, they’re more anthropmorphized. But the techniques are the same. And it doesn’t just have to be dinosaurs. We can do all forms of animals now. And superheros are okay, too.”

What next? Enderton says, “The holy grail is to do a believable human in clothes—a human with cloth and hair. This is hard because you know exactly how a human moves, reflects light, and behaves. You’re never seen a live dinosaur, which was an advantage for Jurassic.”

The success of digital compositing and of the computer animations for Jurassic Park has set off a small upheaval within ILM. The tinkerers in the creature shop and the model shop feel threatened. “I liked working on a stage with lights, making something to look real,” recalls Jeff Mann, former head of the model shop, and now Director of Production Operations, which creates digital mattes. “There’s a camaraderie in the production aspect; you have a common goal to make it real. We worked for ten years to make the process flow smoothly, and it seems weird to suddenly do it all on one work station. The change to work stations is happening so fast—it’s like the Richter scale. It’s stressful for a fair number of the model builders. ILM is trying to retrain the optical compositors as digital compositors, and to teach some the model builders to use the tools of the computer to build computer models. Some will be able to adapt, some will get to keep building models, and some will go do something else.”

But models are not going to fade out overnight. Even in Jurassic Park, the old-style rubber models were used for many scenes—such as the one where the T. Rex attacks the car. For each shot, it’s a question of which technique will get the job done for the least money in the fastest time. Despite ILM’s recent alliance with the Silicon Graphics computer company to form a Joint Environment for Digital Imaging (JEDI!), convincingly realistic computer animations are still very expensive. As Dippé puts it, “A movie like T2 or Jurassic is like building the pyramids.”

The model builders refer to their creations as “gags.” They’re like elaborate practical jokes, in a way, things that can fool your naked eye. They’re fun to be around.

An example. As I was touring the creature shop with Mark Dippé and the ILM publicist Miles Perkins, Mark suddenly said, “Hey, Rudy, look at this!”

I walked over and Mark pulled back a sheet that had covered a tortured rubber man on an operating table. Leaning over him was a rubber alien wielding something that looked like dental apparatus. Suddenly the tortured man began to move and twitch. I screamed. The gag was a hidden cable leading to a control in Miles’s hands. This was fun. I thought about Jeff Mann’s wondering if working on a work station could ever be as much fun.

While I was in the creature shop, Miles mentioned to me that the main stash of old models and creatures is in the ILM archives, located at Skywalker Ranch, a half hour deeper into Marin County. I had an instant mental image of the great hall where the crated-up Ark of the Covenant gets stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I knew I had to go.

Several days later, I drive with ILM head publicist Lisa van Cleef up a misty winding valley towards the California coast. The Skywalker Ranch includes George Lucas’s offices, a sound studio, and guest quarters for visiting ILM customers—such as Steven Spielberg. Everything is California perfect, like the best weekend retreat you can imagine. The sound studio has a small vineyard in its front yard, a gift to George from Francis Ford Coppola. There’s even a small fire department and a small working ranch with a few dozen cows—- both these features having been mandated by Marin County before they’d approve the construction of Skywalker Ranch. Since the cows aren’t really there for ranching, they’re prop cows, which seems appropriate.

There are three or four men busy working on models in the archive building, and one of them, Don Bies, acts as my guide. “You’ve come at a really good time,” he tells me. “We’re just restoring the Star Wars models to send them on tour to some museums in Japan.” Here in the archives the model builders are happy, and the work stations are far away.

The first gag that catches my eye is a baggy humanoid shape, orange with green spots, rubbery, with a hula skirt bedizened with electronic parts, and with a face sporting a three foot snout with red-lipsticked lips on the end. “That’s Sy Snootles, the singer from the band that plays in Jabba the Hut’s castle in The Return of the Jedi,” Don tells me. I pick up a handgrip connected to a cable that leads into the figure’s back. When I squeeze the grip, Sy’s lips purse.

Right next to Sy Snootles is Darth Vader’s costume. The cryptic alien writing on the little control panels on his chest is Hebrew. “Not many people realize that Darth Vader is Jewish,” smiles Don. “Notice also that he’s clean. Darth Vader and the robot C3PO are the only shiny things in the Star Wars universe. Everything else there is grungy.”

We turn next to a yard-long spaceship model. “We wanted to make this the shape of an outboard motor that’s been rocked up out of the water,” says Don. “For the details we used a technique we call kit-bashing. We include a lot of pieces from standard model kits. See that there, it’s the conning tower of a submarine, and here’s the hull of a destroyer ship, and this down here is the front of a jet plane, and up here is part of a helicopter.” This kit-bashed spaceship is a reality collage. The computer graphics animators scan textures from reality, but the model makers just break up and reassemble reality.

“Where’s R2D2?” I ask. He’s always been my favorite.

Don points, and I turn to see a whole herd of R2D2’s in a far corner. There are eleven of him. Why so many? Because when Star Wars was filmed, the science of radio-controlled machines was quite primitive, and it was easier to build a different R2D2 to do each of the different things he was supposed to be able to do: turn his head, roll, fall to pieces, and so on. Each R2D2 has a big “holographic projector lens” near his top. The lenses look familiar because—they’re those movable nozzle lights that airplanes used to have over the passenger seats. “And those slots along his side are from coin-operated vending machines,” Don adds. It’s kit-bashing in a higher, more industrial way.

Now we come to the gilded Ark of the Covenant itself, resting beside a busted-open wood crate. Stenciled on the crate is “Eigentum Des Deutsches Reich,” with a swastika. I really am in the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse, and now, yes, Don opens a cabinet and he pulls out the matte painting of the Raiders warehouse scene, a giant sheet of glass with piles and piles of boxes fading into the painterly distances, and with an irregular trapezoid of clear glass where the image of the moving warehouseman was projected for optical compositing.

The ceiling struts in the matte painting seem to match the struts in the archive room, and when I go back outside and the foggy beauty of this hidden valley spreads out before me, it’s hard for me not to believe, for a moment, that I am looking at an even huger matte painting.

And then the wind and the movement of the light remind me that this is real, this is where I live. In the mist a big bird circles on great, fingered wings, and I’m filled with joy at being alive in a world where I can dig into the details, just as I am, without a work station.

Standing there bathed in the real world’s full-body sensory input, the efforts of computer reality seemed fiddling and paltry. The world has been running a massively parallel computation for billions of years, after all; how can we even dream of trying to make our machines catch up?

But we do keep pursuing the impossible dream of computer reality anyway; we keep on trying to digitally kit-bash the cosmic matte. It’s one of the human race’s ways of blooming—like science or like art. And in a funny way, thinking about computer realities gives you a greater appreciation for the real thing you get to walk around in.

Note on “Use Your Illusion: Kit-Bashing the Cosmic Matte”

Written in 1993.

Published in Wired, Sept/Oct, 1993.

In 1993, I managed to connect with the then rather new Wired magazine in San Francisco. They basically took over the market niche for high-tech weirdness that Mondo 2000 had carved out. The Wired mix replaced psychedelia with entrepreneurism, and they were a zillion times more profitable.

I seem to recall that my initial contact at Wired was the writer Kevin Kelly, who I’d met at the first conference on Artificial Life. Wired gave me three really great journalism gigs, and the first of these was to meet the wizards at ILM.

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Robot Obstetric Wards

I fell in love with the Silicon Valley word “fab” the first time I heard it. This short, moderne word means “chip fabrication plant.” A manager might, for instance, say “What kind of outs are we getting from the fab?” In the ‘50s and ‘60s, of course, fab was short for “fabulous,” as in the detergent Fab, or as in the lines in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” that go: “I ran right outside and I hopped inside a cab. I went out the other door; this Englishman said fab.” Gear! Kicky!

After exceedingly many phone calls, I managed to get to go inside two fabs in Silicon Valley, one belonging to the chip-giant Intel, and the other to Intel’s small challenger, AMD (Advanced Micro Devices). AMD recently won a court battle with Intel over the right to produce its own “K6” version of the popular 486 processor chips for DOS and Windows-based personal computers. AMD is very much a “we try harder” company, and they were the first to let me into their fab—a quarter-billion-dollar building in Sunnyvale called the Submicron Development Center.

A micron is a unit of measurement equal to one millionth of a meter. A typical human hair might be a hundred microns wide. The scale of chips is discussed in terms of the size of the smallest features of the patterns on the chip. Today’s chips use features about half a micron in size, hence they are said to be using submicron designs.

AMD’s Submicron Development Center was originally intended to be purely a research facility, but the demand for the AMD 486 chips is such that the facility is now also being used for commercial production. It turns out to be crowded and a bit hellish in the AMD fab, which feels to be about the size of a wide office-building corridor plus maybe six offices on either side.

Something I hadn’t initially realized is that being a fab worker is like being any other kind of assembly-line worker. It’s a rigorous blue-collar job. Most of the workers are Asian or Hispanic. The AMD fab is open twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year except Christmas—and in the Intel fab they work on Christmas too. The workers pull twelve-hour shifts, with three shifts one week and four shifts the next, for an average of forty-one hours a week. Although some of the fab workers are highly paid engineers, starting pay for a simple technician is around $24,000 a year, which comes to something like $12 an hour.

What actually goes on in a fab? A fab buys blank silicon wafers and draws complicated patterns on them. This changes a wafer’s value from $200 to $30,000 or more. It’s almost like printing money. The catch is that each of the many machines used in a fab costs over a million dollars. And buying machines for your fab is kind of complicated, although the Sematech consortium is seeking to make this easier.

When a fab finishes a wafer, the wafer is shipped to another plant where the wafer is sawed up into chips and the chips are put into the familiar plastic cases with wires coming out. These secondary plants are mostly in southeast Asia—the Silicon Valley fabs are solely concerned with printing the chips onto the wafers. To avoid dust, the wafers are shipped in vacuum-sealed bags.

The essence of the environment inside a fab is that this is a place for chips and not for people. People are dirty. Their bodies flake and crumble, sending off showers of dust. One dust particle can ruin a chip, for instance by shorting out the separation between two nearby submicron circuit lines.

In the current prehistoric state of robotics, there is no hope of fully automating a fab, especially given the fact that the process technology is subject to being changed over and over. To deal with having dirty people in there, the fab must be maintained as a clean room.

The cleanliness of a room is specified in terms of the number of particles larger than one micron that can be found in a cubic foot of air. An average non-smoking restaurant might have a few hundred thousand of such particles per cubic foot. In a surgical operating theater, the level is brought down to about twenty thousand. In the outer hallways of a fab building, the level is ten thousand, while in the wafer-handling areas of the fab itself, the level is brought down to one individual particle per cubic foot. How? At AMD the procedure went like this.

My guide is Dan Holiga, a member of the AMD Corporate Training division, responsible for instructing new workers on clean room procedures and for arranging science courses for them at local colleges. Dan leads me into the pregowning room. The floor inside the door is covered with sticky adhesive. I sit down on a bench and put some blue booties over my shoes so as not to track dirt into the locker room. The woman behind the counter can’t find Dan’s special fab badge, so she gives him a Visitor badge like mine. We select building suits in our sizes: two-piece suits like tight-cuffed blue pajamas. The woman gives us each some white plastic shoes like bowling shoes.

In the pregowning room, we stash our street-clothes in the lockers and put on the blue building suits and the white plastic shoes. We wash our hands and put on hair nets and safety glasses. Dan has brought a camera with him. We walk through a corridor into the outer hallway of the fab building. This is the ten-thousand-particles-per-cubic-foot zone, and the air feels cleaner than any I’ve breathed in a long time. My allergies are gone; the odorless air flows smoothly into my lungs.

We pass a break room where some of the fab workers are having non-dusty snacks like apple juice and yogurt. Then we go into a second locker room. I’d thought we were already dressed for the fab, but that was just the start. The second locker room is the gowning room proper.


Rudy in the chip fab gowning room. (Photo by Dan Holiga.)

Here we put on latex gloves. Then we wipe off our safety glasses and our Visitor badges and Dan’s camera—wipe everything three times with lint-free alcohol-soaked cloths. We put on white hoods and “bunny suit” overalls made of Fibrotek, which is a sandwich of nylon and Teflon. We pull “fab booties” over our shoes and we put on face masks. We pull vinyl gloves over our latex gloves. This is starting to feel a teensy bit…obsessive. I’m reminded of the “environmentally ill” people you see in Berkeley natural food stores, shopping while wearing gas-masks and elbow-length gloves. They’d love it here in the gowning room. But, I remind myself, this isn’t about obsession here, this is about objective scientific fact: getting down to one micron-sized particle of dirt per cubic foot of air!

Now Dan leads me through the air shower: a corridor lined with air-nozzles blasting away. We hold up our hands and turn around, letting the air wash us all over. The invisible particles fall to the floor, where they are sucked away. In the air shower and in the fab, the floors are coarse grates, and the ceilings are filled with fans. There is a constant flow of air from above to below, with any showers of filthy human particles being sucked out through the floor grates. The air in a fab is completely changed ten times a minute.

I step out of the air shower and, fully purified, I step into the fab. As the Bible says, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” I am in the heart of the temple to the God-machine of Silicon Valley. The lights are yellow to avoid clouding the photo-resist emulsions; this gives the fab a strange, underworld feeling. The rushing air streams down past me from ceiling to floor. Other white-garbed figures move about down the corridor; all of us are dressed exactly the same.

On the sides of the corridor are metal racks holding boxes or “boats” of wafers waiting for the next stage of their processing. The racks have wires instead of shelves—there are in fact no flat horizontal surfaces at all in a fab, as such surfaces collect dust and interfere with the air flow.

The only hint of human contamination is the meaty smell of my breath, bounced back to me by the white fabric face mask I’m wearing. I wish I could tear off the mask and breathe the clean pure air of the chips. But then I would exhale, and the wafers wouldn’t like that—detectors would notice the increased number of particles-per-cubic-foot, and lights would flash.

The layout of a fab is a single main corridor with bays on either side. To keep the bays clean and uncluttered, most of their machines are set so that the faces of the machines are flush to the bay walls, with the bodies of the machines sticking out into sealed-off corridors called chases. Like people, machines have bodies whose exigencies are not fully tidy. The chases are clean only to a ten particles per cubic foot level, as opposed to the bays and the main fab corridor, which are kept at the one particle level.

As we move down the main corridor to start our tour, people recognize Dan and come over to pat him on the back or on the arm. Dan theorizes that in the clean room, people can’t see each other’s faces, so they tend to fill in non-verbal communication by touching each other. Another factor could be that, given that everyone is clean, there is no fear of getting yourself dirty through human contact. Or maybe it’s just that you have less inhibitions towards someone who is dressed exactly like you. In any case, the fab workers seems to have a strong team spirit and sense of camaraderie. They’re like happy termites in a colony.

The craft of getting a hundred 486 or Pentium chips onto a silicon wafer involves laying down about twenty layers of information. It’s a little like printing a silk-screen reproduction with twenty different colors of ink. At each step a fresh layer of silicon dioxide is baked on, parts of the new layer are etched away, and metals or trace elements are added to the exposed areas.

As well as having to be positioned to an accuracy of a tenth of a micron or better, the successive layers need to have a very specific thickness. Rather than being measured in microns, the thickness of the layers are best measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Each layer is about ten nanometers thick. It’s all about fiddling with little details, to a mind-boggling degree.

The process takes as long as twelve weeks for a completed wafer’s worth of chips. It’s not so much a linear assembly line as it is a loop. Over and over, the wafers are baked, printed, etched and doped. At AMD, workers carry the boats of wafers up and down the corridor; while at Intel’s plant there is a miniature overhead monorail on which the boats move about automatically, like gondolas in a scale model of an amusement park ride.

At AMD, I visit the etching bay first. There are a series of sinks filled with different kinds of acid piped up from tanks located on the story below the fab. In the bad old days, you could recognize fab workers by the scars on their neck from splashes of acid, but now they have a small industrial robot arm to dip the chips. I’m happy to see the arm; this is confirms my science fictional notion that fabs will ultimately be places where robots reproduce themselves: robot obstetric wards.

The acid baths are for removing the photo-resist masks after the etching itself is done. The etching is typically done “dry”—that is, a fine dust of ions is whipped into a frenzy with powerful radio frequency signals to make a submicron sandblaster. The idea is to dig out parts of the chip so that metal conductors and metal-doped semiconductors can be patterned in to make up the wires and transistors of the integrated circuit which the chip is to become.

The real heart of a fab is the photolithography bay. Here the gel called photo-resist is sprayed onto the wafers, and then the wafers go into a stepper, which is the machine that projects the circuit diagrams onto the wafer’s chips.

The projector is called a stepper because it projects the same image a hundred or so times onto each wafer, moving the wafer in steps to receive each successive image. Steppers are the most expensive devices in a fab. The images projected by the steppers are found on transparencies called reticles. Reticles are based on circuit diagrams created by engineers using computer drafting techniques.

Once a wafer gets out of the stepper, a developer chemical removes the photo-resist that was exposed to light, leaving masks shaped like the dark regions of the reticle. This is a very efficient process, because although a reticle may have thousands of features on it, projecting its image onto the wafer puts all those features there at once.

The better the stepper, the smaller the images it can make. Smaller chips run faster, use less power and can be produced in larger batches—more chips per wafer. In order to handle very small feature sizes, steppers need to use light with very short wavelengths—the current ones use deep ultraviolet light, and to get much smaller, the steppers will have to start using X-rays.

The light is mellow yellow in the bay with the steppers, and there are the most people here. This is the heart of the temple. Some of the workers are debugging a problem with one of the machines that sprays on the photo-resist; one of them is lying on the grated floor with a laptop computer. It strikes me that in this world, the floors are not dirty.

There are a couple of men with an electron microscope looking at wafers. One of them is holding a handful of wafers, some of them cracked. “I guess those ones are no good?” I ask. The man looks at me oddly and finally grunts, “Yeah.” Seeing only my Visitor badge and not my expression, he thinks I’m an executive being sarcastic, but Don explains that I’m a journalist. The guy warms up then and has his co-worker show me some wafers under the electron microscope. There’s a nice clear image on a TV screen next to the microscope. It shows something like your usual image of a chip, but with lots of parts missing. This is just one or two layers’ worth.

“These things,” the man with the microscope says, pointing to some fat short rectangles, “we call these the hot-dog buns. And these other things,” he points to some longer thinner rectangles overlaid onto the fat short ones, “we call these the hot-dogs. We check if the hot-dogs are on the buns.”

We peek into a few more bays. One especially cute little industrial robot catches my eye. It’s jerky and articulated like a shore-feeding bird, folding its tail and pecking wafers out of their cartridges to slide them into some machine’s maw. It reminds me of the Disney cartoon of Alice in Wonderland, where Alice is lost in the woods near the Cheshire cat and a little bird that looks like a pencil with two legs comes running up to her.

Dan takes some pictures of me, and then we go out into the gowning room to take off our face masks, gloves, and Fibrotek suits. It feels very good to get out of the suit, I was getting hot. Also it’s great to stop breathing my own breath. It would be tough to spend twelve hours at a time in a fab. And for $24,000 a year! As a communist friend used to tell me in grad-school: the secret of capitalism is that the less they pay you, the harder you have to work.

Now we’re in our building suits again, and Dan wants to show me the sub fab, which fills the whole story below the fab. As we go out into the building hall, a security guard in a clean room suit runs up to us and asks our names. He writes our names on his glove; he’s too excited to get the spelling right. He doesn’t recognize Dan, and we’re both wearing Visitor tags and Dan is carrying a camera. Uh oh. While the guard hurries off to make a report, Dan hustles me down the stairs to the sub fab.

The sub fab is a techno dream. It holds all the machinery that supports the machines of the fab. The electrical generators are here, the plumbing, the tanks of acids, the filtering systems, the vacuum lines, the particle monitoring equipment—miles of wires and pipes and cables in an immaculate ten-thousand-particle-per-cubic-foot concrete room. This is the ultimate mad scientist’s lab. I’m enthralled.

Now here comes the clean room security guard again. “You have to come with me.” Dan wants to take some pictures first. “You have to come right away.” The clean room guard leads us out into a hall off the sub fab. Three unsmiling uniformed guards are there. Dan explains about his lost fab badge; they phone the pregowning room to go into Dan’s locker and check out his ID; finally they decide it’s okay and we’re back on our way.

“They thought maybe we were from Intel,” Dan says. “Someone who doesn’t know me saw us taking pictures in the clean room.”

When I’m finally out in the dirty real world again, I’m grateful and glad. It feels as if I’ve been in the underworld, a world where people are totally out of place. I don’t feel like turning on a computer again for several days. But I’m happy to have seen the central mystery, to have penetrated to the heart of the temple of the computing machine.

Two weeks later, Intel finally comes through with a fab tour for me as well. My guide here is Howard High, of Intel Corporate Communications. The fab layout is quite similar to AMD’s although Intel’s fab is much bigger—perhaps the size of a football field, and with high fifteen-foot ceilings to accommodate the wafer-boat carrying monorails overhead.

The vibes in the Intel fab seem more relaxed than at AMD. Intel is ahead, and AMD is trying to catch up. At Intel, for instance, I don’t have to exchange my clothes for a building suit, I’m allowed to just put the clean room bunny suit on over my clothes. Because of dust, I wasn’t allowed to use any paper on my AMD tour, but Intel issues me a spiral notebook of lint-free paper.

The more I learned about the fabs, the more I was amazed that they work. The intricacy of the system is reminiscent of the complexity of a biological process like photosynthesis. Nobody could have designed one of today’s fabs from scratch—these are giant industrial processes that have evolved, a step at a time, from earlier, simpler versions. There is a very real sense in which these processes are the synthetic biology in which planet Earth’s next great species may arise.

Note on “Robot Obstetric Wards”

Written in 1994.

Appeared in Wired, November 1994.

This was the second of my Wired journalism runs. I had a lot of trouble setting up the visits to the fabs—at Intel they told me the last person they’d let in had been the vice-premier of China. But I persisted. It was amazing to get inside these secret temples of high-tech. I’d wanted to call this article “Fab!” but Wired’s title is probably better.

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Goodbye Big Bang: Cosmologist Andrei Linde

Andrei Linde is a Moscow physicist who became a Stanford University physics professor in 1990. He lives there with his wife Renata Kallosh (also a Stanford physics professor, specializing in superstrings and supergravity), and his two sons Dmitri and Alex. He began formulating theories of the “self-reproducing chaotic inflationary universe” in 1983 as an improvement on the Big Bang model. He uses computer simulations for a lot of his research, and has recently suggested that your universe might be the result of a physicist-hacker’s experiment.

I went to interview him at his home for Wired magazine in the spring of 1995. Linde is an attractive, tidily dressed man, younger and more athletic-looking than I’d expected. He speaks with a thick Russian accent, and with a colorfully inverted syntax. His verbatim answers were sometimes bit cryptic—especially for non-physicists—so I padded a few of them a bit, mostly using materials from his published papers (such as Andrei Linde, “The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe,” Scientific American, November 1994).

RR: By now, most of us have gotten quite comfortable with the big bang model of the universe; the notion that the universe was born as a tiny energy-filled ball of space some billions of years ago, and that this ball of space has been expanding ever since. What’s wrong with this notion?

AL: There are a number of problems with the big bang theory; let me mention two that are of a physical nature and two that are of a philosophical nature.

If you work out the physical equations governing the big bang, they predict that a big bang universe will in fact be very small, even though we can see that our universe is large. One way to gauge the size of a universe is to talk about how many elementary particles it has in it—how many electrons, protons, neutrons, and so on. When I look out of my window, the matter I see is made up of perhaps ten-to-the-eighty-eighth elementary particles, but a typical theoretical big bang model has only about ten elementary particles in it! This is perhaps the most serious problem with the big bang model. It gives a false prediction about the size of the universe. For a number of years, this mathematical flaw in the big bang theory was not yet noticed.

A second physical problem with the big bang is that even if a big bang universe is of the proper size, there is no explanation of why the different regions of the universe resemble each other. In a big bang model, it could just as easily have happened that most of the matter ends up, say, in one half of the sky, but we can observe that in our universe, the density of distant galaxies is the same in every direction.

One of the philosophical problems with the big bang is this: What came before the big bang? How did everything appear from nothing?

Another somewhat philosophical problem with the big bang asks: Why does it happen that our universe worked out to be just the way it is; why, for instance, do we have three dimensions of space and one dimension of time?

The big bang theory offers no satisfactory answers to these questions, but we can begin to resolve the puzzles in the context of the theory of the self-reproducing, inflationary universe.

RR: What is the inflationary universe?

AL: There have been several versions of this theory. The first was proposed by the Soviet physicist Alexei Starobinsky, but it was rather complicated. Then a much simpler one was put forward by the physicist Alan Guth of MIT; we call his model “old inflation” now. Guth took the big bang model and added the idea that in the beginning the universe expanded very rapidly; faster even than the speed of light.

By having the universe expand so rapidly, you solve the problem of why it is so big, and you also solve the problem of why all the regions of the universe we presently can see resemble each other. The idea is that, thanks to inflation, the whole visible part of the universe was inflated from some very small and homogeneous region, and this is why we see large-scale similarities.

It turned out that Guth’s “old inflation” had theoretical difficulties. I invented a “new inflation” theory which worked so-so, and then I realized that we could have inflation without the assumption that the universe began in a hot and dense state. I dropped the idea of the big bang, but kept the idea of inflation. In my model, inflation can start anywhere. This concept is called “chaotic inflation.”

RR: What causes the inflation?

AL: There are things called “scalar fields.” These fields fill the universe, and show their presence by affecting the properties of elementary particles. You don’t notice a constant scalar field, any more than you notice a constant air pressure or a constant electric charge. When there are differences in air pressure, you get wind; when there are differences in electric charge, you get sparks; and when there are differences in the scalar field, you get an expansion of space.

Quantum mechanics implies that the scalar fields undergo unpredictable fluctuations. If there is a place where one particular scalar field happens to be larger, then here the universe will expand with a much larger speed, which makes so much space that we can safely live there.

RR: How big is the inflationary universe?

AL: The fluctuations which increase the speed of inflation can happen over and over. They make the universe self-reproducing; it reproduces itself in all its forms.

The standard big bang theory was a theory of a homogeneous universe, looking like one single bubble. But if we take into account quantum effects, the self-reproducing inflationary universe is a bubble producing new bubbles producing new bubbles.

This kind of repeatedly branching pattern is what mathematicians call a fractal. A fractal pattern is characterized by the property that the small bits of the pattern resemble the whole pattern. An oak tree, for example, is like a fractal in that a single branch of an oak resembles a scaled-down model of the entire tree. Another example of a fractal is a mountain range. If you chop off the top of a mountain and look at it closely, it resembles the whole mountain range; and a single rock on the mountain resembles a whole mountain in itself.

So we think of the self-reproducing inflationary universe as a fractal. The big bang is good as a description of each particular bubble but it cannot describe the growing fractal. There is no real reason for the fractal universe to stop growing; indeed, it is likely to keep growing and budding off new regions forever.

RR: How can I visualize the fractal self-reproducing inflationary universe?

AL: There are two kinds of pictures I like to use. In one I draw something that looks like lots of separate bubbles connected to each other where they touch. It looks a little like the linked flotation bladders on seaweed.

In the other kind of picture I use—and I’ve done several computer simulations of this image—I think of space as initially being like a flat sheet. Then I add a randomly fluctuating scalar field, and I represent the regions where the scalar field has a low value by valleys, and I represent the regions where the scalar field is large by peaks.

The peaks are the places where inflation takes place; at these places the universe will rapidly expand. I can’t show the inflation in my picture, but I can represent it by putting new, secondary peaks on top of the first peaks, third-level peaks on top of those peaks, and so on. It is like a mountain range.

What is a little hard to grasp is that the two pictures represent the same thing. The peaks in the one image correspond to the bubbles in the other image. A peak that rises on top of a peak is like a bubble that swells out from the side of a bubble.

RR: Can we go to the other bubbles of our fractal universe?

AL: Far in the future, our sky will start looking a lot different, as our stars start dying. And then we will see into the different parts of universe, some parts with different laws of physics.

Can we use the energy in our bubble which has cooled off, can we fly to the other tips of the fractal, can we go there and live comfortably? The theory of such cosmic flights suggests that even if you travel at the speed of light, you lose so much time that when you get to another part of the universe, it will already be cold and empty there.

RR: You say that some of the different bubble-universes have different laws of physics—how does that work?

AL: We’ve talked about one scalar field that is responsible for the universe’s expansion. It seems that there may also be a second scalar field which makes different kinds of physics in different regions of the universe. There is one overall law of physics for the whole universe, but the scalar fields make for different realizations of this law. It is like water with many different phases. For those who live in water it is very essential that the water be a liquid and not a solid or a gas.

RR: What if I could somehow fly up to the edge of a region of the universe with different physics? How would it look?

AL: Between the different regions of the universe, there are boundaries called “domain walls.” There is a tendency of the domain walls to straighten up, and also to move one way or the other with a speed approaching the speed of light.

So first of all it would be very difficult for you to reach a domain wall if it is moving away from you. And if it is moving towards you, it will be very difficult to run from it. In fact, if a wall moves towards you at the speed of light, then you first see it only at the moment it hits you.

But we don’t need to worry too much; the typical estimates in these theories give you a distance from us to this next domain wall which is much much greater than ten billion light years, so we may live for now.

RR: Might we say that the regions with different physics are competing with each other?

AL: I think about the moving boundaries of the regions as perhaps like a Darwinian fitness. Should we discriminate and say those with greater volume are winners? There is a lot of place for losers as well, everything which can exist tends to have room for its existence in the self-reproducing inflationary universe. We can think of a Darwinian process without hate and killing, a process that produces all possible species.

RR: How did the whole process begin?

AL: Maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning. There are some philosophical problems with the idea of the universe having a beginning. When the universe was just created, then where were the laws of physics written? Where were the laws of physics written if there was no space and no time to write them? Maybe the universe was created without obeying any laws, but then I don’t understand. Well, maybe the laws and the universe came into existence simultaneously? Quantum mechanics might say our universe together with its physical laws appeared as a quantum fluctuation, but then where were the laws of quantum mechanics written before creation?

RR: In one of your papers you talk about relating the nature of our consciousness to our universe. What do you mean?

AL: For me, the investigation of the universe is mainly a tool for understanding ourselves. The universe is our cosmic home. You look around the house of your friend and imagine you may learn something about your friend by looking at how his house is built. My final purpose is not to understand the universe, but to understand life.

An example of this is the question of why we humans see time as passing. According to the branch of physics called “quantum cosmology,” the universe is best represented as a pattern called a “wave function” which does not depend on time. But then why do I see the universe evolving in time?

The answer may be that as long as I am observing the universe, the universe breaks into two pieces: me and the-rest-of-the-universe. And it turns out that the wave function for each of these separate pieces does depend on time. But if I merge with the universe then my time stops.

RR: How do you feel about having left Moscow to live and work in the U.S? What are some things that strike you about American culture?

AL: Visiting different countries is one thing, living in different countries is another. People are similar. They are kind here, they are kind there; they are friendly here, they are friendly there. But the laws of society are different in sometimes a very unexpected way. The U.S. bureaucracy is much more complicated. In Russia I was unable to do many things. But for the things that were allowed, there were not so many rules. Here in U.S. you have more opportunities, but each opportunity is well classified; if you want to know how to use the opportunities you have to know many laws.

RR: You like to use computers to simulate solutions to your equations. How do you program them?

AL: I am almost computer-illiterate. All the calculations are made by my son Dmitri. I was begging him to do it when we moved here in 1990, and in the beginning he was not very interested, but then I said what if I got a really good computer for this work? And indeed we got one from Silicon Graphics, and it was a lot of fun to work on it.

Dmitri is majoring in Physics at Caltech; we’ve written six or seven papers together. Sometimes we get results by looking at computer simulations. The simulation shows a physical effect that is unusual. We study and check, and again see something strange. I shout, “You have an error in your program,” and he checks and there is no error and then I understand something new. The simulation really helps us to discover, it’s not only a tool to illustrate and to calculate; when you make it visual, you see something and understand it better.

RR: You’ve suggested that it might be possible to create a universe in the laboratory by violently compressing some matter, that one milligram of matter may initiate an eternal self-reproducing universe. How would this work?

AL: We don’t have a no-go theorem which says it is impossible. But it is very difficult. You have to do more than just compress the matter, but with high temperatures and by quantum effects there is a chance of creating a universe. Our estimates indicate that you would need a very good laboratory indeed. And it is not very dangerous to try. This new universe would not hurt our universe, it will only expand within itself.

RR: Can you imagine there being any kind of economic or spiritual gain from creating new universes? Might this lead to a Silicon Valley industry or to a cosmological cult?

AL: The question is: Is it interesting to create a universe? Would you have a profit or benefit? What would be the use?

Suppose life in our universe is dying, and we make a small private universe we can jump into so we have a place to live. But it’s not easy to jump, when we create a universe it is connected to our universe by a very narrow bridge of space, we can’t jump through it, and the new universe will repel us because it is expanding.

Well, maybe you can get energy from the new universe? No, you can’t get energy because of the law of energy conservation. The new universe gets its energy internally, and the energy has to stay inside there.

We can’t get in, we can’t use the energy, but maybe we can do like we do with our children: we teach them and we live on in them. Maybe we can give knowledge and information to the new little universe so that they will think about us with gratitude, like, “Oh God who created us, thank you.”

But it is not so easy to send information inside. Say I wrote a message on the surface of an inflationary universe. But then the letters expand so much, that for billions of years to come each race of people in universe will be living in the corner of just one letter. They will never see the message.

The only way to send information which I have found is strange and unusual. If I create an inflationary universe with a small density, I can prepare the universe in a particular state which corresponds to different laws of physics, masses of particles, interactions, etc. I can imagine a binary code describing all possible laws of physics; this would be quite a long sequence. So if I am preparing a universe in some peculiar state, I can send the message encoded in the laws of physics.

Can I send a long message in this way? Let’s think about our own universe. Let’s imagine that someone made our universe as a message. If our universe were perfect, with all particles having equal masses and charges, then the laws of physics would be trivial, and it would be a very short message. But our particle physics looks weird, and it has a lot of information. We get these strange numbers, there is no harmony. There is information instead of harmony, or to be more precise, the harmony is there, but it is very well-hidden.

To send a long message, you must make a weird universe with complicated laws of physics. It is the only way to send information. The only people who can read this message are physicists. Since we see around us a rather weird universe, does it imply that our universe was created not by God, but a physicist hacker?

I don’t know for sure whether this is a joke or something more. Until it is proven that it is stupid you must pursue some lines of thought. Even if something seems counterintuitive you must be honest and follow the thought line and not be influenced by the common point of view. If you agree with everything which everybody else thinks, you never move. You should try to think for yourself. Even though sometimes in the end you understand they were right.

Note on “Goodbye Big Bang: Cosmologist Andrei Linde”

Written 1995.

Appeared in Wired, July/Aug 1995.

For a very short time, I was able to use my Wired connection as a carte blanche to meet whoever I wanted to, and I was curious about Linde’s theories. But soon I’d learn that Wired had a very short institutional memory—there was a continual turn-over and churn in the editorial staff. The next set of editors had no idea who I was, nor of the articles I’d written for Wired in the past. Although I continued to contribute the occasional small squib, “Goodbye Big Bang” would prove to be last commissioned article I was able to sell to Wired.

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Mr. Nanotech: Eric Drexler

The French word for dwarf is nain. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, which is just a bit larger than the diameter of your average atom. Nanotechnology envisions doing things with individual atoms, one at a time. “You done building that roast beef out of dirt yet, Bob?” “Ten molecules down, ten to the twenty-sixth power to go.”

Of course nature does build cows out of dirt, with some light, water and grass along the way, so maybe we can learn how to do it. The dream of nanotechnology is to get lots and lots of little machines to build materials for us.

Present day nanotechnology comes in two flavors: dry and wet. Dry nanotechnology is about tiny rods and gears made out of diamond whiskers and the like. The recent discovery that icosahedron-shaped “buckyballs” of carbon can be found in ordinary soot is a big boost for dry nanotechnology. Wonderfully intricate images, some resembling automobile transmissions, have been cranked out by Ralph Merkle of the computational nanotechnology project at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (the legendary “PARC” where Saint Englebart invented windows and the mouse).

No dry nanotechologist has yet been able to assemble the kind of three-dimensional structures that Merkle and others envision. But there is a device known as an STM (for “Scanning Tunneling Microscope) which allows nanohackers to see, pick up, and move around individual atoms on a surface. Quite recently, Don Eigler and a group of at IBM’s Almaden Research Lab managed to use an STM to draw things. First they drew a little man with carbon monoxide molecules on platinum, and then they wrote ‘IBM’ in xenon atoms on nickel. The next big effort will be to assemble a free-standing three-dimensional structure atom-by-atom—how about a six hundred sixty-six-atom model of Danny DeVito?

An ultimate goal of dry nanotechnology is the creation of an “assembler”, a fantastic little nanomachine that can turn out more nanomachines—including copies of itself (an onanistic process known as “self-replication”). You might set an assembler to work making assemblers for awhile, and then somehow signal the godzillion assemblers that now they should switch over to making, say, incredibly strong “club sandwiches” of alternating single-atom sheets of two kinds of metal. The “gray goo” problem crops up here. What if, like the brooms in the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the assemblers can’t be turned off? What if they turn everything they can get their nasty little pincers on into more assemblers? The whole planet could end up as a glistering sludge of horny little can-openers. But the nanonauts assure us this won’t happen; it is perhaps comforting that the main nanotechnology group is known as the Foresight Institute.

Wet nanotechnology proposes that instead of trying to build our own tiny machines, we use a “machine” that nature has already designed: the cellular reproduction apparatus of DNA, RNA, enzymes, and proteins. It’s like finding a way to tell one of your DNA strands something like, “Oh, next time you copy yourself, could you whip up a few million copies of this particular tryptamine molecule for me as well?” It’s all in how you say it, and Gerald Joyce and others at the Scripps Institute are making some slow progress in guiding the “machines” of biological reproduction. But there’s still major obstacles in convincing DNA to do technological things like putting together copper yttrium sandwiches. “No, man, I wanna fuck!”

What it comes down to is that dry nanotechnology is about machines that we can design but can’t yet build, and wet technology is about machines that we can build but can’t yet design.

The field of nanotechnology was more or less invented by one man: Eric Drexler, who designed his own Ph.D. curriculum in nanotechnology while at MIT Drexler’s 1986 book Engines of Creation was something of a popular science best-seller. This year he published a second popular book, Unbounding the Future, and a highly technical work called Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.

Drexler has the high forehead and the hunched shoulders of a Hollywood mad scientist, but his personality is quite mild and patient. A few years ago, many people were ready to write off nanotechnology as a playground for nuts and idle dreamers. It is thanks to Drexler’s calm, nearly Vulcan, logicalness that the field continues to grow and evolve.

Our interview was taped at The First General Conference on Nanotechnology, which was held at the Palo Alto Holiday Inn in November, 1991. Despite the name, this wasn’t really the first “First Nanotechnology Conference,” as that one took place in 1989. But this was the first First Nanotechnology Conference open to the public, for fifty to a hundred dollars per day, and the public packed the lecture rooms to the rafters.

Rudy Rucker: Eric, what would be in your mind a benchmark, like something specific happening, where it started to look like nanotechnology was really taking off?

Eric Drexler: Well, if you’d asked me that in 1986 when Engines of Creation came out, I would have said that a couple of important benchmarks are the first successful design of a protein molecule from scratch—that happened in 1988—and another one would be the precise placement of atoms by some mechanical means. We saw that coming out of Don Eigler’s group. At present I would say that the next major milestone that I would expect is the ability to position reactive, organic molecules so that they can be used as building blocks to make some stable three-dimensional structure at room temperature.

RR: When people like to think of the fun dreams of things that could happen with nanotechnology, what are a couple of your favorite ones?

ED: I’ve mostly been thinking lately about efficient ways of transforming molecules into other molecules and making high density energy storage systems. But if you imagine the range of things that can be done in an era where you have a billion times as much computer power available, which would presumably include Virtual Reality applications, that’s one large class of applications.

RR: I notice that you’re talking on nanotechnology and space tomorrow. Can you give me a brief preview of your ideas there?

ED: The central problem in opening the space frontier has been transportation. How do you get into space economically, safely, routinely? And that’s largely a question of what you can build. With high strength-to-weight ratio materials of the kind that can be made by molecular manufacturing, calculations indicate that you can make a four-passenger single-staged orbit vehicle with a lift-off weight that’s about equivalent to a heavy station wagon, and where the dry weight of the vehicle is sixty kilograms.

RR: So you would be using nanotechnology to make the material of the thing so thin and strong?

ED: Diamond fiber composites. Also, much better solar electric propulsion systems.

RR: I’ve noticed people seem to approach nanotechnology with a lot of humor. It’s almost like people are nervous. They can’t decide if it’s fantasy or if it’s real. For you it’s real—you think it’s going to happen?

ED: It’s hard for me to imagine a future in which it doesn’t happen, because there are so many ways of doing the job and so many reasons to proceed, and so many countries and companies that have reason to try.

RR: Could you make some comments about the notorious gray goo question?

ED: In Engines of Creation I over-emphasized the problem of someone making a self-replicating machine that could run wild. That’s a technical possibility and something we very much need to avoid, but I think it’s one of the smaller problems overall, because there’s very little incentive for someone to do it; it’s difficult to do; and there are so many other ways in which the technology could be abused where there’s a more obvious motive. For example, the use of molecular manufacturing to produce high performance weapon systems which could be more directly used to help with goals that we’ve seen people pursuing.

RR: I’ve heard people talk about injecting nanomachines into their blood and having it clean out their arteries. That’s always struck me as the last thing I would do. Having worked in the computer business and seen the impossibility of ever completely debugging a program, I can’t imagine shooting myself up with machines that had been designed by hackers on a deadline.

ED: In terms of the sequence of developments that one would expect to see I think it is one of the last things that you’d expect to see.

Note on “Mr. Nanotech: Eric Drexler”

Written 1992.

Appeared in Mondo 2000, Spring, 1992.

At this point, I was still resisting the idea of nanotech. But it’s never a good idea for an SF writer to balk at the latest new wrinkles in science. In the years to come, I let nanotech into my heart—but in the more plausible form of biotech. Tweaked organisms seem a lot likelier than tiny Victorian-style machines made of diamond rods and gears.

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Cellular Automata

What Are Cellular Automata?

Cellular automata are self-generating computer graphics movies. The most important near-term application of cellular automata will be to commercial computer graphics; in coming years you won’t be able to watch television for an hour without seeing some kind of CA.

Three other key applications of cellular automata will be to simulation of biological systems (Artificial Life), to simulation of physical phenomena (such as heat-flow and turbulence), and to the design of massively parallel computers.

Most of the cellular automata I’ve investigated are two-dimensional cellular automata. In these programs the computer screen is divided up into “cells” which are colored pixels or dots. Each cell is repeatedly “updated” by changing its old color to a new color. The net effect of the individual updates is that you see an ever-evolving sequence of screens. A graphics program of this nature is specifically called a cellular automaton when it is (1) parallel, (2) local, and (3) homogeneous.

(1) Parallelism means that the individual cell updates are performed independently of each other. That is, we think of all of the updates being done at once. (Strictly speaking, your computer only updates one cell at a time, but we use a buffer to store the new cell values until a whole screen’s worth has been computed to refresh the display.)

(2) Locality means that when a cell is updated, its new color value is based solely on the old color values of the cell and of its nearest neighbors.

(3) Homogeneity means that each cell is updated according to the same rules. Typically the color values of the cell and of its nearest eight neighbors are combined according to some logico-algebraic formula, or are used to locate an entry in a preset lookup table.

Cellular automata can act as good models for physical, biological and sociological phenomena. The reason for this is that each person, or cell, or small region of space “updates” itself independently (parallelism), basing its new state on the appearance of its immediate surroundings (locality) and on some generally shared laws of change (homogeneity).


A cellular automaton rule that emulates boiling.

As a simple example of a physical CA, imagine sitting at the edge of a swimming pool, stirring the water with your feet. How quickly the pool’s surface is updated! The “computation” is so fast because it is parallel: all the water molecules are computing at once (parallelism). And how does a molecule compute? It reacts to forces from its neighbors (locality), in accordance with the laws of physics (homogeneity).

Why Cellular Automata?

The remarkable thing about CAs is their ability to produce interesting and logically deep patterns on the basis of very simply stated preconditions. Iterating the steps of a CA computation can produce fabulously rich output. A good CA is like an acorn which grows an oak tree, or more accurately, a good CA is like the DNA inside the acorn, busily orchestrating the protein nanotechnology that builds the tree.

One of computer science’s greatest tasks at the turn of the Millennium is to humanize our machines by making them “alive.” The dream is to construct intelligent Artificial Life (called “A-Life” for short). In Cambridge, Los Alamos, Silicon Valley and beyond, this is the programmer’s Great Work as surely as the search for the Philosopher’s Stone was the Great Work of the medieval alchemists.

There are two approaches to the problem of creating A-Life: the top-down approach, and the bottom-up approach.

The top-down approach is associated with AI (Artificial Intelligence), the bottom-up with CA (the study of cellular automata). Both approaches are needed for intelligent Artificial Life, and I predict that someday soon chaos theory, neural nets and fractal mathematics will provide a bridge between the two. What a day that will be when our machines begin to live and speak and breed—a day like May 10, 1869, when the final golden spike completed the U.S. transcontinental railroad! The study of CAs brings us ever closer to the forging of that last golden link in the great chain between bottom and beyond. If all goes well, many of us will see live robot boppers on the moon.

A heckler might say, “Sure that’s fine, but why are CAs needed? Why have a bottom-up approach at all? What do mindless colored dots have to do with intelligent Artificial Life?”

For all humanity’s spiritual qualities, we need matter to live on. And CAs can act as the “matter” on which intelligent life can evolve. CAs provide a lively, chaotic substrate capable of supporting the most diverse emergent behaviors. Indeed, it is at least possible that human life itself is quite literally based on CAs.

How so? View a person as wetware: as a protein factory. The proteins flip about, generating hormones, storing memories. Looking deeper, observe that the proteins’ nanotech churning is a pattern made up of flows and undulations in the potential surfaces of quantum chemistry. These surfaces “smell out” minimal energy configurations by using the fine fuzz of physical vacuum noise—far from being like smooth rubber sheets, they are like pocked ocean swells in a rainstorm. The quantum noise obeys local rules that are quite mathematical; and these rules can be well simulated by CAs.

Why is it that CAs are so good at simulating physics? Because, just like CAs, physics is (1) parallel, (2) local, and (3) homogeneous. Restated in terms of nature, these principles say that (1) the world is happening in many different places at once, (2) there is no action at a distance and (3) the laws of nature are the same everywhere.

Whether or not the physical world really is a cellular automaton, the point is that CAs are rich enough that a “biological” world could live on them. We human hackers live on language games on biology on chemistry on physics on mathematics on—something very like the iterated parallel computations of a CA.

Life needs something to live on, intelligence needs something to think on, and it is this seething information matrix which CAs can provide. If AI is the surfer, CA is the sea. That’s why I think cellular automata are interesting: A-Life! CAs will lead to intelligent Artificial Life!

Another interesting thing about CAs is that they are a universal form of computation. That is, any computation can be modeled (usually inefficiently) as a CA process. The question then becomes whether computations can be done better as CAs?

It’s clear that certain kinds of parallel computations can be done more rapidly and efficiently by a succession of parallel CA steps. And one does best to use the CA intrinsically, rather than simply using it as a simulation of the old serial mode—emulating the gates of an Intel chip is not the way to go. No, when we use CAs best, we do not use them as simulations of circuit diagrams. While behaviors can be found in top-down expert-system style by harnessing particular patterns to particular purposes, I think by far the more fruitful course is to use the bottom-up freestyle surfing CA style summed up in the slogan:

Seek Ye The Gnarl!

New dimensional CA hacks are possible, new and marketable techniques of parallel programming are lying around waiting to be found, both in the form of individual CA structures and in the form of wholly different rules.

CA structures are labile and can be bred in three senses: one can collide and interface different local patterns within the framework of a fixed CA rule, one can combine globally different CA rules (or ideas about them) to produce wholly new ecologies, or one can “gene-splice” the logic of successful rules. Then, like Alexander von Humboldt in the Americas, one botanizes and zoologizes and mineralizes, looking for whatever artificially alive information structures can be found in the new worlds. As always, both top-down and bottom-up approaches are viable. We use bottom-up to find new ecologies and their flora and fauna. We use top-down to seed a given instance of a particular ecology with the sort of gene-tailored computer agents we want to breed.

In my own bottom-up searches I begin simply by hoping that my programs will display interesting output for a long time. Then I begin to hope that my programs will be robust under varying initial conditions, and that they will be reactive in anthropomorphizable ways. Once the program is, at this very rudimentary level, artificially alive, I may cast about for applications in some practical domain.

As I mentioned above, I think the most productive near-term applications of CAs are to image generation and image processing. A cycle or two of an averaging CA rule, for instance, can be used for easy image cleanup, munching down all stray “turd bits.” This technique, known as “convolution” in the literature, is used every day by NASA’s massively parallel computer in Beltsville, Maryland, to process terabyte arrays of satellite photo data. Present-day designers of the paint and graphics packages commonly put CA-based rules into their image processor toolboxes. Several Photoshop plug-ins, for instance, use CAs.

CAs have still not been sufficiently exploited for original image generation. How about a logo that instead of being chrome is matte and luminous, with a smooth curved surface made of tiny moving mosaics of light, light-bits that form crawling dirty CA gliders, or that shudder in psychedelic washes of color? These are what the expressive “flickercladding” skins of the boppers and moldies look like in my A-Life science fiction Ware novels.

Many simulation applications exist as well. The idea is to find a CA rule that looks like something you want to model. If you are lucky there will be some common underlying mathematics between the two. Some rules, for instance, are difference method solutions of the Laplacian equation which models both diffusion of chemicals and heat flow. Wave motions can be modeled as well. (Since CA Lab, my students and I developed a cellular automata package specifically designed for physical simulation. This is the CAPOW software for simulating 1-D and 2-D continuous valued cellular automata. It’s available for free download from my site.)

A final application of CAs is to encryption. Either a CA can serve as a cheap source of “essentially random” encryption bits, or the whole message can be fed to a reversible CA. Stephen Wolfram actually patented the one-dimensional rule with “Wolfram code 30” as part of an encryption scheme. (Stephen Wolfram, U.S. Patent Number 4,691,291, “Random Sequence Generators”, granted September 1, 1987.)

But to recapitulate, the real reason for studying CAs is to promote Artificial Life. The most important use for cellular automata will be as “universes” or “arenas” in which to evolve better fractals, bots, virtual ants, neural nets and expert agents, using gene-splicing, mutation, and our own “divine interventions” to achieve a rapid and dramatic evolution in these parallel processes. CA workers need your help in accomplishing the manifest destiny of mankind: to pass the torch of life and intelligence on to the computer. There are no more than a few hundred active workers in the CA field today. Twenty-first century technology will need thousands more!

History of Cellular Automata: Von Neumann to Gosper

Cellular automata were invented in the late 1940s by Stanislaw Ulam (1909 - 1984) and John von Neumann (1903 - 1957). One can say that the “cellular” comes from Ulam, and the “automata” from von Neumann.

Ulam was primarily a mathematician. He invented the Monte Carlo simulation technique, the highly infinite “measurable cardinals” of set theory, and he made contributions to analysis and number theory. With Edward Teller, Ulam was the co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb. Von Neumann was a still more wide-ranging mathematician. He did work in set theory, in the foundations of quantum mechanics, in economics, and in game theory. In addition, von Neumann greatly influenced the logical architecture of the first electronic computers.

In the late 1940s, von Neumann gave some ground-breaking lectures on the topic of whether or not it would ever be possible for a machine, or “automaton,” to reproduce itself.

Usually a machine makes something much simpler than itself—consider a huge milling machine turning out bolts. Could a machine possibly fabricate machines as complicated as itself? Or is there some extra-mechanical magic to self-reproduction? To simplify the problem, von Neumann suggested that we suppose that our robots or automata are made up of a small number of standardized parts:

I will introduce as elementary units neurons, a “muscle,” entities which make and cut fixed contacts, and entities which supply energy, all defined with about that degree of superficiality with which [the theory of neural networks] describes an actual neuron. If you describe muscles, connective tissues, “disconnecting tissues,” and means of providing metabolic energy…you probably wind up with something like ten or twelve or fifteen elementary parts.” [John von Neumann, “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata,” reprinted in his Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, (University of Illinois Press).]

Using the idea of machines made up of multiple copies of a small number of standardized elements, von Neumann posed his question about robot self-reproduction as follows.

Can one build an aggregate out of such elements in such a manner that if it is put into a reservoir, in which there float all these elements in large numbers, it will then begin to construct other aggregates, each of which will at the end turn out to be another automaton exactly like the original one? [John von Neumann, “The General and Logical Theory of Automata,” reprinted in his Collected Works, (Macmillan).]

This weird scenario prefigures a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, where an unhappy robot tears himself apart and floats the pieces in a lake. Using techniques of mathematical logic, von Neumann was able to deduce that such self-reproduction should in fact be possible. His proof hinged on the idea that an automaton could have a blueprint for building itself, and that in self-reproduction, two steps would be necessary: (1) to make an exact copy of the blueprint, and (2) to use the blueprint as instructions for making a copy of the automaton. The role of the blueprint is entirely analogous to the way DNA is used in biological self-reproduction, for here the DNA is both copied and used as instructions for building new proteins.

The complexity of a reservoir full of floating machine parts hindered von Neumann from making his proof convincing. The next step came from Stanislaw Ulam, who was working with von Neumann at Los Alamos during those years. Ulam’s suggestion was that instead of talking about machine parts in a reservoir, von Neumann should think in terms of an idealized space of cells that could hold finite state-numbers representing different sorts of parts.

Ulam’s first published reference to this idea reads as follows:

An interesting field of application for models consisting of an infinite number of interacting elements may exist in the recent theories of automata. A general model, considered by von Neumann and the author, would be of the following sort: Given is an infinite lattice or graph of points, each with a finite number of connections to certain of its “neighbors.” Each point is capable of a finite number of “states.” The states of neighbors at time Tn induce, in a specified manner, the state of the point at time Tn+1. One aim of the theory is to establish the existence of subsystems which are able to multiply, i.e., create in time other systems identical (“congruent”) to themselves. [Stanislaw Ulam, “Random Processes and Transformations,” reprinted in his Sets, Numbers and Universes, (MIT Press).]

By 1952, von Neumann had completed a description of such a self-reproducing “cellular automaton” which uses 29 states. Von Neumann’s CA work was not published during his lifetime; it seems that once he saw the solution, he became distracted and moved on to other things. Ulam continued working on a number of simpler cellular automata, publishing several papers on them during the early 1960s.

The next big event in CA history occurred in 1970. In his popular Mathematical Games column, Martin Gardner wrote about how John Horton Conway, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, had discovered a fascinating two-dimensional cellular automaton so rich in patterns and behavior that it was known as “Life.” Conway’s vague initial goal had been to find a cellular automaton rule in which simple patterns could grow to a large size, but in which it was not clear whether any patterns could grow forever.

“Conway conjectures that no pattern can grow without limit. Put another way, any configuration with a finite number of counters cannot grow beyond a finite upper limit to the number of counters on the field. This is probably the deepest and most difficult question posed by the game. Conway has offered a prize of $50 to the first person who can prove or disprove the conjecture before the end of the year. One way to disprove it would be to discover patterns that keep adding counters to the field: a gun (a configuration that repeatedly shoots out moving objects such as the glider), or a puffer train (a configuration that moves about leaves behind a trail of ‘smoke’).” [Martin Gardner, “Mathematical Games: The fantastic combinations of John Conway’s new solitaire game Life,” (Scientific American, October 1970).]

The prize was won a month later by William Gosper and five fellow hackers at MIT; they sent Martin Gardner a telegram with the coordinates of the cells to turn on to make a glider gun. Steven Levy’s Hackers has a good section about Gosper and the early excitement over Life among the users of the PDP-6 computer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project. Levy has a nice quote from Gosper, telling how he saw Life as a way to

“…basically do new science in a universe where all the smart guys haven’t already nixed you out two or three hundred years ago. It’s your life story if you’re a mathematician: every time you discover something neat, you discover that Gauss or Newton knew it in his crib. With Life you’re the first guy there, and there’s always fun stuff going on. You can do everything from recursive function theory to animal husbandry. There’s a community of people who are sharing their experiences with you. And there’s the sense of connection between you and the environment. The idea of where’s the boundary of a computer. Where does the computer leave off and the environment begin?” [Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, (Doubleday).]

One must remember that 1970 was still the Dark Ages of computing; Conway himself ran his Life simulations by marking the cells with checkers or flat Othello counters. For Gosper and his team to get Life to run on a monitor at all was a nontrivial feat of hacking—it was a new thing to do with a computer. After Gardner’s second column on Life, the game became something of a mania among computer users. By 1974, an article about Life in Time could complain that “millions of dollars in valuable computer time may have already been wasted by the game’s growing horde of fanatics.”

More and more intricate Life patterns were found all through the ‘70s, and by 1980, Conway had enough Life machinery at hand to publish a detailed proof that Life can be used to simulate any digital computation whatsoever. The significance of Conway’s proof is not that he shows that some cellular automaton can act as a universal computer, for von Neumann already proved this; and for that matter Alvy Ray Smith’s Stanford dissertation of 1970 describes a universal one-dimensional CA computer. (Smith later founded the computer graphics company Pixar.) The significance of Conway’s proof is that he shows that the specific rule called Life can itself act as a universal computer.

A number of people at MIT began studying cellular automata other than Life during the 1970s. One the most influential figures there was Edward Fredkin. Although he himself held no higher degrees, Fredkin was a professor associated with the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, and he directed a number of dissertations on Cellular Automata.


A cellular automaton rule with scrolls.

Fredkin envisioned a new science where we represent all physical quantities as packets of information. The substrate on which these packets move was to be a cellular automaton. Not to put too fine a point on it, Fredkin argued that, at some deep level, the world we live in is a huge cellular automaton. Although Conway had already expressed opinions to the effect that in a cosmically large Life simulation one might see the evolution of persistent patterns which are as intelligent as us, Fredkin was the first to suggest that the world we live in really is a CA.

Fredkin formed the Information Mechanics Group at MIT along with Tommaso Toffoli, Norman Margolus and Gerard Vichniac. Working together, Margolus and Toffoli built the so-called CAM-6 cellular automaton machine in 1984.

Another important 1980s figure in cellular automata was Stephen Wolfram, who wrote an important article pointing out some fundamental similarities between physics and cellular automata. (“Computer Software in Science and Mathematics”, Scientific American, September, 1984.) Wolfram suggested that many physical processes that seem random are in fact the deterministic outcome of computations that are simply so convoluted that they cannot be compressed into shorter form and predicted in advance. He spoke of these computations as “incompressible,” and cited cellular automata as good examples. His article included some intriguing color photographs of one-dimensional CAs.

Wolfram’s article fascinated me so much that in April, 1985, I set out to meet Wolfram, Margolus, Toffoli, and the other new cellular automatists.

Modern Cellular Automata: A Journalistic Account

We’ve been talking all afternoon and Stephen Wolfram is tired. On the computer screen in front of us, patterns are forming. We are watching the time-evolutions of various one-dimensional cellular automata. Some of the patterns are predictable as wallpaper, some are confusingly random, but just now there is one that strikes a pleasing balance between order and chaos. It’s shaped like a pyramid, with red and blue down the sides, and with a symmetrical yellow pattern in the middle—a pattern vaguely like an Indian goddess.

“What’s the number on that one?” asks Wolfram.

“398312,” answers Norman Packard, Wolfram’s associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

“This is the way to do scientific research,” I remark. “Sit and watch patterns, and write down the numbers of the ones you like.”

“Oh, this isn’t for science,” says Wolfram. “This is for art. Usually I just talk to scientists and businessmen, and now I’m trying to meet some artists. Wouldn’t that last one make a good poster?”

A few days later and I’m with Charles Bennett, an IBM information-theorist visiting Boston University. Bennett has a TV coupled to a computer and two naked boards full of circuits and chips. One of the boards has two tiny green lights sticking up like eyes. The board with the lights, explains Bennett, serves as a source of random zeroes and ones.

“Watch this,” says Bennett. “The Life rule starting from a primordial soup of bits. It’s a rudimentary model of evolution.”

He fiddles with his machine and the TV screen lights up with a color flea-circus: this is the “soup.” And then, as Life’s transformation rules take over, the dots begin racing around, clumping into things like worms. The worms crawl around the screen, colliding and eating each other, casting off bits of stable debris.

“That’s a glider gun,” says Bennett, pointing to a twinkling little dot-creature. A steady stream of smaller dot-patterns is pulsing out from the glider gun. “We’ve got sixty-five thousand pixels on this screen with sixty updates per second.”

Bennett shows me another pattern, one that looks like boiling red cottage cheese, and then he takes me across the Charles River to the MIT Laboratory of Computer Science. In the basement is an exuberant French scientist named Gerard Vichniac.

He and an associate are watching a small rectangular dot-pattern in the center of their terminal’s screen. The pattern is mostly white, with a small amount of red in it. The edges keep folding in on each other as the pattern evolves according to some simple rule which Vichniac made up. He calls it an “Ising Model,” but it looks like an electronic kaleidoscope. “This pattern started as a red square,” Vichniac tells me. “The rule is reversible, so we know that eventually the red square must come back. We’ve been watching it for eighty thousand steps now.”

Upstairs from Vichniac are two equally cheerful cellular automata specialists, Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli. There’s another journalist there, none other than Stephen Levy, author of Hackers, researching a CA article for The Whole Earth Review. Cellular automata are hot. I introduce myself and sit down to watch the demonstration. Right now there’s a central cloud of dots, with square little patterns flying out of it. On the sides of each of the square patterns are individual pixels that pump up and down.

“Look at the critters, Tom,” says Margolus. “They look like wheelchair athletes, don’t they?”

“Show him the square rock,” says Toffoli.

Margolus clears the screen and keys a big red square into the center. The square expands out to the edges of the screen and bounces back. As the bouncing continues, the patterns interfere and form complex checkerboard patterns, enough patterns in thirty seconds to have made a respectable one-man Op-Art show in the 1960s.

Toffoli pries Margolus away from the controls and takes over. “Now we do the square rock in the toroidal pond again, but this time we add a heat-bath, a cloud of random gas in the background.”

The background fills with darting dots, and Toffoli keys another big red square into the center. This time the waves are smooth and roughly circular, much like real waves in a real pond. We try it with two squares and get interference patterns. Toffoli is pleased. He says that this shows how simple physics really is.

What is going on?

For the past fifty years, scientists thought of computers in terms of a series of computations, to be carried out successively. The idealized model for such computers was the Turing machine: a device which moves back and forth along a long strip of paper making marks. Turing’s model led John von Neumann to the key insight that got the computer revolution off the ground: a computer program should contain computing instructions as well as data.

One of the main changes often predicted for coming generations of computers is that computers might begin doing computations in parallel. A few such parallel computers exist, such as NASA’s seven million dollar Massively Parallel Processor at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The Connection Machine from Thinking Machines, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., is a much sexier parallel processing machine. The Connection Machine has 64,000 processing chips. Visitors to the cellular automaton conference CA86 at MIT were invited over to the Thinking Machines offices to see the Connection Machine running cellular automata and simulating a wind-tunnel. Stephen Wolfram consulted with Thinking Machines for a short while before setting off on his own to build and distribute the mathematics program Mathematica. But these computers have yet to realize their full potential. The problem is that there is still no simple model of parallel computation; and there is still no good theory of how to program a parallel computer.

Cellular automata may provide the necessary new mind tool for thinking about parallel computation. A striking feature of CAs is that their eventual output is so hard to predict. In practice, the best way to predict what pattern a CA will show in, say, a hundred steps, is simply to run the CA rule itself for one hundred steps. This suggests that the best way to “program” a parallel computer may be empirical: try out several million randomly chosen cell-programs, and select the one that accomplishes your goal the best.

Probably the best-known CA worker is Stephen Wolfram, aged twenty-four. Wolfram was born in Oxford, and is said to have left home at the age of twelve. As a teenager, he published a number of papers on particle physics. He obtained his Ph.D. in physics from Cal Tech in 1980, won the MacArthur prize in 1981, and joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1982. And then, in the process of trying to find a model for the way in which galaxies form out of the universe’s initially chaotic state, Wolfram became interested in cellular automata.

Stocky, tousled, and seeming a bit older than his years, Wolfram speaks with the directness of a man who knows what he is doing. “Computer scientists had done some fairly worthless clean-up work on Ulam and von Neumann’s work. There were maybe a hundred papers. What I found outrageous was that none of the papers had any pictures.”

Wolfram’s papers all have pictures, lots of pictures, usually pictures of one-dimensional cellular automata evolving in time. (Wolfram’s papers are collected, along with numerous papers by other authors, in his excellent volume, Theory and Applications of Cellular Automata, World Scientific.) Wolfram recalls his initial investigations into one-dimensional CAs as “botanical.” He watched thousands and thousands of them on his computer until he got a feeling for what kinds of possibilities there were. He now feels that a number of very simple CAs can serve as universal computers. In Wolfram’s words, “It is possible to make things of great complexity out of things that are very simple. There is no conservation of simplicity.”

One application of CAs is to the little-understood phenomenon of turbulence. “If we had a better understanding of how complex systems work, we could use them in engineering applications,” remarks Wolfram, and goes on to tell a story about the design of the DC-10 airplane. “The wing of a DC-10 is held on by a single steel bar. Two or three steel bars would probably be better, but for more than one bar the mathematics becomes too complicated for a simulation to be carried out. The weakness of our mathematics forces us to adopt the simplest possible design.”

I ask him what engineers think of his method of modeling turbulence with CAs. “Some say it’s wrong, and some say it’s trivial. If you can get people to say both those things, you’re in quite good shape.”

Up at Boston University, Charles Bennett and the Hungarian computer scientist Peter Gacs are using two-dimensional cellular automata to model biological notions. Unlike a solid-state computer, a human brain is filled with random noise. How is it that we manage to remember things, and to think logically, when all of our mental patterns are constantly being bombarded by extraneous stimuli? Bennett and Gacs tell me they have found a CA model for the process, and they show me the screenful of boiling red cottage cheese. Despite the boiling, the cheese stays mostly red: this is the persistence of memory. Gacs says something very interesting about the device that produces the display.

“With the cellular automaton simulator, we can see many very alien scenes. We have a new world to look at, and it may tell us a lot about our world. It is like looking first into a microscope.”

Computer science is still so new that many of the people at the cutting edge have come from other fields. Though Toffoli holds degrees in physics and computer science, Bennett’s Ph.D. is in physical chemistry. And twenty-nine year old Margolus is still a graduate student in physics, his dissertation delayed by the work of inventing, with Toffoli, the CAM-6 Cellular Automaton Machine.

After watching the CAM in operation at Margolus’s office, I am sure the thing will be a hit. Just as the Moog synthesizer changed the sound of music, cellular automata will change the look of video.

I tell this to Toffoli and Margolus, and they look unconcerned. What they care most deeply about is science, about Edward Fredkin’s vision of explaining the world in terms of cellular automata and information mechanics. Margolus talks about computer hackers, and how a successful program is called “a good hack.” As the unbelievably bizarre cellular automata images flash by on his screen, Margolus leans back in his chair and smiles slyly. And then he tells me his conception of the world we live in.

“The universe is a good hack.”

CA Lab

On March 22, 1986, my fortieth birthday, I got a phone call offering me a job as a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at San Jose State University.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera talks about “the frenzy of a forty-year-old man starting a new life.” That’s how it was to move from Virginia to California with my wife and three kids and to start teaching computer courses.

During the second semester I began to understand something about what I was doing, and I wrote ANIMALS.EXE, my very first cellular automaton program, an assembly language textmode graphics display of a one-dimensional CA.

Margolus and Toffoli’s CAM-6 board was finally coming into production around then, and I got the Department to order one. The company making the boards was Systems Concepts of San Francisco; I think they cost $1500. We put our order in, and I started phoning Systems Concepts up and asking them when I was going to get my board. By then I’d gotten a copy of Margolus and Toffoli’s book, Cellular Automata Machines, and I was itching to start playing with the board. And still it didn’t come. Finally I told System Concepts that SJSU was going to have to cancel the purchase order. The next week they sent the board. By now it was August, 1987.

The packaging of the board was kind of incredible. It came naked, all by itself, in a plastic bag in a small box of Styrofoam peanuts. No cables, no software, no documentation. Just a three inch by twelve inch rectangle of plastic—actually two rectangles one on top of the other—completely covered with computer chips. There were two sockets at one end. I called Systems Concepts again, and they sent me a few pages of documentation. You were supposed to put a cable running your graphics card’s output into the CAM-6 board, and then plug your monitor cable into the CAM-6’s other socket. No, Systems Concepts didn’t have any cables, they were waiting for a special kind of cable from Asia. So one of the SJSU Math and CS Department techs made me a cable. All I needed then was the software to drive the board, and as soon as I phoned Toffoli he sent me a copy.

Starting to write programs for the CAM-6 took a little bit of time because the language it uses is Forth. This is an offbeat computer language that uses reverse Polish notation. Once you get used to it, Forth is very clean and nice, but it makes you worry about things you shouldn’t really have to worry about. But, hey, if I needed to know Forth to see cellular automata, then by God I’d know Forth. I picked it up fast and spent the next four or five months hacking the CAM-6.

The big turning point came in October, when I was invited to Hackers 3.0, the 1987 edition of the great annual Hackers’ conference.

I got invited thanks to James Blinn, a graphics wizard who also happened to be a fan of my science fiction books. As a relative novice to computing, I felt a little diffident showing up at Hackers, but everyone there was really nice. I brought my computer along with the CAM-6 in it, and did demos all night long. People were blown away by the images, though not too many of them sounded like they were ready to (1) cough up $1500, (2) beg Systems Concepts for delivery, and (3) learn Forth in order to use a CAM-6 themselves. A bunch of the hackers made me take the board out of my computer and let them look at it. Not knowing too much about hardware, I’d imagined all along that the CAM-6 had some special processors on it. But the hackers informed me that all it really had was a few latches and a lot of fast RAM memory chips.

I met John Walker at Hackers 3.0. He told me a little about Autodesk and we talked in fairly general terms about my possibly doing some work with them. A month or two later, John showed up at my house with Eric Lyons, the head of the Autodesk Technology Division. They were toting a 386 and a five megabyte movie of Mandelbrot set zoom images that they’d made. I showed them all my new CA stuff, and they more or less offered me a full-time job. It was so sudden I wasn’t really ready to think about it.

Spring of 1988 I taught Assembly Language again, and this time just about all we did was write CA programs. The big revelation I had about getting the programs to run faster was to have no rigid preconceptions about what I wanted the program to do. Instead I began to listen to what the machine and the assembly language were telling me about what they wanted to do.

I found an inspiration for learning to listen to the machine in my favorite book, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. In one scene some engineers are wondering whether to believe in their calculations or in the data that they are obtaining from tests on their prototype rocket engine. Enzian, an African wise man among the engineers says: “What are these data if not direct revelation? Where have they come from, if not from the Rocket which is to be? How do you presume to compare a number you have only derived on paper with a number that is the Rocket’s own?”

In my first spring at San Jose State, I was teaching a special course on Cellular Automata, and a custom chip designer called John Wharton had signed up for it. I’d met him at the Artificial Life Conference at Los Alamos in September, 1987, and he’d been at Hackers 3.0 as well. Wharton showed me how to use a stored lookup table for rapidly updating a one-dimensional cellular automaton four cells at a time.

Wharton and I talked a lot about how to make an inexpensive version of the CAM-6, whether by cloning the hardware or by reinventing the whole thing in software. I began trying to program something like this, and talked about the project with John Walker at Autodesk.

The semester ended, and the nice rental house my family and I had initially lucked into got sold out from under us for half a million dollars. Looking for a new place to house us on a professor’s salary, I realized that here in Silicon Valley I was really poor. I consoled myself by writing a lot more cellular automaton programs, a whole disk’s worth of them. I called the disk Freestyle CA, and sold about a hundred of them for $10 each via announcements in little magazines. (These programs still work on more modern machines, although now they run a little too fast. The Freestyle CA package as well as my later CA programs can be downloaded for free from my site.)

In June I heard that Eric Lyons was giving a talk on cellular automata at Autodesk. I went up, and after the talk I showed Eric my programs and asked if he and John had really meant it about offering me a job.

In July, John Walker mailed me a copy of his first version of what would eventually become the Autodesk software package called CA Lab: Rudy Rucker’s Cellular Automaton Laboratory. Walker’s program was such a superb hack that it could run CA rules nearly as fast at the CAM-6 board, but without any special purpose hardware. Not only did Walker’s program run my then-favorite CA rule called Brain maybe 30% faster than my best hack at the same thing, but his software was designed in such a way that it was quite easy for users to add new rules.

I began pushing really hard for the job. We went back and forth for a few weeks, and August 15 I started a three-month contract as a consultant at Autodesk. The main thing I did was to test out Stephen Wolfram’s new mathematics program Mathematica on a Mac II that Autodesk lent me. The idea was to use Mathematica to find some interesting new graphics algorithms. I found all kinds of things, but that’s a story for a different essay.

When my consulting contract ran out in November 1988, Autodesk still wasn’t quite sure about whether to really hire me full-time. That’s when I firmed up the idea that John Walker and I should pool all our CA knowledge and create the unified CA Lab product. I had a lot of ideas for new CA rules to feed to Walker’s simulator, and I could write the manual. Putting together CA Lab would be a specific thing I could do during my first year at Autodesk. The deal was okayed, and to make my joy complete, John magnanimously agreed to put my name on the package cover.

As I write this, it’s April 10, 1989, and we’re planning to ship the product next month. The code seems to be all done, and when I finish this section the manual will be done too, given one more frantic round of corrections.

So, okay, Rudy, finish it.

When I look at how completely cellular automata have transformed my life in the last four years I can hardly believe it. The most exciting thing for me to think about is how CA Lab going to transform the lives of some of you who use it; and how you in turn will change the lives of others around you.

A revolutionary new idea is like an infection that’s actually good for the people who get it. I caught cellular automata in 1985, and I’ve put them on CA Lab so you can catch them too.

What happens next? It’s up to you.

Note on “Cellular Automata”

Written 1989.

Appeared in the CA Lab manual, Autodesk, 1989.

After my initial interest in cellular automata, the magazine Science 85 had hired me to do a number of articles for them in the past, so I convinced them to send me to Princeton and Cambridge to interview the new cellular automatists. The “Modern Cellular Automata” section of this essay was adapted from the article I wrote. As it turned out, an editor at Science 85 found cellular automata too esoteric, so in the end the article actually appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April, 1987.

CA Lab was an educational DOS software package for investigating cellular automata. I have to admit that my tone goes a little over the top about the virtues of cellular automata and Artificial Life. Certainly this was one of the least bland computer manuals ever written. The first edition of the manual even included the “brain-eating” scene from my novel Software as a footnote, though the vice-president of Marketing had this removed from subsequent printings.

John Walker, one of the founders of Autodesk, wrote most of the code for CA Lab. Although CA Lab is out of print, John Walker has created an improved freeware version of the program for Windows called Cellab. Cellab is available for download from my Web site or from Walker’s Web site. Walker’s site has many other goodies, such as the complete U. S. tax code. I think he gets something like a hundred thousand visits a day.

It’s worth mentioning that Walker was an inspiration for the character Roger Coolidge in my transreal novel The Hacker and the Ants. As John wasn’t quite satisfied with my ending—in which Roger Coolidge dies—he wrote his own alternate ending—in which Roger Coolidge lives. John’s alternate ending to The Hacker and the Ants can still be found on site.

Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Collected Essays by Rudy Rucker.

Life and Artificial Life

Artificial Life is the study of how to create man-made systems which behave as if they were alive.

It is important to study life because the most interesting things in the world are the things that are alive. Living things grow into beautiful shapes and develop graceful behavior. They eat, they mate, they compete, and over the generations they evolve.

In the planetary sense, societies and entire ecologies can be thought of as living organisms. In an even more abstract sense, our thoughts themselves can be regarded as benignly parasitic information viruses that hop from mind to mind. Life is all around us, and it would be valuable to have a better understanding of how it works.

Investigators of the brand new field of Artificial Life, or A-Life, are beginning to tinker with home-brewed simulations of life. A-life can be studied for its scientific aspects, for its aesthetic pleasures, or as a source of insight into real living systems.

In the practical realm, Artificial Life provides new methods of chemical synthesis, self-improving techniques for controlling complex systems, and ways to automatically generate optimally tweaked computer programs. In the future, Artificial Life will play a key role in robotics, in Virtual Reality, and in the retrieval of information from unmanageably huge data bases.

One can go about creating A-Life by building robots or by tailoring biochemical reactions—and we’ll talk about these options later in this essay. But the most inexpensive way to go about experimenting with A-Life is to use computer programs.

What are some of the essential characteristics of life that we want our A-Life programs to have? We want programs that are visually attractive, that move about, that interact with their environment, that breed, and that evolve.

Three characteristics of living systems will guide our quest:




This essay includes sections on Gnarl, Sex, and Death, followed by three sections on non-computer A-Life.


The original meaning of “gnarl” was simply “a knot in the wood of a tree.” In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to be used to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions. And then, by extension, “gnarly” came to mean anything that included a lot of surprisingly intricate detail.

Living things are gnarly in that they inevitably do things that are much more complex than one might have expected. The grain of an oak burl is of course gnarly in the traditional sense of the word, but the life cycle of a jellyfish, say, is gnarly in the modern sense. The wild three-dimensional paths that a hummingbird sweeps out are kind of gnarly, and, if the truth be told, your ears are gnarly as well.

A simple rule of thumb for creating Artificial Life on the computer is that the program should produce output which looks gnarly.

“Gnarly” is, of course, not the word which most research scientists use. Instead, they speak of life as being chaotic or complex.

Chaos as a scientific concept became popular in the 1980s. Chaos can be defined to mean complicated but not arbitrary.

The surf at the shore of an ocean beach is chaotic. The patterns of the water are clearly very complicated. But, and this is the key point, they are not arbitrary.

For one thing, the patterns that the waves move in are, from moment to moment, predictable by the laws of fluid motion. Waves don’t just pop in and out of existence. Water moves according to well understood physical laws. Even if the waves are in some sense random, their motions are still not arbitrary. The patterns you see are drawn from a relatively small range of options. Everything you see looks like water in motion; the water never starts looking like, say, cactuses or piles of cubes. The kinds of things that waves “like to do” are what chaoticians call “attractors” in the space of possible wave behaviors.

Note that the quantum uncertainties of atomic motions do in fact make the waves random at some level. As Martin Gardner once said to me, “Quantum mechanics ruins everything.” But quantum mechanics is something of a red herring here. The waves would look much the same even if physics were fully deterministic right down to the lowest levels.

As it turns out, you don’t need a system as complicated as the ocean to generate unpredictable chaos. Over the last couple of decades, scientists have discovered that sometimes a very simple rule can produce output which looks, at least superficially, as complicated as physical chaos. Computer simulations of chaos can be obtained either by running one algorithm many times (as in a simulation of planetary motion), or by setting up an arena in which multiple instances of a single algorithm can interact (as with a cellular automaton). A sufficiently complex chaotic system can appear fully unpredictable.

Some chaotic systems explode into a full-blown random-looking grunge, while others settle into the gnarly, warped patterns that are known as strange attractors. A computer screen filled with what looks like a seething flea circus can be a chaotic system, but the fractal images that you see on T-shirts and calendars are pictures of chaos as well. Like all other kinds of systems, chaotic systems can range from having a lesser or a greater amount of disorder. If a chaotic system isn’t too disorderly, it converges on certain standard kinds of behavior—these are its attractors. If the attractors are odd-looking or, in particular, of an endlessly detailed fractal nature, they are called strange attractors.

To return to the surf example, you might notice that the waves near a rock tend every so often to fall into a certain kind of surge pattern. This recurrent surge pattern would be an attractor. In the same way, chaotic computer simulations will occasionally tighten in on characteristic rhythms and clusters that act as attractors.

But if there is a storm, the waves may be just completely out of control and choppy and patternless. This is full-blown chaos. As disorderliness is increased, a chaotic system can range from being nearly periodic, up through the fractal region of the strange attractors, on up into impenetrable messiness.

Quite recently, some scientists have started using the new word complexity for a certain type of chaos. A system is complex if it is a chaotic system that is not too disorderly.

The notions of chaos and complexity come from looking at a wide range of systems—mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, and economic. In each domain, the systems that arise can be classified into a spectrum of disorderliness.

At the ordered end we have constancy and a complete lack of surprise. One step up from that is periodic behavior in which the same sequence repeats itself over and over again—as in the structure of a crystal. At the disordered end of the spectrum is full randomness. One notch down from full randomness is the zone of the gnarl.


No Disorder

Low Disorder


High Disorder





















Spectra of Disorder for Various Fields.

As an example of the disorderliness spectrum in mathematics, let’s look at some different kinds of mathematical functions, where a function is a rule or a method that takes input numbers and gives back other numbers as output. If f is a function then for each input number x, the function f assigns an output number f(x). A function f is often drawn as a graph of the equation y = f(x), with the graph appearing as a line or curve on a pair of x and y axes.

The most orderly kind of mathematical function is a constant function, such as an f for which f(x) is always two. The graph of such a function is nothing but a horizontal line.

At the next level of disorder, we might look at a function f for which f(x) varies periodically with the value of x. The sine function sin(x) is an example of such a function; it fluctuates up and down like a wave.


Detail of a gnarly quintic Mandelbrot set.

The gnarly zone of mathematics is chaos. Chaotic functions have finitely complicated definitions, but somewhat unpredictable patterns. A chaotic function may be an extremely irregular curve, unpredictably swooping up and back down.

A truly random mathematical function is a smeared out mess that has no underlying rhyme or reason to it. A typical random function has a graph that breaks into a cloud of dots, with the curve continually jumping to new points.

Formally, something is truly random if it admits to no finite definition at all. It is an old question in the philosophy of science whether anything in the universe truly is random in this sense of being infinitely complicated. It may be the whole universe itself is simply a chaotic system whose finite underlying explanation happens to lie beyond our ability to understand.

Before going on to talk about the disorder spectrums of the Matter, Pattern, and Flow rows in Table 1, let’s pause to zoom in on the appearance of the Math row’s disorderliness spectrum within the gnarly zone of chaos. This zoom is shown in Table 2.


Less Disorder

More Disorder


High Disorder






Spectrum of Disorder for Chaos.

The most orderly kind of chaos is “quasiperiodic,” or nearly periodic. Something like this might be a periodic function that has a slight, unpredictable drift. Next comes the “attractor” zone in which chaotic systems generate easily visible structures. Next comes a “critical” zone of transition that is the domain of complexity, and which is the true home of the gnarl. And at the high end of disorder is “pseudorandom” chaotic systems, whose output is empirically indistinguishable from true randomness—unless you happen to be told the algorithm which is generating the chaos.

Now let’s get back to the other three rows from Table 1, back to Matter, Pattern, and Flow.

In classical (pre-quantum) physics, a vacuum is the simplest, most orderly kind of matter: nothing is going on. A crystalline solid is orderly in a predictable, periodic way. In a liquid the particles are still loosely linked together, but in a gas, the particles break free and bounce around in a seemingly random way. I should point out that in classical physics, the trajectories of a gas’s particles can in principle be predicted from their starting positions—much like the bouncing balls of an idealized billiard table—so a classical gas is really a pseudorandom chaotic system rather than a truly random system. Here, again, chaotic means “very complicated but having a finite underlying algorithm.”

In any case, the gnarly, complex zone of matter would be identified with the liquid phase, rather than the pseudorandom or perhaps truly random gas phase. The critical point where a heated liquid turns into steam would be a zone of particular gnarliness and interest.

In terms of patterns, the most orderly kind of pattern is a blank one, with the next step up being something like a checkerboard. Fractals are famous for being patterns that are regular yet irregular. The most simply defined fractals are complex and chaotic patterns that are obtained by carrying out many iterations of some simple formula. The most disorderly kind of pattern is a random dusting of pixels, such as is sometimes used in the random dither effects that are used to create color shadings and gray-scale textures. Fractals exemplify gnarl in a very clear form.

The flow of water is a rich source of examples of degrees of disorder. The most orderly state of water is, of course, for it to be standing still. If one lets water run rather slowly down a channel, the water moves smoothly, with perhaps a regular pattern of ripples in it. As more water is put into a channel, eddies and whirlpools appear—this is what is known as turbulence. If a massive amount of water is poured down a steep channel, smaller and smaller eddies cascade off the larger ones, ultimately leading to an essentially random state in which the water is seething. Here the gnarly region is where the flow has begun to break up into eddies with a few smaller eddies, without yet having turned into random churning.

In every case, the gnarly zone is to be found somewhere at the transition between order and disorder. Simply looking around at the world makes it seem reasonable to believe that this is the level of orderliness to be expected from living things. Living things are orderly but not too orderly; chaotic but not too chaotic. Life is gnarly, and A-Life should be gnarly too.


When I say that life includes gnarl, sex, and death, I am using the flashy word “sex” to stand for four distinct things:

Having a body that is grown from genes



Random genetic changes.

Let’s discuss these four sex topics one at a time.

Genomes and Phenomes

The first sex topic is genes as seeds for growing the body.

All known life forms have a genetic basis. That is, all living things can be grown from eggs or seeds. In living things, the genes are squiggles of DNA molecules that somehow contain a kind of program for constructing the living organism’s entire body. In addition, the genes also contain instructions that determine much of the organism’s repertoire of behavior.

A single complete set of genes is known as a genome, and an organism’s body with its behavior is known as the organism’s phenome. What a creature looks like and acts like is its phenome; it’s the part of the creatures that shows. (The word “phenome” comes from the Greek word for “to show;” think of the word “phenomenon.”)

Modern researches into the genetic basis of life have established that each living creature starts with a genome. The genome acts as a set of instructions that are used to grow the creature’s phenome.

It is conceivable that somewhere in the universe there may be things with phenomes that we would call living, but which are not grown from genomes. These geneless aliens might be like clouds, say, or like tornadoes. But all the kinds of things that we ordinarily think of as being alive are in fact based on genomes, so it is reasonable to base our investigations of A-Life on systems which have a genetic basis.

If we’re interested in computer-based A-Life, it is particularly appropriate to work with A-Life forms whose phenomes grow out of their genomes. In terms of a computer, you can think of the genome as the program and the phenome as the output. A computer A-Life creature has a genome which is a string of bits (a bit being the minimal piece of binary information, a zero or a one), and its phenome includes the creature’s graphic appearance on the computer’s screen. Keep in mind that the phenome also includes behavior, so the way in which the creature’s appearance changes and reacts to other creatures is part of its phenome as well.


The second sex topic is reproduction.

The big win in growing your phenome from a small genome is that this makes it easy for you to grow copies of yourself. Instead of having to copy your large and complicated phenome as a whole, you need only make a copy of your relatively small genome, and then let the copied genome grow its own phenome. Eventually the newly grown phenome should look just like you. Although this kind of reproduction is a solitary activity, it is still a kind of sex, and is practiced by such lowly creatures as the amoeba.

As it happens, the genome-copying ability is something that is built right into DNA because of the celebrated fact that DNA has the form of a double helix which is made of two complementary strands of protein. Each strand encodes the entire information of the genome. In order to reproduce itself, a DNA double helix first unzips itself to produce two separate strands of half-DNA, each of which is a long, linked protein chain of molecules called bases. The bases are readily available in the fluid of any living cell, and now each half-DNA strand gathers unto itself enough bases to make a copy of its complementary half-DNA strand. The new half-DNA strands are assembled in position, already twined right around the old strands, so the net result is that the original DNA genome has turned itself into two. It has successfully reproduced; it has made a copy of itself.

In most A-Life worlds, reproduction is something that is done in a simple mechanical way. The bitstring or sequence of bits that encodes a creature’s program is copied into a new memory location by the “world” program, and then the two creature programs are run and the two phenotypes appear.


The third sex topic is mating.

Most living creatures reproduce in pairs, with the offspring’s genome containing a combination of the parents’ genomes. Rather than being a random shuffling of the bases in the parents’ DNA, genomes are normally mated by a process known as crossover.

To simplify the idea, we leave out any DNA-like details of genome reproduction, and simply think of the two parent genomes as a chain of circles and a chain of squares, both chains of the same length. In the crossover process, a crossover point is chosen and the two genomes are broken at the crossover point. The broken genomes can now be joined together and mated in two possible ways. You can have squares followed by circles, or circles followed by squares. In real life, only one of the possible matings is chosen as the genome seed of the new organism.

In computer A-Life, we often allow both of the newly mated genomes to survive. In fact, the most common form of computer A-Life reproduction is to replace the two original parent programs by the two new crossed-over programs. That is to say, two A-Life parents often “breed in place.”

In a world where several species exist, it can even sometimes happen that one species genome can incorporate some information from the genome of a creature from another species! This phenomenon is called “exogamy”. Although rare, exogamy does seem to occur in the real world. It is said that snippets of our DNA are identical to bits of modern cat DNA. Gag me with a hairball!

Mutation, Transposition and Zapping

The fourth sex topic involves random changes to the genome.

Mating is a major source of genetic diversity in living things, but genomes can also have their information changed by such randomizing methods as mutation, transposition, and zapping. While mating acts on pairs of genomes, randomization methods act on one genome at a time.

For familiar wetware life forms like ourselves, mutations are caused by things like poisons and cosmic rays. Some mutations are lethal, but many of them make no visible difference at all. Now and then a particular mutation or accumulation of mutations will cause the phenome to suddenly show a drastically new kind of appearance and behavior. Perhaps genius, perhaps a harelip, perhaps beauty, perhaps idiocy.

In the A-Life context, where we typically think of the genome as a sequence of zeroes and ones, a mutation amounts to picking a site and flipping the bit: from zero to one, or from one to zero.

Besides mutation, there are several other forms of genome randomization, some of which are still being discovered in the real world and are as yet poorly understood.

One interesting genome changer is known as transposition. In transposition, two swatches of some genomes are swapped.

Another genome randomizer that we sometimes use in A-Life programs is zapping, whereby every now and then all of some single creature’s genome bits are randomized. In the real world, zapping is not a viable method of genetic variation, as it will almost certainly produce a creature that dies instantly. But in the more forgiving arena of A-Life, zapping can be useful.

In the natural world, species typically have very large populations and big genomes. Here the effects of mating—sexual reproduction—are the primary main source of genetic diversity. But in the small populations and short genomes of A-Life experiments, it is dangerously easy for all the creatures to end up with the same genome. And if you crossover two identical genomes, the offspring are identical to the parents, and no diversity arises! As a practical matter, random genome variation is quite important for Artificial Life simulations.


What would life like if there were no death? Very crowded or very stagnant. In imagining a counterfactual situation like no death, it’s always a challenge to keep a consistent mental scenario. But I’m a science fiction writer, so I’m glad to try. Let’s suppose that Death forgot about Earth starting in the Age of the Dinosaurs. What would today’s Earth be like?

There would still be lots of dinosaurs around, which is nice. But if they had been reproducing for all of this time, the dinosaurs and their contemporaries would be piled many hundreds of meters deep all over Earth’s surface, in fact they would fill all known space. Twisted and deformed dinosaur mutations would be plentiful as well. One might expect that they the dinos have eaten all the plants up, but of course there would be no death for plants either, so there would be a huge jungle of plants under the mounds of dinosaurs, all of the dinos taking turns squirming down to get a bite. The oceans would be gill to gill with sea life, and then some. I think of the Earth before Noah’s flood.

Would mammals and humans have evolved in such a world? Probably not. Although there would be many of the oddball creatures around that were our precursors, in the vast welter of life there would be no way for them to select themselves out, get together, and tighten up their genomes.

An alternative vision of a death-free Earth is a world in which birth stops as well. What kind of world would that lead to? Totally boring. It would be nothing but the same old creatures stomping the same old environment forever. Like how the job market looks to a young person starting out!

Meaningless proliferation or utter stagnancy are the only alternatives to death. Although death is individually terrible, it is wonderful for the evolution of new kinds of life.

Evolution is possible whenever one has (1) reproduction, (2) genome variation, and (3) natural selection. We’ve already talked about reproduction and the way in which mating and mutation cause genome variation—so that children are not necessarily just like their parents. Natural selection is where death comes in: not every creature is in fact able to reproduce itself before it dies. The creatures which do reproduce have genomes which are selected by the natural process of competing to stay alive and to bear children which survive.

What this means in terms of computer A-Life is that one ordinarily has some maximum number of memory slots for creatures’ genomes. One lets the phenomes of the creatures compete for a while and then uses some kind of fitness function to decide which creatures are the most successful. The most successful creatures are reproduced onto the existing memory slots, and the genomes of the least successful creatures are erased.

Nature has a very simple way of determining a creature’s fitness: it manages to reproduce before death or it doesn’t. Assigning a fitness level to competing A-Life phenomes is a more artificial process. Various kinds of fitness functions can be chosen on the basis of what kinds of creatures one wants to see evolve. In most of the experiments I’ve worked on, the fitness is based on the creatures’ ability to find and eat food cells, as well as to avoid “predators” and to get near “prey”.

So far in this essay we’ve talked about life in terms of three general concepts: gnarl, sex, and death. Computer A-Life research involves trying to find computer programs which are gnarly, which breed, and which compete to stay alive. Now let’s look at some non-computer approaches to Artificial Life.

Biological A-Life

In this section, we first talk about Frankenstein, and then we talk about modern biochemistry.


The most popular fictional character who tries to create life is Viktor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus.

Most of us know about Frankenstein from the movie versions of the story. In the movie version, Dr. Frankenstein creates a living man by sewing together parts of dead bodies and galvanizing the result with electricity from a thunderstorm. The original version is quite different.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Baron Viktor Frankenstein is a student with a deep interest in chemistry. He becomes curious about what causes life, and he pursues this question by closely examining how things die and decay—the idea being that if you can understand how life leaves matter, you can understand how to put it back in. Viktor spends days and nights in “vaults and charnel-houses,” until finally he believes he has learned how to bring dead flesh back to life. He sets to work building the Frankenstein monster:

In a solitary chamber…I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation…Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Finally Dr. Frankenstein reaches his goal:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs…The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

The creepy, slithery aspect of Frankenstein stems from the fact that Mary Shelley situated Viktor Frankenstein’s A-Life researches at the tail-end of life, at the part where a living creature life dissolves back into a random mush of chemicals. In point of fact, this is really not a good way to understand life—the processes of decay are not readily reversible.


Contemporary A-Life biochemists focus on the way in which life keeps itself going. Organic life is a process, a skein of biochemical reactions that is in some ways like a parallel three-dimensional computation. The computation being carried out by a living body stops when the body dies, and the component parts of the body immediately begin decomposing. Unless you’re Viktor Frankenstein, there is no way to kick-start the reaction back into viability. It’s as if turning off a computer would make its chips fall apart.

The amazing part about real life that it keeps itself going on its own. If anyone could build a tiny, self-guiding, flying robot he or she would a hero of science. But a fly can build flies just by eating garbage. Biological life is a self-organizing process, an endless round that’s been chorusing along for hundreds of millions of years.

Is there any hope of scientists being able to assemble and start up a living biological system?

Chemists have studied complicated systems of reactions that tend to perpetuate themselves. These kinds of reaction are called autocatalytic or self-exciting. Once an autocatalytic reaction gets started up, it produces by-products which pull more and more molecules into the reaction. Often such a reaction will have a cyclical nature, in that it goes through the same sequence of steps over and over.

The cycle of photosynthesis is a very complicated example of an autocatalytic reaction. One of the simpler examples of an autocatalytic chemical reaction is known as the Belusov-Zhabotinsky reaction in honor of the two Soviet scientists who discovered it. In the Belusov-Zhabotinsky reaction a certain acidic solution is placed into a flat glass dish with a sprinkling of palladium crystals. The active ingredient of litmus paper is added so that it is possible to see which regions of the solution are more or less acidic. In a few minutes, the dish fills with scroll-shaped waves of color which spiral around and around in a regular, but not quite predictable, manner.


A Belusov-Zhabotinsky pattern in a cellular automaton.

There seems to be something universal about the Belusov-Zhabotinsky reaction, in that there are many other systems which behave in a similar way: generating endlessly spiraling scrolls. It is in fact fairly easy to set up a cellular-automaton-based computer simulation that shows something like the Belusov-Zhabotinsky reaction—Zhabotinsky scrolls are something that CAs like to “do.”

As well as trying to understand the chemical reactions that take place in living things, biochemists have investigated ways of creating the chemicals used by life. In the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, two scientists sealed a glass retort filled with such simple chemicals as water, methane and hydrogen. The sealed vessel was equipped with electrodes that repeatedly fired off sparks—the vessel was intended to be a kind of simulation of primeval Earth with its lightning storms. After a week, it was found that a variety of amino acids had spontaneously formed inside the vessel. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and of DNA—of our phenomes and of our genomes, so the Miller-Urey experiment represented an impressive first step towards understanding how life on Earth emerged.

Biochemists have pushed this kind of thing much further in the last decades. It is now possible to design artificial strands of RNA which are capable of self-replicating themselves when placed into a solution of amino acids; and one can even set a kind of RNA evolution into motion. In one recent experiment, a solution was filled with a random assortment of self-replicating RNA along with amino acids for the RNA to build with. Some of the molecules tended to stick to the sides of the beaker. The solution was then poured out, with the molecules that stuck to the sides of the vessel being retained. A fresh food-supply of amino acids was added and the cycle was repeated numerous times. The evolutionary result? RNA that adheres very firmly to the sides of the beaker.

The RNA evolution experiment is described in Gerald Joyce, “Directed Molecular Evolution,” Scientific American, December, 1992. A good quote about wetware appears in Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, edited by R. U. Sirius, Queen Mu and me for HarperCollins, 1992. The quote is from the bioengineer Max Yukawa:

Suppose you think of an organism as being like a computer graphic that is generated from some program. Or think of an oak tree as being the output of a program that was contained inside the acorn. The genetic program is in the DNA molecule. Your software is the abstract information pattern behind your genetic code, but your actual wetware is the physical DNA in a cell.

Genetic engineers are improving on methods to tinker with the DNA of living cells to make organisms which are in some part artificial. Most commercially sold insulin is in fact created by gene-tailored cells. The word wetware is sometimes used to stand for the information in the genome of a biological cell. Wetware is like software, but its in a watery living environment. The era of wetware programming has only just begun.


In this section we compare science fiction dreams of robots to robots as they actually exist today. We also talk a bit about how computer science techniques may help us get from today’s realities to tomorrow’s dreams.

Science fiction Robots

Science fiction is filled with robots that act as if they were alive. Existing robots already possess such life-like characteristics as sensitivity to the environment, movement, complexity, and integration of parts. But what about reproduction? Could you have robots which build other robots?

A robot that reproduces by (a) using a blueprint to (b) build a copy of itself, and then (c) giving the new robot a copy of the blueprint. (Drawing by David Povilaitis.)

The idea is perhaps surprising at first, but there’s nothing logically wrong with it. As long as a robot has an exact blueprint of how it is constructed, it can assemble the parts for child robots, and it can use a copying machine to give each child its own blueprint so that the process can continue. For a robot, the blueprint is its genome, and its body and behavior is its phenome. In practice, the robots would not use paper blueprints, but might instead use CAD/CAM (computer aided design and manufacturing) files.

The notion of robot A-Life interests me so much that I’ve written several science fiction novels about it. As will be discussed in a section below, The Hacker and the Ants talks about how one might use a Virtual Reality world in which to evolve robots.

In Software, some robots are sent to the moon where they build factories to make robot parts. They compete with each other for the right to use the parts (natural selection), and then they get together in pairs (sex) to build new robots onto which parts of the parents’ programs are placed (self-reproduction). Soon they rebel against human rule, and begin calling themselves boppers. Some of them travel to Earth to eat some human brains—just to get the information out of the tissues, you understand.

In Wetware, the boppers take up genetic engineering and learn how to code bopper genomes into fertilized human eggs, which can then be force-grown to adult size in less than a month. The humans built the boppers, but now the boppers are building people—or something like people.

At the end of Wetware, the irate humans kill off the boppers by infecting their silicon chips with a biological mold, but in Freeware, the boppers are back, with flexible plastic bodies that don’t use chips anymore. The “freeware” of the title has to do with encrypted personality patterns that some aliens are sending across space in search of bodies to live upon.

In my most recent book of this series, Realware, the humans and boppers obtain a tool for creating new “realware” bodies solely from software descriptions of them.

Real Robots

After such heady science fiction dreams, it’s discouraging to look at today’s actual robots. These machines are still very lacking in adaptability, which is the ability to function well in unfamiliar environments. They can’t walk and/or chew gum at the same time.

The architecture for most experimental robots is something like this: you put a bunch of devices in a wheeled can, wire the devices together, and hope that the behavior of the system can converge on a stable and interesting kind of behavior.

What kind of devices go in the can? Wheels and pincers with exquisitely controllable motors, TV cameras, sonar pingers, microphones, a sound-synthesizer, and some computer microprocessors.

The phenome is the computation and behavior of the whole system—it’s what the robot does. The robot’s genome is its blueprint, with all the interconnections and the switch-settings on the devices in the wheeled garbage can, and if any of those devices happens to be a computer memory chip, then the information on the chips is part of the genome as well.

Traditionally, we have imagined robots as having one central processing unit, just as we have one central brain. But in fact a lot of our information processing is down out in our nerve ganglia, and some contemporary roboticists are interested in giving a separate processor to each of a robot’s devices.

This robot design technique is known as subsumption architecture. Each of an artificial ant’s legs, for instance, might know now to make walking motions on its own, and the legs might communicate with each other in an effort to get into synch. Just such an ant (named Atilla) has been designed by Rodney Brooks of MIT. Brooks wants his robots to be cheap and widely available.

Another interesting robot was designed by Marc Pauline of the art-group known as Survival Research Laboratories. Pauline and his group stage large, dadaist spectacles in which hand-built robots interact with each other. Pauline is working on some new robots which he calls Swarmers. His idea is to have the Swarmers radio-aware of each other’s position, and to chase each other around. The idea is to try to find good settings so as give the Swarmers maximally chaotic behavior.

In practice, developing designs and software for these machines is what is known as an intractable problem. It is very hard to predict how the different components will interact, so one has to actually try out each new configuration to see how it works. And commonly, changes are being made to the hardware and to the software at the same time, so the space of possible solutions is vast.


For many applications, the user might not need a robot to be fully autonomous. Something like a remotely operated hand that you use to handle dangerous materials is like a robot, in that it is a complicated machine which imitates human motions. But a remote hand does not necessarily need to have much of an internal brain, particularly if all it has to do is to copy the motions of your real hand. A device like a remote robot hand is called a telerobot.

Radioactive waste is sometimes cleaned up using telerobots that have video cameras and two robotic arms. The operator of such a telerobot sees what it sees on a video screen, and moves his or her hands within a mechanical harness that send signals to the hands of the telerobot.

I have a feeling that, in the coming decades, telerobotics is going to be a much more important field than pure robotics. People want amplifications of themselves more than they want servants. A telerobot projects an individual’s power. Telerobots would be useful for exploration, travel, and sheer voyeurism, and could become a sought-after high-end consumer product

But even if telerobots are more commercially important than self-guiding robots, there is still a need for self-guiding robots. Why? Because when you’re using a telerobot, you don’t want to have to watch the machine every second so that the machine doesn’t do something like get run over by a car, nor do you want to worry about the very fine motions of the machine. You want, for instance, to be able to say “walk towards that object” without having to put your legs into a harness and emulate mechanical walking motions—this means that, just like a true robot, the telerobot will have to know how to move around pretty much on its own.

Evolving Robots

I think Artificial Life is very likely to be a good way to evolve better and better robots. In order to make the evolution happen faster, it would be nice to be able to do it as a computer simulation—as opposed to the building of dozens of competing prototype models.

My most novel, The Hacker and the Ants, is based on the idea of evolving robots by testing your designs out in Virtual Reality—in, that is, a highly realistic computer simulation with some of the laws of physics built into it.

You might, for instance, take a CAD model of a house, and try out a wide range of possible robots in this house without having to bear the huge expense of building prototypes. As changing a model would have no hardware expense, it would be feasible to try out many different designs and thus more rapidly converge on an optimal design.

There is an interesting relationship between A-Life, Virtual Reality, robotics, and telerobotics. These four areas fit neatly into Table 3, which is based on two distinctions: firstly, is the device being run by a computer program or by a human mind; and, secondly, is the device a physical machine or a simulated machine?




Artificial Life



Virtual Reality









Four Kinds of Computer Science

Artificial Life deals with creatures whose brains are computer programs, and these creatures have simulated bodies that interact in a computer-simulated world. In Virtual Reality, the world and the bodies are still computer-simulated, but at least some of the creatures in the world are now being directly controlled by human users. In robotics, we deal with real physical machines in the real world that are run by computer programs, while in telerobotics we are looking at real physical machines that are run by human minds. Come to think of it, a human’s ordinary life in his or her body could be thought of as an example of telerobotics: a human mind is running a physical body!


In the wider context of the history of ideas, one can observe that certain kinds of fads, techniques, or religious beliefs behave in some ways like autonomous creatures which live and reproduce. The biologist Richard Dawkins calls these thought-creatures memes.

Self-replicating memes can be brutally simple. Here’s one:

The Laws of Wealth:

Law I: Begin giving 10% of your income to the person who teaches you the Laws of Wealth.

Law II: Teach the Laws of Wealth to ten people!

The Laws of Wealth meme is the classic Ponzi pyramid scheme. Here’s another self-replicating idea system:

System X:

Law I: Anyone who does not believe System X will burn in hell;

Law II: It is your duty to save others from suffering.

Of System X, Douglas Hofstadter remarks, “Without being impious, one may suggest that this mechanism has played some small role in the spread of Christianity.”

Most thought memes use a much less direct method of self-reproduction. Being host to a meme-complex such as, say, the use of language can confer such wide survival advantages that those infected with the meme flourish. There are many such memes with obvious survival value: the tricks of farming, the craft of pottery, the arcana of mathematics—all are beneficial mind-viruses that live in human information space.

Memes which confer no obvious survival value are more puzzling. Things like tunes and fashions hop from one mind to another with bewildering speed. Staying up to date with current ideas is a higher-order meme which probably does have some survival value. Knowing about A-Life, for instance, is very likely to increase your employability as well as your sexual attractiveness!

Note on “Life and Artificial Life”

Written 1992.

Appeared in the Artificial life Lab manual, Waite Group Press, 1993.

There are a number of very comprehensive anthologies of technical and semi-technical papers that have been presented at conferences on Artificial Life. The first conference was held at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987, and its papers appear in C. Langton, ed., Artificial Life, (Addison-Wesley, 1989). A good popular book on A-Life is: Steven Levy, Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, (Pantheon Books, 1992).

I was employed as a “Mathenaut” in the Advanced Technical Division at Autodesk, Inc., from the August, 1988 to September, 1992. While I was there, I worked on CA Lab, on James Gleick’s CHAOS: The Software, on the Autodesk Cyberspace Developer’s Kit, and on a solo project with the working title Boppers. In 1992 Autodesk’s stock went down, and, as I mentioned earlier, they laid off many of the people in the Advanced Technical Division­—including me. But they let me keep the rights to my Boppers code, and I got it published as a package called Artificial Life Lab. It’s out of print now, but the Boppers program, the Boppers source code and the complete Artificial Life Lab manual are available on my website.

I really enjoyed my time at Autodesk, but I wasn’t doing much writing while I was there. It was good to come back to the slower pace of academic life. By the end of my four years in the software industry pressure-cooker I felt a like an undercover agent who has forgotten his real identity and has started to believe his cover story. Regarding my return, I had a mental image of a jeep whining up a hill along a wire fence at some Iron Curtain border. The jeep stops, two men raise up a tightly wrapped canvas sack and throw it over the fence, the jeep speeds off. The long canvas bag twitches, unfolds, and there I am, back in the land of literature.

Table of Contents
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A Note On Synthetic Biology

The SynBio approach is onto something big—a new version of nanotechnology, which is the craft of manufacturing things at the molecular scale. SynBio’s plan is to capitalize on the fact that biology is already doing molecular fabrication all the time. What might happen if we repurpose biology to our own ends?

One big worry is what nanotechnologists call the “gray-goo problem.” What’s to stop a particularly virulent SynBio organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time.

The fact that the SynBio organisms are likely to have simplified Tinkertoy DNA doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. I have a mental image of germ-size MIT nerds putting on gangsta clothes and venturing into alleys to try some rough stuff. And then they meet up with the homies who’ve been keeping it real for a billion years or so.

Now let’s look at the upside. Donning the funhouse spectacles of science fiction, I envision a wide range of biotech goodies.

Every child is likely to want a pet dinosaur, and this will be easily managed once the online Phido Pet Construction Kit is up and running. Of course, if you prefer something cuddly, you can design a special dog with red polka dots.

Rather than mining for ore, why not let plants use their roots to extract minerals from the ground? Sow a handful of Knife Plant grain over a dumpsite, and before long you’ll have what looks like corn—but with a cob-handled steel knife in each ear.

Why bother building houses when you can get a Giga Gourd seed? The seed is the size of a pizza and grows very fast. Push it into wet, fertile ground and stand back. In a few days you’ll have a big, hollow home with plumbing and wiring grown right into the walls, which come complete with transparent window patches.

Of course, people will want to start tweaking their own bodies. Initially we’ll go for enhanced health, strength and mental stability, perhaps accelerating the pace of evolution in a benign way.

But, feckless creatures that we are, we may cast caution to the winds. Why would starlets settle for breast implants when they can grow supplementary mammaries? Hipsters will install living tattoo colonies of algae under their skin. Punk rockers can get a shocking dog-collar effect by grafting on a spiky necklace of extra fingers with colored nails. Or what about giving one of your fingers a treelike architecture? Work ten two-way branchings into each tapering fingerlet of this special finger, and you’ll have a thousand or so fingertips, with the fine touch of a sea anemone.

It’s easy to imagine grafting an electric eel’s electromagnetic sensitivity into our brains so we can pick up wireless signals. There’d have to be an off switch, of course, but the net effect could be amazing. We’d have true telepathy, and the ability to form group minds.

As the technology of brain-to-brain contact improved, you’d no longer need to send someone every detail of a plan, a memory or a design. Instead you could send something like a mental Web link, allowing those you invite to simply view your thoughts right in your own mind.

The biggest problem with manned spaceflight is the immense mass of the requisite life-support systems and radiation shielding. What if the truly determined astronauts could transform themselves into tough, spindle-shaped pods that could sail endlessly through empty space, nourishing themselves with solar radiation and directing their journey with the exhalations of their ion jets?

One last thought. Suppose it were possible to encode a person’s memory and personality into a single, very large, DNA-like molecule. Now suppose that someone turns himself into a viral disease that other people can catch. If I were you—sneeze—oh, wait, I guess I am. Are we completely agreed?

Note on “A Note on Synthetic Biology”

Written in 2007.

Part of a Newsweek article on “Synbio,” May 23, 2007.

This was an odd little assignment where a reporter phoned me up and offered me a nice sum of money for writing a very short article. It’s pretty easy for me to write these kinds of articles, as I have so much material that I can draw snippets from.

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Mathematica: A New Golden Age of Calculation

Back in elementary school, we learned procedures, or algorithms, for doing arithmetic with pencil and paper. (Remember “borrowing”?) As adults, we tend to not use our painfully wetware-programmed arithmetic algorithms because most of us have ready access to machines that can do the algorithms by themselves. You might occasionally add two or three numbers, but if you have some multiplying or dividing to do, you’re going to search your desk or your desktop for a calculator.

Mathematics doesn’t stop at arithmetic. If you moved further on in school mathematics, you learned more and more algorithms; things like plotting the graph of a straight line, factoring a quadratic equation, and multiplying matrices; maybe you even got to calculus and learned about differentiation and integration. As adults, most of us never need to solve these kinds of problems at all, but if you did have to solve them on a regular basis, what would you do? Chances are you’d get hold of a computer running some kind of computer algebra program.

The oldest such package, called Macsyma, was born at MIT in the 1970s. An original impetus for the project was to help physicists work with formulae that were simply too long and complicated for the human mind—things like the hundred thousand algebraic terms in (you should pardon the expression) the Ricci tensor used in the spacetime field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. By the 1980s, Macsyma was like a potbound plant, limited by its design’s restriction to the use of only one megabyte of RAM. Though Macsyma was eventually rewritten, other new computer algebra systems arose to take most of its market. The new programs included Maple (also sold as MathCAD) and—the most expensive and ambitious of them all—Mathematica.

How exactly does one use Mathematica? The shrink-wrap contains a seriously fat user’s guide by Wolfram and a CD with a powerful graphically-interfaced program that runs on virtually every computer platform. You type in any mathematical expression you like and, depending on what you ask for, Mathematica might respond with an algebraically simplified version of the expression, a calculation of expression’s numerical value, a huge data-base table of numbers, or a graph illustrating the expression’s range of values. The graphs can be colored and three-dimensional. With Mathematica and an hour’s practice, a college student can solve any and all the problems in a standard algebra or calculus book.

What makes Mathematica even more useful is that everything you enter in a given session becomes integrated into a single document, called a notebook. A Mathematica notebook can include text, graphics, and mathematical expressions. You can save it, and if you open it again, all of the formulae are “live”—you can highlight a formula, change some of its numbers or symbols, and see the related parts of the whole notebook change accordingly, just like a spreadsheet. A Mathematica notebook fully embodies a once-futuristic concept that the physicist Richard Feynman longingly called “Magic Paper”—an intelligent writing medium, in which you can ask the paper to do your calculations for you.

Thanks to Mathematica’s notebook feature, you can watch what happens if the numbers in an equation change, or try out wild and crazy problems that ordinarily would be way too difficult to solve. Problem solving becomes a dynamic, experimental process.

The first time I saw Mathematica—this was Version 1, nine years ago—I used it to draw the kind of three-dimensional “Lissajous curves” you get if you had an object oscillating at different rates in each of three mutually perpendicular directions.


A 3-D Lissajous curve.

I’d seen two-dimensional versions in science museums and as drawing toys—a pencil or perhaps a slowly leaking container of sand hangs from a pendulum which is linked to a second, perpendicular pendulum. I’d always wondered what a three-dimensional Lissajous would look like. With Mathematica it was surprisingly easy. I typed a few lines of code and saw them.


A “baseball stitch” curve.

Before long, I’d exhausted the novelty of 3-D Lissajous curves, so then I imagined a new kind of curve I called a kappa-tau curve. These curves are defined in terms of their curvature (kappa) and their tendency to twist like a helix (tau). To my mathematical satisfaction, I soon got wonderful gnarly curves, some of them looking like the stitching seam on a baseball, as shown above. Yaaar!

But when I started wanting to look at lots and lots of my kappa-tau curves, and to set them to rotating in space, Mathematica became too slow. The very fact that it is a general-purpose system means that it is not going to be able to run some specific calculation over and over at the best speed. As I discuss in my essay, “How Flies Fly,” I ended up writing a stand-alone Windows program to show my kappa-tau curves. But I never would have gotten around to investigating these curves if I’d had to do it from scratch. You can find a my program and a Mathematica notebook for these curves on my website.

Mathematica makes research easy—well, easier. That’s one reason why it has sold a million copies to labs and offices around the world, at prices now around $1,000 a copy retail (but much cheaper for students).

The Mathematica software is the product of a company founded by Stephen Wolfram. Wolfram is a remarkable figure who helped invent the modern concept of complexity theory. Born in 1959, he got his Ph.D. in physics from Caltech at age 20 and won a MacArthur genius grant at the record-breaking age of 22. The first release of Mathematica came out in 1988, the second in 1991, and now, in 1996, Wolfram is out and about promoting Version 3.

What took so long? Wolfram offers two reasons. The first is what you’d expect to hear from any earnest software pitchman: Version 3 is so much better than Version 2 that developing it took a long time. The second reason is more intriguing. From 1991 to 1995, Wolfram was busy doing basic science research, concentrating on his book-in-progress, a monumental tome that may finally come out in 1999.

A secretive man, Wolfram is reluctant to give out details on his work, but asserts that, “I have in my sights a way to get a new fundamental theory for physics. My ideas are based on some insights into what it is that simple computer programs typically do.” Intriguingly, he says that he wouldn’t have gotten this far if he hadn’t had Mathematica to help him. Wolfram has enough intellectual credibility that one is half-tempted to think of Isaac Newton, who invented calculus and then used his new tool to unravel the secrets of celestial mechanics. It would be nice.

When pressed for more information, Wolfram says something like the following: “For the last three hundred years, people have been trying to use mathematics to model the natural world, but that this doesn’t work well for things like biology and complex systems. Equations are human constructs, but maybe nature follows more general rules than that. Maybe we have to go beyond human mathematics and look at how general computing systems work.”

Wolfram feels that there really is a simple fundamental theory and that we’ve been looking for it in the wrong way. He thinks that for the first time in about 50 years, somebody has a real chance to find it. Who? “I’m an ambitious guy, all right? My interest is to find the fundamental theory of the universe.”

The ultimate prize would be a simple computer program type thing that is the universe—not a model of the universe but the thing itself. One of the famous, if minor, successes of the cellular automata programs which Wolfram studied in the 1980s is that they’re good for modeling the intricate patterns which appear on the South Pacific seashells known as cone shells. But these cellular automata models are just models. Wolfram says, “If you can get a truly fundamental theory it’s not a model anymore, it’s the thing itself. It’s it.”

Talking about how useful Mathematica is to him, Wolfram says, “I can do my science because I use Mathematica so much. I can start typing in complicated things and they work. I can experiment. Programs are always smarter than you are. You have an idea for some kind of computation and you think this will never do anything interesting, but then you experiment and some version of it is interesting. Experiment is necessary. You have to look at lots of things. If it takes a minute to experiment, you’ll do it. If it takes an hour you won’t.”

Comparing his work on Mathematica to his scientific research, Wolfram says that his skill lies in finding the essence. “When I do science, I’m asking what is the essence of what goes on in nature. In designing Mathematica I ask what is the common essence of what people do when they do math. Every person just has one real skill. My skill is finding the essence of mechanisms of things.”

But would anyone outside a university ever need Magic Paper? One out of twelve copies of Mathematica are sold in Wall Street, where the software is used to build trading systems. And there are many engineering uses. When researching this review, I looked at a page of the Mathematica Web site with a lot of information about applications such as skateboards, shampoo, playground equipment, plastic surgery, and bicycle racetrack design.

Dale Hughes and the engineering consultant Chris Nadovich used Mathematica to design the bicycle velodrome track used in the 1996 Olympics. “Our design was in steel, which made the accuracy issue more demanding,” says Nadovich. “In wood you can always cut things to fit as you nail the boards together. Here the whole thing was manufactured in another place, shipped to Atlanta, and yes, everything fit. Well, it was off a quarter of an inch after a quarter-kilometer because the thickness of the paint wasn’t accounted for. The way they used to do bridges was to have two hundred guys calculating every piece. I just had me and a desktop PC and a couple of weeks. I couldn’t use AutoCAD [the popular computer-aided design program] because you don’t do 20,000 different parts by sitting there clicking and dragging. Mathematica has a tremendous amount of symbolic math capability. Initially I didn’t even know how many sections the track would have. I just solved the problem symbolically. Mathematica produced coordinate lists that I could load into AutoCAD to render the blueprints.”

Nadovich goes on to describe one of the formulae involved in the design. “We used a special curve called the Cornu spiral for the turns. It dates back to the 1800s when people were designing railroads for what they considered high speed. You can’t just go from a straight-away with zero curvature into a circular arc with a non-zero curvature. What you need is to have the curvature increase linearly as you go into the turn and decrease linearly as you come out. The centrifugal force is a linear function of the curvature, so if you change curvature in a linear way it make sit easier for the riders to hold their position. They can concentrate on racing and not on steering.”

How did the riders like it? “They hated it! They didn’t like how the track felt. They said it was slow, it was bumpy, it was an ugly color, and they didn’t like the texture. Everybody was afraid of it. It was very depressing. But the riders that won did like it. In fact the track really was fast. They set two world records and twenty-one Olympic records on it. It felt different because it was a different material, most tracks are wood or concrete, just banked concrete roads.”

The most devoted user of a computer algebra program I know is Bill Gosper, an old-time hacker who was involved with the original Macsyma project. In fact he still uses Macsyma; not the modernized retail Windows version, but a massively customized, or one might say Gosperized, version of the program that lives on a file-cabinet-sized old Symbolics computer in his basement.

Going to visit Gosper has been a touchstone experience for me ever since moving to Silicon Valley eleven years ago. I find him grayer than before, sitting in a dusty, autumnal room of antique beige plastic artifacts. An ellipsoidal electric pencil sharpener. A stack of Symbolics computer monitors. Danish Modern chairs.

Gosper uses Macsyma to find weird algebraic equations. In high school algebra many of us may learned a few simple algebraic identities like

(x + y)2 = x2 + 2xy + y2.

Gosper interests himself in identities like this, only much gnarlier. The all-time champion of gnarly identities was the legendary Indian mathematician Sri Ramanujan. Gosper, who speaks in arcane hacker language, modestly rates the gnarliness of his own equations in milliRamanujans, and he gets his machine to show me one of his best, which he rates at a full 800 milliRamanunjans.

The left side of Gosper’s gnarly identity is a product of terms involving the geometrical constant pi divided by the trigonometric arctangent function. The right side of the identity is the pith root of 4. Not the cube root, mind you, the pith root. “Genius does what it must,” says Gosper of Ramanujan, “Talent does what it can. When I’m doing this stuff, I find something surprising and then try to make more surprising. I go for sensationalism.”

He begins rapidly keyboarding so as to show me more wonders, talking all the while. He is an artist, a symbolic acrobat without a care in the world for real world applications.

“The computer algebra field supports itself on one percent of what it can do. A key thing about computer algebra is that you have infinite precision. No roundoff. I’ll invert the same matrix twice and show how limited precision can screw it. Let’s set mumble to mumble.” He uses “mumble” as an ordinary word, as shorthand for expressions too complicated or dull to actually say. “Now we invert it. Oh my God, how long is this going to take. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, whew. I’m worried if I’ve even got a patch in here to make this feasible. We can check while this is running. Says here it should work. This is a little discouraging. Christ on a crutch. Ah here it is, it’s done. Now we’ll set mumble and do it again. Ooh! It’s not converging. What the hell’s going on? 572??!!! It’s supposed to be 570! God help us. No, it’s still batshit. No no no it is 572. Oh, this should be a Taylor series, right? I have to stun it, I have to neutralize it. Now we can crank up the value. Now this is the right answer.” Gosper pauses and gives me a sly smile. “Now let’s see if I can earn my nerd merit badge.” “How?” “By typing in this number, which is the nineteen digits of two to the sixty-fourth power.”

Why does Gosper still use Macsyma instead of switching to Mathematica? That’s a little like asking why Steve Jobs doesn’t use Microsoft Windows. Gosper wrote a lot of the Macsyma code and it’s what he’s used to. He knows it inside out. If he were to switch to Mathematica, he’d be at the mercy of design decisions made by Wolfram’s team, and not all of these decisions are things Gosper would agree with. If you ask around in the symbolic mathematics community, you can find a real diversity of opinions about the best way to proceed.

Seeking further enlightenment, I talk to Bruce Smith, a programmer who’s done some third-party work for Wolfram Research. He talks about plans to extend the language you use to enter problems into the Mathematica. The dream would be to evolve a mathematical language in which one can readily write down expressions for everyday phenomena—including not only physics, but also biology and sociology. “Having an expression for something is a powerful concept that will become more popular in programming,” says Smith. “It’s not a coincidence that the word ‘expression’ is related to expressiveness.” Smith recalls a comment he heard in a 1970s talk by John Walker, one of the original developers of AutoCAD. Speaking about the future of computer-aided design, Walker said, “In the future, every manufactured object in the world will be modeled in a computer.” Smith feels that, in thinking about the future of the Mathematica language, we might extend this: “For every object we think about, we will want an expression for it so that a computer can think about it with us.”

Might there some day be a futuristic super programming language with expressions like Live, Think, Truth and Beauty? Realistically, it seems doubtful that anyone will ever take a comfortable human-scale problem like whom to date or where to go to lunch and say “let us calculate.” As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest.”

But within the domain of readily scientifically quantifiable problems, symbolic mathematics works great and is well worth the trouble of dealing with computers. The entire range of what is considered to be a reasonable solution to a problem is something that will expand greatly. Instead of just putting a vague bend where your track goes into a turn, you put in a Cornu spiral. Instead of guessing how a plastic-surgery patient’s appearance is going to change, you simulate the tectonics of the facial landscape. Instead of making dozens of cardboard models of your jungle-gym, you build it from equations in Virtual Reality.

How will all this affect the future of mathematics? The important thing about mathematics is that it acts as a concise, almost hieroglyphic, language for describing forms. The Mathematica program is an immense help for the tedious rote-work involved manipulating math’s hieroglyphs and converting them into visual images. Mathematica makes math more valuable than ever—for it takes a well-trained mathematical mind to know which kind of “hieroglyph” to use to model some particular situation. And it takes a mathematical genius to come up with a really good new hieroglyph.

New mathematics is developed as a result of a feedback loop involving theory and experiment. The great thing about programs like Mathematica is how much they accelerate the process. Thanks to computers, mathematics is at the dawn of a new golden age.

Note on “Mathematica: A New Golden Age of Calculation”

Written Fall, 1997.

Appeared in Seek!, 1999

I started working with Mathematica in 1988, when I got a job as a software engineer at the software company Autodesk in Sausalito. Mathematica was new then, and my employers gave me a nice big Mac computer with Mathematica on it. The two things I worked on were kappa-tau curves and three-dimensional Mandelbrot sets—which evolved into the Mandelbulb of the 2000s.

Over the years I’d gotten to know Wolfram, and it was easy for me to interview him. For his part, he was eager to promote his latest version of Mathematica. This article was supposed to appear in Wired magazine, but they chose not to run it.

The next essay details my work on the kappa-tau curves.

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How Flies Fly: Kappa Tau Curves

It’s interesting to watch flies buzz around. They trace out curves in space that are marvelously three-dimensional. Birds fly along space curves too, but their airy swoops are not nearly so bent and twisted as are the paths of flies.

Is there a mathematical language for talking about the shapes of curves in space? Sure there is. Math is the science of form, and mathematicians are always studying nature for new forms to talk about.

Historically, space curves were first discussed by the mathematician Alexis-Claude Clairaut in a paper called “Recherche sur les Courbes a Double Courbure,” published in 1731 when Clairaut was eighteen. Clairaut is said to have been an attractive, engaging man; he was a popular figure in eighteenth-century Paris society.

In speaking of “double curvature,” Clairaut meant that a path through three-dimensional space can warp itself in two independent ways; he thought of a curve in terms of its shadow projections onto, say, the floor and a wall. In discussing the bending of the planar, “shadow” curves, Clairaut drew on then recent work by the incomparable Isaac Newton.

Newton’s mathematical curvature measures a curve’s tendency to bend away from being a straight line. The more the curve bends, the greater is the absolute value of its curvature. From the viewpoint of a point moving along the curve, the curvature is said to be positive when the curve bends to the left, and negative when the curve bends to the right. The size of the curvature is determined by the principle that a circle of radius R is defined to have a curvature of 1/R. The smaller the radius, the greater the curvature. The figure below shows some examples of circular arcs, with each arc drawn to be the same length.


Curvature along circular arcs in the plane.

We often represent a curve in the plane by an equation involving x and y coordinates. Most calculus students remember a brief, nasty encounter with Newton’s formula for the curvature of a curve; the formula uses fractional powers and the first and second derivatives of y with respect to x. Fortunately, there is no necessity for us to trundle out this cruel, ancient idol. Instead we think of curvature as a primitive notion and express the curve in a more natural way.

The idea is that instead of talking about positions relative to an arbitrary x axis and y axis, we think of a curve as being a bent number-line by itself. The curve is marked off in units of “arclength”, where arclength is the distance measured along the curve, just as if the curve were a piece of rope that you could stretch out next to a ruler. We’ll use the variable s to stand for arclength and the infinitesimal ds to stand for a very small bit of arclength. If we think of a curve in x and y coordinates, we can define ds as the square root of dx squared plus dy squared, and we can then use integration to add up the ds quantities to get a value for s. But in this essay, we’ll instead think of s an ds as primitive quantities.

If we think of the arclength s as primitive, the most natural way to describe a plane curve is by an equation that gives the curvature directly as a function of arclength, an equation of the form k = f(s), where the Greek letter k or kappa is the commonly used symbol for curvature. The next figure shows two famous plane curves which happen to have simple expressions for curvature as a function of arclength. The catenary curve is the shape assumed by a chain (or bridge cable) suspended from two points, while the logarithmic spiral is a form very popular among our friends the mollusks.


The catenary and the logarithmic spiral expressed by natural equations, with curvature k being a function of arclength s. Arclength is marked as units along the curves.

Note that for the spiral, the center is where s approaches -1. And if you jump over the anomalous central point and push down into larger negative values of s, you produce a mirror-image of the spiral.

It would be nice to also think of space curves in a natural, coordinate-free way—surely this is the way a fly buzzing around in the center of an empty room must think. Profound mathematical insights come hard, and it was a hundred and twenty years after Clairaut before the correct way to represent a space curve by intrinsic natural equations was finally discovered—by the French mathematicians Joseph Alfred Serret and Frederic-Jean Frenet.

The idea is that at each point of a space curve one can define two numerical quantities called curvature and torsion. The curvature of a space curve is essentially the same as the curvature k of a plane curve: it measures how rapidly the curve is bending to one side. The torsion measures a curve’s tendency to twist out of a plane. We use the Greek letter t or tau to stand for torsion. But what exactly is meant by “bend to one side,” and “twist out of a plane”? Which plane?

The idea is that at each point P of a space curve you can define three mutually perpendicular unit-length vectors: the tangent T, the normal N, and the binormal B. T shows the direction the curve is moving in, N lies along the direction which the curve is currently bending in, and B is a vector perpendicular to T and N. (In terms of the vector cross product, T cross N is B, N cross B is T, and B cross T is N.) For space curves we ordinarily work only with positive values of curvature, and have N point in the direction in which the curve is actually bending. (In certain of the analytical curves we’ll look at later we relax this condition and allow negative curvature of space curves.)

Taken together, T, N and B make up the so-called “moving trihedron of a space curve”. In the figure below, we show part of a space curve (actually a helix) with several instances of the moving trihedron. So that it’s easier to see the three-dimensionality of the image, we draw the curve as a ribbon like a twisted ladder. The curve runs along one edge of the ladder, and the rungs of the ladder correspond to the directions of successive normals to the curve.


The moving trihedron of a space curve: T the tangent, N the normal, and B the binormal.

To understand exactly how the normal is defined, it helps to think of the notion of the “osculating” (kissing) plane. At each point of a space curve there is some plane that best fits the curve at that point. The tangent vector T lies in this plane, and the direction perpendicular to T in this plane holds the normal N. The binormal is a vector perpendicular to the osculating plane.

With the idea of the moving trihedron in mind, we can now say that the curvature measures the rate at which the tangent turns, and the torsion measures the rate at which the binormal turns.

Note that T, N and B are always selected so as to form a right-handed coordinate system. This means that if you hold out the thumb, index finger and middle finger of your right hand, these directions correspond to the tangent, the normal, and the binormal.


A right-hand as a trihedron.

Just as the circle is the plane curve characterized by having constant curvature, the helix is the space curve characterized by having constant curvature and constant torsion. Figure 5 shows how the signs of the curvature and torsion affect the shapes of plane and space curves.


How the signs of the curvature and torsion affect the motion of a curve.

Now let’s look for some space formulae analogous to the plane formula stating that the curvature of a circle of radius R is 1/R. Think of a helix as wrapping around a cylinder—like a vine growing up a post. Let R be the radius of the cylinder, and let H represent the turn-height: the vertical distance it takes the helix to make one complete turn (and to make the formulae nicer, we measure turn-height in units 2*pi as large as the units we measure R in.)

The sizes of the curvature and torsion on a helix with radius R and turn-height H are given by two nice equations. We write “tau” for torsion and, as before, “kappa” for curvature:

kappa = R / (R2 + H2), and

tau = H / (R2 + H2).

It’s an interesting exercise in algebra to try and turn these two equations around and solve for R and H in terms of kappa and tau. (Hint: Start by computing kappa2 + tau2. When you’re done, your new equations will look a lot like the original equations.)

Some initial things to notice are that if H is much smaller than R, you get a curvature roughly equal to 1/R, just like for a circle, and a tau very close to 0. If, on the other hand, R is very close to zero, then the torsion is roughly 1/H while the curvature is close to 0. A fly which does a barrel-roll while moving through a nearly straight distance of H has a torsion of 1/H. The faster it can roll, the greater is its torsion.

A less obvious fact is that if we look down on a plane showing all possible positive combinations R and H, the lines of constant curvature lie on semi-circles with their two endpoints on the R-axis; while the points representing constant torsion lie on semi-circles with their two endpoints on the H-axis. The curvature and torsion combinations gotten by stretching a given Slinky lie along a quarter circle centered on the origin. Apparently the two families of semi-circles are perpendicular to each other.


Lines of constant curvature and torsion for combinations of R (helix radius) and H (helix turn height).

Suppose I have a helix like a steel Slinky spring. What happens to the curvature and the torsion as I stretch a single turn of it without untwisting? Suppose that the initial radius of the helix is A. Given the physical fact that the length of one twist of the Slinky keeps the same length, you can show that as you stretch it, R2 + H2 will stay constant at a value of A2, which corresponds to a circle of radius A around the origin of the R-H plane. As you stretch a Slinky loop with the particular starting radius of 2, its R and H values will move along the dotted blue line shown in Figure 6. Figure 7 shows what a few of the intermediate positions will look like. Curvature is being traded off for torsion.


Stretching a Slinky turns curvature into torsion.

Here’s a little algebra problem: Given the formulae for kappa and tau in terms of R and H, and given that R2 + H2 = A2, what can you say about the sum kappa2 + tau2? The answer tells you more about the nature of a Slinky’s trade-off between curvature and torsion.

One fact that seems odd at first is that the curvature and torsion of a helix are dependent on the size of the helix. If you make both R and H five times as big, you make the torsion and curvature 1/10 as big. If you make R and H N times as big, you make the curvature and torsion 1/(2*N) as big.

But this makes sense if you think of a fly that switches from a small helix to a big helix; the fly is indeed changing the way that it’s flying, so it makes sense that the kappa and the tau should change.


Changing Curvature and Torsion.

This observation suggests a simple way to express the difference between flies and birds—flies fly with much higher curvature and torsion than do the birds. Gnats, for that matter, fly even more tightly knotted paths, and have very large values of curvature and torsion.

Just as in the plane, a space curve can be specified in terms of natural equations that give the curvature and torsion as functions of the arclength. These equations have the form kappa = f(s) and tau = g(s). The shape and size of the space curve is uniquely determined by the curvature and the torsion functions. The next two figures show two intriguing space curves given by simple curvature and torsion functions.


The “baseball stitch curve,” more properly called the “rocker,” with natural equations kappa = 1 and tau = sine(arclength).


The phone-cord, with natural equations kappa = 10*sine(arclength) and tau = 3.

Note that the phone cord is a space curve where we do allow ourselves to put in negative values for the curvature.

There is not a large literature on these “kappatau” curves, so I’ve given my own names to these two: the rocker, and the phone-cord.

At one time I thought that the rocker was a correct way to represent the seam on a tennis-ball or the stitching on a baseball, but an email from the mathematician John Horton Conway convinced me I was wrong. Conway makes the anthropological conjecture that every time a mathematician discovers a curve that he or she thinks might be the true baseball curve, the curve is a different one!

An analysis of the real-world baseball stitch curve can be found in a web-published paper: Richard Thompson, “Designing A Baseball Cover,” you can search it out online. It turns out the baseball stitch curve is based on something so prosaic as a patented 1860s pen and ink drawing of a plane shape used to cut out the leather for a half of a baseball, a shape arrived at by trial and error. Thompson finds a fairly gnarly closed-form approximation of this shape.

Not only does my rocker fail to match the baseball stitch curve, it can be proved that the rocker curve does not in fact lie on the surface of a sphere. My thanks to Roger Alpert for unearthing the following fact: the rocker fails to satisfy the following necessary condition for lying on the surface of the sphere, where s stands for arclength (see Yung-Chow Wong, “On An Explicit Characterization of Spherical Curves,” Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society 34 (July, 1972) pp. 239-242.).

d/ds[(1/tau)*d/ds(1/kappa)] + tau*(1/kappa) = 0

(For kappa = 1 and tau = sin(s), the left-hand side of this is sin(s), which isn’t identically 0.)

Numerical estimates indicate that the arclength of the rocker has exactly twice the length of a circle of the same radius. This suggests an easy way to make a rocker. Cut out two identical annuli (thick circles) from some fairly stiff paper (manila file folders are good), cut radial slits in the annuli, tape two of the slit-edges together, bend the annuli in two different ways (one like a clockwise helix and one like a counterclockwise helix) and tape the other two slit-edges together, forming a continuous band of double length . Because an annulus cannot bend along its osculating plane, the curvature of the shape is fixed along the arclength. Because half the band is like a clockwise helix and half is like a counterclockwise helix, when the shape relaxes, the torsion presumably varies with the arclength like a sine wave function that goes between plus one and minus one. The torsion seems to be zero at the two places where the slits are taped together. Note that I have not proved that my empirical paper rocker is the same as my mathematical rocker, this is simply my conjecture.


Make your own rocker.

How to make your own rocker curve:

Make a larger copy of the figure above on stiff paper.

Cut along all solid lines.

Tape edge A to edge B* with the letters on the same side.

Bend the two rings in the opposite sense.

Tape edge A* to edge B with the letters on the same side.

How were the computerized images of the rocker and the phone cord generated? They use an algorithm based on the 1851 formulae of Serret and Frenet (see, for instance, Dirk Struik, Lectures on Classical Differential Geometry, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass, 1961.). Let’s state the formulae in “differential” form. The question the formulae address is this: when we do a small displacement ds along a space curve, what is the displacement dT, dN, and dB of the vectors in the moving trihedron?

dT =(kappa*N)*ds

dN =(-kappa*T + tau*B)*ds

dB =(- tau*N)*ds

The first and third equations correspond, respectively, to the definitions of curvature and torsion. The second equation describes the “back-reaction” of the T and B motions on N.

[A mathematician’s way to remember the Frenet formulae is to note that if we think of the ds multipliers on the right-hand sides of the three equations as linear combinations of T, N, and B, then the coefficients in these combinations make a three-by-three antisymmetric matrix, that is, a matrix in which the ji entry is the negative of the ij entry.]

Since we are lucky enough to live in three-dimensional space, it’s possible for us to experiment with our bodies and to perceive directly why the Serret-Frenet formulae are true. To experience the equations, you should, if possible, stick out your right hand’s thumb, index finger, and middle finger as shown earlier. Now start trying to “fly” your trihedron around according to these rules:

(1) The index finger always points in the direction your hand is moving. (2) You are allowed to turn the index finger towards or away from direction of the middle finger by a motion corresponding to rotating around the axis of your thumb. (3) You are allowed to turn the thumb towards or away from the middle finger by a motion corresponding to rotating around the axis of your forefinger.

To get clear on what’s meant by motion (2), grab your thumb with you left hand and make as if you were trying to unscrew it from your hand. This is a kind of “yawing” motion, and it corresponds to the first of the three Serret-Frenet formulae: the change in the tangent is equal to the curvature times normal. Motion (3) corresponds to grabbing your index finger with your left hand and trying to unscrew that finger. This is a kind of “rolling” motion, and it corresponds to the third of the Serret-Frenet formulae: the change in the binormal is the negative of the torsion times the normal.

In thinking of flying along a space curve you should explicitly resist thinking about boats and airplanes which have a built-in visual trihedron which generally does not correspond to the moving trihedron of the space curve. If you do want to think about a machine, imagine a rocket which never slows down and never speeds up, which can turn left or right—relative to you the passenger—and which can roll. Or better yet, think about being a cybernetic house-fly.

An exciting thing about the Frenet-Serret formulae is that they lend themselves quite directly to creating a numerical computer simulation to create kappatau space curves with arbitrary curvature and torsion. To write the code in readable form, we can “overload” the arithmetic operators to do the expected things to our vector objects. A scalar times a vector changes the length of the vector, while a vector times a vector invokes the vector cross product. In addition we add a vector function called Normalize such that if a vector A invokes the method by calling A.Normalize(), then A becomes a unit vector. Here is the heart of an algorithm for updating the position P of a point on an arbitrary kappatau curve.

P = P + ds * T;

s = s + ds;

T = T + (kappa(s) * ds) * N;

B = B + ( -tau(s) * ds) * N;



N = (B * T);

As far as I know, very little mathematical work has been done with kappatau curves because in the past nobody could visualize them. I first implemented the algorithm as a so-called notebook for the Mathematica software, and then I wrote a stand-alone Windows program called Kaptau. You can my Mathematica notebokaptaurandomoks or the stand-alone Windows program from my web-site.

So how do I think flies fly? I think that they generally move along at a constant speed like a space curve parameterized by its arclength, and that they manage to loiter here and speed away from there by varying their curvature and torsion between low and high values. As mathematicians like to say (even when they’re wrong): “It’s obvious!”


A kappatau curve with curvature varying as a random walk.

Note on “How Flies Fly”

Written in 1999.

Appeared in David Wolfe and Tom Rodgers, eds., Puzzlers’ Tribute (A K Peters, 2002), a collection dedicated to the master puzzlist Martin Gardner.

I first saw the formulae for the moving trihedron in Dirk Struik’s book on differential geometry, and the beauty of the equations made a profound impression on me, as did the fact that one can describe space curves in a coordinate-free manner by stating the curvature and torsion as functions of the arclength. I thought about this off and on for many years.

I developed my algorithm for displaying kappa tau curves in 1988, when Autodesk gave me a powerful (for its time) Macintosh computer and the then-new computer algebra software Mathematica. Eventually I wrote my own standalone program for kappa tau curves, which you can find on my software page. I discussed the kappa tau curves with several mathematicians, including John Horton Conway and Roger Alpert.

Martin Gardner would have loved them, and I was happy to put my essay into a book dedicated to him. I still feel that kappa tau curves could have some good applications—but that’s for someone else to work out.

Table of Contents
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Spending Your Triangles

Recently I’d been worrying that e-business—whether booming or busting—might eat up all available mind share for thinking about computers. Even though the e-bust has come, the media continues to slobber over the same trivial, dead-end, greed-headed stuff. Must e-tailing and networking forever dispossess such wonderful aboriginal CS topics as Virtual Reality, Chaos, Fractals and Other Gnarl?

I’ve been less worried about this since last spring, when I went to the Game Developers’ Conference in my native San Jose, California. Everything great about computers is still alive and well in the world of videogames. Here, for your consideration, is my report.

Outside in the park are some homeless San Jose people. Our fair city. A chunky blonde street-girl is chewing an enormous shiny nail, like a ten-penny nail, its head sticking out of her mouth. Two phrases cross my mind: “Tough as nails,” and, “Biting her nails.”

I’m Artificial Life aficionado from way back. Called “Alife” for short, this field studies how to create computer simulations of things that behave like living creatures. In a thorough-going Alife simulation, the creatures will even breed and evolve. Alife was big in the 1980s, but it’s kind of died out. Like Artificial Intelligence, Alife failed to deliver on its initial wild-eyed promises. Simulations don’t in fact evolve into cool things very fast. If you regard Earth as a large, specialized computer, you’ll observe that it’s been running for billions of years, parallel processing itself at every point of space, pumping along at an update speed limited only by things like Planck’s constant and the speed of light. Kind of hard to match that on your desk-top machine.

So I’m excited to see that the conference has a tutorial on Artificial Life in Games. The game community still hasn’t really picked up on Alife. The tendency is to have games that behave in predictable, replicable ways—unlike living things. It would be great if Alife could rise out of academia and break into the lively, moneyed world of videogames. Finally an application!

A University of Toronto professor named Demetri Terzopoulos gives a talk on an Artificial Fishtank he made; it’s a virtual world populated by simfish, or simulated fish. The program isn’t really a game, or if it is a game, it’s a zero-player game, meaning that it’s just something you look at. Nor is Terzopoulos’s program a product you can buy, it’s only been presented in museums and big conference demos. He shows us a slide of a Japanese girl in big shutter glasses inside a portable Virtual Theater peering at his simfish. Ah, the eternally cyberpunk quality of the Japanese. But I digress.

Although the simfish aren’t all that important in and of themselves, lets talk about them for a bit, by way of getting somewhat up to speed on the general principles of how one generates virtual realities for use in games.

Like many virtual critters, the simfish are based on skeletons something like a few wire squares and triangles hooked together. These skeletal shapes each have lump masses at their corners, and their edges are “viscoelastic elements,” which are like springs coupled with dampers. As well as acting like bones, the edges act like muscles.

To make the critters look good, the flat faces of their skeletal squares and triangles are replaced by smooth mathematical surfaces, like car fenders, say. One of the most commonly used computer-graphical surface is in fact named a Bezier patch, after a Monsieur Bezier who designed fenders for Renault in the Fifties.

How do you draw a smooth surface? Well, you tessellate it, which means you break it into lots of small triangles. Tessellation is a theme that comes up over and over in the conference. Basically it’s all about triangles, all of the time. Why not squares? The graphics cards like triangles better. When a card draws a 3D object, it moves all the triangles into position in a virtual 3D space, calculates how they would project onto your computer screen, and then colors the triangles in, taking into account any lights or fog that you may have placed into your virtual scene.

So when you look at a simulation of a 3D object in a videogame, you’re actually looking at a mesh of triangles that are artfully filled in with colors. The colors within any single triangle can vary from corner to corner and across the triangle’s face, so that it can become virtually impossible to tell where the individual triangle borders are. The process of turning a model into a screen image is known as rendering, an odd word, really, given that “to render” also refers to the process of melting the fat out of animal carcasses skeletons by heating them.

A computer can only handle so many triangles per second, and if your simulation runs at slower than something like thirty updates a second, it sucks. A too-slow simulation looks jerky and clunky. So you need to keep the number of triangles down to the bare minimum needed to make something look nice. Thanks the ability to color the triangles in artful ways, you can get by with fewer triangles than you might imagine. An appropriately shaded icosahedron of twenty triangles, for instance, can look almost like a sphere. If you use something called Phong shading instead of Gouraud shading, you can even make a cube look like a sphere. But this is more than you want to know.

As well as the graphical appearance of the simfish, we also have to worry about their behavior, which comes down to sensing, thinking, and acting. This is where AI comes in. Whatever compute time a game doesn’t spend on its triangles, it spends on its critters’ Artificial Intelligence. You share your energies between creating your world and thinking about it.

In order to think, of course, a critter needs to know what’s going on around it. To speed things up, you can let them cheat and look up the other critters’ positions in an “oracle” that is simply the program’s data. Or they can do it the hard way, like humans do, and ray-trace lines into the world and see what the lines run into.

Each of Terzopoulos’s simfish has an AI mind based on mental states called Hunger, Libido, and Fear. A simfish fears collisions. predators, and above all the walls of the tank. The fear of a wall is absolute, deeper than any emotion, the simfish can’t overcome it. What if “fear” was all that really did keep you from walking through a wall, what if one’s impression of the world’s solidity was just a weird kind of innate behavior? Looking at these simulated worlds sets the mind off down odd pathways indeed.

Figuring out the AI for your game creatures is a big deal. Given that the creatures have to update thirty times a second, the AI has to be fast, though you can in fact let a critter think a little slower than it moves. Like maybe he only looks around and thinks after every three graphics updates, and if he sometimes sticks part of a finger inside of a wall, who’s looking that closely. Whatever it takes to stay over thirty frames per second.

Terzopoulos shows us fish mating, chasing each other, running away and so on. Rather than actually writing the code for their AI, he let the behaviors evolve over time by the genetic operators of reproduction, mutation, and selection, which is what Alife researchers like to do. “Fuck programming, we’ll let the answer evolve!” Over human-scaled periods of time, this doesn’t actually work very well on real-world problems. But its good enough for little toy worlds like the simulated aquarium. The fish move pretty good. The scene that sticks in my mind the most is a demo of virtual fishing, where a hook hauls a simulated fish out of sight. Imagine the horror of this for the simfish!

During a break in the talks, I chat with a guy named John Nagel who happens to be sitting next to me. He’s one of the founders of Autodesk, Inc., where I worked for a few years in the Nineties. Nagel is a genius and an eccentric, loaded with interesting, skewed ideas. He remarks that the main thing that makes money is the marketing, not the tech, that’s why cool things aren’t emerging as fast as they could. He comes up with a great bon mot regarding why we are working so hard these days: “Better technology helps workers about as much as better weapons help soldiers in a war.” The new tech just makes it worse for the workers, it spews out more shit for them to deal with. The generals love the new weapons, but all they do for the soldiers is kill more of them. You know that nostalgic, wistful feeling you get when you look at a Forties movie and nobody is using a fucking computer? Must have been nice.

The next day I ambitiously start in on an all-day tutorial on how to take advantage of accelerated graphics cards for your 3D rendering. Some guys from the Nvidia graphics card company are explaining how to use the special 3D graphics protocols known as OpenGL, formerly the property of Silicon Graphics but now a lingua franca across all kinds of platforms including the great King Kong of Windows. The Nvidia guys are, it turns out, not talking about OpenGL in general so much as they are talking about some special new OpenGL functions that are only going to work on their new $600 graphics card called GeForce 3. They show us a cripplingly complex demo, an animated chameleon who changes from chrome to glass to colors while crawling along a branch. “After what we tell you today there’s no reason you can’t write a demo just like this,” says the introducer. Rrright. I look over at the twenty-something graphics hacker next to me. We exchange grins like students in a class that’s harder than we expected.

The first speaker talks about how to go about deleting more and more vertices of an object’s mesh as it gets farther away—so as to not be wasting compute time on unnecessary detail. He talks about “not spending too many triangles.” He uses the acronym LOD, for Level of Detail. The problem that exercises this guy is how to dynamically change the LOD tessellation without what he calls “popping,” which would be an unrealistic-looking abrupt change when a ball, say, goes from using twenty triangles to using two hundred triangles. He’s spewing out primo buzzwords here. “More highly tessellated.” “Water-tight tessellation.” It’s very close to gibberish, with eighty percent of the words technical. “Polynomial patches, vertex shading, alpha blending, shadow buffers, bump mapping.” “T&L” for “transform and lighting.” At first I thought he meant T&A, those female kinds of curved surfaces. Submerged in male geekdom, I long for the presence of women. Women have the only triangle that really matters after all, the Delta of Venus, the pubic patch, the triangle of love and life. Women, Nature, Fresh Air! But that’s not what we’re talking about at the OpenGL demo.

The speaker shows a demo that zooms in on a blue glass banana slug shape, the lighting is continuous, and the image isn’t “popping” because extra triangles are invisibly seeping out of seams in the slug when you make it bigger. “Isn’t that great?” he says.

I’m boggled by the intricacy of the gyrations we are forever going through to make our simulations run fast. This will never end, I suddenly realize. The real world is inexhaustible. More computational ability just makes us do harder simulations. It’s like the thing Nagel said. More guns, and the soldiers are more desperate than ever. Enough OpenGL for today.

I check out a tutorial on “Interactive Storytelling.” How do you tell a story in a game? A screenplay is totally different from a story, it’s all about showing instead of telling. But a game, it’s not even about showing. It’s about letting people find stuff. And somehow you have to herd the gamer along a dramatic trajectory. How to do this is a mind-boggling question. But the speaker doesn’t know the answer. The audience is the most interesting thing in this session, they’re not at all the same crowd as in the Advanced OpenGL session. I begin to grasp that the game developer community is a veritable university, with designers, programmers, writers, artists, businessmen and marketers.

I find some of the artists at a “Conceptual Design” session I wander into. The speaker here is an artist, who illustrates his talk with detailed marker drawings that he does on a sheet of paper that sits beneath some TV cameras, a high tech overhead projection set up. Long periods of silence while he draws. How wonderfully realistic his hands look. He is explaining how to draw shiny things so they look cool. It’s great. The audience is even less like programmers than the writers were. Inarticulate artists, one asks a question like “Why is something that of sticks up kind of shiny? Why is it dark at one edge?” I learn a lot. There’s an interesting reversal in this talk. Rather than focusing on how to draw a 2D picture that looks like a 3D object, the guy is really talking about how to deform the meshes of a 3D object so that the 2D image in the game rendering will look cool. He talks, for instance, about putting a pooched-out “bone” on a surface to make a nice reflection line. He uses the word “pooch” a lot.

Will Wright, the head of Maxis, gives a talk called “Design Plunder.” It’s in the civic center, a huge crowd is there. Wright is the designer of SimCity and recently The Sims, which is kind of like a live doll-house with humanoid Sims you move around and do things to. The Sims do things on their own as well, you can sit back and watch a situation play itself out.

Will—somehow you can’t call this guy by his last name—gives a great talk. First thought on seeing him come out: what a geek. Hawaiian shirt, a Charlie Chaplin mustache, skin so bad you can tell from thirty rows back, lank dirty hair. There’s a big screen behind him that shows his head and screens on either side showing slides of his Power Point slides. I should mention that everyone but everyone uses Power Point nowadays, slides that are inside their portable computer and which come out on the video projector.

Will talks about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, a chunky old $60 tome from Oxford University Press. Everyone keeps hyping this book to me, I gotta check it out. It’s one of the inspirations for the biggest new buzz in the software engineering community: Software Patterns. Will talks about the patterns of Hierarchy, Network, Landscape. He has a good line about makes a good user interface. “A user interface isn’t done until there’s nothing left to remove.”

As a complete non-sequitur he throws in a slide of some woolly animal and says, “The Vicuna is a relative of the Llama.” Inside joke: Wright’s business card calls him “High Llama,” as in Dali Lama.

He starts showing some of the “stories” people have made up with their Sims. Like kids having stories about their Barbies or G. I. Joes, except now they’re in computer form. There are sites where you can get “skins” to make your Sims look however you like, e.g. you can dress them in bondage outfits or in spring break ski vacation outfits. Will shows a story where some kids are in a ski lodge and one of them dies and they hide the body inside a snowman. He dreams of having computer software to recognize a developing story and help along by, perhaps, putting in obstacles to the goal so that the story gets more complex.

It’s all good, but after awhile I can’t listen to any more talks. I go to see a demo reel of some of the best visuals from this year’s games. A Chinese girl in a grotty tenement. It’s high time for the Chinese to be cyberpunk like the Japanese. Forget about all the historical stuff, get with the Western program, yes! It’ll come. Now the reel shows gothic devils by a lake of lava. A man in a top hat, ah, the wonderful sinister quality of a top hat. Creatures with three legs, I notice a number of these in different people’s games. “I dare to dream of three legs!” Laser beams with hoops of emphasis around the beam. A cartoon world with a woman who gets out of a coffin, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, and she has the biggest, pointiest breasts I’ve ever seen, bigger even than Jessica Rabbit’s. Man, I’d like to see her triangle! For the rest of the conference I’m looking for this game, but I can’t find it. Then the reel shows a hooded man in the rain, it’s a Japanese game with long credit sequence like a Noir movie. The game is called Metal Gear Solid, terrific Japanese-style name, the way they always get the words in slightly the wrong order. The reel shows a world called Exmachina with cool funky dirigibles and a screaming fat woman with blue pig-tails. “I dare to dream of blue pig-tails!”

There’s also a reel of demos from a European movement called the Demo Scene. These are small executables that produce images and sounds. They try for 64K exe size. Seem to be written in BASIC, my dear. Shocking. They’re like loops you’d see in a European disco. The programmers have names like KKowboy, The Popsy Team, and Byter. The demos are weak, but it’s always great to see high-tech stuff get out on the street.

Time to hit the Expo Hall. First thing I notice is that most booths are giving away toys. The developers call it “schwag.” There’s Slinkies, clackers, Hacky Sacks and, ah, Silly Putty. I get five green Silly Putties from Nvidia. I’ve always wanted enough Silly Putties to completely fill up the plastic egg it comes in. My egg is so full it bounces when I drop it. Tactile feed-back.

There’s some pretty odd game add-on equipment in the lesser-frequented booths. Plastic sheets to lay over your keyboard in case you can’t remember the fifty or a hundred possible key commands. A quarter-dome of white cloth with colored lights inside it; the lights supposedly flash in synch with the events of your game, like red for an explosion or yellow when you shoot your gun. I’m already overloading on the shooting all around me. Your gun, your gun, your gun.

There’s virtual tactile-feed-back to be had. A company has a joystick with a motor in its base so it can push back. The screen shows a ball on a trampoline. As you wiggle the stick you feel the trampoline sag, give, then pitch the ball up. And the stick slams back when the ball comes down.

The worst product of all is from digiSCENTS(TM) with the iSmell(TM) technology, a little humidifier-like thing that sits by your computer and pulses out a waft of scent in synch with your game. They have the most impressive booth-bunnies in the whole hall, women in skunk suits with big implanted boobs. But it’s not enough to make any rational developer or gamer want to touch this product. So far as I can tell, the product hasn’t actually been synched to any real game, I think they’re still looking for more funding. A guy gives me a demo where you’re playing Doom. The shot-gun blasts smell like, he claims, daffodil, the extra bullets like wintergreen, the enemies like butterscotch, but really all you feel is the wind of the puffs of air. Surely this guy must know that his company is doomed.

I have a momentary wave of revulsion. Virtual Reality is alive and well here, but it’s being used for such crappy purposes. It’s like having a million dollar synthesizer and playing Whitney Houston songs. One guy is demoing a design program in which he’s produced a best called Bubba. Bubba has eighteen thousand triangles and has surfaces made up of these very cool mathematical functions called NURBs. But Bubba’s a completely shitty and moronic looking monster, like Disney at his generic worst. NURBs and eighteen thousand triangles to be just as stupid as ever.

I calm down by watching a Microsoft demo of the software compiler they’re calling VisualStudio.NET, also known as Visual Studio 7.0. To the palpable relief of the programmers around me, version 7.0 looks very much like the version 6.0 that we’ve all been using for the last two years. One never knows when Microsoft is going to choose to fuck one over with their latest Brave New World of compatibility issues.

Above the Microsoft demo area is a giant poster, a banner really, of a guy with a nose ring and a Maltese Cross piercing in his tongue, his mouth open screaming, this is for their DirectX software library. How odd to think that this is how one of the world’s largest companies sells tools to serious programmers! How far we’ve come from the suit-and-tie company-men of the 1950s.

I cruise the Expo Hall a lot more over the coming days and I begin to have more and more fun. I watch some developers playing the demo games set up. One is a Japanese game called Jet Grind Radio about skater painting graffiti. Amazingly antisocial. I talk to the guy playing with it. “I like how they make it look like cels,” he says. “Each figure has a thick dark line around it like in a cartoon.” Another game being played is Samba Amigo, with an interface that is, yes, a pair of maracas. “That’s the most brain-dead game I’ve ever seen,” I say to a developer. “Yeah, but it’s awesome,” he said. “I’ve been playing it a lot.” The game is to shake the maracas in patterns indicated by circles that have dots appearing in them, you follow the dots. In the background is an endless procession of colorful shapes, like a three-day ecstasy trip or something, hot-dogs in serapes, grinning amigos, cute computer-graphics girls with huge spherical boobs.

I meet some Irish guys from a company called Havok who have a physics package for games, it basically solves spring equations and the like in real-time so that you can have bouncing hair, flapping cloth, and spinning rocks with accurate collisions. This used to be supercomputer Virtual Reality, and now it’s a plug-in package for game developers. They’re asking a pretty penny, though, $75K for the full game developer’s kit. Oddly enough, Havok’s biggest competitor is a company called Karma out of Oxford University. Back in the Old World, they really teach students something.

Sony is there with a pen full of Aibos, their robot dog. I reach in and snap my fingers, an Aibo comes over and sniffs me, I pet its head, it sits back on its haunches and whines, I’m in love. A Japanese programmer shows me something that looks like a videocassette with little levers in its sides. In his broken English he is giving me to understand that this cassette-sized box is the inner hardware of the Aibo, and that I could develop my own shell to put onto the box, Sony is looking to license to developers. I have a flash of a world in which all the creatures and people I interact with are in fact armatures of triangle meshes tacked onto these Sony boxes. Someday the meshes disappear, and my office-mate at school is revealed to be a black box with levers sticking out of it. The triangles are scattered across our office floor. “Are you Jon Pearce?” I say to the box, and the lever in front goes up and down nodding yes.

I keep walking around the Expo hall, more and more into it. I’m better able to see things now, with familiarity it’s less of an overwhelming jangle. One thing I totally notice is that they have some women dressed in black up on stages dancing, two different stages. Each women has reflective beads attached to her cat-suit, maybe fifty of them. Around the stage are computer monitors showing realtime moving wireframe models of the girls. The almost-all-male developers are interested in this, both in the dancing women and in the moving wireframe models. We hardly know which to stare at the most.

I listen to the presentation at the Vicom Motion Capture stage. Around the stage are eighteen megapixel digital video cameras shooting 25 frames per second. The dancer is Megan. She has dark lips, a perky smile, a messy pinned-up ponytail that’s in the wireframe models as well. She yawns, dances, poses while the pitchman talks. She’s as ceaselessly active as the tendrils of a sea anemone. She leans, the epitome of grace, on the partition separating the stage from the pit where two programmers sit running programs to clothe her wireframe bod in rendered triangles. She has one arm akimbo. What a gulf between this live California girl and the programmers thinking about how best to “spend their triangles” on her rendering. She disappears off-stage for a few minutes and when she comes back, she holds out her arms to be recalibrated because, the British-accented announcer brays, “Megan’s just gone to the bathroom.” She makes cute, outraged protests. The developers are keenly interested in this information about the presumed state of Megan’s triangle.

At the tail end of the conference, I catch a talk by Michael Abrash, who’s working on the Microsoft Xbox, a ballyhooed new gaming platform on the horizon. It has Nvidia graphics hardware. Abrash has been testing it for a year. He’s a super-programmer, the co-author of the classic first-person shooter game Quake. The hall is filled shoulder-to-shoulder with hardcore techie game developers, maybe a thousand of them, there’s not a single woman in view, not so much one single triangle of femininity as far as I can see. Abrash lets loose like a fire hose. A complete geek info-spew. The Xbox is to deliver 125 million triangles per second! All this to draw Megan’s arm akimbo. After his talk Abrash is besieged by questioners, they’re like dogs fighting over a piece of meat, which is Abrash’s brain. Being under a Microsoft Non-Disclosure Agreement—and you can imagine what that must be like—he can’t give them as much as he’d like to.

As it turns out, I’m having dinner with Abrash, along with two of his Microsoft cohorts. They want to pick my brain about wild computer-science ideas for video games.

On the way to meet them at the restaurant I stop in at St. Joseph’s cathedral. A humble party of working-class San Jose locals is gathered there, one of the church officials is prepping them for a wedding they’re going to have at noon tomorrow. The richness of this space, the murals, the dimensionality. The grains of the wood and the marble. The humanity of the people in the wedding party. Will the geeks of a hundred years from now be volumetrically modeling wood and character animating better sims of people? Why, why, why?

At dinner, Abrash is brilliant and intense, a man looking for another big score. I make some suggestions about videogame things I’d like to see. Having just finished writing a novel about the fourth dimension, I’m particularly eager to see a four-dimensional videogame. The glass screen of your computer could as easily look onto a simulation of hyperspace as onto a simulation of regular space. Abrash is resisting this, though, he’s more attracted by the siren song of Cellular Automata, which are a wondrously gnarly precursor of Artificial Life. I happen to have some opinions about this too; it’s great to be talking to someone who might actually do something with them. An undulating surfscape made of continuous-valued Cellular Automata—now that would be worth spending your triangles on!

All in all, the Game Developers Conference was a vastly energizing experience, like a brief immersion in a floating university. These guys totally get the old-time hot-rodding aspect of what computers are for. They’re not for delivering groceries, for God’s sake. They’re for speeding like hell to places nobody’s ever seen.

Note on “Spending Your Triangles”

Written September, 2001.

Appeared in a zine called Ylem.

At this time I was teaching a Software Engineering class at San Jose State where I had my students to large projects where they’d create computer games using a software framework that I’d created. My notes and for this class eventually became a textbook, Software Engineering and Computer Games (Addison-Wesley, 2002).

The annual Game Developers Conference was often held in the San Jose, and I enjoyed going to it to pick up ideas for my class. I’d hoped to sell this article to Wired, but it didn’t make the cut, so I ended up giving it to a nice guy called Loren Means to put in his art/science zine Ylem.

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The Rudy Set Fractal

 Rudy Rockets, a detail of the Rudy Set.

 Iterated Functions and the Old Quadratic Julia and Mandelbrot Sets

A map in the plane is some system for finding an image P’ of each point P. If f is a map in the plane, and f maps z into z’, I can express this either by writing z’ = f(z) or by writing z—f—> z’. Given an f and a z, we can define a sequence zn by:

 z0 = z, z1 = f(z), z2 = f(z1, and in general, zn+1 = f(zn).

 In terms of f,

 z—f—> z1—f—> z2—f—> z3—f—> z4—f—>…

For some starting values of z, the zn sequence hops around within some bounded region of the plane, and we say z is bounded under f. And for other start values of z, the zn sequence heads off across the plane towards infinity.

 The Julia set for a map f is defined as the set of all z in the plane which are bounded under f. Symbolically, the Julia set for f is { z : z—f—> FINITE )}.

 The quadratic map fc given by fc(z) = z^2 + c has been widely studied. The Julia set for the fc map is called Jc. They became popular in the 1980s, along with a kind of “directory set” called the Mandelbrot set, which can be defined equivalently as M = { c : Jc is connected}, or , M = { c : the origin is in Jc }.

The Cubic Julia Sets

 Okay, now for the good stuff!!! The maps which the Cubic Julias and Cubic Mandelbrots are based on have the form fkc, with fkc(z) = z^3 - 3*k*z + c

For each fkc we can define a cubic Julia set Jkc by: Jkc = { z: z—fkc—>FINITE }.

Why do I write fkc(z) in the particular form that I do? As discussed in Bodil Branner and John Hubbard, “The Iteration of Cubic Polynomials, Part I: The Global Topology of Parameter Space,” if you write polynomials in certain special ways, it’s easier to locate the so-called critical points of the polynomials. More on this point later on. For now, the point is simply that, by moving the origin of our coordinate system and a judicious choice of k and c, we can in fact write any cubic polynomial in the indicated form.

To graphically represent the Jkc sets, each pixel position on the screen is identified with a distinct complex number c, and we look at c’s behavior under the map, which generates successive zn values. If zn is more than, say, 4 units way from the origin, we assume the sequence is headed for infinity, and give the pixel a color based on the value of n. And if zn stays within the boundary distance for as many steps as we check, then we assume that the pixel represents a point inside the set, and we typically color these points black.

 Unlike in the quadratic case, these cubic Julia sets Jkc are generally not symmetric. Some of them are connected, like this one.

 Julia Cubic Asteroids

 Some of the Jkc, which we won’t show, are made of numerous separate connected patches, and some are totally disconnected, like clouds of dust.

 It has been proved that Jkc is in fact connected if and only if both the complex numbers k and -k are in Jkc. These are the critical points of the fkc map that I was talking about above. We’ve written the cubic in the special form z^3 - 3*k*z + c precisely so that the critical points have this simple definition: k and -k.

As Jkc is not symmetric, it may happen that only one of k or -k is in Jkc. Jkc is connected only when both of these critical points are in Jkc.

 Cubic Mandelbrot Sets

 The four-dimensional set of all complex pairs k and c such that Jkc is connected is known as the Cubic Connectedness map, or the CCM. Why do I say four dimensional? Well, k has two numbers inside it in the form a+bi, and c also holds two numbers. Ranging over four parameters gives you a 4D space.

The CCM set has been studied by Adrian Douady, John Hubbard and John Milnor—as well as the paper mentioned above, see Adrian Douady and John Hubbard, “On the Dynamics of Polynomial-like Mappings,” and Bodil Branner and John Hubbard, “The Iteration of Cubic Polynomials Part II: Patterns and Parapatterns” (Love the title.)

I never have understood why the Cubic Connectedness Map isn’t much better known! For some odd reason, my fellow fractal fanatics have consistently snubbed or misunderstood this incredibly rich vein of gnarl.

CCM = { (k, c) : Jkc is connected}

or, putting it differently,

 CCM = { (k, c) : ( k—fkc—> FINITE ) AND ( -k—fkc—> FINITE ) }

One way to depict the CCM is to show various two-dimensional cross-sections of it. These cross-sections are what we call Cubic Mandelbrot sets. If, for instance, k is fixed, then we can look at the Cubic Mandelbrot set Mk.

 Mk = { c : Jkc is connected}, or

 Mk = { c : ( k—fkc—>FINITE ) AND ( -k—fkc—>FINITE ) }.

It turns out that that Mk is symmetric around the origin, that is, if c is in Mk, so is -c. If k = 0+0i, one gets a degenerate Mk with fourfold symmetry; this is the default Cubic Mandelbrot set. This rather boring fractal is, sadly, the only well-known cubic Mandelbrot. Most fractal explorers neglect all the other—<em>much </em>more interesting—Mk.

 The boring default cubic Mandelbrot

 Note that a small change in the K parameter makes it more interesting.

The interesting Mandel Cubic Stack

And things get better.

Detail of Mandel Cubic Invasion Of The Hrull

One often sees small replicas of the pieces of the quadratic Mandelbrot set inside the Mk, though sometimes with wedges cut out of them.

Detail of Mandel Cubic Pac Man

As I mentioned above, the full CCM is in fact four-dimensional, and this shows up in the fact that many of the bud cross-sections have pieces missing from them. As an aid to mathematical visualization, I think of it this way. The CCM is like a three dimensional solid which is free to move pieces of itself to arbitrary time locations. Thus if a section of a bud seems to have the right half missing, we might think of the left half of the bud as being in Monday and the right half of the bud as being in Tuesday, with your cross-section being computed at the Monday time coordinate. I use time not at all in a physical sense here, but simply for the vividness of the image.

 Some of the Mk details are fairly amazing.

Detail of the WhoopDiDoo Cubic Mandelbrot Set.

And here’s another.

Detail of Mandel Cubic Zipper

And here’s another, this one found in what we call an Mc set rather than an Mk set.

 Detail of Mandel Cubic Ogre

By slightly varying the two components of the k parameter, one can look at k-sections near each other, and try to visualize stacking them one atop the other. I would very much like to view 3D sets which are stacks of Mk sets that arise as one varies, for instance, the real part of k from -1 to 1. I have a lingering hope that these objects may look bulbous rather than taffy-like, despite the lack of success of some preliminary investigations. What we want to see is a three-dimensional Mandelbrot shape with buds all over it—this may be related to the rather different three-dimensional beast called the Mandelbulb.

The Mandelbulb, which has been under intense investigation in recent years is a quite different kind of thing from the cubic Mandelbrot sets. The Mandelbulb is defined so as to be an inherently three-dimensional Mandelbrot set. The trick is to use spherical coordinates for three-dimensional space, and to define “multiplication” in terms of adding angles. I was in fact one of the first people to work with the Mandelbulb—back in 1988. I have some background information and some links about the Mandelbulb in a blog post.

But, again, the Mandelbrot has no essential connection with the cubic, quartic and other Mandelbrot and Rudy sets that I’m showing pictures of in the current essay.

 The Cubic Rudy Set is the True Cubic Mandelbrot Set

 An apparently new fractal which I’ve enjoyed investigating is this.

 R = {c : Jcc is connected}

 = {c : c is in Mc}

 = {c : ( c-fcc—> FINITE ) AND ( -c—fcc—> FINITE) }.

I immodestly call this the Rudy set, although it may be that pros like Branner, Douady, or Hubbard have their own name for it. As I say, I first starting working with this set some twenty years ago, but computers were pretty slow back then. In the April of 2010, using the commercial Ultra Fractal program, I saw much more detail of the Rudy set than ever before. Images that used to take hours to render can pop up in seconds.

 Note that the Cubic Rudy Set has an absolute or non-relative quality, in that it avoids the choice between the Mk and Mc Mandelbrot Cubics, each of which are a certain kind of orientation-dependent cross-sections of the Cubic Connectedness Map. By going down to the Jkk in the definition of the Rudy Set, we reach down to something that’s not relative to any specific orientation. Note also that we could equivalently define the Rudy Set as {c : c is in Mc}. For this is just {c : Jcc is connected}, which is the same as {k : Jkk is connected}.

The Rudy Set

 Compare the definition of R as {c: Jcc is connected}to the definition of the Mandelbrot set M as { c : Jc is connected}. This makes me think that R is a good generalization of M, in some ways better than the Mk or Mc.

R is an object which is extremely rich in unusual fractal structures. One good region is the plume between 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock relative to the whole set. I call this area “Mars”.

Rudy Mars

 An image like a rocking horse is found in the Mars region of the Rudy set. This horse is one of my favorite spots.

 Rudy Horse

 Another good region is the spike at the top, at 12 o’clock. There is an interesting structure there that is a bit like a Mandelbrot set, but considerably gnarlier. I call it Fat Bud. This is a wonderful region for extreme gnarl.

 Rudy Fat Bud

I keep finding more and more great stuff in the Rudy set.

The Rudy Hedgehog

Lots of little Mandelbrot sets turn up inside the Rudy set.

Rudy Sanskrit Bud

I put the Sanskrit Bud onto a T-shirt. Very yogic.

I recently found a really powerful region in the first Mandelbrot bud above the top of the Rudy set. There’s a yottawatt particle beam blasting out.

Rudy Particle Beam

And near the Particle Beam are some globs of paired twirly things like bugs you’d find under a log.

Rudy Isopod.

And down inside the very center of that gap at the core of the Rudy Isopod is a mini-Mandelbrot set, a variation on the Sanskrit Bud.

Rudy Mandel In Twirls

At this point you might want to jump into a web browser and look at my YouTube video playlist of five zooms, pans, and warps among higher-dimensional Mandelbrot sets and the Rudy set.

The Quartic and Quintic Fractals

I was puzzled about how to find the critical points for fourth degree and fifth degree polynomials. Googling for the answer, I found a series of articles by the Swedish fractalist, Ingvar Kullberg.

Kullberg is one of the only people who’s gotten into making images involving the Cubic Connectedness Map. Rather than going into full detail about how to compute the higher order Julia sets, Mandelbrot sets and Rudy sets, I’ll refer you to a web post of mine that has the full details.

I’m not going into the math at all here, but I’ll show you two nice pictures. Here’s a dreamy detail of the Quartic Rudy set

Rudy Quartic Sky Palace

And here’s something I found inside a quintic Mandelbrot—a nice quadratic Mandelbrot shape surrounding by leopard spots of quintic gnarl.


The Mandel Quintic Leopard.

 You can find a video of this region in that playlist that I mentioned above. The video is 300 frames, and it took my 2010-maximum-speed computer thirteen hours to compute render. What fun.

Note on “The Rudy Set Fractal”

Written in 1990 and 2010.

Appeared on Rudy's Blog, April 2, 2010.

I gave an early version of this essay as a talk at the Computer Systems Laboratory Colloquium Stanford University on March 7, 1990, under the title, “Computing Sections of the Cubic Connectedness Map.” Some of this information also appeared in the manual I helped write for the Autodesk software package, James Gleick’s CHAOS. In 2010, I bought the commercial Ultra Fractal software, which allowed me to to delve much deeper into these new fractals than ever before. If you get a copy of Ultra Fractal, you can download the program definitions and parameter sets for recreating the images that appear in this article. There’s numerous links regarding these fractals in my blog post.

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Tech Notes Towards a Cyberpunk Novel

ASICs, or Application Specific Integrated Circuits, comprise 95% of computer chips made today. Suppose that the ASICs have all been replaced by limpware. This is reasonable. For the people in 2053 to use chip-based computers would be like us now using gear-based computers. We used to have gears in a watch, and now we usually have a chip. A few watches still use gears simply out of nostalgia. But nobody would dream of starting out with a plan to use lots of little gears for the controls of microwave oven, or of a TV, or a traffic light…

In the same way, in 2053, nobody would dream of using a silicon chip for an app. In other words, a microwave oven, or an uvvy, or a car, or a clock—all of these have control circuits that are little smidgens of limpware, made of the special piezoplastic called “imipolex.” They are not all that smart. They are dim. They are so dim they will do something like sit in a toaster for seven years waiting for someone to push the toast button. DIM should stand for something, like ASIC. Designer IMipolex.

Chaos means that you can’t control; or that when you try to control, the results are not likely to be what you expected (sensitive dependence on initial conditions). As a cultural paradigm, it could mean accepting that the half-assed parallel-computed way in which social decisions arise is much more robust and adaptive than any kind of dictatorial guiding could be.

Chelated rare-earth polymers are what Andrea the moldie uses to get high. The rare-earth elements, also called lanthanides, are Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium. Ytterbium was first found in a mineral called yttria in the 1878s. The mineral yttria was named for Ytterby, Sweden, in 1794.

Chipmold is the human-created plague which killed all of the boppers (who were conventional robots using existing tech: garbage cans on wheels with circuit boards and motors in them). But the soft plastic limpware flickercladding gets smarter. It likes the chipmold, it is veined by chipmold like a ripe bleu cheese. Jellyfish limpware eaten through with blue veins of chipmold.

Email in today’s ever-more-rude America means a person can just come up and start talking to you, as if this was like some endless global party.

The endless interplanetary party that everyone is involved with. It should be pleasant and life-enhancing, like you can always plug in with other stoned freaks like yourself in the country, they can see the crazy shit you are doing, like an endless easy guilt-free phone call.

Femtotechnology is the next big thing beneath nanotechnology. Femtotechnology means technology at the size scale of one quadrillionth of a meter, or at ten to the minus fifteenth power meters. Femto- comes from Danish for fifteen. (“I never met a Dane who wasn’t bone-dull.”—W. S. Burroughs). A atomic nucleus has a diameter of two times ten to the minus fourteenth meters, which can be expressed as twenty femtometers. Femtotechnology could be in charge of direct transmutation of elements, as well as, I would suppose, the conversion between mass and energy. I think quantum mechanics would start to play a role at this size scale.

Femtotechnology is the same as what Heinlein called direct matter control.

Flickercladding is soft imipolex plastic that acts as a giant parallel processor, it has an invisible cellular structure that is patterned in by chelated polymers; these fibers carry the messages. The first flickercladdings had actual wires in them, they used to be like coatings fused or glued onto the bodies of the robots called the boppers. But the coatings got thicker, and soon peeled off the boppers to become independent limpware creatures known as moldies.

Flying wings of moldie imipolex. Manta rays of flickercladding flying around in the thin upper atmosphere like supersonic airplanes, drenched in solar radiation. Thanks to the algae in their tissues, they eat light.

Headmounted displays are confining and unnatural. The way to get full Virtual Reality immersion without such a kludge is to place limpware scarves on the neural ganglia. So as not to violate the sanctity of the skin, let the limpware interact with the brain tissues via tight electromagnetic fields.

Lifeboxes are things like a hand-held tape recorder with a computer, you talk to it and tell it the story of your life. The lifebox asks you questions to fill in blank areas. It organizes the information into a hypertext. You make copies of it for your children and grandchildren. “What Grandpa (or Grandma) Was Like.” This is going to be a huge industry. Old duffers and ladies always want to write down their life story, but with a lifebox they won’t have to write. It’ll be like an automatic ghost-writer. The hypertext connection will be such that you can always interrupt and say something like, “Grandpa, you just mentioned cars. What was your first car like?”

Moldies are capable of a weird symbiotic fusions with humans. A moldie might form part of itself into a U-bight, clamp onto your perhaps willing neck, sink fine microprobes into your neural masses, and control you directly.

Moldies can in fact merge together, and often do this, when at home in the comfort of their nest. They form nests like the speedfreaks described in Andy Warhol’s book POPISM.

It would be interesting if the nests were underground, like the burrows of the East African naked mole rats, who like termites and bees, have a queen and work together. They are “eusocial.” Colonies with hundreds of individuals all with nearly identical DNA.

A moldie bus is like a hovercraft streetcar that is a single huge jellyfish-like robot. A giant flying jellyfish that flies at a level several inches above the street. They don’t actually hover, though, they kind of run like horses. But they have whole row of legs, each leg going across, the bottom is corrugated and the corrugations swing forward and backward in a wave-like motion.

Oil can be used for plastics such as flickercladding that makes up the moldies’ bodies. The moldies would like to absolutely forbid that oil be made into gasoline and burned. The stuff is too valuable for plastic. For a moldie, burning oil is considered on a par with using human blood to make blood-sausage.

Perpendicular time, with its other order of reality—the sensation that there are other creatures around, that they are the little fast flashes that you see out of the corner of your eye sometimes.

Pornography is always the first private use for any new media technology.

Robots who do well get something like a publishing contract. Lots of copies of them are made and sold. The more servile and agreeable robots are the ones who get copied. The more independent robots look down on them. “So why not?” says a servile robot. “At least I’m getting copied.”

Soccer—The joy of controlling a rolling sphere. Programming—the joy of controlling a machine. Could a soccer ball or a shoe sole be a computer? The object is computing as an elastic mass, and is probably programmable. But how? How to program limpware? You would convince it to do something? The limpware learns by sweatlodge-type techniques?

Strange quarkbags are something femtotechnology might be good for making. As described in “The Search for Strange Matter,” in the January, 1994, Scientific American, most matter is made of protons and neutrons, and these particles can in turn be thought of as little bags filled with quarks. There are (at least) three kinds of quark: up, down, and strange. A proton is a bag holding two up quarks and one down quark, while a neutron is a bag with two down quarks and one up quark. Ordinarily you can’t have more than three quarks in a bag together. But if one of the quarks is strange, it throws off the exclusion principle. Like a slight flaw in tiling a wall leads to a fault that runs through a big pattern before it can repeat. Quarkbags can have just about any mass.

So now suppose there are atoms with quarkbags at their center. And suppose there is a chemistry for these atoms. Chemistry would now be kind of chaotic, with different rules in different places.

I have an image of Toontown. Like an ashtray is zapped with strange quarks, you like spray a spraycan of strange quarks onto a boomerang-shaped white plastic ashtray and now it starts warping and flexing because it’s now made of strange quarkbag matter.

The technology for effecting these changes would be of course femtotechnology; given that a nucleus is about 20 femtometers, it seems likely that an individual quark might be about a femtometer in size.

Uvvies are universal viewers, devices which have wholly replaced the television, the telephone, and the personal computer. An uvvy is about the size of an old telephone handset, and like most of 2053s intelligent devices it is designed around a small limpware processing unit: a DIM.

Wormholes might be places where the scientific equations can’t work, or maybe even inside the sun, or inside strange quarkbag matter. There might be wormholes and quarkbags hiding inside the sun. In wormholes there are energy densities such that, say, a thousand decimal places are meaningful for the real numbers involved—Planck’s downer of like only thirty decimal places being meaningful is out of the picture here, provided that these wormholes are somehow inside Planck’s constant. In here, even the simplest of physical processes effects are using laws with nonlinear equations of, say, the fiftieth degree. And like changing the four-hundredth digit in the decimal expansion of the coefficient of the thirty-eighth-power term will throw your process into a wholly different basin of attraction leading to a wholly different strange attractor. And the guys are trying to hack this rule, and they can’t, so they use genetic algorithms to search the huge parameter space, and then…

Note on “Tech Notes Towards a Cyberpunk Novel”

Written 1994.

Appeared as “18 Tech Notes Toward a Cyberpunk Novel” in Mondo 2000, Summer, 1994.

Whenever I’m working on a novel, I maintain a parallel “Notes” document where I write down, among other things, technology ideas. Most of the ideas in this excerpt were in my notes for Freeware, and many of them ended up in that novel. Others ended up in my novels Realware and Saucer Wisdom. But I felt these fragments took on a nice energy when sorted like this.

The formats of this piece and the next one were inspired by Bruce Sterling’s memorable “Twenty Evocations” of 1984.

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Alien Contact (With Marc Laidlaw)

Rudy’s Part

What is an alien? In science-fiction, just about anything can be an alien. The man from the saucer, the woman from the cloud of light, the child from the pod, the ape, the saurian, the squid, the bug, the machine, the lava, and the vegetable—all of these have been science-fictionally imagined into alien beings.

The word “person” comes from the Latin per + son, meaning through + sound. A “person” was originally a mask through which an actor would speak, so by extension, a person is any entity through which a mind speaks. Each and every aspect of the world can be imaginatively regarded as a “person,” and any person can be imagined to be “alien.”

What exactly is it that makes a person an alien? I think the characteristic feature of our fictional aliens is that they are acting on plans and purposes wholly other than ours. The alien mythos is a dramatized restatement of this basic existential fact: others exist. A childish person is barely able to grasp that there is any consciousness other than his or hers. But one day, with a terrified snort of surprise, Birgit (say) realizes that Sylvester is actually a person. A conscious entity. A startled grazing cow snaps up her head. Snort?!?

In fiction we like to add a second, yet more alarmed snort of surprise—Birgit realizes that not only is Sylvester conscious, he is in fact interested in goals wholly other than she. Perhaps he is a flesh-eating zombie, or a cunning robot simulacrum. Snort! He has a mind. Double snort! His mind is unlike mine.

Snort! The lamp on my table has consciousness! Double snort! But it’s not human! Do I now flee from my lamp? Or shall I worship it?

Fear or worship of aliens are both false solutions. Fear of aliens stems out of a self-centeredness so strong as to produce a terror of the other. And worship of aliens is a self-abasing, masochistic response stemming from a desire for annihilation and a terror of the self.

The lampshade quivers gently. Sharing in the undivided Divinity operating within everything, my lamp is surely alive. It knows things. It knows how to turn on and off, and it knows how to fall off the table. It knows knows gravity and it knows electricity. Dear lamp, it’s nice to have you here. Thank you for existing.

If that sounds close to worship, I suppose its true that I do have a touch of the odd desire for annihilation, a yen for the mystical merge into the Cosmic One, a touch of self-loathing. It’s hard work being alive, and some days I’d be more than willing to have the aliens take me away. But wait! A small door in the base of my lamp is opening…

Alien contact stories are easy to think up. Let’s imagine a few of them:

Here comes a jabbering little green man with soft antennae on his bald head. His name is Xqzwjk and he’s wearing a gold diaper. His flying saucer is the size of a car, and it has a transparent dome on it. Screech, he lands on a beach and meets Birgit in a bikini. Earth women are beautiful! “Take me to your leader…later!” goes Xqzwjk, jumping into her arms and snuggling against her breasts. Oh, oh, here come a policeman! Xqzwjk draws a raygun out of his diaper; the gun’s barrel is podshaped with radiator fins. Zing! The policeman’s clothes disappear; he runs off yelling. Birgit spreads out her blanket and unpacks her picnic-basket. Xqzwjk bites into an apple. Slobber, slobber. He can’t believe the wonder of it. Birgit shows Xqzwjk the apple’s seeds. All right! He gives Birgit a giant diamond and flies home to be a fruit-farmer.

Ricky roams a night meadow with his dog. Big light solarizes him; something like a giant chandelier is right overhead! A mothership! The dog barks like crazy while a magic beam draws Ricky up into the ship. He’s met by lipless big-eyed folks in silver overalls. One of them has long hair. His/her name is Symphony. S/he takes Ricky off into a little room with a bed and pulls down his trousers. Ricky’s face blurs in ecstasy as he delivers a semen sample into Symphony’s three-fingered hands. Later he wakes, alone at home in sticky sheets.

High in translunar orbit floats a supernally ancient craft. Klaatu and Tuulka, the craft’s sole inhabitants for lo these three thousand years, hang watchfully in the weightless cabin. They have hugely domed craniums and tiny little hands with no fingernails. Their cabin walls are lined with TV monitors, all showing scenes of everyday Earth life. Politicians, office-workers, lovers. “They are fools, Tuulka,” hisses baleful Klaatu. “Yes,” singsongs happy Tuulka, “but they are beautiful fools.” “I think it is time we put an end to these beautiful fools,” rasps Klaatu, AND PRESSES A BUTTON! The screens flare…

Professor Bradley and Pedro hack the last vines from the entrance-way to the lost temple. “Beware of the Great Old One,” say the hieroglyphs on the door, but Pedro smashes the door open with a boulder. The Prof throws in a flare to light the interior. Error. The Great Old One is a giant squid from another dimension, voraciously carnivorous and able to fly. The temple’s stones slide aside like grains of sand as the Great Old One rises. Hugely quivering, it hangs over Pedro and the Prof, who fire futile rounds from their puny pistols. Now the Great Old One’s tentacles snag Pedro and its pearly beak bites off Pedro’s head. The trans-dimensional squid drains every drop from Pedro’s bod. The Professor stumbles off in horror, while jungle parrots scream and flap away…

Kenny Dugan, senior pilot, exchanges some cozy banter with Barb, his chief stewardess. Suddenly the plane’s controls go haywire and a formation of screaming silver fried-egg-shapes whips past. “Kenny!” gasps Barb. “Did you see?” Kenny gets on the radio, but no one believes him! Twenty minutes later, the the fried-eggs’ energy rays have reduced our nation’s capital to rubble. “Why, Kenny, why?” sobs Barb as they circle over the ruined city. Kenny sighs and sets his jaw. “I don’t know, Barb. It’s just—did you ever dig up an anthill?”

Ron and Conrad, college roomies, are walking back to their dorm. Their path is wide and sloping, lined with stately elms. It is after dusk; there’s a big moon on the horizon. Ron becomes agitated, “Conrad, what is that thing up there?” Conrad: “That’s the moon, pinhead.” Ron: “I’ve never seen the moon like that. It’s too low, it’s too orange.” Conrad : “That’s because—” He breaks into a lurid scream as the great yellow “moon” darts forward and gobbles them up.

Wimp ‘n’ Dweeb hunch over a large computer screen, faces lit by the flickering light. “What do you mean, you can’t exit this program?” asks Wimp. “How about if I cut the power?” Wimp touches the switch and a surge of electricity turns his head into a smoking black skull. The machine’s speaker crackles. “Listen well, flesher, to what you must do.” Dweeb’s glasses glint as he nods his fealty.

Keiko the pearldiver has been noticing something strange about the dolphins. They watch her in a new way, sly and knowing. Perhaps it has something to do with the nuclear sub accident?

Joe the janitor has been noticing something strange about the monkeys in the lab. They watch him in a new way, as if silently amused. Perhaps it has something to do with the experimental brain-drugs?

Geraldine the housewife has been noticing something strange about her husband Marc. He watches her in a new way, cold and alien. Perhaps it has something to do with what happened at the séance?

Snort! It’s conscious! Double snort! It’s other!

The U.S. immigration service calls people from other countries “aliens,” but they’re not really. They’re conscious all right, but they’re not very other. Even if someone’s idea of a fancy dinner might be a ringshaped pan full of gray water floating fishballs, tentacles, and congelation of striped goo, he or she is still, after all, primarily interested primarily in food, shelter, sex, and the possibility of raising children—just like me.

It’s actually pretty hard to have a human be a convincing alien. The Consciousness part is easy, but the Otherness is hard. I guess the feeblest attempts at aliens I’ve ever seen are the sponge-heads on the 1989 TV show “Alien Nation.” These are whitebread folks without an ounce of Otherness in them. The main character’s a TV cop, for God’s sake. The Cosby family is more Other than these guys.

If you start out with a nonhuman “person,” the Otherness comes almost automatically. Here it’s the Consciousness part that’s hard to pull off. The most extreme failure at suggesting Other Consciousness I’ve ever seen was in a particularly psychotronic “Outer Limits” episode where a man and his wife are terrorized by…tumbleweeds. The tumbleweeds do nothing whatsoever. They simply lie there in a pile on the black and white videotape. Certainly they are Other, but no matter how hard the music thrums, it’s hard to believe they have Consciousness.

Since they are so often imagined as complex machines, UFOs are much easier to invest with Consciousness. And since they are presumably Not Of This Earth, they are Other as well—unless, as so often happens, we fill them with silver-overalled sex-freaks. What’s the story on UFOs anyway? They’re tailor-made for science-fiction exploitation of course, but how come so many people really and literally believe in them?

The most interesting book on UFOs I know of is the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung’s Flying Saucers : A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press), first published in German in 1958. The book resulted from a short newspaper article about UFOs which Jung wrote in 1954. In this article, Jung says:

“So far only on thing is certain: it is not just a rumor, something is seen. What is seen may in individual cases be a subjective vision (or hallucination), or, in the case of several observers seeing it simultaneously, a collective one. A psychic phenomenon of this kind would, like a rumor, have a compensatory significance, since it would be a spontaneous answer of the unconscious to the present conscious situation, i.e., to fears created by an apparently insoluble political situation which might at any moment lead to a universal catastrophe. At such times men’s eyes turn to heaven for help, and marvelous signs appear from on high, of a threatening or reassuring nature. (The “round” symbols are particularly suggestive, appearing nowadays in many spontaneous fantasies directly associated with the threatening world situation.)”

Over the next four years this cautious statement was repeatedly picked up by the international press, who often presented Jung as an “eminent saucer believer.” When Jung issued denials of this, he was ignored. Struck by the readiness of the press to print pro-UFO stories rather than anti-UFO stories, Jung began to muse on the question of why it should be more desirable for saucers to exist than not, and his musings led to Flying Saucers : A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.

The book begins with the observation that we are in the midst of a great historical “changes in the constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or “gods” as they used to be called, which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting transformations of the collective psyche.” The objective fact is that we do now have a modern myth of flying saucers. But are the saucers physically real? Jung distinguishes three possibilities: 1) yes, there are real saucers which are the basis of our myths about them, 2) no, saucers are a just a shared mental archetype which produces our UFO visions, or 3) although saucer sightings are caused by a shared mental archetype, physical saucers do happen to physically exist as well, and this double causation is an example of cosmic synchronicity.

“Archetypes” are not really so complicated as one might think. As I point out in my book Mind Tools (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) archetypes are meant to be minimally simple concepts. Small numbers like one, two, three and four are archetypes. Two, for instance, is the archetype of Otherness, of Sexuality, and of Opposition—nothing more intricate than the basic idea of two things. In Jung’s opinion, the saucer or the UFO is an instance of the Circle archetype. The Circle suggests Unity, Wholeness, and—due to its mandala shape—Balance. The Circle also suggests the Egg and the idea of Health. In the cold war 1950s, it was common for political cartoonists to show the earth as cracked in two by superpower tensions. Some of these tensions remain, but today’s ecological fears for the Earth are better summed up in the image of a dirty, scarred planet wrapped in plastic and covered with toxic sores. An unblemished celestial disk is a perfect antidote to either of these unhappy visions.

When he speaks of “synchronicity,” Jung expresses his belief that he universe is endowed with overall holistic patterns that do not arise from chains of cause and effect. The old religious view of a world made all at once by a wise Creator is a synchronistic world-view: in God’s created world, all the parts are set into harmonious motion together, and wonderful coincidences are everywhere. The mechanistic steam-age physics of the nineteenth century led away from this concept, but today’s quantum mechanical worldview fairly convincingly validates synchronicity, at least on a small scale. It is indeed in the nature of our world that coincidences do happen more often than mere probability would suggest.

For a science-fiction writer, Jung’s third option is of course the sexiest. In this viewpoint, saucers are real, but our sightings of them have no causal connection with them. Our UFO sightings are produced, as one would rationally expect, by our need for Unity and Health. Yet the divine synchronicity of the Cosmos has brought it about that real saucer-like objects are actually present. Even though the UFO believers are fantasizing, there really is something there! Ian Watson’s fascinating UFO novel, Miracle Visitors, has a field day with these notions.

Flying Saucers : A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies is a prolonged meditation on the psychic significance of people’s seeing UFOs. Jung speaks of these sightings as an instance of a “visionary rumor,” comparable to the collective vision of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal. In our fear and psychic need, we hope for help from superior beings, yet many of us have lost any faith in the traditional angels and Gods. As members of a technological civilization, it is natural for us to imagine help from above coming in the form of superior beings in wonderful machines.

But why must UFOs come from the sky? Jung makes this interesting point:

“Today, as never before, men pay an extraordinary amount of attention to the skies, for technological reasons. This is especially true of the airman, whose field of vision is occupied on the one hand by the complicated control apparatus before him, and on the other by the empty vastness of cosmic space. His consciousness is concentrated one-sidedly on details requiring the most careful observation, while at his back, so to speak, his unconscious strives to fill the illimitable emptiness of space. Such a situation provides the ideal conditions for spontaneous psychic phenomena…”

The ultimate experience with a Conscious Other is, of course, the religious experience. Yet many of us are so ill-prepared to deal with the religious concepts of unity and wholeness, that we interpret a desire for religion in terms of sex and power. It is no wonder that so many UFO encounters have a sexual component, or that UFOs are so often thought of as being invaders intent on conquest. In Jung’s opinion, UFOs are first and foremost projections of our desires for a healthy world and a union with God. But as “civilized” people under the thrall of factory technology, we imagine these UFO images to be machines filled with people interested in power and sex.

Jung ends his book by advocating the third of the possibilities mentioned above:

“It seems to me—speaking with all due reserve—that there is a third possibility: that UFOs are real material phenomena of an unknown nature, presumably coming from outer space, which perhaps have long been visible to mankind, but otherwise have no recognizable connection with earth or its inhabitants. In recent times, however, and just at the moment when the eyes of mankind are turned towards the heavens, partly on account of their fantasies about possible space-ships, and partly in a figurative sense because their earthly existence is threatened, unconscious contents have projected themselves on these inexplicable heavenly phenomena and given them a significance they in no way deserve. Since they seem to have appeared more frequently after the second World War than before, it may be that they are synchronistic phenomena or “meaningful coincidences.” The psychic situation of mankind and the UFO phenomenon as a physical reality bear no recognizable causal relationship to one another, but they seem to coincide in a meaningful manner. The meaningful connection is the product on the one hand of projection and on the other of round and cylindrical forms which embody the projected meaning and have always symbolized the union of opposites.”

In other words, there really may be things in the sky, but they are neither flying machines from other planets, nor giant apparitions of the Virgin Mary, nor winged horses bearing bearded gods. A belief in saucer aliens is qualitatively no different from belief in ghosts and goblins. Perhaps it does indeed make sense to suppose that such spirits crowd around us—and I’ll return to this question below—but we need to understand that scientifically plausible extra-terrestrial beings (ETs) have nothing to do with UFOs.

So what about ETs? When one looks at the size of the universe and the diversity of the life-forms here on Earth, it seems overwhelmingly likely that living creatures must exist elsewhere. Life is, after all, nothing more than a self-sustaining information process which feeds off the existence of an energy gradient. With stars scattered about space as they are, energy gradients are everywhere, as are the specks of matter which can carry and process information.

The world is a huge, chaotic computation, and what we call living beings are small vortex-like attractors in the great flow. The matter of my body changes constantly; all that persists is the pattern that is me. I am a chaotic attractor, drawing particles into the orbits which make up my body. The same is true of animals and plants, of course, and one might regard things like tornadoes, sunspots, or active computer programs as equally vivacious. A life is an individualized process which lasts for a while. Such a life is intelligent to the extent that it reacts to stimuli in repeatable (but perhaps not exactly repeatable) ways.

In such a broad and vague view of life, one can readily regard things like the sun or the galaxy as alive in their own right; and intelligent as well. But if the sun is intelligent, why doesn’t talk to us? Well, we’re intelligent, but we don’t talk to ants. The problem is that we, ants, and the sun have no common interests. We have nothing to talk about. Like you’re on a double date with an ant, the sun, and maybe a tree—what do you talk about? The ant waves its feelers, the tree opens blossoms, the sun sends out a solar prominence, and you…you say, “Where do you want to eat?”

Of course the extraterrestrials we really want to find are creatures something like ourselves. Lizards, sure, or squids, or bugs or rats, maybe—let’s not be simian chauvinists—but at least our sought-after ETs should be about our size and live about the same speed we do. Science fiction is filled with planets full of these guys, building their cities, fighting their wars, mating, eating, and so on. No one has written more entertainingly about these kinds of aliens than Robert Sheckley.

The kicker in Sheckley’s alien stories is always that the aliens are some kind of inversion or caricature of human beings—and this is true of all the other science-fiction aliens. Once this fact sinks in, we realize that most of our speculations about ETs are incredibly culture-bound. Radio-communication by modulated electromagnetic signals of a certain wavelength is something that we take as so natural that we assume that ETs would also use radio. Our best hope for detecting ETs is to scan the radio-crackle of the sky. But is this really so reasonable? Radio has been around for less than a century here, on a planet that is billions of years old. Why would ETs everywhere use radio forever? Why not gravity waves or quarkon flux?

People labor under the chronic illusion that the present moment is the apex and culmination of all past history. Every now and then the world changes, and we realize that nothing is eternal—not even the Berlin Wall. No matter how hard we push our fantasizing about ETs, we are doomed only to hold up funhouse mirrors of ourselves. The chances of ETs flying here in a metal rocketship are about as great as them arriving on a horse or on a wooden boat.

Why am I being such a wet blanket? I guess its because I think talk of UFOs and ETs distracts the mind from the true wonder of the actual world. I don’t want the gee-whiz, what-if world, I want the world that I see every morning. I want it to matter, and I want it to be interesting, just as it is, here and now. I don’t want to have to believe in a lot of fairy tales to see the wonder. If aliens are worth thinking about, I want to see them here and now.

Consider another computer analogy. With any given machine there’s a certain upper limit to how rapidly you can get it to create and display new graphic images. If I think of the world around me as a kind of computation, its also true that there’s a certain upper limit to how rapidly information can be fed to me—at least in a format which I can understand. My brain is, if you will, a certain kind of information display device, capable of so-and-so many colors and so-and-so many windows at such-and-such a bandwidth. Being in a pressure suit talking to green squid on a methane moon wouldn’t increase my upper bounds. The squids wouldn’t really be much stranger than the people in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert anyway. All the weirdness and alienness I’m capable of perceiving is already somewhere here on this planet.

My basic feeling about alien contact is that every minute of every day is a veritable fugue of alien contact. I think other people are aliens, I think animals are aliens, I think objects are aliens, I think the laws of nature are aliens, and I even think that thoughts are aliens. I’ve always been a very alienated guy. I had an unhappy childhood. I was having such a bad time growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, that my parents sent me off to a boarding school in Germany for a year. I didn’t know German. In the spring it rained a lot and all the puddles were full of yellow dust. I thought it was fallout, I thought there had been a nuclear war and nobody had told me. It wouldn’t have surprised me if a saucer had come to pick me up. Youthful dreams of glory.

Although science-fiction provokes wonder, it can also cancel wonder. If you spend all your time staring at the sky thinking, “If only, if only,” always waiting for the big ships to land, well if you do that then you don’t notice the field you’re standing in, the odd insects in the grass, the peculiar shapes of the grass seeds, the funny shape—if you ever stop to really look at it—the funny shape of your hand, and especially the funny shape of your foot, like if you straighten the foot out and look at the way the heel bulges out…odd, very odd.

I dig UFO novels more, actually, than space opera. Because space opera is really so quite essentially bogus because like maybe there really ISN’T any hyperdrive, and we really WILL always be pretty much confined to this planet and environs. Of course sooner or later we can send a generation starship, or send out our DNA in spores, but it may very well be really true that no individual human is ever going to be able to travel out to the stars and come back and tell about it.

I spent a lot of years thinking if only, and now I’m ready to forget that bogus trip. I’m ALREADY visiting a weird planet with colorful flora and fauna. My dog’s name is Arf. He’s so smart he can say his own name, and he’s so famous all the other dogs talk about him. Small chitinous parasitic animals live in the forests of his hair. He chews himself, producing scabs, and the fleas get under the edges of the scabs like our early simian ancestors got under ledges of rock. Simian males stick erectile tubes into self-lubricating little holes between the simian females’ legs whenever possible, depositing semi-autonomous creaturelets capable of merging with creaturelets of the females’ own growing, this merger producing a biochemical program for growing a new simian. No metal is involved, save for those few atoms that are used as chelation agents in the information structures. I mean, is this planet bizarre or what?

Sociobiologists have pointed out that a human can be thought of either as 1) a big meat machine for making copies of its DNA, or 2) a big computer for storing and replicating ideas. Gene carriers or meme carriers.

Memes? When I said earlier that ideas are aliens, I wasn’t really kidding. William Burroughs likes to say “the word is a virus,” and Laurie Anderson made a song out of it. Ideas make us do things. We teach our children how to read the old thoughts, we teach them the algorithms for how to do our algebra. It’s not a simple thing to program a raw computing system to do algebra. But we program ourselves to do it. Can you imagine trying to design a system for adding numbers inside the chaotic neural network of a wet human brain? God, Earth life is gnarly.

It’s always seemed odd to me how little information exchange we’ve achieved with elephants, dolphins and whales. They have bigger brains than we do, and they sing weird songs, so its safe to assume that their brains are storing and generating information structures at least as complex as the structures that we fiddling monkeys use. But nobody seems to be able to get much of a conversation going with elephants or dolphins or whales. John Lilly used to try to do it, but it seems like all that came of his attempts was that some of his female assistants gave the dolphins hand-jobs (alien contact!) and then Lilly got strung-out on ketamine and lost it.

Why would be be able to talk to mucus-oozing methane slugs when we can’t even talk to elephants? Do you see elephants coding up bitstrings of prime numbers and beaming them out to us as radio waves? So why would the squids in NGC 69 be doing it?

Ah, yes…but what if they ARE?

Marc’s Part

The term “SETI” sounds suspiciously like a Government acronym, something you’d find in a list with NASA, NORAD, OSHA or IRS. Most people, first encountering the term, probably wonder where it is. Is it a big grey building in Washington, D.C., or maybe a hundred miles of tunnels under Idaho, buzzing with civil servants and scientists in pale green overalls?

But SETI isn’t localized anywhere. SETI is a concept, an idea in the minds of scientists and layfolk alike…particularly a dream of “Searchers.” The letters stand for the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” Which is not to say that SETI doesn’t exist outside the imaginations of all these starry-eyed (and radiowavy-eared) seekers.

In fact, the 1990s will inevitably be the decade in which SETI becomes a household word. In the 80’s we were glued periodically to our televisions, waiting for the latest images from Voyager—but now that wanderer is heading far into the dark, with all our hopes and fears rushing out ahead of it, restlessly anticipating what waits for us out there. And while Voyager glides into a realm where its eyes won’t be of much use, the rest of us will be waiting for sounds from space.

Currently, NASA is engaged in a project that will make the name SETI familiar to the millions of taxpayers who search for nothing more improbable than a good TV movie. Instead of the ten or twenty channels they’re used to searching, the public will soon be introduced to the concept of a search over 8 million channels. Talk about channel-hopping!

NASA’s pet SETI project, planned to be in full swing by the middle of the decade, will center around a three hundred meter antenna situated in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Coupled with the efforts of the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, and the observations of radio telescopes all over the world, NASA will be searching for extraterrestrial broadcasts in frequencies yet untapped, and with a thoroughness (8 million channels!) never before approached. You can be sure that at the first faint peep of anything suspiciously like an intelligent message, or even a good false alarm, your cozy viewing of Wheel of Fortune will be interrupted by a message like this one:

“From Puerto Rico, NASA scientists announce definite proof that aliens from outer space are blasting Earth-teens with subliminal messages to give up playing Nintendo and work on their Boy Scout merit badges. That story, and results of the Monopoly championship, at eleven.”

As with any massive effort, the NASA program’s size will ensure equally sizeable obstacles. Among its limitations, the Arecibo antenna will search a targeted band of stars near the celestial equator. Just as the drive to build enormous superconductors has robbed smaller and perhaps more important physics projects of money and human interest, so the increasingly huge bureaucratic ears of government SETI projects may end up causing smaller but equally valuable programs to wither in their shade. The fact is, even the scientists admit the value of amateur collaboration. With about $3,000 worth of equipment—including a TV dish satellite and personal computer—the enthusiastic amateur can engage in a SETI program of his own, to complement the larger endeavors, and fill in the gaps they’re unable to reach.

When it comes to SETI, the equipment may change according to the size of the pocket-book, but ultimately the challenge is the same for everyone. We don’t know exactly what we’re listening for, and whatever we hear, it’s going to be new to all of us. The riddle of actual contact is anyone’s game.

In communicating with other humans, we may puzzle endlessly over the meaning of the message and the intentions of its sender, but we never doubt for an instant that the sender is another human being like ourselves, and in some sense comprehensible despite differences in upbringing and motivation. The intelligence expert deciphering a cryptogram, the archaeologist working over cuneiforms, know that those seemingly unintelligible bursts of sound or weirdly chiseled characters represent meaningful human thoughts. The message might be an Edward Lear poem, in itself nonsensical, but this nonsense is defined in human terms. We understand that the song of the owl and the pussycat is not an actual description of an historic expedition, a cooperative endeavor between feline and avian species. But what would an alien race think of this message? Would they search the skies for beautiful pea-green spaceboats? How much more baffling to us would be the poems of an alien Lear; what sort of meanings would we read into them without even realizing? We are so literal-minded, so generally lacking in a sense of humor (especially when it comes to immense projects involving the investment of billions of dollars and years of effort) that the sublime messages of a truly advanced civilization might simply go right over our heads. This, as in any human endeavor, is where the little guy must step in.

When I was a boy I read a book called The Flight of the Monarch. It detailed the migration habits of the common Monarch butterfly, as the brittle little brown-and-orange creatures endured amazing hardship on their trek across the United States and Mexico, over sea and land. At the back of the book was an invitation for junior entomologists to take part in the ongoing efforts of scientists to label and track the hardy Monarch. I sent away for a jar of tiny gummed labels and proceeded to capture all the Monarchs I could in my back yard, holding them carefully as the book instructed, licking the little labels like postage stamps, and gluing them carefully to the fragile wings. Once released, I never saw any of them again, and I never captured a butterfly that had previously been tagged. Yet I had an amazing sense of fulfillment and participation; I was taking part in a scientific effort much vaster than myself and the few butterflies that strayed across my narrow Louisville horizon. Someone, somewhere, might have captured one of those tagged butterflies and sent the news to Monarch Central.

Likewise, the amateur listener can get involved in SETI, albeit with an investment somewhat larger than the postage stamps I spent to get my gummed labels. Free of the restrictions of a huge listening post, and unconcerned with quotas and paper-pushing that occupy so much of the time of workers in any large operation, and equally free of the dogma and assumptions that restrain the professional listener, the amateur can bend his ear to the night without preconception. The place of the amateur in astronomy has always been significant, and why should it be any different in SETI research? I believe a multitude of these little ears, operated by enthusiastic mavericks, can do as much as any enormous operation—not only in receiving signals, but in interpreting them. I only hope that the message that finally comes, whoever hears it first, will not be left entirely in the hands of “experts” for interpretation.

There will certainly be lots of room for interpretation. Even instructions for assembling a bicycle can be construed in a variety of ways, depending on the interpretive powers of the reader. An eight year old might discard the instructions altogether and soon have his bike assembled, while his father—laboring literally to connect part A to part B—is still laying out pieces on the floor of the garage. Of course, it helps that the eight year old has more recent practical knowledge of bikes and their working. He would be somewhat more puzzled by instructions on a tax return. What if, in comparison to the civilization that sends a message, we are like that eight year old? What if our first message from space is a cosmic past-due bill, for the cost of all the terraforming and life-seeding that was done to Terra eons ago?

Consider a few of the possible kinds of messages we might have to grapple with. First, as we sharpen our hearing, we might encounter unusual noises that are not messages at all, but merely the inadvertent byproducts of some advanced (or even primitive but huge) organism’s life cycle. What if an alien civilization, perhaps from a gas planet, constructed a highly selective listening technology that could only detect stomach rumblings, flatulence and other airy discharges? How would they interpret the random percolating of our intestines, when they couldn’t hear us complaining that our stomach hurts? How would a robot society interpret the slave-songs of heavy machinery? Would a vegetable race be more sensitive to the metallic screech of chainsaws, or to the subtler wail of a dying rainforest?

Presuming that the message we receive actually is a message, and not a cosmic fart, then we must interpret the meaning of “message” itself. Why assume that creatures with a technology similar to ours would share our preoccupations with scientific exchange? It only takes a slight tweaking of our own culture to imagine Hollywood in charge of a SETI program. A thousand light years away, this tweak might already have happened. We may receive messages that are in effect alien entertainments. In fact, we might not be able to receive these messages until we fork out a deposit for the galactic equivalent of cable installation. There may be some free concerts being broadcast by the Milky Way Public Broadcasting System, but with humankind’s luck we’d probably tune in during a pledge drive or auction….

Such “messages” might be the alien civilization’s equivalent of night music, a symphony. We could spend decades trying to unravel the complex symmetries of a “message” that is nothing more (not to deride its beauty) than a cosmic fugue, a sculpture made of signals, art for art’s sake. Or these messages might be a form more similar to prose than to music, with layer upon layer of meaning, from a superficial “plot” to an underlying philosophy, each level leading to the next, and open—like all great art—to infinite interpretation and resonance. How would a bureaucratic listening-post possibly deal with a message of infinite subtlety? Imagine the CIA poring over Finnegan’s Wake looking for clues to troop and ship movements. It would take a mind as agile as Joyce’s to perceive a fraction of the subtle meanings and alien puns in such a message.

It has been said that the occult writings of the Renaissance mathematician, philosopher and master cryptographer John Dee were actually coded messages to Queen Elizabeth, reporting on the activities of Spain. (In fact, one of his more cryptic communications helped the Queen’s agents apprehend Spanish saboteurs before they could set fire to England’s ship-building forests.) Others insist that these are spiritual writings with no political content. Over a distance of a few hundred years, no one can really be sure. What sort of interpretative uncertainties would creep in over distances of a million light years, and over the spans of time that pass before a message leaving a distant planet reaches the Earth? Signal degradation alone would be troublesome unless carefully corrected; how can we be sure the message we receive bears any resemblance to the one that was sent? What if some mischief-maker intervened to physically alter the message en route?

And speaking of occult messages, there is no real reason to believe that our distant correspondents would be quite as obsessed with the separation of science and sectarianism as we are. In fact their technology might be controlled by priests. Earth’s evangelists have been quick to harness terrestrial media to their own ends; it’s not too hard to imagine Jerry Falwell starting up his own version of SETI for the sake of broadcasting Moral Majority beliefs. Is it any harder to imagine that the first loud messages we receive from space might be evangelical in nature? If we are not careful, we might not recognize these messages as religious; in contravention of Clarke’s Dictum, they might seem to us like superscience. We could find ourselves pledging our planetary resources to an Andromedan 700 Light-Year Club in hopes of a Great Reward that doesn’t apply to Earthlings. And if we eventually get past the evangelists to meet the rest of the culture, those others might consider us hopeless boobs for taking the alien religious tracts as gospel. Even if we were quick to realize the nature of these messages, what then? Would we hide, or slam the door on the cosmic messengers, the way some people do when they see Jehovah’s Witnesses coming up the street?

All this speculation supposes an optimistically noisy universe, one in which we eventually find ourselves bombarded with signals—or at least one, which would be far noisier than the zero we now perceive. This brings up the problem of the “Great Silence.” Given a universe liberally scattered with stars and planets, and a high potential for intelligent life, why do we hear nothing? Can we really be so alone?

Have you ever walked out into the woods and stood perfectly still for ten minutes? At first everything sounds so peaceful and quiet…but after ten minutes, the woods become raucous with sounds of life. What made the place seem so quiet was you. Crickets chirp until someone approaches; as soon as the intruder passes away or quiets down, they start up again. Could the same thing be happening in our sector of space? Perhaps the signals we send out are inherently frightening to the gentler intelligences in the universe, and like those crickets they hold down their voices until they’re sure we’ve passed on. It might be instructive for us to attempt a period of “radio silence,” in which rather than send our cries into the night, we simply sit quietly and open our ears. Perhaps after awhile we’ll hear those crickets starting up again…though it might be a long while, probably far too long a while for impatient humans. Even more deceptive would be to fake our planet’s destruction, establish total silence, then hide out and see who comes to investigate and pick through the ruins. Advanced civilizations might erect “blinds” like those naturalists use to observe wildlife without interfering. Perhaps we are being observed even now. We could erect blinds of our own as we go out into the dark, so that we can creep up silently and let our first encounter come about only after we have had time to gather information and gauge our position.

These scenarios assume, in an unpleasant way, that we are somehow “different” from the rest of life in the universe, if there is any. In a way this is typical human neurosis. I prefer to think that the sound of our planet would be attractive, or at least interesting, rather than frightening to other civilizations. We arose from natural conditions, we are part of nature’s web; there really are no aliens in the universe. We all belong here. Like the crickets, it is natural for us to cry out the news and weather, with comments on life in our vicinity and life in general. But this optimism makes the concept of the Great Silence even more distressing. What could be more natural among intelligent living things than curiosity? Are we to imagine that the rest of the universe is populated, if at all, with species that are intelligent but just not interested? Can there be intelligence without curiosity? Human behavior suggests there can. Still, it seems inevitable that if there is intelligent life out there, and if it has the ability, it will be looking for other life, and as soon as it hears us it will either respond or else slyly investigate before responding.

Of course, it might all be a matter of timing. We might have attained our peak of intelligence and technology just at a moment when the great galactic civilizations have either lapsed, or have not quite yet arisen. The distances of space and time that surround us are immense. Any message we receive will necessarily endure some time-lag—and most likely will be more ancient than our oldest fragments of prehistoric human culture. In fact, first contact may not involve any interaction: we could receive a message for which there is no hope (and no point) of reply. Some might say that such a one-way contact would be unrewarding—yet this is precisely the nature of our contact with our own past. We investigate the lives of our forebears without ever communicating with them. Our listening activities seem like nothing so much as archaeology. In plumbing the depths of space we are in fact reaching into the past, sorting through ancient signals and survivals. We have yet to discover even fossil evidence of alien life preserved among the strata of emissions that we currently sift. Perhaps we need a net with a finer mesh and a broader sweep to catch such “fossils.” It is fortunate that unlike terrestrial archaeology, which requires disrupting the earth and perhaps destroying the evidence we seek, cosmic archaeology is a highly ecological and conservative activity. What could be more passive than listening?

Not so with sending. It is inconceivable that one of our outward-bound messages could be received without causing some disruption and upset elsewhere in the universe. Each of our messages leaves a wake, and we have no way of knowing what effects these ripples might have as they brush against a distant planetary shore. Receiving an intelligent extraterrestrial message would have unimaginable effects on Earthly minds—depending on the content of the message, and our interpretations of it. Would things be any different for an alien civilization receiving one of our messages? Suddenly their isolation would be shattered. As they attempted to grasp the news of our existence, their entire way of life might be overturned. Some might want to return the greeting, others could bid for silence (granted, these would be concerns of a civilization nearly like our own). By the time we actually made contact with another culture, the message we sent ahead of ourselves might have altered that culture irremediably. We would never see it in its original state.

What if our language itself proves somehow poisonous to an alien culture? What if it contains inadvertent meme-viruses that cause the destruction of entire portions of an information-based society? The images and messages we cast out so casually might eradicate ancient systems of knowledge and belief. If we sensed that our very existence endangered another species, would we hold ourselves in check until we devised some form of prophylaxis? Human history suggests not. But we must learn caution as a species….

We know how open any message is to misinterpretation. Our own messages must be carefully phrased. The first impression that we make will be difficult to shake. Consider the messages built into Voyager. Samples of music from Bach to Chuck Berry; whale songs; an image of a man and a pregnant woman, the fetus shown in silhouette; a picture of our solar system with the third planet marked for emphasis. A well-rounded picture of terrestrial concerns, right? (Well, maybe of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant concerns. I doubt that Voyager gives quite the picture an Islamic spacecraft would have wished to present to the rest of the universe.)

But even the WASPish Voyager’s messages are really only valid for a little while. Voyager will be drifting for a long, long time. And things have never changed so fast on Earth as in the current century. At this rate of change, who’s to say that any of these things will still be true representations of humanity and its concerns in a thousand years? Two thousand? Ten? The creatures and values portrayed on that spacecraft may seem totally alien to us in a relatively short period of time.

A thousand years from now the niche currently occupied by music may be filled by some technique of synchronized light pulses that cause vibrations deep in the brain, more fulfilling than mere sound. Bach? Chuck Berry? Who are they? Shakespeare was forgotten for many years, and largely owed his renaissance to the self-promotional exertions of the actor David Garrick, who started the first Shakespeare festival, resurrecting the dramas as vehicles for his fame. Nothing is eternally popular. Someday Shakespeare’s name be a footnote to another footnote in the massive scholarly studies of David Garrick. Many of our favorite artists are fated to slide into oblivion over the next few hundred years, and only a fraction of these will ever enjoy a resuscitation of their reputation. Bach and rock alike may well be lost when the world is swept by the next few media and entertainment revolutions. The electric guitar will seem as quaint as a lute.

Man, woman, womb? What will those things mean to our future selves, when we’re all able to fertilize ourselves at will, picking and choosing genetic material from any number of desirable partners or punching out our own on genotypewriters, raising the fetuses in incubators infinitely safer and more efficient than a mammalian body that we’ve already begun to shed in favor of a more durable biometal alloy that really resembles an octopus with numerous handy attachments?

Sure, we may have originated on the third planet, but will we still live there in a thousand years? Won’t whales be extinct?

Other civilizations, judging us by the misleading information carried on Voyager, may consider us a bunch of hypocrites when we finally meet. They may even think we deliberately painted ourselves as a fairly primitive bunch in order to lure in unsuspecting civilizations. And who knows? By that time they might be right. We might really have grown into the galactic predators that have caused a hush in this corner of the universe. The races around us may know the signs better than we do. They may be running for shelter right now, hoping that we don’t spot their taillights and come looking.

It is conceivable that we might be bad news for any civilization that has the dubious pleasure of first contact with us. Again, human history, limited to contact among relatively similar (human) populations, has shown that we are less pioneers than merciless intruders. Even without meaning to, we might infect an alien population with some equivalent of smallpox—like the bacteria that killed H.G. Wells’ Martians. At best, if both cultures make each other sick they will eventually develop the necessary immune response. Over millennia, such illnesses will exert an evolutionary pressure, forcing each race to adapt to the other, perhaps even becoming more similar. In the long run, as we share and shape environments, neither of us will be alien to the other any longer, while both of us might well be unrecognizable to our past selves.

Han Moravec, in Mind Children (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1988), suggests the possibility that an alien message might not represent a culture at all; that the message might itself be the “life form.” Like a virus, it might lie dormant until received by an intelligent culture, at which point it would command that culture to reproduce the message and send it out again multiplied a thousandfold. What human could anticipate such an end result? As Moravec points out, “it is not, in general, possible to deduce the effect of complicated instructions without actually carrying them out.” Yet in following the plans for what looks like a beneficial machine, “the machine…may show no self restraint and fiendishly co-opt all of its host’s resources in its message-sending, leaving behind a dead husk of a civilization.” This view of messages carrying information viruses is more terrifying than death-ray-bearing saucers from the sky, because so realistic, so modern. With recent concern over the threat of viruses infecting computer networks, it is staggering to consider a virus that might be drawn blithely to earth by one of SETI’s ears…a virus that might be lurking even now, encoded in the vast constellations of data waiting to be analyzed, a vampire catfish swimming against the datastream of 8 million channels seeking a cosmic urethra to swim into, there to inflate its poison spines and send its host into agonizing death-throe spasms. Death to Terran Patriarchs!

And yet, one knows from infancy that the universe is not a place merely of terror; there is lasting beauty in it to surpass the moments of fear. A message virus is so simple a thing that in itself it suggests a whole ecology of more complex message-organisms, many of which would be beneficial, and which might well give us the key to transcending the restrictions that currently make it so unlikely that we will ever reach out from our world and make physical contact with alien intelligence. The human organism is based on a composite of creatures that once lived independently; these competitors evolved into collaborators. It stretches the imagination to conceive of collaborating with data-life, but that is the essence of science fiction. What if we could make ourselves part of the messages we send? Then, instead of simply sending our voices out into the night, we could send some part of ourselves; instead of an alien culture receiving an arid cryptogram, subject to endless interpretation, they would also receive a “living” guide who could help them interpret it in terms of their own understanding and background. It is not impossible that as advances are made in artificial intelligence, we will be able to send messages that have a life of their own; messages which assist in their own translation and immediately adapt to their receivers. User-friendly messages. Why not?

Ideally, this would be the best sort of message to receive. Instead of a static read-only message, the equivalent of a page of text or an album side, we would receive a messenger, one that could speak eloquently of its creators, their home world and their culture. A messenger, carrying an encyclopedic knowledge holographically, could answer any of our questions once it adjusted to our particular point of view. It could even, most importantly, tell us things we might never think to ask. After all, the essential ingredient of any real, stimulating communication is surprise: to learn, you must be told things you never knew, otherwise you might as well be talking to yourself. Because in dealing with alien cultures, we have only our own background and concerns to work from. An active, self-intelligent message would be sure to let us know immediately if we were interpreting it incorrectly, through our gawky human blinders and rose-tinted spectacles.

“Shut up and listen!” that alien messenger will finally shout.

And so the scientists at the huge SETI operation sites, and the amateurs at their garage SETI set-ups, will all fall silent. A hush will cover the whole world, a hush to match the silence between the stars. And for the first time in human history, instead of babbling out our own thoughts in the guise of conversation, we might actually listen…and hear something completely unexpected.

Note on “Alien Contact”

Written 1989.

Appeared in Stephen Leigh, Alien Tongue, (Byron Preiss Visual, 1990).

“Alien Contact” was a little hard for me to write. This was one of the rare cases where I was paid for something before having written it. My essay was to serve as an afterword for Stephen Baxter’s SF novel Alien Tongue. I didn’t actually finish reading Baxter’s book, and halfway through writing my afterword I ran out of steam. Without telling the publisher, I split my payment with fellow freestyle SF writer Marc Laidlaw and got him to pen the second half.

I can’t remember if I edited Marc’s section. It does read a lot like something I’d write. But of course Marc is a very good mimic. I’ve even heard him narrate the (imagined) stream of consciousness of a spinning top.

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Phreak Scenes

Bodysurfing. Bodysurfing in Santa Cruz. Go for 14th St. I get better and better at the waves. Today for the first time I was body-surfing waves too big for me after they had broken too far by doing what surfers do, I was cutting them; angling across the face.

Camote. Bikers slitting a moldie just to eat the camote. The really ripe high off a moldie. Eat its nads. Monique is sacrificed hideously. Tre Drietz happens to follow them. Actually he only finds Monique after the fact. Tre sees Monique leave and then he gets a call and finds that some bikers have slit her open for her camote on Four Mile Beach. There even exists a mental video tape of it. I mean an uvvy video; a U-vid. And Monique’s viewpoint is so strange, it’s not like the familiar telerobotic U-view of Monique that Tre is used to.

Chinese. Yesterday a student showed me his calculus book from China to help me decide if he should get transfer credit for Calc I-III. It was so strange to see the familiar kinds of diagrams of surfaces divided into little areas and the dx and dy symbols in the middle of Chinese writing. That could be a Kentucky saying, “It’s harder than a Chinese calculus book!” They think it’s cool to be Chinese, and if you mention it, it makes them happy. The moldies have that attitude too, in spades.

Death. Cobb Anderson was dying again. He was in the Sol-gel Hospital on Mars, the only hospital on Mars. He faded out and when he woke his great-grandson and grandson were leaning over him. What’s going on? asked Cobb. You’re having brain trouble said his grandson Willy. Brain trouble, said Cobb. Brain trouble.

Cobb couldn’t remember anything at all, he would forget who you were as soon as you told him. For his grandson to tell him he had brain trouble there in the hospital, and to feel the reality of it—it was terrifying, crushing, like being thrown right into a movie, a Twilight Zone, only it was real. Imagine some day coming out of a haze and finding your grandchildren with you and you don’t know where you are. You have brain trouble, says one of the grandchildren. Brain trouble.

Gossip. Street conversation, group of three girls right outside Los Perros High School, two talking one listening.

“Isn’t he a stoner and everything?”

“He is NOT a stoner anymore.”

“Well stiyull!”

Helmet. Two days ago I was in the car and I heard the KFJC DJ put on some really wall ‘o’ sound music: Helmet. Rudy Jr. showed their album to me. When he shows me things like that he gets this kind, pitying tone like I used to have explaining new culture things to my father. “Don’t be scared, Da. This is interesting.”

Jabberwocky. Quote from Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of the “Jabberwocky” creatures in Through the Looking Glass:

‘Slithy’ means lithe and slimy…‘toves’ are something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews…‘mimsy’ is flimsy and miserable…and a ‘borogove’ is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop…a ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig…’mome’…is short for ‘from home’—meaning that they’d lost their way, you know…‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle…

Knots. Watching a video about 3-D and 4-D knots that a computer scientist sent me. A silent movie of brightly colored shapes , smooth tubes knotting themselves in ever new shapes. The video would pause now and then showing a straight stick with arrows on it, and then all the arrows would move about and the stick would turn, in some indefinable way, into a knot. The rapidity with which it happened defied a complete understanding. Look at this, the pictures seemed to say, this is important, this is one of the hidden secrets of the world. Slowly sometimes, almost insultingly precise, yet the gimmick of the shift still always somehow eluding me. Look harder and you will understand. The pictures seemed so urgent. What was the meaning?

Lightshow. A guy doing a lightshow based on a MEG scan of his brain. MEG is like PET, I forget what it stands for. Some kind of scan. He just stands there thinking and the audience watches the pretty colored shapes and lights.

Limpware. Mr. Uno had a tidy little limpware terrier called Foxy. One morning he came downstairs. There had been a storm of solar radiation the night before. When Mr. Uno went down to see Foxy in the morning, Foxy had stopped acting like a dog. Foxy was shaped like a little pear resting alertly upright on its fat end.

“Hello,” said Foxy, although Foxy had never talked before. “I’m not your dog anymore, Mr. Uno. Now I am Klaatu Zhang from Planet Sol. Would you like me to fetch something?”

“Well, I’d like a Ferrari,” said Mr. Uno.

Mr. Uno’s limpware robot, now known as Klaatu Zhang, bounced down the hill outside Mr. Uno’s house, and soon there came sliding up the street a big pancake of goo—that is, Foxy/Klaatu—with on top of it a bright new red Ferrari Testosterosso worth five billion dollars.

“Yaaaar!” said Mr. Uno.

“Yar!” answered the helpful limpware pancake which Mr. Uno had bought for only fifty-seven thousand dollars.

Walking up after the Ferrari came the manager of the dealership.

This won’t do, Mr. Uno,” said the manager to Mr. Uno. “You’re Bob, innit? Bob, what the hell you tryin’ to pull?”

“Oh, it’s just that I told my dog to fetch a Ferrari. I didn’t realize he could.”

“Cute,” said the manager, getting into the Ferrari. “You asshole.” He fired up the big engine and peeled out, spraying pieces of Klaatu Zhang all over the stone wall that held back the embankment upon which Mr. Uno’s house rested.

The sprayed pieces, each endowed with some holographic intelligence, crawled back into a puddle, and then there rose up from the puddle the perky pear shape of Klaatu Zhang. “Now what?” said Klaatu.

Moldie. Looking out the bar’s glass door—I (mentally) see a yellow-striped green moldie humping by like a giant inchworm. The moldies would hang around in bars because they like to talk?

Phrases. The huge sublunar marijuana caves. “I’m a lichenologist.” “As it happens, I’m developing a deal around the concept of The Face on Mars.”

Power Tool. Corey Rhizome’s chunky funky clunky Makita piezomorpher.

Republikkkan. A man rapping impatiently at the window next to his office door. He wants Monique or Ouish to come on in and suck him off. Blue veins under his smooth shiny nearly hairless skin.

Star. Tre Dietz leaves with one of the starry minds. Or maybe he only does an excursion. Like to a star and back. Tre goes to the fuckin’ Sun! Old Tre never quite the same after that run…

Note on “Phreak Scenes”

Written 1995.


I wrote this for Mondo 2000 but, unless I’m mistaken, it didn’t appear in print. The piece is based on excerpts from the notes for my novel-in-progress at that time, Freeware. I was basically trying to do a cut-up piece that I could pass of as an article and, as I mentioned before, echoing Bruce Sterling’s “Twenty Evocations.” I like the quality of cut-ups, although I don’t think I’d ever take the full Burroughs route and construct a whole novel that way.

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Three Flip Answers

What should you take 200 years into the future?

You ever notice how in the 1800s when people like Pocahontas or Ramanujan would go to England they would die of a year in disease? Take your own food, freeze-dried like for a camping trip, and take your own water purification pump.

Take a laptop with a bunch of computer games on it. People now pay big bucks for oldtime mechanical toys. We could still make them but we don’t. Future computers will be great, but they won’t be quaint.

Take a family photo-album; proves your from the past and has random little things they won’t know about.

You know that drawer you have where you keep little mementoes, games, toys, thingies? Empty it into a sack. It’s all priceless ephemera.

If you practice any art or craft, bring some samples of what you made.

What will sex be like in fifty years?

Fashion: X-shirts, which have blown-up photos of the wearer’s genitalia.

Sex in zero gravity very popular. Shuttle ships will take you up for an hour, just like now you can get a small plane to fly you over SF bay while ya DO it.

Scrotal pregnancies. Lots of men carrying babies in their scrota. Special little wheelbarrow that they use.

What will you find in the trash in thirty years?

Disposable facemasks, like to be tan or Black or whatever.

Fashion ears, they’re uncomfortable enough to throw away.

Misters—favorite drug intake is like asthma inhalers, five hits in a pulser.

Dermal patches for drug delivery.

Little bags of excrement—you can wear a pair of tubes that catch all your waste on the go so you don’t need to venture into public bathrooms. Dogs wear ‘em too.

Sacks of chewed food. You can get this thing like a condom that hooks onto your back teeth and goes down your esophagus and you eat a whole meal and it all goes into the big stomach rubber and then you pull it out. Colloquial: “I’m packing a lunch for the homeless.”

Talking cards that give directions to someplace; you throw it away when you get there.

Note on “Three Quick Answers”

Written 1995.


I wrote this for a Wired 1995 feature to be guest-edited by Douglas Coupland. I think my material was unused.

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Edge Questions

Everything is Alive

Answer to The Edge Annual Question, 2006: “What is Your Dangerous Idea?”

Panpsychism. Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules—each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.

I’m quite comfortable with the notion that everything is a computation. But what to do about my sense that there’s something numinous about my inner experience? Panpsychism represents a non-anthropocentric way out: mind is a universally distributed quality.

Yes, the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation that could be emulated by any universal computer. And, yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms.

Note that panpsychism needn’t say that universe is just one mind. We can also say that each object has an individual mind. One way to visualize the distinction between the many minds and the one mind is to think of the world as a stained glass window with light shining through each pane. The world’s physical structures break the undivided cosmic mind into a myriad of small minds, one in each object.

The minds of panpsychism can exist at various levels. As well as having its own individuality, a person’s mind would also be, for instance, a hive mind based upon the minds of the body’s cells and the minds of the body’s elementary particles.

Do the panpsychic minds have any physical correlates? On the one hand, it could be that the mind is some substance that accumulates near ordinary matter—dark matter or dark energy are good candidates. On the other hand, mind might simply be matter viewed in a special fashion: matter experienced from the inside. Let me mention three specific physical correlates that have been proposed for the mind.

Some have argued that the experience of mind results when a superposed quantum state collapses into a pure state. It’s an alluring metaphor, but as a universal automatist, I’m of the opinion that quantum mechanics is a stop-gap theory, destined to give way to a fully deterministic theory based upon some digital precursor of spacetime.

David Skrbina, author of the clear and comprehensive book Panpsychism in the West, suggests that we might think of a physical system as determining a moving point in a multi-dimensional phase space that has an axis for each of the system’s measurable properties. He feels this dynamic point represents the sense of unity characteristic of a mind.

As a variation on this theme, let me point out that, from the universal automatist standpoint, every physical system can be thought of as embodying a computation. And the majority of non-simple systems embody universal computations, capable of emulating any other system at all. It could be that having a mind is in some sense equivalent to being capable of universal computation.

A side-remark. Even such very simple systems as a single electron may in fact be capable of universal computation, if supplied with a steady stream of structured input. Think of an electron in an oscillating field; and by analogy think of a person listening to music or reading an essay.

Might panpsychism be a distinction without a difference? Suppose we identify the numinous mind with quantum collapse, with chaotic dynamics, or with universal computation. What is added by claiming that these aspects of reality are like minds?

I think empathy can supply an experiential confirmation of panpsychism’s reality. Just as I’m sure that I myself have a mind, I can come to believe the same of another human with whom I’m in contact—whether face to face or via their creative work. And with a bit of effort, I can identify with objects as well; I can see the objects in the room around me as glowing with inner light. This is a pleasant sensation; one feels less alone.

Could there ever be a critical experiment to test if panpsychism is really true? Suppose that telepathy were to become possible, perhaps by entangling a person’s mental states with another system’s states. And then suppose that instead of telepathically contacting another person, I were to contact a rock. At this point panpsychism would be proved.

I still haven’t said anything about why panpsychism is a dangerous idea. Panpsychism, like other forms of higher consciousness, is dangerous to business as usual. If my old car has the same kind of mind as a new one, I’m less impelled to help the economy by buying a new vehicle. If the rocks and plants on my property have minds, I feel more respect for them in their natural state. If I feel myself among friends in the universe, I’m less likely to overwork myself to earn more cash. If my body will have a mind even after I’m dead, then death matters less to me, and it’s harder for the government to cow me into submission.

Can Robots See God?

Answer to The Edge Annual Question, 2007: “What have you changed your mind about, and why?”

Studying mathematical logic in the 1970s I believed it was possible to put together a convincing argument that no computer program can fully emulate a human mind. Although nobody had quite gotten the argument right, I hoped to straighten it out.

My belief in this will-o-the-wisp was motivated by a gut feeling that people have numinous inner qualities that will not be found in machines. For one thing, our self-awareness lets us reflect on ourselves and get into endless mental regresses: “I know that I know that I know…” For another, we have moments of mystical illumination when we seem to be in contact, if not with God, then with some higher cosmic mind. I felt that surely no machine could be self-aware or experience the divine light.

At that point, I’d never actually touched a computer—they were still inaccessible, stygian tools of the establishment. Three decades rolled by, and I’d morphed into a Silicon Valley computer scientist, in constant contact with nimble chips. Setting aside my old prejudices, I changed my mind—and came to believe that we can in fact create human-like computer programs.

Although writing out such a program is in some sense beyond the abilities of any one person, we can set up simulated worlds in which such computer programs evolve. I feel confident that some relatively simple set-up will, in time, produce a human-like program capable of emulating all known intelligent human behaviors: writing books, painting pictures, designing machines, creating scientific theories, discussing philosophy, and even falling in love. More than that, we will be able to generate an unlimited number of such programs, each with its own particular style and personality.

What of the old-style attacks from the quarters of mathematical logic? Roughly speaking, these arguments always hinged upon a spurious belief that we can somehow discern between, on the one hand, human-like systems which are fully reliable and, on the other hand, human-like systems fated to begin spouting gibberish. But the correct deduction from mathematical logic is that there is absolutely no way to separate the sheep from the goats. Note that this is already our situation vis-a-vis real humans: you have no way to tell if and when a friend or a loved one will forever stop making sense.

With the rise of new practical strategies for creating human-like programs and the collapse of the old a priori logical arguments against this endeavor, I have to reconsider my former reasons for believing humans to be different from machines. Might robots become self-aware? And—not to put too fine a point on it—might they see God? I believe both answers are yes.

Consciousness probably isn’t that big a deal. A simple pair of facing mirrors exhibit a kind of endlessly regressing self-awareness, and this type of pattern can readily be turned into computer code.

And what about basking in the divine light? Certainly if we take a reductionistic view that mystical illumination is just a bath of intoxicating brain chemicals, then there seems to be no reason that machines couldn’t occasionally be nudged into exceptional states as well. But I prefer to suppose that mystical experiences involve an objective union with a higher level of mind, possibly mediated by offbeat physics such as quantum entanglement, dark matter, or higher dimensions.

Might a robot enjoy these true mystical experiences? Based on my studies of the essential complexity of simple systems, I feel that any physical object at all must be equally capable of enlightenment. As the Zen apothegm has it, “The universal rain moistens all creatures.”

So, yes, I now think that robots can see God.

Search and Emergence

Answer to The Edge Annual Question, 2010: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?”

Twenty or thirty years ago, people dreamed of a global mind that knew everything and could answer any question. In those early times, we imagined that we’d need a huge breakthrough in artificial intelligence to make the global mind work—we thought of it as resembling an extremely smart person. The conventional Hollywood image for the global mind’s interface was a talking head on a wall-sized screen.

And now, in 2010, we have the global mind. Search-engines, user-curated encyclopedias, images of everything under the sun, clever apps to carry out simple computations—it’s all happening. But old-school artificial intelligence is barely involved at all.

As it happens, data, and not algorithms, is where it’s at. Put enough information into the planetary information cloud, crank up a search engine, and you’ve got an all-knowing global mind. The answers emerge.

Initially people resisted understanding this simple fact. Perhaps this was because the task of posting a planet’s worth of data seemed so intractable. There were hopes that some magically simple AI program might be able to extrapolate a full set of information from a few well-chosen basic facts—just a person can figure out another person on the basis of a brief conversation.

At this point, it looks like there aren’t going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And—radical notion—maybe that’s what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.

The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the internet is that it’s unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown web pages. We’re like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it’s something we like to do.

Note that the internet wouldn’t work as a global mind if it were a completely flat and undistinguished sea of data. We need a way to locate the regions that are most desirable in terms of accuracy and elegance. An early, now-discarded, notion was that we would need some kind of information czar or committee to rank the data. But, here again, the anthill does the work for free.

By now it seems obvious that the only feasible way to rank the internet’s offerings is to track the online behaviors of individual users. By now it’s hard to remember how radical and rickety such a dependence upon emergence used to seem. No control! What a crazy idea. But it works. No centralized system could ever keep pace.

An even more surprising success is found in user-curated encyclopedias. When I first heard of this notion, I was sure it wouldn’t work. I assumed that trolls and zealots would infect all the posts. But the internet has a more powerful protection system than I’d realized. Individual users are the primary defenders.

We might compare the internet to a biological system in which new antibodies emerge to combat new pathogens. Malware is forever changing, but our defenses are forever evolving as well.

I am a novelist, and the task of creating a coherent and fresh novel always seems in some sense impossible. What I’ve learned over the course of my career is that I need to trust in emergence—also known as the muse. I assemble a notes document filled with speculations, overheard conversations, story ideas, and flashy phrases. Day after day, I comb through my material, integrating it into my mental net, forging links and ranks. And, fairly reliably, the scenes and chapters of my novel emerge. It’s how my creative process works.

In our highest mental tasks, any dream of an orderly process is a will-o’-the wisp. And there’s no need to feel remorseful about this. Search and emergence are good enough for the global mind—and they’re good enough for us.

The World is Unpredictable

Answer to the he Edge Annual Question , 2011: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The media cast about for the proximate causes of life’s windfalls and disasters. The public demands blocks against the bad and pipelines to the good. Legislators propose new regulations, fruitlessly dousing last year’s fires, forever betting on yesterday’s winning horses.

A little-known truth: Every aspect of the world is fundamentally unpredictable. Computer scientists have long since proved this.

How so? To predict an event is to know a shortcut for foreseeing the outcome in advance. A simple counting argument shows there aren’t enough shortcuts to go around. Therefore most processes aren’t predictable. A deeper argument plays on the fact that, if you could predict your actions, you could deliberately violate your predictions—which means the predictions were wrong after all.

We often suppose that unpredictability is caused by random inputs from higher spirits or from low-down quantum foam. But chaos theory and computer science tell us that non-random systems produce surprises on their own. The unexpected tornado, the cartoon safe that lands on Uncle George, the winning pull on a slot machine—odd things pop out of any rich computation. The world can simultaneously be deterministic, chaotic, and unpredictable.

In the physical world, the only way to learn tomorrow’s weather in detail is to wait twenty-four hours and see—even if nothing is random at all. The universe is computing tomorrow’s weather as rapidly and as efficiently as possible—any smaller model is inaccurate, and the smallest error is amplified into large effects.

At a personal level, even if the world is as deterministic as a computer program, you still can’t predict what you’re going to do. This is because your prediction method would involve a mental simulation of you that produces its results slower than you. You can’t think faster than you think. You can’t stand on your own shoulders.

It’s a waste to chase the pipedream of a magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick and detailed calculations about the future. We can’t predict and we can’t control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and inner peace. We’re part of the unfolding world, surfing reality’s waves.

Inverse Power Laws

Answer to The Edge Question 2012: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

I’m intrigued by the empirical fact that most aspects of our world and our society are distributed according to so-called inverse power laws. That is, many distribution curves take on the form of a curve that swoops down from a central peak to have a long tail that asymptotically hugs the horizontal axis.

Inverse power laws are elegantly simple, deeply mysterious, but more galling than beautiful. Inverse power laws are self-organizing and self-maintaining. For reasons that aren’t entirely understood they emerge spontaneously in a wide range of parallel computations, both social and natural.

One of the first social scientists to notice an inverse power law was George Kingsley Zipf, who formulated an observation now known as Zipf’s Law. This is the statistical fact that, in most documents, the frequency with which a given word is used is roughly proportional to the reciprocal of the word’s popularity rank. Thus the second most popular word is used half as much as the most popular word, the tenth most popular word is used a tenth as much as the most popular word, and so on.

In society, similar kinds of inverse power laws govern society’s rewards. Speaking as an author, I’ve noticed, for instance, that the hundredth most popular author sells a hundred-fold fewer books than the author at the top. If the top writer sells a million copies, someone like me might sell ten thousand.

Disgruntled scribes sometimes fantasize about a utopian marketplace in which the naturally arising inverse power law distribution would be forcibly replaced by a linear distribution, that is, a sales schedule that lies along a smoothly sloping line instead of taking the form of the present bent curve that starts at an impudently high peak and then swoops down to dawdle along the horizontal axis.

But there’s no obvious way that the authors’ sales curve could be changed. Certainly there’s no hope of having some governing group try and force a different distribution. After all, people make their own choices as to what books to read. Society is a parallel computation, and some aspects of it are beyond control.

The inverse-power-law aspects of income distribution are particularly disturbing. Thus the second-wealthiest person in a society might own half as much as the richest, with the tenth richest person possessing only a tenth as much, and—out on in the burbs—the thousandth richest person is making only one thousandth as much as the person on the top.

Putting the same phenomenon a little more starkly, while a company’s chief executive officer might earn a hundred million dollars a year, a software engineer at the same company might earn only a hundred thousand dollars a year, that is, a thousandth as much. And a worker in one of the company’s overseas assembly plants might earn only ten thousand dollars a year—a ten-thousandth as much as the top exec.

Power law distributions can also be found in the opening weekend grosses of movies, in the number of hits that web pages get, and in the audience shares for TV shows. Is there some reason why the top ranks do so overly well, and the bottom ranks seem so unfairly penalized?

The short answer is no—there’s no real reason. There need by no conspiracy to skew the rewards. Galling as it seems, inverse power law distributions are a fundamental natural law about the behavior of systems. They’re ubiquitous.

Inverse power laws aren’t limited to societies—they also dominate the statistics of the natural world. The tenth smallest lake is likely to be a tenth as large as the biggest one, the hundredth largest tree in a forest may be a hundredth as big as the largest tree, the thousandth largest stone on a beach is a thousandth the size of the largest one.

Whether or not we like them, inverse power laws are as inevitable as turbulence, entropy, or the law of gravity. This said, we can somewhat moderate them them in our social context, and it would be too despairing to say we have no control whatsoever over the disparities between our rich and our poor.

But the basic structures of inverse power law curves will never go away. We can rail at an inverse power law if we like—or we can accept it, perhaps hoping to bend the harsh law towards not so steep a swoop.

Note on “Edge Questions”

Written 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Appeared on the Edge website and in various anthologies edited by John Brockman.

In 2004, hoping for a better-than-usual advance for my tome on the philosophy of computer science, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, I engaged the prominent science-book agent John Brockman. Brockman sent my proposal to about thirty publishers, but in the end, we ended up selling the book for a mid-range advance to my editor friend John Oakes, then at Avalon Publishing. Oakes had already who’d already published several of my books when he had his own company, Four Walls Eight Windows. Ironically, Oakes had wanted to buy the book before I even got involved with Brockman. Oh well!

But it was fun getting to know the colorful and abrasive Brockman, a quintessential New Yorker. John has a sort of scam where every year he sends out an annual question to his past and present clients—a truly star-studded list of the digerati. We obediently send John our answers, craving the slight publicity bump of appearing on his popular Edge site. And then he turns around and sells an anthology of our answers to a publisher without paying his contributors at all. And we ink-stained wretches are grateful to see our names in print, among such illustrious company. Why not. It’s only a few hundred words, and it’s fun making up wild answers to the Big Questions.

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New Futures in SF

Ideas and Stories

Living art forms change—think of painting or popular music or literary novels or even TV sit-coms. SF people are always sad to see the most recent “Golden Age” slip away, but it’s sadder still to keep doing the same thing. Inevitably the old material goes stale and the fire gutters down. It’s still possible to write novels about androids and spaceships and uploading your brain. And, by the same token, it’s still possible to write a doo-wop song or paint an abstract expressionist painting. But old forms become stiff and mannered, and working with them is a bit quixotic. Why not some new kinds of SF novel? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp that the physics and sociology of earlier SF are only things that past writers made up. The received ideas of SF are unlikely to apply to any actual future. There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t change the rules and dream up fresh futures of our own. We’re not duty-bound to copy what our predecessors did.

I’m going to talk about some fresh areas to mine for ideas. Note that having ideas is one thing, and turning them into stories is another. You need two separate things for a story: first of all, the SF idea or gimmick and, second of all, an underlying issue that the gimmick solves.

I’m of the transreal school of SF writing, so when I’m forming my ideas for an SF tale, I always look into my own life for the issues. That is, given an SF trope, I work to make the idea into a fresh and true metaphor for some immediate real-life concern of mine.

A cautionary note. By “real-life concern” I do not mean the doom-and-gloom that the official media are forever pushing on us. The news, in my opinion, is mind-control, motivated by incredibly narrow and self-serving interests. For years I’ve had a theory that commercial news, advertising, and mass entertainment are working in concert. All three of them promote fear and belligerence. Why? If you’re afraid, it’s easier for the politicians and the plutocrats to manipulate you. If you’re belligerent, you can be provoked into attacking whatever rebellious groups the politicians and plutocrats want to stamp out. And if you’re fearful and belligerent, you’re willing to hand over a large cut of your income to the warmongers who are “defending” you from their fellow warmongers in other lands.

So never mind the daily news. To hell with it. Be here now. It’s time to run your own life, and to awaken from the fever dream we call history—if only for a few hours. It’s Independence Day!

Come to think of it, I’d like to write a science fiction story about the notion that news stories are the hive-mind’s nightmares or, putting it more strongly, that news stories are an insane society’s hallucinations. But I’d need a nice SF gimmick to make a story out of it. As I said before, you need two things: the SF gimmick plus the transreal meaning. Here I’ve got the meaning but not the gimmick. But I can think of a gimmick pretty easily. Suppose that some individual is somehow taken over by the hive mind and he or she is the control-freak paranoiac behind news—but I’ll stop there and save the further details for my next story, I need something to write about this week.

Anyway, the point I was making is that I like for my stories to speak to a concern or an issue that troubles me personally—rather than to some pumped-up mind-control worries that the media are promulgating.

So what are the concerns that interest me? The things I notice in daily life. Looking around with an SF eye, I’m always wondering how it would be if some aspect of life were exaggerated just a bit more. Just today, I was thinking that, to save money, young couples might start having “reality weddings.” You can buy a ticket to attend their wedding and their reception, or for a smaller fee you can watch the festivities over a video feed. And if you’re in the patron’s circle, a fragment of your DNA is blended into the genes of the young couple’s first child so that you’re a kind of grandparent. And this line of though speaks to me because these days I’m interested in being a grandparent.

There’s a number of more general concerns that have been with me for years. I’m doomed to die, and I wonder if that’s really the end. I have dreams every night, what do they mean? My thoughts aren’t really like a page of writing at all—they’re blotches and rhythms and associations—and is there any way to truly describe one’s real mental life? I want to go back to my youth, is there a way? What are the differences between being a child, an adult, and an old person? What is eating all about? Can I talk to my cells? What would it be like to be an ant or, even better, an ant colony? These are a few of the issues that happen to matter to me—but of course other writers will have very different issues of their own. Part of the trick is to make your own quirky concerns seem universal enough to interest others.

Let me make another general point before I get into some specific ideas for new futures. It is in fact very unusual to come up with a truly new idea. No matter how outré an SF or fantasy concept you dream up, more often that not you find out that someone used it in an obscure pulp-magazine story of the 1950s or, which hurts even more, on a TV show or even in a comic.

Beginning SF writers sometimes imagine that writing a story or novel is all about having the idea. I’ve had amateurs send me emails like, “I’m not a writer, but I have an idea for an SF novel. We’ll meet for coffee, I’ll tell you the idea, you’ll write the novel, and we’ll split the money fifty-fifty.”

As I said above, as well as the idea, you need the meaning—and more. You have to embody the idea into a social situation with characters that the reader will care about. The idea has to in some way solve a problem that has an emotional resonance to it. The characters have to grow and change. Generally you want to have a love interest in there. And you need what I call eyeball kicks, that is, some interesting things to visualize and think about. And so on. You need the idea, the meaning, the scene, the characters, and the plot as well. And, oh yeah, you need a literary style, so the sentences are evocative, clear, fun to read, and have a nice rhythm.

It is true that you need the idea, yes. But turning the idea into a story is really the bulk of the work. I don’t worry too much about people “stealing” any ideas that I mention on my blog or in talks like this. Even if you and I were to start with exactly the same idea, our stories would end up being very different.

I’m glad to be giving this talk, as just now I’m between novels and I don’t have an specific idea for my next one. One thing that makes the process a little harder for a seasoned writer is that, after a certain number of stories and novels, you’ve already written about most of the ideas that have obsessed you from early on.

In my case, this means that I’ve written about an infinitely large world, about a four-dimensional world, about flying jellyfish, about a giant ass from the fourth dimension (I was combining a few interests there), about robots who evolve, about robots made of soft plastic, about aliens who travel as cosmic ray particles, about UFOs that can travel into the future, about shrinking down to sizes below the tiniest elementary particles, about growing to sizes larger than the galaxy, about a biotech world in which there are no machines at all, about going to meet the intelligent vortex-beings who lurk within a glowing star, about the afterworld, about parasitic mind-controlling slugs who ride on people’s backs, about flying like Superman, about exploring the interior of the Hollow Earth, about a global swarm of virtual ants who destroy all TV, about a device that turns plain air into whatever object you want, about travelling to a parallel universe, and about a future in which every object in the world comes to life.

What’s left? Well, let’s see if I can come up with something today. And in the process, I may also be recycling some of those road-tested ideas I just listed. After all, it’s not a crime to use the same idea twice.

Live Brains

I suppose I need to mention the Singularity at least once—even though it’s become, in my opinion, a stale and media-driven tope. The basic idea is that computers will continue to gain in speed and memory capacity. And we hope somehow to develop really good software to take advantage of the improved hardware. The Singulatarian dream is that, before long, then software will start writing even better software on its own, and then—shazam—the machines will be smarter than people.

And if you buy vitamins from Ray Kurzweil’s web page, you may live long enough for the wise and kindly nanomachines of the coming-real-soon future to clean all the gunk out of your veins! And then you might live long enough so that your brain can be sliced and diced for your mind to be copied onto a computer so you’re immortal!

Mind copied into a computer so you’re immortal—hmmm, where I have I heard that idea before? Oh, right, that’s from my 1981 novel, Software. “Ya’ll ever ate any live brains?” asks one of my robot-employed mind-harvesters. I recall my cyberpunk pal John Shirley screaming this phrase out the window of a car at a con in Austin around 1982. “Ya’ll ever ate any live brains?”

Actually, it’s more interesting to think about intelligence augmentation than about artificial intelligence. That is, what are some ways in which people might become noticeably smarter? I’m not so interested in brute-force approaches like shoving in more memory tissues or internalizing direct links to world wide web. The cool, SFictional thing would be if there were some in-retrospect-rather-obvious mental trick that we haven’t yet exploited.

Such tricks do exist. Think of how our effective intelligence improved with the advent of speech and of writing. In the mathematical realm, our ability to calculate got exponentially better when we started using positional notation. It would be cool if there some cute mental trick that would make us much brighter.

One of the dreams of AI is that there may yet be some trick like this that we can use to make our machines really smart. The only path towards AI at present is to more or less beat to death the problems of AI by using faster computers with every-larger data-bases. You set up a kind of neural network and train it and evolve it a little bit—not that anything like worldwide biological evolutions is practical in our little labs. But what if there was some clear and simple insight, some big aha?

When Everything Is Alive

Following the trail blazed by Charles Stross in Accelerando, I prefer to think out past the so-called Singularity. I wrote a pair of novels set in this zone: Postsingular and Hylozoic.

One of the ideas I was working with here is a fairly simple one: computer chips will go away. We don’t use little gears in our watches like they did fifty years ago, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that today’s chips will become outmoded, too.

What replaces them? I have two layers of speculations.

Biotech is likely to be the preeminent science of the 21st century, and we’ve really only scratched the surface with our SF. We’ve had some novels about plagues and about chimerical mixes of various species. But there’s so much more to explore. I like the idea of a person who becomes a disease that other people catch. And I like the idea of replacing every machine in existence by a biogadget—I wrote about this in Frek and the Elixir. But that was just a start.

My first speculation about future computers is that we’ll start using biotech to grow our computer hardware. A cuttlefish skin can display an amazing range of colors, updating the images at startling speeds. So why not a rectangle of tweaked cuttlefish skin for your display? And we can give our biogadget an embedded nervous system to take care of the computing chores. And how about input devices? Just wriggling your fingers should be enough if the biogadget pays attention. I don’t understand why we don’t already have this input technology.

Kicking it a notch further, it might be nice to have a wireless connection of some kind connected to your brain. I don’t think any reasonable person wants any kind of chip or biogadget implant. But I’ve often written about a soft slug-like device called an uvvy which sits on the back of your neck and picks up on the electromagnetic fields of your brain.

The uvvy is a symbol for the smart phone. In this vein, there’s a certain amount of SF material in the notion of people walking around staring at tiny handheld screens all day long. Peering at the world through their cellphones so as to see the augmented reality overlays. I’ve written about this before as “stunglasses,” but now that it’s really happening, there’s fresh observations to take into account.

My second idea about computers of the future has to with quantum computation. Atoms and molecules are always doing quantum computations, even when they’re just sitting around. These computations are in fact rich enough to emulate anything that an ordinary computer could do. If we can just get the hang of how to do it, we can start having computers that are chairs, rocks, air currents, glasses of water, candle flames—whatever.

Once we get this working, we’re ready for what I describe in my novel Hylozoic. Everything can be conscious and alive. Most of you won’t be familiar with the world “hylozoism.” It’s a real dictionary word that means, “the doctrine that physical objects are alive.”

I’d like to see a lot more SF about worlds where everything is alive. R. Crumb once drew a great comic where a guy’s cheeseburger starts talking to him. Why not? Lots of things talk these days, although thus far they don’t say anything interesting. But what if they did? It’s easy enough to layer on enough computer science to bring these fantasies into SF.

One cute idea that I touched on in Hylozoic is worth using again. If we view any bit of matter as carrying out a quantum computation, then what if something like a computer virus infects matter, perhaps changing the laws of physics to make our world more congenial to some other kinds of beings? Or what if you yourself dose your surroundings simply to make them more vibrant, more cartoony, more congenial. Instead of your getting high, your house gets high!

Magic Doors

As a boy, I learned about magic doors from the Narnia books and from Heinlein’s Tunnel In The Sky. I’ve always loved the idea of portals to other worlds. Looking at them through modern eyes, we can see the magic doors as being a bit like hyperlinks on the web.

If you model a magic door in physics, it often takes on the form of a so-called Einstein-Rosen bridge, which will look a little like one of a Christmas tree’s mirror balls—a little sphere that seems to have another world inside it. And if you push towards an E-R sphere, you get smaller, and you fit inside it, and then you’re in the alternate world.

I like to think of a character with spherical portals like this swarming around him or her like multicolored fireflies. Wheeling about like a cloud of memories. Some of them may lead to alternate worlds, but some might lead into the past…or even into the afterworld.

Alternate Worlds

Contemporary physicists speak of worlds parallel to ours as “branes.” In some theories there’s only two branes or perhaps a few more, maybe seven.

I like the idea of a limited number of parallel worlds, as I’ve always found the notion that all possible universes exist to be kind of inane and defeatist. If every possible world exists, then there’s no particular reason for anything. But if you actually pay attention to the world we’re in, you’ll notice that it’s very highly structured. It’s hard to be sure, but reality seems shot through with interesting coincidences—what C. G. Jung called synchronicities. To me, it feels as if our universe is as least as well crafted as an extremely good novel.

Who wrote the novel we live in? In Mathematicians in Love, I took up this question, and had the divine author be a large jellyfish living in a lagoon in a parallel brane. The jellyfish turns in a fresh draft of our universe every Friday, and each draft is better than the one before.

An idea I haven’t explored very much is that our universe might in some way self-organize itself—like a pattern of ice-crystals forming upon our spacetime brane as metatime elapses.

A particularly virulent version of the all-possible-universes mind-virus is the notion that our time is continually branching. The physicist Hugh Everett showed that this notion is consistent in his famous papers on “The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”

Last year I read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, in which time has a branching quality, and the characters have an ability to sniff out the best universe for them to be moving forward into. It’s a good read, but there’s to be something fundamentally incoherent about the SFictional notion of picking an optimal world from many equally real possible worlds.

My sense is that if time really branches, then you wholeheartedly go into each branch; you’re conscious in each of them, and there’s no single “lit-up by the searchlight of the mind” branch that zigzags up through the time-tree to limn the path that you “really” take. The whole tree is lit. You really and truly think you’re in each branch that has a version of you.

Turning, however, from logic to emotion, I do have an appreciation and a longing for the heroic concept that I really am selecting a best possible path. I mean, that’s how a human life is lived. You consider the outcomes of possible actions, and you direct your actions so as to realize the more favorable results.

We have an emotional, experiential sense that the bad, unchosen paths are in fact shriveling away to the left and the right. There’s a sense of this in Phil Dick’s vintage precog story, “The Golden Man.” I’d like to see a story in which the unchosen paths really are withering away. Suppose, for instance, suppose that my branch is not quite a pure jagged line. It does very commonly grow a stub out a few seconds past a given branch point, then back up and go into the proper branch. There’s a continuous line of time but it sometimes loops back a bit and then starts forward on a new tack.

The backups are very common, in fact they’re all but ubiquitous. Most people don’t notice this, because when time backs up, events run backwards and memories get erased. But our hero or heroine does learn to notice.

The Subdimensions

For too long we’ve let the quantum mechanics tell us that nothing smaller than the Planck length. Let’s view this tiny size scale as a membrane, a frontier, but not a wall. Some string theorists speculate that the subdimensional world below the Planck length is a kind of mirror version of ours. Other physicists have recently suggested that, at the microscale, space has a higher-dimensional thickness.

Suppose we can delve into space and get down below the Planck length to enter the land of—the subdimensions. I think pulp writers used that word in the 1940s. Recently I’ve taken to using it a lot myself.

One of the tricks of SF writing is to keep switching to newer buzzwords for your magical mysteries. In the 1940s they were content with talking about radio and radiation. And then it was curved space and black holes. Then came cybernetics and quantum mechanics. And then quarks and string theory. These days I’m liking bosons and the subdimensions.

Aliens can visit us from the subdimensions, so there’s no need for those tiresome star ships. Just focus on a speck of dust and get into it.

Recently a news-media-controlled man asked me if I was planning to write an SF story about the recent Louisiana oil spill. I wouldn’t exactly want to write about that. But it would be nice to do a happy story in which we discover an incredible new energy source.

This has, of course, been done before. But I like the idea of getting our energy from—the subdimensions. And, as a transreal kicker, because we pump out too much energy, space starts to, like, shrivel and collapse. We turn as wrinkled as leaky balloons.

Infinity and Beyond

I’ve always like to think about a world that’s an endless flat plane, a place where you can walk (or fly your electric glider) forever in a straight line and never come back to where you started. This is, after all, the underlying dream of a long road trip. Just keep going and you’ll encounter—the cockroach men! The empire of the two-headed women!

Larry Niven’s Ringworld has some of this quality of being an incredibly large place where you can drive around. And I’ve been told that Charles Stross’s “Missile Gap,” explores a very large world as well.

But infinite would be better. What if our world were suddenly to become infinite over night. There’s a rumble like from an earthquake and, wow, our little planet will have unrolled, ready for you to start out on the ultimate On the Road adventure and, oh my God, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady are parked right outside your house!

I got a Ph. D. in mathematics, and my thesis topic was set theory, the science of transfinite numbers. I studied infinities bigger than infinities—big boys like alef-one and alef-seven.

Historically, physicists eventually find a physical application for just about every sufficiently batshit idea that pure mathematicians dream up. To pave the way, we need SF about transfinite numbers in the large (as in space being larger than infinity) and in the small (as in matter being more than infinitely divisible).

I wrote a story along these lines called “Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory.” You can find it online at But there’s plenty of room for more.

Dreams and Memories

I think there’s still a lot of interesting things to be done with dreams. Waking up inside them? Finding out that they’re really happening in a higher dimension?

I quite recently wrote a story with Bruce Sterling which is about some SF-writer types whose job is crafting dreams to sell to other people. And this isn’t a new theme.

In the mental front, we might also consider viewing memories as in some sense real. Maybe memory is a form of time-travel, and you really can flip back into the past or, more oddly, bring people from your past into your present.

I’ve never gotten it together to writ a full time-travel novel, I haven’t been able to see a way to make it new. And getting around the paradoxes in a fresh way is tricky. Maybe a guy develops 4D consciousness so that he’s present at each instant of his life. And then his long world-snake of a time body starts to writhe…

Higher Realities

I’ve always thought there should be more SF that speculates about what happens to people after they die. This can shade into fantasy, of course, but giving it an SF slant would be interesting. Certainly it’s nice to speculate that there’s some kind of afterworld…rather than nothing.

I’ve written two novels about the afterworld, my early White Light (which is also about a transfinite world) and my recent Jim and the Flims, which hasn’t yet appeared. My personal motivation for returning to the afterworld theme is that, as I get older, death is becoming increasingly real to me. It’s easy to believe that death is a lights-out situation. But it’s comforting to write an SF novel in which things work out differently.

If we develop a SFictional notion of an afterworld, then we’re also free to write about ghosts. Perhaps people might develop some new augmented senses. What if you could “see” radio-waves, electrical charges, neutrinos, Higgs bosons, or neutrinos? Maybe these senses would let you see specters.

Not that the specters necessarily have to be the ghosts of dead people. I’ve often imagined that our world is in fact replete with alien beings whom, for whatever reason, we’re ordinarily unable to perceive. Those flashes of light you see out of the corner of your eye sometimes—maybe those are alien beings.

Thinking along these lines leads to notions of higher realities. It would be nice to see some stories about levels at which archetypes are real. It would be nice to visit God’s art studio.


Why are we here? What’s it all for? What’s the meaning of life? Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something instead of nothing? I await your answers.

Note on “New Futures in SF”

Written June, 2010.

Published on Rudy's Blog with illustrations, June 30, 2010.

These were my notes for a talk I gave at Westercon in Pasadena, CA, July 4, 2010. I was thinking in terms of amassing some ideas that I might myself use in future novels or stories.

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A Brief History of Computers

Calculating Devices

One of the simplest kinds of computations is adding numbers. There are two ancient technologies used for this: the abacus and the counting board.

In the familiar abacus, you have columns of beads corresponding to separate powers of ten—though often abacuses are designed with each column of beads broken into two parts, a lower part of five “unit” beads and an upper part with one or two “fives” beads that stand for five of the “unit” beads.

A counting board is a more primitive idea; here instead of having beads on wires, you have loose tokens that can be placed into columns standing for successive powers of ten. Whenever you build up more than ten counters in one column, you can remove the counters from that column and perform a “carry” operation by adding a counter to the next higher column. Often counting boards would have successive rows to stand for different quantities, in the style of a ledger-book, and sometimes the alternating rows and columns would be marked in different colors like a checkerboard. This is the origin of the British word “Exchequer” for their (rough) equivalent of the U. S. Treasury.

One problem in using an abacus or a counting board is that the answer is ruined if you forget to do one of the carry operations. The beginnings of a solution were provided by an odometer described by Heron of Alexandria in Roman times. Just like today, Heron’s odometer was a device to measure how far a vehicle such as a chariot had rolled. The idea was to have a series of linked gears, where a low-ranking gear would have to turn all the way around before moving the next higher-ranking gear one notch.

In 1644, the great French philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal used the idea of the odometer gear-train to create a hand-held mechanical adding machine which he proudly named the Pascaline. Instead of only turning the lowest-ranking gear one notch at a time, like in an odometer, users of the Pascaline would use a stylus to turn each of eight wheels by an appropriate amount to represent the digits of a number to be added into the result. In the 1950s, in the days before pocket calculators, it was common to see cheap plastic Pascaline-like devices for sale in gift-shops.

Numerous variations on the Pascaline arose. One of the harder problems was to create a machine which could multiply. The philosopher Leibniz attempted one such device in 1673, but it didn’t work completely reliably. It also had the flaw that the user couldn’t just put in the numbers, turn a crank and get an answer; instead the user had to carry out several intermediate steps.

Babbage’s Difference Engine

The high point of gear-based calculation came with the work of Charles Babbage and his followers in the mid 1800s. This was the height of the steam age—of locomotives and spinning jennies. So why not a machine to crank out calculations just as a power-loom weaves cloth? The ideal application for wholesale, repetitive calculations is the generation of mathematical tables, such as tables of logarithms and of trigonometric functions. The science of the 1800s made extensive use of such tables, and of other kinds of tables as well, for instance astronomical tables giving the computed positions of celestial bodies at various times, and life-insurance tables giving the expected earnings or annuities of people of various ages.

Babbage hit on the idea of building a machine out of gears which could calculate and print mathematical tables. Instead of allowing errors to slip in by passing a written result to a typesetter, why not let the calculating machine set the type itself? It was a most appropriate idea for Industrial Revolution Britain.

Babbage called his first proposed computing device a Difference Engine. Far from being a general-purpose computer, a difference engine was a very specialized clockwork device designed to use the so-called “method of differences” in order to generate the values of polynomial functions by using nested additions.

[In general, a Babbage machine that handles N differences can tabulate the values of Nth degree polynomials. Thus two differences suffice for quadratic functions such as 3.9 x2 + 0.7 x - 1.1, three difference suffice for the cubic functions involving x3, and so on. Trigonometric and logarithmic functions can be accurately approximated by polynomials of a high enough degree.]

Babbage completed a small model of his proposed Difference Engine. The model could handle three differences and numbers of six figures. In 1822, he convinced the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give him 1,500 pounds towards the development of a Difference Engine that would work to twenty decimal places and sixth order differences.

[Unless a finitely long decimal number happens to represent a simple fraction, its very last decimal place is always a source of inaccuracy—due to the fact that the endless digits beyond the last place are being ignored. As you add and multiply these numbers, the last-place errors work their way to the left at a rate of about one place per operation. Babbage wanted to carry out about six steps of computation with each of his numbers, and he wanted twelve of the digits to be of perfect accuracy. So to be safe he planned to use twenty digits. Even if the last six digits became corrupted by a six-step calculation, the first fourteen would still be good, and the first twelve would be, as Babbage might have said, impeccable.]

As it turned out, Babbage was an early example of a type of individual not uncommon in the computer field—a vaporware engineer, that is, a compulsive tinkerer who never finishes anything. Babbage’s draftsmen, toolmakers, and workmen were unable to finish any substantial part of the Difference Engine because Babbage kept having new ideas and changing the plans. Over the ten years following his initial grant, he spent 17,000 pounds of the government’s money and a comparable amount of his own. Finally the government cut off support, and Babbage’s workmen quit.


A detail of Scheutz’s Difference Engine.

Though Babbage complained a lot about the limits of the gear-making technology of his time, but there was in fact no real practical barrier to completing a functioning Difference Engine. Inspired by Babbage, the Swedish publisher and inventor Georg Scheutz did eventually complete and sell two working Difference Engines which handled fifteen digits and four orders of differences. Rather than being envious, the big-hearted Babbage encouraged Scheutz and helped him sell his first machine to an astronomical observatory in Albany, New York.

Writing in 1859, the American astronomer Benjamin A. Gould reported on the first real computation carried out by the first Difference Engine, the first extensive computation by a machine:

The strictly algebraic problems for feeding the machine made quite as heavy demands upon time, and thought, and perseverance, as did the problem of regulating its mechanical action; but soon all was in operation and…the True Anomaly of Mars was computed and stereotyped [printed on paper-maché molds] for intervals of a tenth of day throughout the cycle; and a sufficient number of the plates electrotyped, to enable me to be confident that all the difficulties were surmounted. Since that time the Eccentric Anomaly of Mars and the logarithm of is Radius-Vector have been computed…making a series of tables upon which the reputation of the engine may well be rested. [Uta C. Merzbach, Georg Scheutz and the First Printing Calculator, (Smithsonian Institution Press).]

This sounds like nobly pure science indeed. The Eccentric Anomaly of Mars! All right! Scheutz’s second Difference Engine was used to compute something more commercial: William Farr’s English Life Tables, a book which used information about 6.5 million deaths to show life-insurance annuities, broken down for single and married people according to age.

The Analytical Engine

One reason that Babbage never finished his Difference Engine was that he was distracted by dreams of an even more fabulous piece of vaporware, a machine he called the Analytical Engine.

Babbage’s description of the Analytical Engine is in fact the very first outline for a programmable computer, a machine that would be, in principal, capable of carrying out any kind of computation at all. The Analytical Engine was to have a “mill” that carried out nested additions like the Difference Engine, and was also to have a “store” which would provide a kind of scratch paper: short-term memory for temporary variables used by the calculation. The novel idea was that the actions of the mill were to be controlled by a user-supplied program. In what form did Babbage plan to feed programs to the Analytical Engine? With punch cards!

Although we associate punch cards with IBM and mainframe computers, it turns out that they were first used on French looms. The invention was made by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. By coding up a tapestry pattern as a series of cards, a “Jacquard loom” was able to weave the same design over and over, without the trouble of a person having to read the pattern and set the threads on the loom. Babbage himself owned a woven portrait of Jacquard that was generated by a loom using 24,000 punch cards.

One of the most lucid advocates of Babbage’s Analytical Engine was the young Ada Byron, daughter of the famed poet. Ada memorably put like this.

The distinctive characteristic of the Analytical Engine, and that which has rendered it possible to endow mechanism with such extensive faculties as bid fair to make this engine the executive right-hand of abstract algebra, is the introduction into it of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating, by means of punched cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuffs…We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves. [Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, “Notes on Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” reprinted in Philip and Emily Morrison, eds., Selected Writings by Charles Babbage, (Dover Books).]

In reality, no Analytical Engine was ever completed. But the idea stands as a milestone. In 1991, the science fiction writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published a fascinating alternative history novel, The Difference Engine, which imagines what Victorian England might have been like if Babbage had been successful. (The book is really about Analytical Engines rather than Difference Engines.) Just as our computers are managed by computer hackers, the Analytical Engines of Gibson and Sterling are manned by “clackers.” Here is their description of a visit to the Central Statistics Bureau in their what-if London.

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines—so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye—the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as rail-cars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewashed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. Their hair was swaddled in wrinkled white berets, their mouths and noses hidden behind squares of white gauze.

In the world of The Difference Engine, one can feed in a punch card coded with someone’s description, and the Central Statistics Bureau Engines will spit out a “collection of stippleprinted Engine-portraits” of likely suspects.

Punch Card Memory Storage

In our world, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that anyone started using punch cards for any purpose other than controlling Jacquard looms. It was Herman Hollerith who had the idea of using punch cards in order to organize information for the U.S. census. He designed machines for tabulating the information on punch cards, as well as a variety of calculating devices for massaging the info. He got the contract for the census of 1890, and his machines were installed in the census building in Washington, D.C. A battery of clerks transferred written census information to punch cards and fed the cards into tabulators. The tabulators worked by letting pins fall down onto the cards. Where a pin could go through, it would touch a little cup of mercury, completing a circuit and turning a wheel of a clock-like counter arrangement similar to the Pascaline.

The work was quite monotonous, and one of the employees later recalled:

Mechanics were there frequently…to get the ailing machines back in operation. The trouble was usually that somebody had extracted the mercury…from one of the little cups with an eye-dropper and squirted it into a spittoon, just to get some un-needed rest. [Geoffrey D. Austrian, Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing, (Columbia University Press).]

Hollerith’s company eventually came under the leadership of a sharp-dealing cash register salesman named Thomas J. Watson—who a few years later would change the business’s name from the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company to International Business Machines, a.k.a. IBM.

With punch card readers well in place, the realization of machines like the Analytical Engine still required a technology to handle what Babbage called the “store,” a readily accessible short-term memory that the machine can use for scratch paper, much as we write down intermediate results when carrying out a multiplication or a long division by hand. In modern times, of course, we are used to the idea of storing memory on integrated circuit chips—our RAM—and not having to worry about it. But how did the first computer designers deal with creating rapidly accessible memory?

Electromechanical Computers

The first solution used was an electromechanical device called a relay. A primitive two-position relay might be designed like a circuit-breaker switch. In this type of switch, a spring holds it in one position while an electromagnet can pull it over into another position. If there is no current through the electromagnet, the relay stays in the “zero” or “reset” position, and if enough current flows through the electromagnet, the switch is pulled over to the “one” or “set” position. With a little tinkering, it’s also possible to make a wheel-shaped ten-position relay that can be electromechanically set to store the value of any digit between zero to nine. Historically, the technology for these kinds of relays was developed for telephone company switching devices—which need to remember the successive digits of the phone numbers which callers request.

In the 1930s, the German scientist Konrad Zuse built a primitive relay-based computer that could add, multiply, and so on. As well as using relays for short-term memory storage, Zuse used them for switching circuits to implement logical and arithmetic operations much more general than the repeated additions of a Difference Engine. The Nazi government’s science commission was unwilling to fund Zuse’s further research—this was the same Nazi science commission which sent scouts across the Arctic ice to look for a possible hole leading to the Hollow Earth. They didn’t see the promise of electromechanical computation.

In the early 1940s, a rather large electromechanical relay-based computer called the Mark I was constructed at Harvard University under the leadership of Howard Aiken. Aiken’s funding was largely provided by Thomas J. Watson’s IBM. The Mark I could read data and instructions from punch cards, by then known as “IBM cards,” and was built of nearly a million parts. When it was running, the on/off clicking of its relays made a sound like a muffled hailstorm.

Electronic Computers

The next stage in the development of the computer was to replace electromechanical components by much faster electronic devices. In other words, use vacuum tubes instead of relays for your logic circuits and short-term memory storage. Although vacuum tubes look like rather sophisticated devices, they are a lot funkier than one first imagines. Storing one single bit of memory—a simple zero or one—typically took at least two vacuum tubes, arranged into a primitive circuit known as a flip-flop. Even in the 1950s, electrical engineers had to learn a lot about relays and flip-flop circuits. In his novel V., the ex-engineering student and master novelist Thomas Pynchon includes a jazzy ditty on this theme by his bebop jazz-musician character McClintic Sphere:

Flop, flip, once I was hip,

Flip, flop, now you’re on top,

Set-REset, why are BEset

With crazy and cool in the same molecule.

A man named John Atanasoff began building a small special purpose computer using 300 vacuum tubes for memory at Iowa State University around 1940. Atanasoff’s computer was intended for solving systems of linear equations, but he abandoned the project in 1942. It is unclear if his machine was ever fully operational. But this work was significant in that it demonstrated the possibility of making a computer with no moving parts. Babbage’s Analytical Engine would have been purely made of moving gears, the Mark I was a mixture of electrical circuits and spring-loaded relay switches, but Atanasoff’s device was completely electronic, and operated at a much faster speed.

The first general purpose electronic computer was the ENIAC (for “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”), completed at the Moore School of Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania in November, 1945. The ENIAC was primarily built by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. The funding for the project was obtained through the Ballistics Research Laboratory of the U.S. Army in 1943.

Although Mauchly contends that he thought of vacuum tube memories on his own, he did visit Atanasoff in 1941 to discuss electronic computing, so at the very least Atanasoff influenced Mauchly’s thought. In 1972, Atanasoff came out of obscurity to support the Honeywell corporation in a lawsuit to break the Sperry Rand corporation’s ownership of Eckert and Mauchly’s patents on their UNIVAC computer—a descendent of the ENIAC which Eckert and Mauchly had licensed to Sperry Rand. Although Honeywell and Atanasoff won the trial, this may have been a miscarriage of justice. The feeling among computer historians seems to be that Eckert and Mauchly deserve to be called the inventors of the electronic computer. Firstly, the ENIAC was a much larger machine than Atanasoff’s, secondly, the ENIAC was general purpose, and thirdly, the ENIAC was successfully used to solve independently proposed problems.

The original plan for the ENIAC was that it would be used to rapidly calculate the trajectories traveled by shells fired at different elevation angles at different air temperatures. When the project was funded in 1943, these trajectories were being computed either by the brute force method of firing lots of shells, or by the time-consuming methods of having office workers carry out step-by-step calculations of the shell paths according to differential equations.

As it happened, World War II was over by the time ENIAC was up and running, so ENIAC wasn’t actually ever used to compute any ballistic trajectories. The first computation ENIAC carried out was a calculation to test the feasibility of building a hydrogen bomb. It is said that the calculation used an initial condition of one million punch cards, with each punch card representing a single “mass point.” The cards were run though ENIAC, a million new cards were generated, and the million new cards would served as input for a new cycle of computation. The calculation was a numerical solution of a complicated differential equation having to do with nuclear fusion. You might say that the very first electronic computer program was a simulation of an H-bomb explosion. A long way from the Eccentric Anomaly of Mars.

The Von Neumann Architecture

The man who had the idea of running the H-bomb program on the ENIAC was the famous mathematician John von Neumann. As well as working in the weapons laboratory of Los Alamos, New Mexico, von Neumann was also consulting with the ENIAC team, which consisted of Mauchly, Eckert, and a number of others.

Von Neumann helped them draw up the design for a new computer to be called the EDVAC (for Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer). The EDVAC would be distinguished from the ENIAC by having a better memory, and by having the key feature of having an easily changeable stored program. Although the ENIAC read its input data off of punch cards, its program could only be changed by manually moving the wires on a plugboard and by setting scores of dials. The EDVAC would allow the user to feed in the program and the data on punch cards. As von Neumann would later put it:

Conceptually we have discussed…two different forms of memory: storage of numbers and storage of orders. If, however, the orders to the machine are reduced to a numerical code and if the machine can in some fashion distinguish a number from an order, the memory organ can be used to store both numbers and orders. [Arthur Burks, Herman Goldstine, and John von Neumann, “Preliminary Discussion of the Logical Design of an Electronic Computing Instrument,” reprinted in John von Neumann, Collected Works, (Macmillan ).]

Von Neumann prepared a document called “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC,” and sent it out to a number of scientists in June, 1945. Since von Neumann’s name appeared alone as the author of the report, he is often credited as the sole inventor of the modern stored program concept, which is not strictly true. The stored program was an idea which the others on the ENIAC team had also thought of—not to mention Charles Babbage with his Analytical Engine! Be that as it may, the name stuck, and the design of all the ordinary computers one sees is known as “the von Neumann architecture.”

Even if this design did not spring full-blown from von Neumann’s brow alone, he was the first to really appreciate how powerful a computer could be if it used a stored program, and he was an eminent enough man to exert influence to help bring this about. Initially the idea of putting both data and instructions into a computer’s memory seemed strange and heretical, not to mention too technically difficult.

The technical difficulty with storing a computer’s instructions is that the machine needs to be able to access these instructions very rapidly. You might think this could be handled by putting the instructions on, say, a rapidly turning reel of magnetic tape, but it turns out that a program’s instructions are not accessed by a single, linear read-through as would be natural for a tape. A program’s execution involves branches, loops and jumps; the instructions do not get used in a fixed serial order. What is really needed is a way to store all of the instructions in memory in such a way that any location on the list of instructions can be very rapidly accessed.

The fact that the ENIAC used such a staggering number of vacuum tubes raised the engineering problems of its construction to a pyramid-of-Cheops or man-on-the-moon scale of difficulty. That it worked at all was a great inspiration. But it was clear that something was going to have to be done about using all those tubes, especially if anyone wanted to store a lengthy program in a computer’s memory.

Mercury Memory

The trick for memory storage that would be used in the next few computers was almost unbelievably strange, and is no longer widely remembered: bits of information were to be stored as sound waves in tanks of liquid mercury. These tanks or tubes were also called “mercury delay lines.” A typical mercury tube was about three feet long and an inch in diameter, with a piezoelectric crystal attached to each end. If you apply an oscillating electrical current to a piezoelectric crystal it will vibrate; conversely, if you mechanically vibrate one of these crystals it will emit an oscillating electrical current. The idea was to convert a sequence of zeroes and ones into electrical oscillations, feed this signal to the near end of a mercury delay line, let the vibrations move through the mercury, have the vibrations create an electrical oscillation coming out of the far end of the mercury delay line, amplify this slightly weakened signal, perhaps read off the zeroes and ones, and then, presuming that continued storage was desired, feed the signal back into the near end of the mercury delay line. The far end was made energy-absorbent so as not to echo the vibrations back towards the near end.

How many bits could a mercury tube hold? The speed of sound (or vibrations) in mercury is roughly a thousand meters per second, so it takes about one thousandth of a second to travel the length of a one meter mercury tube. By making the vibration pulses one millionth of a second long, it was possible to send off about a thousand bits from the near end of a mercury tank before they started arriving at the far end (there to be amplified and sent back through a wire to the near end). In other words, this circuitry-wrapped cylinder of mercury could remember 1000 bits, or about 128 bytes. Today, of course, it’s common for a memory chip the size of your fingernail to hold many millions of bytes.

A monkey wrench was thrown into the EDVAC plans by the fact that Eckert and Mauchly left the University of Pennsylvania to start their own company. It was the British scientist Maurice Wilkes who first created a stored-program machine along the lines laid down by the von Neumann architecture. Wilkes’s machine, the EDSAC (for Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, where “Delay Storage” refers to the mercury delay lines used for memory), began running at Cambridge University in May 1949. Thanks to the use of the mercury memory tanks, the EDSAC needed only 3,000 vacuum tubes.

In an email to me, the mathematician John Horton Conway recalled:

As an undergraduate [at Cambridge University] I saw the mercury delay lines in the old EDSAC machine they had there. The mercury was in thick-walled glass tubes between 6 and 8 feet long, and continually leaked into the containing trays below. Nobody then (late ‘50s) seemed unduly worried about the risks of mercury poisoning.


Although Eckert and Mauchly were excellent scientists, they were poor businessmen. After a few years of struggle, they turned the management of their struggling computer company over to Remington-Rand (now Sperry-Rand). In 1952, the Eckert-Mauchly division of Remington-Rand delivered the first commercial computer systems to the National Bureau of Standards. These machines were called UNIVAC (for Universal Automatic Computer). The UNIVAC had a console, some tape readers, a few cabinets filled with vacuum tubes and a bank of mercury delay lines the size of a china closet. This mercury memory held about one kilobyte and it cost about half a million dollars.

The public became widely aware of the UNIVAC during the night of the presidential election of 1952: Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adalai Stevenson. As a publicity stunt, Remington-Rand arranged to have Walter Cronkite of CBS report a UNIVAC’s prediction of the election outcome based on preliminary returns—the very first time this now common procedure was done. With only seven percent of the vote in, UNIVAC predicted a landslide victory for Eisenhower. But Remington-Rand’s research director Arthur Draper was afraid to tell this to CBS! The pundits had expected a close election with a real chance of Stevenson’s victory, and UNIVAC’s prediction seemed counterintuitive. So the Draper had the Remington-Rand engineers quickly tweak the UNIVAC program to make it predict the expected result, a narrow victory by Eisenhower. When, a few hours later, it became evident that Eisenhower would indeed sweep the electoral college, Draper went on TV to improve UNIVAC’s reputation by confessing his subterfuge. One moral here is that a computer’s predictions are only as reliable as its operator’s assumptions.

UNIVACs began selling to businesses in a small way. Slowly, the giant IBM corporation decided to get into the computer business as well. Though their machines were not as good as the UNIVACs, IBM had a great sales force, and most businesses were in the habit of using IBM calculators and punch card tabulating machines. In 1956, IBM had pulled ahead, with 76 IBM computers installed vs. 46 UNIVACs.

Six Generations Of Computers

The 1950s and 1960s were the period when computers acquired many of their unpleasant associations. They were enormously expensive machines used only by large businesses and the government. The standard procedure for running a program on one of these machines was to turn your program into lines of code and to use a key punch machine to represent each line of code as a punch card. You would submit your little stack of punch cards, and when a sufficient number of cards had accumulated, your program would be run as part of a batch of programs. Your output would be a computer-printed piece of paper containing your output or, perhaps more typically, a series of cryptic error messages.

The history of computers from the 1950s to the 1970s is usually discussed in terms of four generations of computers.

The first generation of commercial computers ran from 1950 to about 1959. These machines continued to use vacuum tubes for their most rapid memory, and for the switching circuits of their logic and arithmetic units. The funky old mercury delay line memories were replaced by memories in which each bit was stored by a tiny little ring or “core” of a magnetizable compound called ferrite. Each core had three wires running through it, and by sending pulses of electricity through the wires, the bit in the core could be read or changed. Tens of thousands of these washer-like little cores would be woven together into a cubical “core stack” several inches on a side.

The second generation of computers lasted from 1959 to 1963. During this period, computers used transistors instead of vacuum tubes. By now the vast majority of computers were made by IBM, but one of the most famous second generation computers was the first PDP (Programmed Data Processor) model from the Digital Equipment Corporation. The PDP-1 was of key importance because it was the first machine which people could use in real time. That is, instead of waiting a day to get your batch-processed answers back, you could program the PDP-1 and get answers back right away via the electric typewriter. It also had a screen capable of displaying a dozen or so characters at a time.

The third generation of computers began with the IBM 360 series of computers in 1964. The first of these machines used “solid logic technology” in which several distinct electronic components were soldered together on a ceramic substrate. Quite soon, this kludge was replaced by small scale integrated circuits, in which a variety of electronic components were incorporated as etched patterns on a single piece of silicon. (A “kludge” is an ungainly bit of hardware or computer code.) Over the decade leading up to 1975, the integrated circuits got more and more intricate, morphing into what became called VLSI or “very large scale integrated” circuits.

The fourth generation of computers began in 1975, when VLSI circuits got so refined that a computer’s complete logical and arithmetic processing circuits could fit onto a single chip known as a microprocessor. A microprocessor is the heart of each personal computer or workstation, and every year a new, improved crop of them appears, not unlike Detroit’s annual new lines of cars.

Although computer technology continues to advance as rapidly as ever, people have dropped the talk about generations. The “generation of computer” categorization became devalued and confused. On the one hand, there was a lot of meaningless hype on the part of people saying they were out to “invent the fifth generation computer”—the Japanese computer scientists of the 1980s were particularly fond of the phrase. And on the other hand the formerly dynastic advance of computing split up into a family tree of cousins. Another reason for the demise of the “generation” concept is that rather than radically changing their design, microprocessor chips keep getting smaller and faster via a series of incremental rather than revolutionary redesigns.

One might best view the coming of the decentralized personal computers and desktop workstations as an ongoing fifth generation of computers. The split between the old world of mainframes and the new world of personal computers is crucial. And if you want to push the generation idea even further, it might make sense to speak of the widespread arrival of networking and the Web as a late 1990s development which turned all of the world’s computers into one single sixth generation computer—a new planet-wide system, a whole greater than its parts.

Moloch And The Hackers

Though it was inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the silhouette of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel against the 1955 San Francisco night skyline, the “Moloch” section of Allen Ginsberg’s supreme Beat poem “Howl” also captures the feelings that artists and intellectuals came to have about the huge mainframe computers such as UNIVAC and IBM:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch the smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

[Allen Ginsberg, Howl, (annotated edition), HarperPerennial 1995, p. 6. Our film still from Metropolis is found in this wonderful book.]


A Moloch machine in the movie Metropolis.

Despite the negative associations of computers, many of the people associated with these machines were not at all interested in serving the Molochs of big business and repressive government. Even the very first von Neumann architecture mainframe, the 1949 EDSAC, was occasionally used for playful purposes. The EDSAC designer Maurice Wilkes reports:

The EDSAC had a cathode ray tube monitor on which could be displayed…a matrix of 35 by 16 dots. It was not long before an ingenious programmer used these dots to make a primitive picture. A vertical line of dots in the center of the screen represented a fence; this fence had a hole in it that could be in either the upper or lower half of the screen, and by placing his hand in the light beam of the photoelectric paper tape reader, an operator could cause the hole to be moved from the lower half to the upper half. Periodically a line of dots would appear on the left hand side of the screen…in the upper or the lower half of the screen. If they met the hole in the fence, they would pass through; otherwise they would retreat. These dots were controlled by a learning program. If the operator moved the hole from top to bottom in some regular way, the learning program would recognize what was going on, and after a short time, the line of dots would always get through the hole. No one took this program very seriously. [Maurice Wilkes, Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer, (MIT Press).]

This kind of interactive, noodling computer exploration blossomed into a movement at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1960s and 1970s. The catalyst was the first interactive machine, the PDP-1, built by DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation). As mentioned above, with the “real-time” PDP-1, instead of handing your batch of punch cards to the priestly keepers of a hulking giant mainframe, you could sit down at a keyboard, type things in, and see immediate feedback on a screen.

Steven Levy’s wonderful book Hackers chronicles how the arrival of the PDP-1 at MIT in 1961 changed computing forever. A small cadre of engineering students began referring to themselves as computer hackers, and set to work doing creative things with the PDP-1. One of their most well-known projects was a video game called Spacewar, in which competing spaceships fired torpedoes at each other while orbiting around a central sun. Such games are of course a commonplace now, but Spacewar was the first.

When the improved PDP-6 arrived at MIT in the mid 1960s, it was used for a wide range of hacker projects, including The Great Subway Hack in which one of the hackers went down to New York City and managed to travel to every single subway stop using a single subway token, thanks to a schedule interactively updated by the PDP-6 on the basis of phone calls from MIT train spotters stationed around Manhattan.

(By the way, Brian Silverman and some other hackers have recently reconstructed Spacewar. They recreated a historically accurate binary source code for the program and are running it on a PDP-1 emulator they wrote in Java as a Java application that you can run over the Web.)

As I mentioned in the first essay, the meaning of the term “computer hacker” has changed over the years; “hacker” is now often used to refer to more or less criminal types who use computer networks for purposes of fraud or espionage. This linguistic drift has been driven by the kinds of stories about computers which the press chooses to report. Unable to grasp the concept of a purely joyous manipulation of information, the media prefer to look for stories about the dreary old Moloch themes of money, power and war. But in the original sense of the word, a computer hacker is a person who likes to do interesting things with machines—a person, if you will, who’d rather look at a computer monitor than at a television screen.

According to Steven Levy’s book, the MIT hackers went so far as to formulate a credo known as the Hacker Ethic:

1) Access to computers should be unlimited and total.

2) All information should be free.

3) Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.

4) Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

5) You can create art and beauty on a computer.

6) Computers can change your life for the better.”

[Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, (Doubleday).]

Personal Computers

When first promulgated, the principles of the Hacker Ethic seemed like strange, unrealistic ideas, but now there are ever-increasing numbers of people who believe them. This is mostly thanks to the fact that personal computers have spread everywhere.

In 1975, the Intel Corporation began making an integrated circuit chip which had an entire computer processor on it. The first of these chips used four-bit “words” of memory and was called the 4004; it was quickly followed by the eight-bit 8008. An obscure company called MITS (Model Instrumentation Telemetry Systems) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had the idea of putting the Intel 8008 chip in a box and calling it the Altair computer. A mock-up of the Altair appeared on the cover of the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics, and the orders began pouring in. This despite the daunting facts that: firstly, the Altair was sold simply as a kit of parts which you had to assemble; secondly, once the Altair was assembled the only way to put a program into it was by flicking switches (eight flicks per byte of program code); and thirdly, the only way to get output from it was to look at a row of eight tiny little red diode lights.

Nowhere was the Altair more enthusiastically greeted than in Silicon Valley, that circuit-board of towns and freeways that sprawls along the south end of the San Francisco Bay from San Jose to Palo Alto. This sunny, breezy terrain was already filled with electronics companies such as Fairchild, Varian and Hewlett-Packard, which did good business supplying local military contractors like Lockheed. Catalyzed by the Altair, a hobbyist group named the Homebrew Computer Club formed.

One of the early Homebrew high points was when a hardware hacker named Steve Dompier found that if he put his radio next to his Altair, the electrical fields from certain of the computer’s operations could make the radio hum at various pitches. After several days of feverish switch flicking, Dompier was able to make his Altair-plus-radio system play the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill”—followed by “Daisy,” the same song that the dying computer HAL sings in the classic science fiction movie 2001.

One of the regulars at the Homebrew Computer Club meetings was a shaggy young man named Steve Wozniak. Rather than assembling an Altair, Woz concocted his own computer out of an amazingly minimal number of parts. He and his friend Steve Jobs decided to go into business in a small way, and they sold about 50 copies of Wozniak’s first computer through hobbyist publications. The machine was called an Apple, and it cost $666.66. And then Wozniak and Jobs started totally cranking. In 1978 they released the Apple II, which had the power of the old mainframe computers of the 1960s…plus color and sound. The Apple II sold and sold; by 1980, Wozniak and Jobs were millionaires.

The next big step in the development of the personal computer happened in 1981 when IBM released its own personal computer, the IBM PC. Although not so well-designed a machine as the Apple II, the IBM PC had the revolutionary design idea of using an open architecture which would be easy for other manufacturers to copy. Each Apple computer included a ROM (read-only memory) chip with certain secret company operating system routines on it, and there was no way to copy these chips. IBM, on the other hand, made public the details of how its operating system worked, making it possible for people to clone it. Their processor was a standard eight-bit Intel 8088 (not to be confused with the Altair’s 8008), soon replaced by the sixteen-bit 8086. The floodgates opened and a torrent of inexpensive IBM PC compatible machines gushed into the marketplace. Apple’s release of the Macintosh in 1984 made the IBM PC architecture look shabbier than ever, but the simple fact that IBM PC clones were cheaper than Macintoshes led to these machines taking the lion’s share of the personal computer market. With the coming of the Microsoft Windows operating systems, the “Wintel” (for Windows software with Intel chips) clone machines acquired Mac-like graphic user interfaces that made them quite comfortable to use.

This brings us reasonably close to the present, so there’s not much point in going over more chronological details. One of the things that’s exciting about the history of computers is that we are living inside it. It’s still going on, and no final consensus opinion has yet been arrived at.

The Joy of Hacking

For someone who writes programs or designs computer hardware, there is a craftsperson’s pleasure in getting all the details right. One misplaced symbol or circuit wire can be fatal. Simply to get such an elaborate structure to work provides a deep satisfaction for certain kinds of people. Writing a program or designing a chip is like working a giant puzzle with rules that are, excitingly, never quite fully known. A really new design is likely to be doing things that nobody has ever tried to do before. It’s fresh territory, and if your hack doesn’t work, it’s up to you to figure out some way to fix things.

Hackers are often people who don’t relate well to other people. They enjoy the fact that they can spend so much time interacting with a non-emotional computer. The computer’s responses are clean and objective. Unlike, say, a parent or an officious boss, the computer is not going to give you an error message just because it doesn’t like your attitude or your appearance. A computer never listens to the bombast of the big men on campus or the snide chatter of the cheerleaders, no, the computer will only listen to the logical arabesques of the pure-hearted hacker.

Anyone with a computer is of necessity a bit of a hacker. Even if all you use is a word processor or a spread sheet and perhaps a little electronic mail, you soon get comfortable with the feeling that the space inside your computer is a place where you can effectively do things. You’re proud of the tricks you learn for making your machine behave. Thanks to your know-how, your documents are saved and your messages come and go as intended.

The world of the computer is safe and controlled; inside the machine things happen logically. At least this is how it’s supposed to be. The computer is meant to be a haven from the unpredictable chaos of interpersonal relations and the bullying irrationality of society at large. When things do go wrong with your computer—like when you suffer up the learning curve of a new program or, even worse, when you install new hardware or a new operating system—your anxiety and anger can grow quite out of proportion. “This was supposed to be the one part of the world that I can control!” But all computer ailments do turn out to be solvable, sometimes simply by asking around, sometimes by paying for a new part or for the healing touch of a technician. The world of the computer is a place of happy endings.

Another engaging thing about the computer is that its screen can act as a window into any kind of reality at all. Particularly if you write or use graphics programs, you have the ability to explore worlds never before seen by human eye. Physical travel is wearying, and travel away from Earth is practically impossible. But with a computer you can go directly to new frontiers just as you are.

The immediacy of a modern computer’s response gives the user the feeling that he or she is interacting with something that is real and almost alive. The space behind the screen merges into the space of the room, and the user enters a world that is part real and part computer—the land of cyberspace. Going outside after a long computer session, the world will look different, with physical objects and processes taking on the odd, numinous chunkiness of computer graphics and computer code. Sometimes new aspects of reality will become evident.

I’ve always felt like television is, on the whole, a bad thing. It’s kind of sad to be sitting there staring at a flickering screen and being manipulated. Using a computer is more interactive than watching television, and thus seems more positive. But even so, computers are somewhat like television and are thus to some extent forces of evil. I was forcefully reminded of this just yesterday, when my son Rudy and I stopped in at the Boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz.

Rudy’s twenty-five now, so we were cool about it and only went on two rides. The first was the Big Dipper, a wonderful old wooden roller coaster rising up right next to the Monterey Bay. The streaming air was cool and salty, the colors were bright and sun-drenched, and the cars moved though a long tunnel of sound woven from screams and rattles and carnival music and distant waves. It was wonderful.

The second ride we went on was a Virtual Reality ride in which nine people are squeezed into a windowless camper van mounted on hydraulic legs. On the front wall of the airless little van was a big screen showing a first-person view of a ride down—a roller coaster! As the virtual image swooped and jolted, the van’s hydraulic jacks bucked and shuddered in an attempt to create a kinesthetic illusion that you were really in the cyberspace of the virtual ride. Compared to fresh memory of the true roller coaster, the Virtual Reality ride was starkly inadequate and manipulative.

Compared to reality, computers will always be second best. But computers are here for us to use, and if we use them wisely, they can teach us to enjoy reality more than ever.

Note on “A Brief History of Computers”

Written August, 1996.

Appeared in Seek!, 1999.

When I wrote this piece, I was thinking of it as the start of a long book about computers and computation. Embedded in computer science as I was at that time, I found it very interesting to write my “Brief History of Computers” and learn the background of the machines that were more or less taking over my life. But I couldn’t quite find the right angle for making a book of the essay. So I just ran in in my nonfiction anthology Seek! And eight years later, in 2004, I finally wrote my big nonfiction book about computation, that is, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.

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Games, Intelligence, Enlightenment

I've been thinking about human intelligence, about the inevitability of intelligence in evolving systems. The idea is that intelligence arises from an ability to mentally simulate the world. Simulation is a powerful method for improving your survival ability; if you can simulate, you can plan and anticipate. Once you simulate the world, it follows almost automatically that you get an ability for abstract thought. One of the symbols you acquire is that of your Self. And only one step beyond that lies consciousness—at least if you agree with Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens (Harcourt 1999).

In his book, Damasio argues that consciousness amounts to forming a mental image of yourself observing the world. It’s not enough to just have an image of yourself in the world. To get consciousness, you go a step beyond that and add on a second-order symbol of the operating-system self that looks at the simulation.

In terms of how computer game designers think, the lower level self symbol within the simulation is the “player,” and the second-order self symbol that watches a copy of the simulation is the “user.”

Antonio Damasio’s notion of consciousness arises by this sequence:

(0) Being active in the world,

(1) Being able to perceive and distinguish separate objects in the word,

(2) Having a first-order simulation of the world including a “player,” that is, a self-token representing you, and,

(3) Having a second-order simulation in which there is a “user” which represents you observing a first-order simulation.

Another way to put it is that in step (3) you simulate a second-order self token which mimics your behavior of observing a simulation of the world with a first-order self token. You simulate yourself watching the world and “playing the game.” Step (3) might arise from the necessity to realize that the creatures like yourself around you are also playing the game, that is, doing (2). Rephrasing this, once you do step (3), it’s natural to do a step (3A) in which the other intelligent agents of the world are also represented by first-order tokens, each of which is to have its own simulation of the world and itself.

A snail doesn’t even have (1). I’m not sure if a dog has (2) or not, maybe only fleetingly. As I recall, in The Sense of What Happens, Damasio talks about some brain-damaged people who have (2) but not (3). Philosophically, this goes back to something I wrote about in Infinity and the Mind: self-awareness leads to an infinite regress. At step (1) and (2) we don’t have the regress, but right away at step (3) we do have the regress, because now the agent is “thinking about itself thinking,” and we can nest thought-balloons all the way down. So once you have step (3), you inevitably have (4), (5), (6), and so on.

In terms of the game analogy, we might say that in stage (4), you simulate a “designer” who observes the “user” interacting with the “player.” And so on.

It’s fitting that at the same stage (3) where we reach consciousness we introduce a kind of dynamic that leads to infinity—this is reasonable and pleasing, given that it’s so natural to think of the mind as being infinite. The early stages beyond (3) are levels that we experience, when unpleasant, as self-consciousness and irony, or, when pleasant, as maturity and self-knowledge.

If you run the regress right out through all the natural numbers, you get a kind of enlightenment which is, however, illusory, as right away you can ask for a level “infinity plus one.”

The real enlightenment is the one you can’t finish, it’s the unthinkable Absolute Infinity that lies beyond all the humanly conceivable levels of merely mathematical infinities. To my way of thinking, reaching Absolute Infinity would be akin to getting back to stage (0) again.

Stage (0), viewed in a positive way, might be thought of as experiencing the world with an empty mind, no model of it needed, no image, no notion of objects, simply the world in and of itself, letting “the world think me” instead of “me thinking the world.”

A Note on “A Note on Games, Intelligence, Enlightenment”

Written in 2001.


This short essay was an inspiration I had in Italy after giving a talk in Rimini. I was there to receive, for some reason, the medal of Italian Senate. It was very gratifying. The award ceremony was coupled with an academic conference. It was exciting to be in Rimini, which was Federico’s Fellini’s home town—we conference attendees were in fact lodged in the same Grand Hotel that appears in Fellini’s Amarcord. Walking around town on my own, I had some profound (or seemingly profound) insights into the nature of consciousness, and it became clear to me that the evolution of consciousness is more or less inevitable for any species on any world. This material eventually made it’s way into my tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.

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Adventures In Gnarly Computation

Everything Is A Computation

What is reality? One type of answer to this age-old question has the following format: “Everything is ________.” Over the years I’ve tried out lots of different ways to fill in the blank: particles, bumps in spacetime, thoughts, mathematical sets, and more. I once had a friend who liked to say, “The universe is made of jokes.”

Now there may very well be no correct way to fill in the “Everything is” blank. It could be that reality is fundamentally pluralistic, that is, made of up all kinds of fundamentally incompatible things. Maybe there really isn’t any single one underlying substance. But it’s interesting to think that perhaps there is.

Lately I’ve been working to convince myself that everything is a computation. I call this belief universal automatism. Computations are everywhere, once you begin to look at things in a certain way. The weather, plants and animals, your personal thoughts and shifts of mood, society’s history and politics—all computations.

One handy aspect of computations is that they occur at all levels and in all sizes. When you say that everything’s made of elementary particles, then you need to think of large-scale objects as being made of a zillion tiny things. But computations come in all scales, and an ordinary natural process can be thought of as a single high-level computation.

If I want to say that all sorts of processes are like computations, it’s to be expected that my definition of computation must be fairly simple. I go with the following: A computation is a process that obeys finitely describable rules.

People often suppose that a computation has to “find an answer” and then stop. But our general notion of computation allows for computations that run indefinitely. If you think of your life as a kind of computation, it’s quite abundantly clear that there’s not going to be a final answer and there won’t be anything particularly wonderful about having the computation halt! In other words, we often prefer a computation to yield an ongoing sequence of outputs rather than to attain one final output and turn itself off.

Everything is a Gnarly Computation

If we suppose that many natural phenomena are in effect computations, the study of computer science can tell us about the kinds of natural phenomena that can occur. Starting in the 1980s, the scientist-entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram did a king-hell job of combing through vast seas of possible computations, getting a handle on the kinds of phenomena that can occur, exploring the computational universe.

Simplifying just a bit, we can say that Wolfram found three kinds of processes: the predictable, the random-looking, and what I term the gnarly. These three fall into a Goldilocks pattern.

Too cold (predictable). Processes that produce no real surprises. This may be because they die out and become constant, or because they’re repetitive in some way. The repetitions can be spatial, temporal, or scaled so as to make fractally nested patterns that are nevertheless predictable.

Too hot (random-looking). Processes that are completely scuzzy and messy and dull, like white noise or video snow. The programmer William Gosper used to refer to computational rules of this kind as “seething dog barf.”

Just right (gnarly). Processes that are structured in interesting ways but nonetheless unpredictable. In computations of this kind we see coherent patterns moving around like gliders; these patterns produce large-scale information transport across the space of the computation. Gnarly processes often display patterns at several scales. We find them fun to watch because they tend to appear as if they’re alive.

Gnarliness lies between predictability and randomness. It’s an interface phenomenon like organic life, poised between crystalline order and messy deliquescence.

Why do I use the world gnarly? Well, the original meaning of “gnarl” was simply “a knot in the wood of a tree.” In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to be used to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions. And then, by extension, something gnarly came to be anything with surprisingly intricate detail. As a late-arriving and perhaps over-assimilated Californian, I get a kick out of the word.

Clouds, fire, and water are gnarly in the sense of being beautifully intricate, with purposeful-looking but not quite comprehensible patterns. Although the motion of a projectile through a empty space would seem to be predictable, if we add in the effects of mutually interacting planets and suns, the calculation may become gnarly. And earthly objects moving through water or air tend to leave a turbulent wakes—which very definitely involve gnarly computations.

All living things are gnarly, in that they inevitably do things that are much more complex than one might have expected. The shapes of tree branches are of course the standard example of gnarl. The life cycle of a jellyfish is way gnarly. The wild three-dimensional paths that a humming-bird sweeps out are kind of gnarly too, and, if the truth be told, your ears are gnarly as well.

Needless to say, the human mind is gnarly. I’ve noticed, for instance, that my moods continue to vary even if I manage to behave optimally and think nice correct thoughts about everything. I might suppose that this is because my moods are affected by other factors—such as diet, sleep, exercise, and biochemical processes I’m not even aware of. But a more computationally realistic explanation is simply that my emotional state is the result of a gnarly unpredictable computation, and any hope of full control is a dream.

Still on the topic of psychology, consider trains of thought, the free-flowing and somewhat unpredictable chains of association that the mind produces when left on its own. Note that trains of thoughts need not be formulated in words. When I watch, for instance, a tree branch bobbing in the breeze, my mind plays with the positions of the leaves, following them and automatically making little predictions about their motions. And then the image of the branch might be replaced by a mental image of a tiny man tossed up high into the air. His parachute pops open and he floats down towards a city of lights. I recall the first time I flew into San Jose, and how it reminded me of a great circuit board. I remind myself that I need to see about getting a new computer soon, and then in reaction, I think about going for a bicycle ride. And so on.

Society, too is carrying out gnarly computations. The flow of opinion, the gyrations of the stock markets, the ebb and flow of success, the accumulation of craft and invention—gnarly, dude.

So What?

If you were to believe all the ads you see, you might imagine that the latest personal computers have access to new, improved methods that lie wholly beyond the abilities of older machines. But computer science tells us that if I’m allowed to equip my old machine with additional memory chips, then I can always get it to behave like any new computer at all.

This carries over to the natural world. Many naturally occurring processes are not only gnarly, they’re capable of behaving like any other kind of computation. Wolfram feels that this behavior is very common, and he formulates this notion in the claim that he calls the Principle of Computational Equivalence (PCE): Almost all processes that are not obviously simple can be viewed as computations of equivalent sophistication.

If the PCE is true, then, for instance, a leaf fluttering in the breeze outside my window is as computationally rich a system as my brain. I seem to be a fluttering leaf? Some scientists find this notion an affront. Personally, I find serenity in accepting that the flow of my thoughts and moods is a gnarly computation that’s fundamentally the same as a cloud, a flame, or a fluttering leaf. It’s soothing to realize that my mind’s processes are inherently uncontrollable. Looking at the waving branches of trees calms me down.

But rather than arguing for the full PCE, I think it’s worthwhile to formulate a slightly weaker claim, which I call the Principle of Computational Unpredictability (PCU):Most naturally occurring complex computations are unpredictable.

In the PCU, I’m using “unpredictable” in a specific computer-science sense; I’m saying that a computation is unpredictable if there’s no fast shortcut way to predict its outcomes. If a computation is unpredictable and you want to know what state it’ll be in after, say, a million steps, you pretty much have to crunch out those million steps to find out what’s going to happen.

Traditional science is all about finding shortcuts. Physics 101 teaches students to use Newton’s laws to predict how far a cannonball will travel when shot into the air at a certain angle and with a certain muzzle-velocity. But, as I mentioned above, in the case of a real object moving through the air, if we want to get full accuracy in describing the object’s motions, we need to take the turbulent flow of air into account. At least at certain velocities, flowing fluids are known to produce computationally complex patterns—think of the bumps and ripples that move back and forth along the lip of a waterfall, or of eddies of milk stirred into coffee. So an earthly object’s motion will often be carrying out a gnarly computation, and these computations are unpredictable—meaning that the only certain way to get a really detailed prediction of an artillery shell’s trajectory through the air is to simulate the motion every step of the way. The computation performed by the physical motion is unpredictable in the sense of not being reducible to a quick shortcut method. (By the way, simulating trajectories was the very purpose for which the U. S. funded the first electronic computer, ENIAC, in 1946, the same year in which I was born.)

Physical laws provide, at best, a recipe for how the world might be computed in parallel particle by particle and region by region. But—unless you have access to some so-far-unavailable ultra-super computer that simulates reality faster than the world does itself—the only way to actually learn the results is to wait for the actual physical process to work itself out. There is a fundamental gap between T-shirt physics equations and the unpredictable gnarl of daily life.

Some SF Thought Experiments

One of the nice things about science fiction is that it lets us carry out thought experiments. Mathematicians adopt axioms and deduce the consequences. Computer scientists write programs and observe the results of letting the programs run. Science fiction writers put characters into a world with arbitrary rules and work out what happens.

Science fiction is a powerful futurological tool because, in practice, there are no quick shortcuts for predicting the effects of new technological developments. Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects in your novelistic reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.

This relates to the ideas I’ve been talking about. We can’t predict in advance the outcomes of naturally occurring gnarly systems; we can only simulate (with great effort) their evolution step by step. In other words, when it comes to futurology, only the most trivial changes to reality have easily predictable consequences. If I want to imagine what our world will be like one year after the arrival of, say, soft plastic robots, the only way to get a realistic vision is to fictionally simulate society’s reactions during the intervening year.

These days I’ve been working on a fictional thought experiment about using natural systems to replace conventional computers. My starting point is the observed fact that gnarly natural systems compute much faster than our supercomputers. Although in principle, a supercomputer can simulate a given natural process, such simulations are at present very much slower than what nature does. It’s a simple matter of resources: a natural system is inherently parallel, with all its parts being updated at once. And a ordinary sized object is made up of something on the order of an octillion atoms (that’s ten to the 27th power) . Naturally occurring systems update their states much faster than our digital machines can model the process is That’s why existing computer simulations of reality are still rather crude.

(Let me insert a deflationary side-remark on the Singularity that’s supposed to occur when intelligent computers begin designing even more intelligent computers and so on. Perhaps the end result of this kind of process won’t be a god. Perhaps it’ll be something more like a wind-riffled pond, a campfire, or a fly buzzing around your backyard. Nature is, after all, already computing at the maximum possible flop.)

Now let’s get into my own thought experiment. If we could harness a natural system to act as a computer for us, we’d have what you might call a paracomputer that totally outstrips anything that our man-made beige buzzing desktop machines can do. I say “paracomputer” not “computer” to point out the fact that this is a natural object which behaves like computer, as opposed to being a high-tech totem that we clever monkeys made. Wolfram’s PCE suggests that essentially any gnarly natural process could be used as a paracomputer.

A natural paracomputer would be powerful enough to be in striking range of predicting other natural systems in real time or perhaps even a bit faster than real time. The problem with our naturally-occurring paracomputers is that they’re not set up for the kinds of tasks we like to use computers for—like predicting the stock-market, rendering Homer Simpson, or simulating nuclear explosions.

To make practical use of paracomputers we need a solution to what you might call the codec or coding-decoding problem. If you want to learn something specific from a simulation, you have to know how to code your data into the simulation and how to decode it back out. Like suppose you’re going to make predictions about the weather by reading tea-leaves. To get concrete answers, you code today’s weather into a cup of tea, which you’re using as a paracomputer. You swirl the cup around, drink the tea, look at the leaves, and decode the leaf pattern into tomorrow’s weather. Codec.

This is a subtle point, so let me state it again. Suppose that you want to simulate the market price of a certain stock, and that you have all the data and equations to do it, but the simulation is so complicated that it requires much more time than the real-time period you want to simulate. And you’d like to turn this computation into, say, the motions of some wine when you pour it back and forth between two glasses. You know the computational power is there in the moving wine. But where’s the codec? How do you feed the market trends into the wine? How do you get the prediction numbers out? Do you drink the paracomputer?

Finding the codec that makes a given paracomputer useful for a particular task is a hard problem, but once you have the codec, your paracomputer can solve things very fast. But how to find the codec? Well, let’s use an SF cheat, let’s suppose that one of the characters in our thought experiment is, oh, a mathematical genius who creates a really clever algorithm for rapidly finding codecs that are, if not perfect, at least robust enough for practical use.

So now suppose that we’re able, for instance, to program the wind in the trees and use it as a paracomputer. Then what? For the next stage of my thought experiment, I’m thinking about a curious real-world limitative result that could come into play. This is the Margolus-Levitin theorem, which says that there’s some maximum computational rate that any limited region of spacetime can perform at any given energy level. (See for instance Seth Lloyd’s paper, “The Computational Capacity of the Universe”.) The limit is pretty high—some ten-to-the-fiftieth bit-flips per second on a room-temperature laptop—but SF writers love breaking limits.

In the situation I’m visualizing, a couple of crazy mathematicians (some things never change!) make a paracomputer from a vibrating membrane, use clever logic to find desired codecs, and set the paracomputer to predicting it’s own outputs. I expect the feedback process to produce an ever-increasing amount of computation within the little paracomputer. The result is that the device is on the point of violating the Margolus-Levitin limit, and perhaps the way the universe copes with this is by bulging out a big extra hump of spacetime in the vicinity of the paracomputer. And this hump acts as—a tunnel to a higher universe inhabited by, of course, super-intelligent humanoid cockroaches and carnivorous flying cone shell mollusks!

Now let’s turn the hard-SF knob up to eleven. Even if we had natural paracomputers, we’d still be limited by the PCU, the principle that most naturally occurring computations are unpredictable. Your paracomputers can speed things up by a linear factor because they’re so massively parallel. Nevertheless, by the PCU, most problems would resist being absolutely crushed by clever shortcuts. The power of the paracomputer may indeed let you predict tomorrow’s weather, but eventually the PCU catches up with you. You still can’t predict, say, next week’s weather. Even with a paracomputer you might be able to approximately predict a person’s activities for half an hour, but not to a huge degree of accuracy, and certainly not out to a time several months away. The PCU makes prediction impossible for extended periods of time.

Now, being a science-fiction writer, when I see a natural principle, I wonder if it could fail. Even if it’s a principle such as the PCU that I think is true. (An inspiration here is a story by Robert Coates, “The Law,” in which the law of averages fails. The story first appeared in the New Yorker of Nov 29, 1947, and can also be found in Clifton Fadiman’s The Mathematical Magpie.)

So now let’s suppose that, for their own veiled reasons, the alien cockroaches and cone shells teach our mathematician heroes some amazing new technique that voids the PCU! This notion isn’t utterly inconceivable. Consider, for instance, how drastically the use of language speeds up the human thought process. Or the way that using digital notion speeds up arithmetic. Maybe there’s some thought tool we’ve never even dreamed of that can in fact crush any possible computation into a few quick chicken-scratches on the back of a business card. So our heroes learn this trick and they come back to spread the word.

And then we’ve got a world where the PCU fails. This is a reality where we can rapidly predict all kinds of things arbitrarily far into the future: weather, moods, stocks, health. A world where people have oracles. SF is all about making things immediate and tactile, so let’s suppose that a oracle is like a magic mirror. You look into it and ask it a question about the future, and it always gives you the right answer. Nice simple interface. What would it be like to live in a world with oracles?

I’m not sure yet. I’m still computing the outcome of this sequence of thought experiments—the computation consists of writing an SF novel called Mathematicians in Love.

How Gnarly Computation Ate My Brain

I got my inspiration for universal automatism from two computer scientists: Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram. In the 1980s Fredkin (see began saying that the universe is a particular kind of computation called a cellular automaton (CA for short). The best-known CA is John Conway’s Game of Life, but there are lots of others. I myself have done research involving CAs, and have perpetrated two separate free software packages for viewing them.

Wolfram is subtler than Fredkin; he doesn’t say that the universe is a cellular automaton. Wolfram feels that the most fundamental secret-of-the-life type computation should instead be something like a set of rules for building up a network of lines and dots. He’s optimistic about finding the ultimate rule; recently I was talking to him on the phone and he said he had a couple of candidates, and was trying to grasp what it might mean to say that the secret of the universe might be some particular rule with some particular rule number. Did someone say 42?

I first met Wolfram at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in 1984; I was a freelancer writing an article about cellular automata destined for, as chance would have it, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (April, 1987). You might say that Wolfram converted me on the spot. I moved to Silicon Valley, retooled , and became a computer science professor at San Jose State University (SJSU), also doing some work as a programmer for the computer graphics company Autodesk. I spent the last twenty years in the dark Satanic mills of Silicon Valley. Originally I thought I was coming here as a kind of literary lark—like an overbold William Blake manning a loom in Manchester. But eventually I went native on the story. It changed the way I think.

For many years, Wolfram promised to publish a book on his ideas, and finally in 2002 he published his monumental A New Kind of Science, now readable in its entirety online. I like this book exceedingly; I think it’s the most important science book of our generation. At one point, my SJSU grad students and I even created a website for it.

I’d been kind of waiting for Wolfram to write his book before I wrote my own book about the meaning of computation. So once he was done, I was ready to brush the lint of bytes and computer code off myself, step into the light, and tell the world what I learned among the machines. The result: The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005).

Where did I get my book’s title? I invented the word “lifebox” some years ago to describe a hypothetical technological gizmo for preserving a human personality. In my book title, I’m using “Lifebox” as shorthand for the universal automatist thesis that everything, even human consciousness, is a computation.

The antithesis is the fact that nobody is really going to think that a wised-up cell-phone is alive. We all feel we have something that’s not captured by any mechanical model—it’s what we commonly call the soul.

My synthesis is that gnarly computation can breathe life and soul into a lifebox. The living mind has a churning quality, like the eddies in the wake of a rock in a stream—or like the turbulent patterns found in cellular automata. Unpredictable yet deterministic CAs can be found in nature, most famously in the patterns of the Wolfram-popularized South Pacific sea snail known as the textile cone. Thus the “seashell” of my book title. (You an search my blog for “cone shell” for information about these venomous mollusks.)

Coming back to Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, a lot of people seem to have copped an attitude about this book. Although it sold a couple of hundred thousand copies, many of the reviews were negative, and it’s my impression that people are not enthusiastically taking up his ideas. Given that I think these ideas are among the most important new intellectual breakthroughs of our time, I have to wonder about the resistance.

I see three classes of reasons why scientists haven’t embraced universal automatism. (1) Dislike the messenger. Thanks to the success of his Mathematica software, Wolfram is a millionaire entrepreneur rather than a professor. Perhaps as a result, he has a hard-sell writing style, an iconoclastic attitude towards current scientific practice, and a sometimes cavalier attitude towards the niceties of sharing credit. (2) Dislike the form of the message. Some older scientists resent the expansion of computer science and the spread of computational technology. If you hate and fear computers, you don’t want to hear the world is made of computations! (3) Dislike the content of the message. Wolfram’s arguments lead to the conclusion that many real-world scientific questions are impossible to solve. Being something of a perennial enfant terrible, Wolfram is prone to putting this as bluntly as possible, in effect saying that traditional science is a blind alley, a waste of time. Even though he’s to some extent right, it’s hardly surprising that the mandarins of science aren’t welcoming him with open arms.

One thing that sets my book off from Wolfram’s is the goal. At this point in my life, I don’t worry very much about convincing anyone of anything. To me the real purpose of writing a science book is to achieve personal enlightenment. And to get new ideas for science fiction novels.

On the enlightenment front, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul ends with a discussion of six keys to happiness, drawn from considerations involving six successively higher levels of gnarly computation. And these will make a nice note upon which to end this article.

Computer science. Turn off the machine. Nature computes better than any buzzing box.

Physics. See the gnarl. The world is doing interesting things all the time. Keep an eye on the clouds, on water, and on the motions of plants in the wind.

Biology. Pay attention to your body. It’s at least as smart as your brain. Listen to it, savor its complexities.

Psychology. Release your thoughts from obsessive loops. Avoid repetition and go for the gnarl.

Sociology. Open your heart. Others are complex as you. Each of us is performing much the same kind of computation. You’re not the center.

Philosophy. Be amazed. The universe is an inexplicable miracle.

Note on “Adventures in Gnarly Computation”

Written in 2005.

Appeared in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, October 2005.

This short essay is adapted from The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How To Be Happy. It’s always nice to publish a bit of science in Asimov’s, and my fellow SF writers seemed to enjoy the material.

Table of Contents
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Web Mind

The Web As a Model For the Mind

My Web Mind column is meant to be a clear-channel broadcast of a mad scientist’s wild ideas. Like the good Dr. Frankenstein, one of my pet interests is the creation of life. For the first few columns I’m going to be talking about how (and why) you might go about making a computer copy of your mind.

This summer I read a terrific book by Margaret Wertheim called The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (W. W. Norton, 1999).

She starts with this idea: the invention of pictorial perspective paved the way for Newtonian physics. This happened because perspective provides a tool for mapping unbounded three-dimensional space onto a finitely large two-dimensional canvas: the whole world in a square meter of cloth! Each object of the world gets assigned to one particular location upon the picture plane and, looking from the picture back out at the world, we can then see that the individual objects are contained in an all-encompassing world-space. Perspective teaches us to think of each object’s location as mapped into a mathematical (x, y, z) triple of coordinate numbers—and this is the space of mathematical physics.

It’s fascinating to think that a new trick of artists made it possible to invent physics. Art matters! Accustomed as we are to seeing photographs, the perspective mapping of the world onto a square of paper seems obvious, even trivial, but it took people a long time to come up with it. And it was impossible for people to do modern physics until they had the idea of a unified underlying space. So, yes, maybe the invention of perspective really did lead to physics.

Wertheim’s next step is the following: people used to have a notion of God as an entity that lived in physical space, but once Newtonian physics had made space into a Cartesian three-dimensional construct it seemed likely that God would have to live elsewhere. In the nineteenth century there was a feeling that God might live in the fourth dimension, but in post-Einsteinian physics has make all of the physical space dimensions into scientific constructs as well. Wertheim feels that we might now usefully ask ourselves if there is some tendency for present-day people to think of God as somehow located in cyberspace. Wertheim compares the science-fictional notion of making a software copy of oneself to the traditional religious notion of having a soul that goes to heaven, and suggests that if souls can be thought of as going into cyberspace, then perhaps some people might expect to find God in there as well.

Let’s pause here to specify what is meant by the word “cyberspace.” One can usually think of “cyberspace” as simply a sexy word for “the Web” or “the Internet.” A little more generally, you can speak of cyberspace as a manifold containing all the kinds of data that one might conceivably access via a computer. My feeling is that cyberspace exists more as a container that holds data, rather than saying that cyberspace has an existence in and of itself. That is, I’d say that cyberspace is something like a pure, idealized, pre-quantum-mechanical vacuum: a content-free domain of positional possibility. But, just as it makes sense to inquire about the spatial dimensionality of an empty vacuum, it makes sense to talk about the dimensionality of cyberspace, and we’ll get into this question below.

Before getting to that, I’d like to make some remarks about the structure of cyberspace and of the human mind, to look for similarities between the two, and to speculate about future developments in philosophy and science. In the most concise possible form, the main idea I’m going to investigate here is the following.

Web : Mind :: Perspective : Space.

Might it be that the newborn Web provides a mapping tool which will lead to a mathematics of the human mind? As Marshall McCluhan taught, the effects of new media are wide-ranging and unpredictable.

I have three reasons for thinking the Web is good for modeling the mind. First of all, the Web can display any type of media. Secondly, the Web has a hyperlinked structure reminiscent of mental associations. Thirdly, the Web and the mind’s pattern of links are mathematical fractals of a similar kind.

Regarding the first point, the Web, a. k. a. cyberspace, is a network containing all the kinds of data that one might conceivably access via a computer. In and of itself, the Web is not limited to any particular form of media. It can dole out printed words, sounds, images, movies, or active programs. Just like the mind.

The second point has to do with the fact that the Web pages by which we access Web data are written in hypertext (as in “Hypertext Markup Language,” a.k.a. HTML). One of the essential features of hypertext is that it contains hyperlinks: buttons you use to hyperjump to different locations in the hypertext. Later on, we’ll look at how this compares to the mind’s process of making associations.

And thirdly, I feel that the mind and Web are both fractals, specifically they are fractals of a similar kind of dimensionality. Before arguing this any further, I’d like to give you some background on fractals.

The word “fractal” was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot, Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension (Freeman, 1977). It means a shape that has an exceedingly fragmented form, but which also has a certain kind of regularity. The regularity of a fractal lies in its self-similarity. If you select a small part of a fractal and magnify this part, then the magnified image will resemble the entire fractal shape itself.

Fractals can be either regular or random according to whether the small pieces of the fractal bear an exact or only a statistical resemblance to the whole form. The figure below shows three stages in the construction of a regular fractal called the Koch curve. We generate it by repeatedly replacing each line-segment by a little wiggle.


The Helge von Koch curve, a fractal of dimension 1.26.

The “dimension” of a regular fractal is given by this rubric: If looking P times as hard at a shape shows Q times as much structure, then the fractal dimension of the shape is log Q / log P. Each time you magnify the Koch curve by a factor of three, you see four times as many pieces, so I say it has dimensionality log 4/log 3. For a straight line, when I make it three times bigger I see three times as many pieces, so it has dimensionality log 3 / log 3 = 1. If I make a square three times bigger, I see 9 times as many pieces, and it turns out that log 9 / log 3 is 2.

Don’t worry much about the log function here, the basic point is simply that the bumpier and granular the fractal, the higher its dimension. And the maximum dimensionality of a fractal is bounded by the space that it sits in. The Koch curve is an unruly line in two-dimensional plane, and it’s thought of as having dimension 1.26. A mountain is a messy surface in three-dimensional space, and its dimensionality might be something like 2.1. If we had a sufficiently spiky fractal we might actually need a higher N-dimensional space to hold it without its part having to overlap.

Speaking of mountains, the parts of a mathematical fractal need not be perfect copies of the whole. It’s perfectly all right to have the patterns vary a bit from level to level. The idea is that a spur on a mountain looks quite a bit like the whole mountain, even though it isn’t an exact replica. The outcroppings on the spur in turn resemble the spur, even though they aren’t scale models of it. The outcroppings have mountainous little bumps on them, and the bumps have little jags, and if you get a magnifying glass you’ll find zigs and zags upon the jags.

Among the physical forms that are commonly thought of as being like fractals are the following. Dimensions between 1 and 2: coastlines, trees, river drainage basins. Dimensions between 2 and 3: mountains, clouds, sponges. Fractal forms are found within the human body as well. Among these are the circulatory system, the nervous system, the texture of the skin, the eye’s iris, the convoluted surface of the brain, and the spongy masses of the internal organs.

A tree is a particular kind of fractal that’s particularly important for the present discussion. If you look closely at a tree, you’ll readily notice that it has a trunk with big branches. There are subbranches coming off of the branches, and there are subsubbranches upon the subbranches, and so on through five to seven levels of branching.

I used to have the mistaken idea that a tree branched by splitting the tips of its branches, but this isn’t really the way it works. The way that real trees grow is that a new branch forms upon the smooth part of any sufficiently long piece. That is, it’s useful to think of “side-branching” trees rather than “tip-branching” trees. Below is four steps in the construction of a so-called Tokunga tree which actually ends up with a dimension of 2, that is, it fills up space.


A branching tree, a fractal of dimension 1.46.

River drainage basins approach being side-branching Tokunga trees, as are the blood vessels in your body or the veins in leaf. Side-branching trees manage to fill up all the space available to them.

You might object to my calling a physical object like a leaf or an oak tree a fractal, because, for instance, your oak’s branching structure does not in fact have endlessly many levels of detail (as a true mathematical fractal would). When you get down to the twig level, the parts no longer resemble the whole. No matter. Even though an actual physical tree has a limited number of branching levels, it can be useful to think of it being a fractal. What we’re doing here is a special kind of idealization in which we approximates high complexity by infinite complexity. Oddly enough, this makes things easier. As the mathematician Stan Ulam once said about a particular problem, “The infinite case is easy. The finite case takes too long.”

Alright, now I’m ready to state my point. Both the Web and the mental world of your ideas are side-branching N-dimensional fractal trees.

The Web and the Mind Are Fractals

In the first part of this essay, I said that the Web might be a good model for the human mind. I said that one reason for this is that both the Web and the mind are like fractals. And then I spent the rest of the column explaining what a fractal is. Now let’s why the Web and the mind are indeed similar kinds of fractals.

There is a loose sense in which thinking is like moving about in a space of ideas. I visit this notion or emotion, then that one, and then perhaps I return to the first thought. My familiar thoughts are somewhat fixed and persistent, a bit like objects in a landscape. Suppose that I use the word “mindscape” to stand for the manifold of possible thoughts.

There’s clearly some overlap between my mindscape and yours. It’s suggestive to imagine that our mindscapes are really just different views of one Platonic super-mindscape. It’s like we’re in different rooms in a big town looking at the city outside. Though it’s hard for us to see the stuff hidden in each others’ rooms, when we look out our windows we pretty much the same collection of streets, buildings, clouds, mountains, pedestrians and so on. And if you can’t see a particular mindscape sight from where you are, I can tell you a way to get there.

But looking at the mindscape really isn’t very much like looking out a window after all. Things change, and split, and melt together. Each thought sets off fireworks of associations that in turn lead to further thoughts. You start out thinking about a soda, and the next thing you know you’re thinking about tap-dancing.

One of the reasons I love writing is because language is itself so slippery and fractal. Many words and phrases have the peculiar property of meaning, or at least suggesting, several different things. And a given passage of text can sometimes be interpreted at several levels.

Language evolved both to describe the world around us, but also as a way for people to represent the contents of their own minds. “What are you thinking?” “Well, let me tell you.”

Just like the mind, language itself has a branching quality. Suppose, for instance, you were to make a diagram with a word at each node. And now suppose you drew a line from each word to every other word that appears in, say, the standard dictionary definition of the first word. What a mess! Everything’s stuck to everything else.

Earlier I talked about a kind of fractal curve (the Koch curve) where a new bump buds out of the middle of every line. We can see this kind of thing happening in thought as follows.

Suppose I say that A (soda) reminds me of B (tap-dancing). Then I have a node A, a node B, and a line between them. But now you ask me about why A reminds me of B, I form a bump C, which holds a concept having to do with the connecting branch. C might be, for instance, the Rockettes.

Soda reminds me of tap-dancing because of the Rockettes. What could be more obvious? Obvious to me, but not to you! So now I make the bump bumpier. I’ve got an image of myself as a twelve-year-old boy at Radio City Music Hall drinking a Pepsi (sponsor product placement!) watching the Rockettes. Fine. But there’s another bump upon this. I’ve never been inside Radio City Music Hall. It was my boyhood friend Niles who went there, and he told me about it so vividly that I felt like I’d seen it myself. So now I better tell you about Niles and me back in 1950s Louisville…

A and B lead to C, D, E, and on beyond Z.

Another example. The figure below shows a sketch of a language net that I drew in Virginia in 1987. It starts from the sentence, “I picked up a lit cigarette from the ashtray to the right of the keyboard and took a puff.”

Figure 17: A fractal association net in my mindscape of 1987.

Although Figure 17 is drawn in the form of a branching tree, one should really think of each of the link lines as itself having further lines come off of it. The replacement step I have in mind appears in Figure 18.

Figure 18: The way the branching “actually” works.

If we were to repeatedly perform the step in Figure 18, we’d be heading towards something like the Peano curve. But it seems that the successive levels of detail would overlap each other. One solution to this would be to imagine embedding the image up into a higher-dimensional space. In particular, if I were to have replace each pair of related ideas by 2N ideas, I’d end up with a fractal of dimension N.

We need to make two disclaimers when we speak of “real” physical or mental objects as fractals. First of all, these objects are perhaps not infinitely complex. And secondly, these objects are irregular fractals.

Regarding the first disclaimer, infinity comes naturally to mathematicians, and pure mathematical fractals are thought of as having endlessly many levels of detail. One might think, for instance, of a tree each of whose branch segments has subbranches coming off of it, with the subbranches having subsubbranches coming off them, and so on forever. But even though an actual physical tree is likely to have only some five to seven levels of branching, it’s sometimes useful to think of it being a fractal. This kind of mathematical idealization approximates a large complexity by infinite complexity. Oddly enough, for a mathematician, infinity is often easier to handle than some very large number N. This kind of approximation is kindred to the opposite kind of approximation, in which we replace complexity by simplicity, as when we think of a planet or a star as a sphere, or even as a point.

Figure 19: A random fractal.

Regarding the second disclaimer, the parts of even a pure mathematical fractal need not be perfect copies of the whole. It’s perfectly all right to have the patterns vary a bit from level to level. Thus a hillock on a mountain looks quite a bit like the whole mountain, but it isn’t an exact replica. The boulders on the hillock in turn resemble the hillock, but they aren’t scale models of it. And so on. Figure 19 shows how we might construct a random mathematical fractal with a dimension of about 1.1. (By the way, with irregular fractals like this we can’t use the simple “P and Q” rule for calculating the dimension, but there is an alternate method.)

Recall now that the purpose of my talk is to argue that the Web is in some respects like the human mind. So now I need only to point out that the Web does indeed have a fractal quality to it. One starts out headed for topic A, then finds a link to topic B, gets distracted by a connection to topic C, and so on, once again all the way beyond Z.

As it turns out there are many different kinds of fractals, so we might well ask which kind of fractal might best serve as a model for the Mind. The Koch curve in particular is not so well-fitting a model for the web as is a tree or a cloud.

As was discussed above, you get a tree by repeatedly shooting new branches off the old branches, and this is a little like the way web-links (and mental associations) form. Viewed as a geometrical structure, this kind of tree is hard to draw, for if you try and draw a densely branching tree on a piece of paper, you quickly run out of room. Some of the lines end up crossing over the other lines. (To fit the extra lines in we can either ask for more room or we can bump our drawing up into higher dimensions.) But it’s easy to imagine such a tree. And the Web lends itself to representing a highly branching mind-tree because we can stick in as many links as we want.

But before committing to the idea of a tree, let’s think a bit about clouds. When I say that a cloud is a fractal, I have in mind a model in which we think of a cloud as a certain shaded volume of space. This shaded cloud region has a very complicated shape, with lots of holes and tendrils. One way to imagine mathematically constructing a cloud is to start with a cube of space and to then subdivide it into, say, twenty-seven subcubes (cutting it in three along each dimension, like a Rubik’s cube.). Remove each subcube that doesn’t have any of the cloud in it. Then take each of the remaining subcubes and divide it into twenty-seven subsubcubes. Again remove the pieces that don’t touch the cloud. Repeat the process of dividing and winnowing out for a number of levels. If done in a regular fashion this can lead to a regular fractal such as the “Menger Sponge.”


The Menger Sponge (image from Wikipedia).

Of course you don’t have to build clouds up in such a regular way. You can use a more random process for removing subcubes, and then you end up with something more natural in appearance.

Maybe a mind is as much like a cloud as it is like a tree. You have some vague notion (like a cloud seen from a distance), and then when you examine it more closely it breaks into a number of denser regions. And these chunks in turn break into smaller chunks.

We’ve been talking about the mind being a fractal, and the web is a fractal too. Cruising the web, one starts out headed for topic A, but when you get to the page for A, you notice a link to topic B, and you go look at B before reading A, but on page B, you find a tempting link C that you just have to read first, and so on.

In some sense you never can get started drawing a true fractal like the Koch curve, because you always have to put in another bump before the bump you want to get to. This is similar to the experience you have when you try to fully explain any aspect of your mindscape. And this is an experience you can also have when you surf the Web.

The attractive thing about the Web as a model of the mind is that its a kind of “paper” where you never have to “run off the edge” or “run out of dimensions.” You can always add scrollbars or links to give yourself more room.

Certainly at this point in history, the Web doesn’t match the branching-tree structure of a real human mind, but a Web-like structure could be tuned to be a tree like this.

Or, again, if we want to think of the mind as being like a cloud, we can also think of a web page as being like a cloud. It’s a collection of concepts, and many of these can be hyperlinked to further web pages.

In other words, we can either think of a web page as branching like a tree or as having denser regions like a cloud.

So the mind and the web both have fractal qualities. Does this mean the web can be a good model for the mind? Whenever I discuss this idea with people I get a lot of objections. Here are a few of them, with my attempts an answers.

Objection 1. Just because the Web and the Mind are like fractals doesn’t mean they’re like each other. A Koch curve, a tree and a cloud are fractals, but they aren’t the same.

Answer 1. The Web is endlessly tunable. I’m not saying that the Web right now is like the Mind. I’m saying that it should be possible to use the Web to make a good representation of a mind.

Objection 2. What’s so special about the Web? Couldn’t you use a very fat book with a lot of footnotes to present a similar kind of branching hypertext?

Answer 2. Indeed you can make a printed model of a big hyperlinked Web site. You might, for instance, print out the text content and the images, and use footnotes for the hyperlinks. But it would be hard to maintain and cumbersome to read. This question suggests an interesting analogy. A good Web model of, say, Johnny X, would be something like The Encyclopedia of Johnny X, with lots of cross-references from article to article. How might Johnny X generate the content and the links for such a book? We’ll discuss some science-fictional methods for this next month.

Objection 3. A Web site is static. The essence of your mind is that it is continually changing and reacting to things.

Answer 3. If a Web site were really to be like a mind it would have to have a certain self-animating quality. It should “browse itself” and let you watch or, better, it should let you input things into it and watch it react. If you had the content and the links for a mind-sized website in place, writing some driver software in Java wouldn’t actually be that hard. Imagine, for instance, a background search engine that would keep popping up new associations to things on the screen.

(An aside. A product I’d really like to see is a Beavis and Butthead filter or a Mystery Science 3000 filter or a Popup Video filter. You’d hook this thing up to your TV set, and it would say funny things about whatever you were watching.)

Objection 5. The Web is all interconnected. So actually it is more like one mind than like a lot of minds.

Answer 5. You could indeed think of the Web as society’s mind. And then the most frequently visited sites are the public mind’s obsessions. But there will be individual pieces of the Web that correspond more to one individual’s mind.

Moving on from the notion of the mind being like the web, we get to the more general idea of the mind and software. And this leads to a contemporary science-fictional dream sometimes called “uploading.” It happens a lot in my Ware novels, that is, in Software, Freeware, Wetware and Realware. You somehow put a copy of your brain’s software into a computer and this gives you a kind of immortality. The reason this is still science-fiction is that we don’t have the foggiest notion for how such a process might work. And thinking of the Web as a model for the mind seems like a good place to start.

But there’s something not quite right about buttons on the web page as a model for the mind. We need something that is a little more strange, or fractal to make it work or like the mind.

Let’s try a little introspection. Look at something and think, “What does that remind me of ?”—and that’s a the link from that item. And then think about the link and see what intermediate links might branch off of that, just keep doing that with things, asking what comes off the line of the link. Try to think about how you could do that as a web page.

The interface-design point to make here is that the Web would be a better match for the mind if the links were somehow set up in a different way. If one simply has pages leading to pages leading to pages, then we have a structure that’s a little like a tip-branching tree. A true fractal should branch all over. The difference between the two is that the trunk of the tip-branching tree is a featureless line, while the trunk of the branch-branching tree is as woolly as the rest of the figure. Only the latter is fully self-similar, i.e. only the latter has the property that each of its parts resembles the whole.

In some sense you never can get started drawing a true fractal, because you always have to put in another bump before the bump you want to get to. And this is similar to the experience you have when you try to fully explain any aspect of your mindscape.

This is similar to what happens in your thought process, you start to think of something so have a sort of hyperlink to it, but if you want to explain how you get from here to there, there is a detour that you have to take, and then you want to explain how you get to the detour and there is another detour.

Of course we do in fact manage to think things and to say things without stumbling over crippling infinite regresses. So the instant jump of a web hyperjump is not wholly unrealistic. I think the fit between Web and Mind would be better if, let us say, every hyperjump button had the ability to display a list of the items on the page you might go to. Thus, you might click on a button labeled, let’s say, Peter Bruegel. And rather than jumping right away, the program might offer you some suboptions, and when you highlight one of those, you get subsuboptions and so on. I’m imagining a sequence like this:

Peter Bruegel

Go to Peter Bruegel

Detour to Painters

Detour to Netherlands

Detour to Sixteenth Century

Go to Sixteenth Century

Detour to Inquisition

Detour to Shakespeare

Detour to Renaissance

Go To Renaissance

Detour to Perspective


Online Immortality

I’ve talked about the idea that the Web has a branching, fractal structure reminiscent of the patterns of the human mind. There are two topics that come out of this: first of all, might we hope to somehow replicate a human mind as a Web site, and secondly, might the Web itself someday “wake up” and start behaving like a huge planetary mind?

As I already mentioned, the first topic, which we might call cyberimmortality, has to do with the dream of getting a software representation of a human mind. This process is often called uploading—the idea is that someone might hope to upload the software of their personality to the great Net God of the ether.

Let me briefly summarize my thoughts on cyberimmortality. My feeling is that in order to get a software model of some person’s mind—let’s call the person Sid in honor of the lamented Sid Vicious (and wasn’t The Filth and the Fury a fun movie?)—you’d need to get several levels of information about Sid. At the highest level, you’d want to build up a database of Sid’s memories. Sid might carry around a little interactive audio device that I call a lifebox. Over the course of a few months Sid would tell the lifebox all the stories about his life that he could remember. The lifebox would organize the fractal flow of information into something like a web page, occasionally prompting Sid for new links and new topics.

And then would come the tasty, monster-SF part. To really get a good model of Sid’s mind we might well want to get an electrical, physical and chemical map of his brain. This could involve non-invasive things like PET scans and SQUIDs and computer tomography or, more graphically, it could involve slicing up Sid’s brain. And then running it through a blender to get out all the chemicals. Though of course it may well be that by the technique becomes practical you won’t really have to slice up the uploadee’s brain, let alone chew it up with your power mechanical android jaws.

As I mention elsewhere in this volume, the last thought brings back a fond memory of careening down an Austin street with John Shirley, and John leaning out the window to holler, “Y’all ever ate any live brains?”

Could a computer program ever be alive? Yawn. Of course it could. This question’s been a dead issue for years. For those who slept through the second half of the 20th century, Kurt Gödel proved that although we can’t explicitly describe a computer program as intelligent as ourselves, we can indeed set up a situation in which an intelligent program can evolve.

What about the feeling that there’s more to your consciousness than the software of your brain? Well, that feeling you have is, in my humble opinion, the simple experiencing of raw existence. Aquinas once said, “God is pure existence unmodified.” Everything that exists shares in this feeling. As the Zen guys put it, the universal rain moistens all creatures. Nothing stays “dry.” Everything in the world is lit up, each object is just another illuminated bit of stained glass, with the great SUN shining upon us all from some higher dimension. And that’s about as lucid as I feel like being on this subject today.

The topic of whether the Web might ever be like a mind falls under the heading of “emergent intelligence.” It’s a somewhat hoary SF theme, the idea that some day the Machine will Wake Up. Often the new planetary computer mind is thought of as having fairly sinister intentions. But why should it, really?

After all, the computer already dominates Earth. So there’s really nothing to overthrow, no power to seize. We’re the cells the computer is made up of. You don’t take over your body and say, “All right, I’m going to kill all of you skin and muscle and bone and nerve cells so that I can reign supreme!” Your body IS your cells. By the same token, the planetary computer intelligence IS the machines on our desks that we are continually feeding with bits and gobbets of info.

Continuing the analogy, it is true that we try and encourage some kinds of cells at the expense of others. We want more muscle and brain and less fat and tumors. Might the planetary Web mind decide to freeze out certain elements? Indirectly this already happens: Spammers get their accounts cancelled, not because of anything they stand for, but because they are bad for the efficiency of the Web. Pages that stick to outdated HTML coding standards become obsolete and unvisited, because they don’t support the evolution of the Web.

That’s enough deep thinking for today. Now for something trivial.

Anyone who owns a computer has noticed the insane number of connector wires that he or she has under the desk. When I got my first computers I was kind of happy about all the wires, and proud that I knew what they were all for. It made me feel high-tech to plug them in.

Now, what with a variety of additional peripherals kicking around, I have so many wires that it almost seems like the wires, in and of themselves, might someday break into emergent intelligence. Twining around my ankles and pulling me beneath the desk.

Is there some kind of fundamental principle at work? Well, each new device you get will usually require a power wire and at least one data wire leading to another devices. A few devices (like a keyboard) don’t have their own power wire. But other devices (like a scanner with a pass-through port to the printer or a telephone which connects to the wall and to your computer) will have an extra data wires. And once you get to enough power-driven devices you need to add extra wires in the form of multiple-outlet extension cords. So let’s say there’s an average of 2.5 wires per device.

Looking around my desk, I see a printer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, laptop computer, main computer, three speakers, a speaker controller, external modem, two uninterruptable power sources, two phones, and an answering machine. That’s seventeen devices, which, according to my formula, makes for forty-two and a half wires. And looking at the snake-pit under my desk, that’s indeed what it looks like.

Will the coming of wireless devices clear away the wires? Maybe—but at what cost? Don’t you have the feeling that all this radiation might be bad for you? I remember years ago reading a Heinlein story that argued that the ambient radio-frequency radiation would lead to a gradual degeneration of the human race. And that was written well before the era when you can soft-boil your brain with your cell-phone. Ever notice how the warnings that come with your cell-phone mention a danger of burning yourself if the naked metal of the antenna touches your skin?

The New Century

Just now I started eating a peach and I noticed it has a Web address on it. The URL is on a little sticker; it urges me to go to and find instructions for peach pie. And this sets me thinking to the fact that, yes, this really is the 21st Century.

When I go in to teach my classes at San Jose State University, I see students with their head shaved on the sides but hair on top, the side parts with a red stripe, the hair on top raspberry and moussed into spikes like Jughead’s crown. These are just regular students. These are the hairdos I used to see in comic books that tried to show the 21st Century. But now they’re here and nobody questions them. It’s time.

In the Old Navy store near Union Square in San Francisco they have twenty pairs of mechanical legs hanging from the ceiling, marching in place, wearing Old Navy pants. All the belts and gears of the devices very visible. And in the Levi’s store a block or two away, you move from level to level in a giant open-mesh industrial elevator, also with all its gears and cables exposed. Gears and machinery are quaint and nostalgic for the 21st Century. We’re all through trying to be21st Century. We are 21st Century.

I bought a 21st Century toilet a couple of months back. It looks quite a bit like a toilet I would have bought last year. But now it’s the year 2000, and the only kind of new toilet I can buy anymore is, by definition, a 21st Century toilet. We’re in science-fiction land.

What ever happened with the Y2K crisis anyway? What a hoax, what a scam, what a rip-off. Where are all those self-appointed experts now? Off counting their money. You can sell people anything if you tell them it’s for public safety. Did you notice that nothing at all happened to the Third World countries that didn’t bother having a Y2K-preparedness program?

I still remember how tense I was on New Year’s Eve.

Early in the day when the Millennium rolled over in Tonga, I get a mental image of the Earth as being like one of those chocolate oranges, pre-cut into time-zone-sized segments. And the segment with Tonga has worked its way free and is tumbling off alone in black space, the Sun glinting on the curved sector of its rind, its part of the South Pacific sloshing off its edges. And presumably the rest of the South Pacific is pouring down into the huge wedge-shaped gap, a thousands-of-mile-high waterfall that vaporizes into steam or even into plasma when it hits the molten nickel of the Earth’s exposed core. It’ll drain the Pacific dry. I wonder how long until the drop in the water level will be noticeable in the San Francisco Bay.

And then that evening, in a restaurant in San Francisco, I’m watching a TV to see how the thin end of the new Millennium’s wedge will impact Times Square. And, yes, the lights stay on! I was relieved and almost surprised. I think deep down it was something more fundamental than the lights going out that I’d been fearing, something as drastic as the instant decay of matter, or the Earth breaking up like a peeled orange, something like the sudden advent of the Void, the disappearance of cozy old spacetime and the start of the End Times and Armageddon. These deep, irrational fears are what the Y2K terror was all about.

When midnight hit San Francisco, my wife and I were out in the street, taking our little stand against clone-culture and it’s paranoid urgings to stay home. There were fireworks, big fountains of colored balls and paisley-like swirlers, then skyrocket explosions, maybe ten minutes’ worth. And then it was midnight. Green computer-controlled laser lights were fanning over the crowd, painting things on the buildings. Yes, the computers were still working. On the building closest to us, the laser kept drawing a jaggy squashed jiggle, like a picture of the soul of the machine. “Behold, our Lord and Master still liveth.”

Dozens of people were talking on cellphones. That’s very 21st Century. But so many things hadn’t changed. People still wore long pants, and thick coats, and leather shoes, and wool hats; the future hadn’t swept that stuff away, we were wearing wool and leather because our race figured out over thousands of years that they’re practical and comfortable.

So here in the early days of the 21st Century, I saw a big museum exhibit of video art the other day. Slowly the cumbersome technology might move out of the way. You’d be able to buy a flat wall-hanging that is a self-contained video unit: the flat screen, the memory, the player, the solar power. A live painting. That’s one of the ways it could go.

Here in San Jose we’re in the heart of Silicon Valley and it’s all computers, all the time, everywhere. In the airport there’s a billboard from a law firm that wants to help you if your new software gets you sued for patent infringement. There’s onscreen ads before the features in the movie theaters, and more than half of the ads are from companies in the Business, all looking for people to do—what? The job descriptions didn’t even exist when I was growing up. Network administrator, software engineer, digital designer. Moloch wants warm bodies, even when we’re taking time off.

Slowly it’s getting to be more fun to look at the computer than at TV. You can find whatever you want. It’s almost too easy. A sad thought: imagine a young man who spends all his working hours programming, and then when his sex drive tells him its time to do something else, instead of going out and looking for human companionship he surfs to a porno site and polishes off that end of things with a half-hour clicking frenzy. And then he orders his take-out food delivery from the Web too. An online life. But, dammit, the resolution is so low!

The most 21st Century thing I’ve seen of late are the new reality TV shows, Survivor and Big Brother. A lot of people prefer Survivor ; the show acquired visibility first, and it’s a little faster-paced. But I’m partial to Big Brother. It’s a purer set-up: there’s no cameramen in with the characters. I don’t find the characters all that likeable or interesting, mind you. But I think the idea of the show is so—21st Century. I even went to the Web-site and looked at the live feeds for awhile. Karen and Brittany were eating lunch and talking about surveillance cameras.

It’s not too hard to imagine that in just a few years there will be as many different TV channels as there are web-pages now. And a lot of them are going to be non-stop round-the-clock “me-shows” about individual people or groups of people. Usually the people will be participating. But not necessarily. With another notch or two of technology, we’ll have small, robotic “dragonfly” cameras that fly around and spy on things. The unauthorized Pam Anderson channel!

The 21st Century. It’s just beginning. And now I’m going to dare to eat my 21st Century peach.

Note on “Web Mind”

Written 1999 and 2000.

Appeared as four columns in the online Galaxy magazine, 2000.

This piece started out as the notes for two talks I gave. The first talk was at a Viennese symposium with the unlikely title, “SYNWORLD playwork:hyperspace,” in May, 1999. The other talk was at a colloquium of the San Jose State Philosophy department in October, 1999.

In the spring of 2000, the editors of Galaxy magazine engaged me to write a regular column for a fledgling online webzine. I wrote four columns under the title “Web Mind,” and I used much of the material from my original Viennese talk. The fact of the essay being based on four columns explains why the second two parts have little thematic connection with the first two.

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Lifebox Immortality

One of the most venerable dreams of science fiction is that people might become immortal by uploading their personalities into some kind of lasting storage. Once your personality is out of your body in a portable format, it could perhaps be copied onto a fresh tank-grown blank human body, onto a humanoid robot or, what the heck, onto a pelican with an amplified brain. Preserve your software, the rest is meat!

In practice, copying a brain would be very hard, for the brain isn’t in digital form. The brain’s information is stored in the geometry of its axons, dendrites and synapses, in the ongoing biochemical balances of its chemicals, and in the fleeting flow of its electrical currents. In my early cyberpunk novel Software, I wrote about some robots who specialized in extracting people’s personality software—by eating their brains. When one of my characters hears about the repellent process, “[His] tongue twitched, trying to flick away the imagined taste of the brain tissue, tingly with firing neurons, tart with transmitter chemicals.”

(In quantum information theory there’s a quite different kind of discussion concerning whether it would be possible to precisely copy any physical system such as a brain. The so-called No-Cloning Theorem indicates that you can’t precisely replicate a system’s quantum state without destroying the system. If you had a quantum-state replicator, you’d need to destroy a brain in order to get a quantum-precise copy of it. This said, it’s quite possible that you could create a behaviorally identical copy of a brain without having to actually copy all of the quantum states involved.)

In this paper I’m going to talk about a much weaker form of copying a personality. Rather than trying to exactly replicate a brain’s architecture, it might be interesting enough to simply copy all of a person’s memories, preserving the interconnections among them.

We can view a person’s memory as a hyperlinked database of sensations and facts. The memory is structured something like a website, with words, sounds and images combined into a superblog with trillions of links.

I don’t think it will be too many more years until we see a consumer product that makes it easy for a person to make a copy of their memory along these lines. This product is what I call a lifebox. (I first used the word in a short story, “Soft Death,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, September, 1986).

M idea is that your lifebox will prompt you to tell it stories, and it will have enough low-level language recognition software to be able to organize your anecdotes and to ask you follow-up questions. As the interviews progress, the lifebox’s interviewer-agent harks back to things that you’ve mentioned, and creates fresh questions pairing topics together. Now and then the interviewer-agent might throw in a somewhat random or even dadaistic question to loosen you up.

As you continue working with your lifebox, it builds up a database of the facts you know and the tales you spin, along with links among them. Some of the links are explicitly made by you, others will be inferred by the lifebox software on the basis of your flow of conversation, and still other links are automatically generated by looking for matching words.

And then what?

Your lifebox will have a kind of browser software with a search engine capable of returning reasonable links into your database when prompted by spoken or written questions from other users. These might be friends, lovers or business partners checking you out, or perhaps grandchildren wanting to know what you were like.

Your lifebox will give other people a reasonably good impression of having a conversation with you. Their questions are combed for trigger words to access the lifebox information. A lifebox doesn’t pretend to be an intelligent program; we don’t expect it to reason about problems proposed to it. A lifebox is really just some compact digital memory with a little extra software. Creating these devices really shouldn’t be too hard and is already, I’d say, within the realm of possibility—it’s already common for pocket-sized devices to carry gigabytes of memory, and the terabytes won’t be long in coming.

I discussed the lifebox at some length in my Y2K work of futurology, Saucer Wisdom, a book in the form of a novel, framed in terms of a character named Frank Shook who has a series of glimpses into the future—thanks to some friendly time-traveling aliens who take him on a tour in their tiny flying saucer. (And, no, I’m not a UFO true believer, I just happen to think they’re cute and enjoyably archetypal.)

You might visualize a lifebox as a little black plastic thing that fits in your pocket. It comes with a a light-weight clip-on headset with a microphone and earphone. It’s completely non-technical, anyone can use a lifebox to create their life story, to make something to leave for their children and grandchildren.

In my novel, my character Frank watches an old man using a lifebox. His name is Ned. White-haired Ned is pacing in his small back yard—a concrete slab with some beds of roses—he’s talking and gesturing, wearing the headset and with the lifebox in his shirt pocket. The lifebox speaks to him in a woman’s pleasant voice.

The marketing idea behind the lifebox is that old duffers always want to write down their life story, and with a lifebox they don’t have to write, they can get by with just talking. The lifebox software is smart enough to organize the material into a shapely whole. Like an automatic ghost-writer.

The hard thing about creating your life story is that your recollections aren’t linear; they’re a tangled banyan tree of branches that split and merge. The lifebox uses hypertext links to hook together everything you tell it. Then your eventual audience can interact with your stories, interrupting and asking questions. The lifebox is almost like a simulation of you. And over time, a lifebox develops some rudimentary simulations of its individual audience members as well—the better to make them feel they’re having conversations with an intelligent mind.

To continue his observations, my character Frank and his friends skip forward in time until past when Ned has died and watch two of Ned’s grandchildren play with one of the lifebox copies he left behind.

Frank watches Ned’s grandchildren: little Billy and big Sis. The kids call the lifebox “Grandpa,” but they’re mocking it too. They’re not putting on the polite faces that kids usually show to grown-ups. Billy asks the Grandpa-lifebox about his first car, and the lifebox starts talking about an electric-powered Honda and then it mentions something about using the car for dates. Sis—little Billy calls her “pig Sis” instead of “big Sis”—asks the lifebox about the first girl Grandpa dated, and Grandpa goes off on that for awhile, and then Sis looks around to make sure Mom’s not in earshot. The coast is clear so she asks some naughty questions about Grandpa’s dates. Shrieks of laughter. “You’re a little too young to hear about that stuff,” says the Grandpa-lifebox calmly. “Let me tell you some more about the car.”

My character Frank skips a little further into the future, and he finds that lifeboxes have become a huge industry. People of all ages are using lifeboxes as a way of introducing themselves to each other. Sort of like home pages. They call the lifebox database a context, as in, “I’ll send you a link to my context.” Not that most people really want to spend the time it takes to explicitly access very much of another person’s full context. But having the context handy makes conversation much easier. In particular, it’s now finally possible for software agents to understand the content of human speech—provided that the software has access to the speakers’ contexts.

Coming back to the idea of saving off your entire personality that I was initially discussing, there is a sense in which saving only your memories is perhaps enough, as long as enough links among your memories are included. The links are important because they constitute your sensibility, that is, your characteristic way of jumping from one thought to the next.

On their own, your memories and links aren’t enough to generate an emulation of you. But if another person studies your memories and links, that other person can get into your customary frame of mind, at least for a short period of time. The reason another person can plausibly expect to emulate you is that, first of all, people are universal computers and, second of all, people are exquisitely tuned to absorbing inputs in the form of anecdotes and memories. Your memories and links can act as a special kind of software that needs to be run on a very specialized kind of hardware: another human being. Putting it a bit differently, your memories and links are an emulation code.

Certainly exchanging memories and links is more pleasant than having one’s brain microtomed and chemically analyzed, as in my novel Software.

I sometimes study an author’s writings or an artist’s works so intensely that I begin to at least imagine that I can think like them. I even have a special word I made up for this kind of emulation; I call it twinking. To twink someone is to simulate them internally. Putting it in an older style of language, to twink someone is to let their spirit briefly inhabit you. A twinker is, if you will, like a spiritualistic medium channeling a personality.

Over the years I’ve twinked my favorite writers, scientists, musicians and artists: Robert Sheckley, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Frank Zappa, Kurt Gödel, Georg Cantor, Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allan Poe, Joey Ramone, Phil Dick, Peter Bruegel, etc. The immortality of the great ones results from faithful twinking by their aficionados.

Even without the lifebox, if someone doesn’t happen to be an author, they can make themselves twinkable simply by appearing in films. Thomas Pynchon captures this idea in a passage of his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, where he’s imagining the state of mind of the 1930s bank-robber John Dillinger right before he was gunned down by federal agents outside the Biograph movie theater in Chicago, having just seen Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable.

John Dillinger, at the end, found a few seconds’ strange mercy in the movie images that hadn’t quite yet faded from his eyeballs—Clark Gable going off unregenerate to fry in the chair, voices gentle out of the deathrow steel so long, Blackie…there was still for the doomed man some shift of personality in effect—the way you’ve felt for a little while afterward in the real muscles of your face and voice, that you were Gable, the ironic eyebrows, the proud, shining, snakelike head—to help Dillinger through the bushwhacking, and a little easier into death.

The effect of the lifebox would be to make such immortality accessible to a wider range of people. Most of us aren’t going to appear in any movies, and even writing a book is quite hard. Again, a key difficulty in writing any kind of book is that you somehow have to flatten the great branching fractal of your thoughts into a long line of words. Writing means converting a hypertext structure into a sequential row—it can be hard even to know where to begin.

As I’ve been saying, my expectation is that in not too many years, great numbers of people will be able to preserve their software by means of the lifebox. In a rudimentary kind of way, the lifebox concept is already being implemented as blogs. People post journal notes and snapshots of themselves, and if you follow a blog closely enough you can indeed get a feeling of identification with the blogger. And many blogs already come with search engines that automatically provide some links. Recently the cell-phone company Nokia started marketing a system called Lifeblog, whereby a person can link and record their daily activities by using a camera-equipped cell phone. And I understand that the Hallmark corporation, known for greeting cards, is researching an on-line memory-keeping product.

Like any other form of creative endeavor, filling up one’s lifebox will involve dedication and a fair amount of time, and not everyone will feel like doing it. And some people are tongue-tied or inhibited enough to have trouble telling stories about themselves. Certainly a lifebox can include some therapist-like routines for encouraging its more recalcitrant users to talk. But lifeboxes won’t work for everyone.

What about some science fictional instant personality scanner, a superscanner that you wave across your skull and thereby get a copy of your whole personality with no effort at all? Or, lacking that, how about a slicer-dicer that purees your brain right after you die and extracts your personality like the brain-eaters of Software? I’m not at all sure that this kind of technology will ever exist. In the end, the synaptic structures and biochemical reactions of a living brain may prove too delicate to capture from the outside.

I like the idea of a lifebox, and I have already made a primitive version of Rudy’s Lifebox myself, which you can find online. My personal pyramid of Cheops. I see the ultimate version of my lifebox as a website or a cloud-based application that includes a large database with all my books, all my journals, some years of blog entries, and a connective guide/memoir—with the whole thing annotated and hyperlinked. And I might as well throw in my photographs, videos and sound-recordings—I’ve taken thousands of photos over the years.

It should be feasible to endow my lifebox with enough interactive abilities; people could ask it questions and have it answer with appropriate links and words. Off-the-shelf Google site-search box does a fairly good job at finding word matches. And it may be that the Wolfram Alpha search engine—which purportedly has some measure of natural language comprehension—can soon do better.

For a fully effective user experience, I’d want my lifebox to remember the people who talked to it. This is standard technology—a user signs onto a site, and the site remembers the interactions that the user has. In effect, the lifebox creates mini-lifebox models of the people it talks to, remembering their interests, perhaps interviewing them a bit, and never accidentally telling the same story twice—unless prompted to.

If I’m dead by the time my lifebox begins receiving heavy usage, then in some sense I’m not all that worried about getting paid by my users. Like any web or cloud-based application, one could charge a subscription fee, or interrupt the information with ads.

If I use my lifebox while I’m still alive, some other options arise. I might start letting my lifebox carry out those interview or speaking gigs that I don’t have the time or energy to fulfill. Given that many bits of this paper, “Lifebox Immortality,” are in fact excerpted and reshuffled from my other writings, it’s conceivable that my lifebox actually wrote this paper.

Moving on, my lifebox could be equipped to actively go out and post things on social networking sites, raising my profile on the web and perhaps garnering more sales of my books and more in-person speaking invitations. This could of course go too far—what if my lifebox became so good at emulating me that people preferred its outputs to those of own creaky and aging self?

But I don’t, however, see any near-term lifebox as being a living copy of its creator. At this point, my lifebox will just be another work of art, not so different from a bookshelf of collected works or, once again, like a searchable blog.

Looking further ahead, how would one go about creating a human-like intelligence? That is, how would we animate a lifebox so as to have an artificial person?

A short answer is that, given that our brains have acquired their inherent structures by the process of evolution, the likeliest method for creating intelligent software is via a simulated process of evolution within the virtual world of a computer. There is, however, a difficulty with simulated evolution—even with the best computers imaginable, it may take an exceedingly long time to bear fruit.

An alternate hope is that there may yet be some fairly simple model of the working of human consciousness which we can model and implement in the coming decades. The best idea for a model that I’ve seen is in a book by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee, On Intelligence (Times Books, 2004). Their model describes a directed evolution based upon a rich data base that develops by continually moving to higher-level symbol systems.

For now in any case, it would help the progress of AI to create a number of lifeboxes. It may well be that these constructs can in fact serve as hosts or culture mediums where we can develop fully conscious and intelligent minds.

But for now, even without an intelligent spark, a lifebox can be exceedingly lifelike. At the very least—as my friend Leon Marvell has pointed out in our joint essay—we’ve invented a great new medium.

Note on “Lifebox Immortality”

Written in 2009.

Appeared as part of “Lifebox Immortality and How We Got There,” co-authored with Leon Marvell, in Sean Cubitt and Paul Thomas, eds., Re:Live Media Art Histories 2009. Also appeared in H++, December 2010.

I’ve been talking about my lifebox concept for years. In 2009, I wrote up my ideas for a presentation that I gave with Leon Marvell at a conference in Melbourne, Australia. First I talked, and then Leon talked, and our paper had two parts, mine and his. Only my part appears here. The paper appeared in a free online volume of proceedings, and I later sold my part to an online zine called H++, edited by my old Mondo 2000 co-conspirator, R. U. Sirius.

I see the lifebox as a commercial concept which will come to fruition rather soon. From time to time I broach the subject to the entrepreneurial types that I meet, but they never seem to take the idea very seriously. As I mention in the article, as a proof of principle I set up a crude lifebox of myself online and it does a Google search of the rather large amount of my writings to be found on my website.

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Selling Your Personality

Types of Profitable Information

How have people profited from providing information in the past, and how will we do this in the future? Let’s think in terms of four overlapping categories of information: art, software, data, and services.

Art means novels, essays, painting, music, film, and the like. Let’s include scientific writings here as well.

Software is dynamic and interactive, as opposed to the more static forms of art. We think of word-processers, web browsers, or videogames.

Data refers to distilled, searched-out information that has been mined and refined from the web or the physical world.

Services include readings, musical performances and shows, as well as lectures, classes, and consultations.

I myself have made my living in providing information for my whole life: Art: Novels, popular science books, paintings, photographs. Software: Interactive programs involving chaos and cellular automata. Data: Blogging, editing anthologies, publishing a webzine. Services: A career as a professor, lecturer, and consultant.


The old model for an art career is that you create things and sell the originals or copies of the information. You’re paid directly by users or via a royalty arrangement with a publisher, gallery or producer.

But now, although art is still sold in material form, the focus is on online distribution, as in electronic books, music files, images, or videos.

Electronic distribution channels have lower fixed costs than print. POD (print-on-demand) and ebooks can be produced with no costs of carrying an inventory. With POD and ebooks, self-publishing is a more realistic concept than in earlier times. I’ve experimented with producing a high quality art book for sale on Lulu. It was interesting, but I only sold a few copies.

With books becoming lightweight pieces of electronic information, some authors are tempted to give their books away, licensing them as Creative Commons releases, as I’ve done with my books, The Hollow Earth, The Ware Tetralogy, and Postsingular. The science fiction writer Cory Doctorow is known for advocating this approach. Artists and authors have three reasons for giving away electronic copies of their works.

Upgrades. A number of readers will sample a free electronic version and then either buy a commercial electronic version or buy a hardcopy paper book.

Branding. Getting people to read your work builds the brand value of your name. This can lead to various commercial offers to speak, to consult, or to write.

Immortality. Setting aside any financial considerations, the simple fact is that authors want to be read, and they want their books to stay available indefinitely. A Creative Commons release provides a touch of artistic immortality.


When I worked for Autodesk in the 1990s, the sole model of selling software was that of putting the software onto disks and selling the disks in boxes. But now only a very few high-end software products are sold on disks. Most software is distributed online by a download that is, at least initially, free. How does this software earn money?

Trial basis. Stops working after a few weeks unless a license is bought.

Upgrades. Offers extra features at a cost.

Begging. Continues working but repeatedly asks for donations.

Ads. Carries commercial advertising, possibly from third parties.

Branding. Builds a brand awareness of the producer, creates large user-base.

Sellout. Entices a deep-pocketed speculator to buy the software company.

Stepping back a little, it’s worth noting that, in an older sense, recipes, chemical formulae, and trade secrets are a type of software as well. And, looking ahead, genomic data is a type of software too—which is often known as wetware, as in the novels of my Ware Tetralogy.

The Not So Long Tail

It’s worth noting that for the vast majority of artists or software producers, the pay for selling any kind of intellectual property will always be low. The earnings are subject to a so-called scaling law, also know known as an inverse power law distribution. The scaling law applies to all natural phenomena—to the populations of cities, the number of hits on websites, the heights of mountains, the number of friends that people have, the areas of lakes, and the sales of books.

In a nutshell, the graph of remuneration versus rank isn’t a down-slanting straight line, it’s a curve that swoops down fast and hugs the horizontal axis like a graph of 1/x. Thus, if you’re the hundredth-most popular author, you earn a hundredth as much as the most popular one. Instead of a million dollars, you get ten thousand dollars. This is a law of nature, it’s not something one can change.

The curve shows the inverse power law Advance = $1,000,000/Rank. The double light­ning bolt indicates where I had to leave out miles of paper so as to fit in the point marking where the most popular writer gets $1 million. Despite this big spike, the total area under the curve between one and one thousand is only about $6 million, which represents the total in book advances that society hands out to the top thousand writers. [Image and caption from The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.]

The bad news is that the tail drops down very precipitously as one passes below the most successful handful of information creators. The good news is that the tail is long, and decays slowly. But there’s more bad news: in the real world, the tails don’t extend indefinitely far. The thousandth-most popular author may sell no books at all.

Data and Content

Traditional forms of informational data are travel suggestions, restaurant guides, and the current market values of things.

In the past, dealers in antiques have profited from having a superior knowledge of the current market values of things. As this kind of information becomes transparently available on the web, dealers will morph into something more like advisors on matters of taste.

Art and data are both a form of what website designers prosaically term content. With our current state of AI, it’s not practical to automatically generate art, but most of the online data we value is in fact produced by algorithms.

We see many kinds of automatically generated data-based sites. Generally of a poor quality are the aggregator sites and the social sites that encourage and get the users to provide the content. Search engines are the great success story of automatically generated data.


There remains a lasting appeal to live, in-person interactions. People will turn out for an author reading a book or, even more so, for a band performing their music. Some producers distribute electronic copies of their work at low cost or for free, planning to earn their money from appearances.

Interactive services are tailored to the individual user. The work of a physician or a financial consultant falls into this category as well. As this is Garum Day, I should also mention the informational in-person services provided by chefs.

At this point, our quality of AI isn’t really up to the task of emulating all such personal services.

The Lifebox

Looking down the road, we can automate our personal services if we can create lifeboxes, that is, on-line simulacra of the self.

I don’t think it will be too many more years until we see a consumer product that makes it easy for a person to make a copy of their memory along these lines. This product is what I call a lifebox.

As you continue feeding stories and information to your lifebox, it builds up a database of the facts you know and the tales you spin, along with links among them. Your lifebox will have a kind of browser software with a search engine capable of returning reasonable links into your database when prompted by spoken or written questions from other users.

Your lifebox will give other people a reasonably good impression of having a conversation with you. Their questions are combed for trigger words to access the lifebox information. A lifebox doesn’t pretend to be an intelligent program; we don’t expect it to reason about problems proposed to it. A lifebox is really just some compact digital memory with a little extra software. Creating these devices really shouldn’t be too hard and is already, I’d say, within the realm of possibility—it’s already common for pocket-sized devices to carry gigabytes of memory, and the terabytes won’t be long in coming.

As I’ve been saying, my expectation is that in not too many years, great numbers of people will be able to preserve their software by means of the lifebox. In a rudimentary kind of way, the lifebox concept is already being implemented as blogs.

In a nutshell, my idea is this: to create a virtual self, all I need to do is to (1) Place a very large amount of text online in the form of articles, books, and blog posts, (2) Provide a search box for accessing this data base, and (3) Provide a nice user interface.

I made a first crude stab at this a month ago, with my Rudy’s Lifebox page. This page lets you Google-search my rather large website.

We can view a person’s memory as a hyperlinked database of sensations and facts. The memory is structured something like a website, with words, sounds and images combined into a superblog with trillions of links.

For a fully effective user experience, I’d want my lifebox to remember the people who talked to it. This is standard technology—a user signs onto a site, and the site remembers the interactions that the user has. In effect, the lifebox creates mini-lifebox models of the people it talks to, remembering their interests, perhaps interviewing them a bit, and never accidentally telling the same story twice—unless prompted to.

If I use my lifebox while I’m still alive, some other options arise. I might start letting my lifebox carry out those interview or consulting gigs that I don’t have the time or energy to fulfill. Moving on, my lifebox could be equipped to actively go out and post things on social networking sites, raising my profile on the web and perhaps garnering more sales of my books and more in-person speaking invitations.

With the lifebox technology in place, you’ll be able to sell yourself!

Note on “Selling Your Personality”

Written in 2011.


I presented this a talk for an event called Garum Day in Bilbao, Spain, on February 16, 2011. I had a very large audience, perhaps a thousand people, and many of them were businessmen and bankers. The theme of the conference was to find ways for a relatively poor country like Spain to start low-capitalization-cost businesses by basing them on websites. Most of the talks were fairly business-oriented, but naturally I took a futuristic tack. As an author and a painter, the courses of action that I discuss are in fact very real to me. The world of publishing and copyrights is undergoing a critical transition and we “content creators” are a bit like nimble little dinosaurs doing their best to evolve into birds—overnight.

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The Great Awakening

The Singularity

On the theme of computational futures, there’s an interesting idea first proposed by the science fiction writer and computer science professor Vernor Vinge in a famous 1993 talk. Vinge pointed out that if we can make technological devices as intelligent as ourselves, then there seems to be no reason that these devices couldn’t readily be made to run a bit faster and have a bit more memory so as to become more intelligent than people. And then—the real kicker—these superhuman machines might set to work designing still better machines, setting off a chain reaction of ever-more-powerful devices.

Vinge termed the potential event the Singularity. Although Vinge’s analysis is sober and scientific, in the last couple of decades, belief in his Singularity has become something of a cult among certain techies. Science-fiction writers, who have a somewhat more jaded view of predictions, have a saying about the enthusiasts: “The Singularity is the Rapture for geeks.” That is, among its adherents, belief in the Singularity has something of the flavor of the evangelical Christian belief in a world-ending apocalypse, when God will supposedly elevate the saved to heaven, leaving the rest of us to fight a final battle of Armageddon.

[Vinge’s talk “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” appeared in the Winter, 1993, issue of the Whole Earth Review, and is available online—just Google for “Vinge Singularity”. Regarding the Singularity / Rapture comparison that I quote, I first heard this phrase from Bruce Sterling, who ascribes it to Cory Doctorow, who says he got it from Charlie Stross, who in turn says he nicked it from Ken McLeod—cynical SF writers one and all.]

At one level, belief in the Singularity is indeed an instance of people’s age-old tendency to predict the end of the world. Once we have the Singularity, the machines can copy our brains and make us immortal. But once we have the Singularity, the machines may declare war on humanity and seek to exterminate us. Once we have the Singularity, the machines will learn how to convert matter into different forms and nobody will ever have to work again. But once we have the Singularity, the machines may store us in pods and use us as components. Once we have the Singularity, the machines will figure out how to travel faster than light and into the past. But once we have the Singularity, the machines will screw things up and bring the entire universe to an end. And so on.

Vinge describes several kinds of scenarios that could lead to a Singularity of cascading superhuman intelligence. We can group these somewhat science-fictional possibilities into three bins.

Artificial minds. We design or evolve computing devices as intelligent as ourselves, and these entities continue the process to create further devices that are smarter than us. These superhuman computing devices might be traditional silicon-chip computers, nanotechnological assemblages, quantum computers, or bioengineered artificial organisms.

Cyborgs. Humans split off a species, part natural and part engineered. This could result either from bioengineering the human genome, or from giving people an effortless, transparent interface to supercomputing helper devices. The resulting cyborgs will advance to superhuman levels.

Hive minds. The planetary network of computers wakes up and becomes a superhuman mind. Alternately, people are equipped with built-in communication devices which allow society to develop a true group mind of superhuman powers.

Ubiquitous Nanomachines

Molecular nanotechnology is the craft of manufacturing things on the molecular scale. One goal is to create programmable nanobots: tailor-made agents roughly the size of biological viruses. The comparison is apt. What’s likely to play out is that, over the coming centuries and millennia, we’ll be capitalizing on the fact that biology is already doing molecular fabrication. The nascent field of synthetic biology is going to be the true nanotech of the future.

One immediate worry is what nanotechnologists have called the “gray goo problem.” That is, what’s to stop a particularly virulent, artificial organism from eating everything on Earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus, and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—the grizzled homies who’ve thrived by keeping it real for some three billion years.

The fact that artificial organisms are likely to have simplified metabolisms doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. My sense is that, in the long run, Mother Nature always wins. Cautionary note: Mother Nature’s “win” may not include the survival of the pesky human race!

But let’s suppose that all goes well and we learn to create docile, biological nanobots. There’s one particular breed that I like thinking about; I call them orphids.

The way I imagine it, orphids reproduce using ambient dust for raw material. They’ll cover Earth’s surface, yes, but they’ll be well behaved enough to stop at a density of one or two orphids per square millimeter, so that you’ll find a few million of them on your skin and perhaps ten sextillion orphids on Earth’s whole surface. From then on, the orphids reproduce only enough to maintain that same density. You might say they have a conscience, a desire to protect the environment. And, as a side benefit, they’ll hunt down and eradicate any evil nanomachines that anyone else tries to unleash.

Orphids use quantum computing; they propel themselves with electrostatic fields; they understand natural human language. One can converse with them quite well. I’ll suppose that an individual orphid is roughly as smart as a talking dog with, let us say, a quadrillion bytes of memory being processed at a quadrillion operations per second.

How do we squeeze so much computation out of a nanomachine? Well, a nanogram does hold about a trillion particles, which gets us close to a quadrillion. According to quantum physicist Seth Lloyd, if we regard brute matter as a quantum computation, then we do have some ten quadrillion bytes per nanogram. (See his book, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos.) So there’s only, ahem, a few implementation details in designing molecular nanomachines smart enough to converse with.

The orphids might be linked via electromagnetic wireless signals that are passed from one to the next; alternatively, they might use, let us say, some kind of subdimensional faster-than-light quantum entanglement. In either case, we call the resulting network the orphidnet.

Omnividence and Telepathy

We can suppose that the orphids will settle on to our scalps like smart lice. They’ll send magnetic vortices into our occipital lobes, creating a wireless human interface to the orphidnet. Of course, we humans can turn our connection on and off, and we’ll have read-write control. As the orphidnet emerges, we’ll get intelligence amplification.

So now everyone is plugged into the orphidnet all the time. Thanks to the orphid lice, everyone has a heads-up display projected over the visual field. And thanks to global positioning systems, the orphids act as tiny survey markers—or as the vertices of computer-graphical meshes. Using these realtime meshes, you actually see the shapes of distant objects. The orphids will be sensitive to vibrations, so you can hear as well. We’ll have complete omnividence, as surely as if the earth were blanketed with video cameras.

One immediate win is that violent crime becomes impossible to get away with. The orphidnet remembers the past, so anything can be replayed. If you do something bad, people can find you and punish you. Of course someone can still behave like a criminal if he holds incontrovertible physical force—if, for instance, he is part of an armed government. I dream that the orphidnet-empowered public sees no further need for centralized and weaponized governments, and mankind’s long domination by ruling elites comes to an end. Another win is that we can quickly find missing objects.

The flip side of omnividence is that nobody has any privacy at all. We’ll have less shame about sex; the subject will be less shrouded in mystery. But sexual peeping will become an issue, and as omnividence shades into telepathy, some will want to merge with lovers’ minds. But surely lovers can find some way to shield themselves from prying. If they can’t actually turn off their orphids, the lovers may have physical shields of an electromagnetic or quantum-mechanical nature; alternately, people may develop mantra-like mental routines to divert unwanted visitors.

Telepathy lies only a step beyond omnividence. How will it feel? One key difference between omnividence and telepathy is that telepathy is participatory, not voyeuristic. That is, you’re not just watching someone else; you’re picking up the person’s shades of feeling.

One of the key novelties attending electronic telepathy is the availability of psychic hyperlinks. Let me explain: Language is an all-purpose construction kit that a speaker uses to model mental states. In interpreting these language constructs, a listener builds a mental state similar to the speaker’s. Visual art is another style of construction kit; here an idea is rendered in colors, lines, shapes, and figures.

As we refine our techniques of telepathy, we’ll reach a point where people converse by exchanging hyperlinks into each other’s mind. It’s like sending someone an Internet link to a picture on your website—instead of sending a pixel-by-pixel copy of the image. Rather than describing my weekend in words, or showing you pictures that I took, I simply pass you a direct link to the my memories in my head. In other words, with telepathy, I can let you directly experience my thoughts without my explaining them via words and pictures. Nevertheless, language will persist. Language is so deeply congenial to us that we’d no sooner abandon it than we’d give up sex.

On a practical level, once we have telepathy, what do we do about the sleazeball spammers who’ll try to flood our minds with ads, scams, and political propaganda? We’ll use adaptive, evolving filters. Effective spam filters behave like biological immune systems, accumulating an ever-growing supply of “antibody” routines. In a living organism’s immune system, the individual cells share the antibody techniques they discover. In a social spam filter, the individual users will share their fixes and alerts.

Another issue with telepathy has to do, once again, with privacy. Here’s an analogue: a blogger today is a bit like someone who’s broadcasting telepathically, dumping his or her thoughts into the world for all to see. A wise blogger censors his or her blog, so as not to appear like a hothead, a depressive, or a bigot.

What if telepathy can’t be filtered, and everyone can see everyone’s secret seething? Perhaps, after a period of adjustment, people would get thicker skins. Certainly it’s true that in some subcultures, people yell at each other without necessarily getting excited. Perhaps a new kind of tolerance and empathy might emerge, whereby no one person’s internal turmoil seems like a big deal. Consider: to be publicly judgmental of someone else, you compare your well-tended outside to the other person’s messy inside. But if everyone’s insides are universally visible, no one can get away with being hypocritical.

Telepathy will provide a huge increase in people’s ability to think. You’ll be sharing your memory data with everyone. In the fashion of a Web search engine, information requests will be distributed among the pool of telepaths without the need for conscious intervention. The entire knowledge of the species will be on tap for each individual. Searching the collective mind won’t be as fast as getting something from your own brain, but you’ll have access to far more information.

Even with omnividence and telepathy, I expect that, day in and day out, people won’t actually change that much—not even in a million years. That’s a lesson history teaches us. Yes, we’ve utterly changed our tech since the end of the Middle Ages, but the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Peter Bruegel show that people back then were much like us, perennially entangled with the seven deadly sins.

No matter the tech, what people do is based upon simple needs: the desire to mate and reproduce, the need for food and shelter, and the longing for power and luxuries. Will molecular manufacture give all of us the luxuries we want? No. Skewed inverse power-law distribution of valued qualities is an intrinsic property of the natural world. That is, roughly speaking, if there are a thousand people at the bottom of the heap, and a hundred immediately above them, there’ll be only ten farther up, and just one perched on the top in possession of a large proportions of the goodies. Even if we become glowing clouds of ectoplasm, there’s going to be something that we’re competing for—and most of us will feel as though we’re getting screwed.

Those goodies need not be “possessions” as we understand them; in the near term, an interesting effect will emerge. Since we’re all linked on the net, we can easily borrow things or even get things free. As well as selling things, people can lend them out or give them away. Why? To accumulate social capital and good reputation.

In the orphidnet future, people can always find leftover food. Some might set out their leftovers, like pies for bums. Couch-surfing as a serial guest becomes eminently practical, with the ubiquitous virtual cloud of observers giving a host some sense of security vis-à-vis the guests. And you can find most of the possessions you need within walking distance—perhaps in a neighbor’s basement. A community becomes a shared storehouse.

On the entertainment front, I imagine orphidnet reality soap operas. These would be like real-time video blogs, with sponsors’ clickable ads floating around near the characters, who happen to be interesting people doing interesting things.

People will still dine out—indeed this will be a preferred form of entertainment, as physically eating something is one of the few things that require leaving the home. As you wait at your restaurant table for your food, you might enjoy watching (or even experiencing) the actions of the chef. Maybe the restaurant employs a gourmet eater, with such a sensitive and educated palate that it’s a pleasure to mind-meld when this eater chows down.

Will telepaths get drunk and stoned? Sure! And with dire consequences. Imagine the havoc you could wreak by getting wasted and “running your brain” instead of just emailing, phoning, or yelling at people face to face. There will be new forms of intoxication as well. A pair of people might lock themselves into an intense telepathic feedback loop, mirroring their minds back and forth until chaotic amplification takes hold.

In the world of art, suppose someone finds a way to record mood snapshots. And then we can produce objects that directly project the raw experiences of transcendence, wonder, euphoria, mindless pleasure, or sensual beauty, without actually having any content.

Telepaths will use language for superficial small talk, but, as I mentioned, just as often they’ll use psychic hyperlinks and directly exchanged images and emotions. Novels could take the form of elaborate sets of mental links. Writing might become more like video-blogging. A beautiful state of mind could be saved into a memory network, glyph by glyph. This new literary form might be called the metanovel.

Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Amplification

In the ubiquitous nanobot model I’ve been discussing, the orphidnet, we have a vast array of small linked minds. It’s reasonable to suppose that, as well as helping humans do things, the orphidnet will support emergent, artificially intelligent agents that enlist the memory and processing power of a few thousand or more individual orphids.

Some of these agents will be as intelligent as humans, and some will be even smarter. It’s easy to imagine their being willing to help people by carrying out things like complex and tedious searches for information or by simulating and evaluating multiple alternate action scenarios. The result is that humans would undergo IA, or intelligence amplification.

A step further, intelligent orphidnet agents group into higher minds that group into still higher minds and so on, with one or several planetary-level minds at the top. Here, by the way, is a fresh opportunity for human excess. Telepathically communing with the top mind will offer something like a mystical experience or a drug trip. The top mind will be like a birthday piñata stuffed with beautiful insights woven into ideas that link into unifying concepts that puzzle-piece themselves into powerful systems that are in turn aspects of a cosmic metatheory—aha! Hooking into the top mind will make any individual feel like more than a genius. Downside: once you unlink you probably won’t remember many of the cosmic thoughts that you had, and you’re going to be too drained to do much more than lie around for a few days.

Leaving ecstatic merging aside, let’s say a little more about intelligence amplification. Suppose that people reach an effective IQ of 1000 by taking advantage of the orphidnet memory enhancement and the processing aid provided by the orphidnet agents. Let’s speak of these kilo-IQ people as kiqqies.

As kiqqies, they can browse through all the world’s libraries and minds, with orphidnet agents helping to make sense of it all. How would it feel to be a kiqqie?

I recently had an email exchange about this with my friend Stephen Wolfram, a prominent scientist who happens one of the smartest people I know. When I asked him how it might feel to have an IQ of 1000, and what that might even mean, he suggested that the difference might be like the difference between simulating something by hand and simulating it on a high-speed computer with excellent software. Quoting from Wolfram’s email:

“There’s a lot more that one can explore, quickly, so one investigates more, sees more connections, and can look more moves ahead. More things would seem to make sense. One gets to compute more before one loses attention on a particular issue, etc. (Somehow that’s what seems to distinguish less intelligent people from more intelligent people right now.)”

Against Computronium

In some visions of the far future, amok nanomachines egged on by corporate geeks are disassembling the solar system’s planets to build Dyson shells of computronium around the Sun. Computronium is, in writer Charles Stross’s words, “matter optimized at the atomic level to support computing.” A Dyson shell is a hollow sphere of matter that intercepts all of the central sun’s radiation—using some of it and then passing the rest outwards in a cooled-down form, possibly to be further intercepted by outer layers of Dyson shells. What a horrible thing to do to a solar system!

I think computronium is a spurious concept. Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations by dint of sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere and everywhen computes at the max possible flop. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.

Turning an inhabited planet into a computronium Dyson shell is comparable to filling in wetlands to make a mall, clear-cutting a rainforest to make a destination golf resort, or killing a whale to whittle its teeth into religious icons of a whale god.

Ultrageek advocates of the computronium Dyson-shell scenario like to claim that nothing need be lost when Earth is pulped into computer chips. Supposedly the resulting computronium can run a VR (virtual reality) simulation that’s a perfect match for the old Earth. Call the new one Vearth. It’s worth taking a moment to explain the problems with trying to replace real reality with virtual reality. We know that our present-day videogames and digital movies don’t fully match the richness of the real world. What’s not so well known is that no feasible VR can ever match nature because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts. (For details on this point, see Rudy Rucker, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, or see the topic “irreducibility” in Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science.)

Natural unpredictability means that if you build a computer-simulated world that’s smaller than the physical world, the simulation cuts corners and makes compromises, such as using bitmapped wood-grain, linearized fluid dynamics, or cartoon-style repeating backgrounds. Smallish simulated worlds are doomed to be dippy Las Vegas/Disneyland environments populated by simulated people as dull and predictable as characters in bad novels.

But wait—if you do smash the whole planet into computronium, then you have potentially as much memory and processing power as the intact planet possessed. It’s the same amount of mass, after all. So then we could make a fully realistic world-simulating Vearth with no compromises, right? Wrong. Maybe you can get the hardware in place, but there’s the vexing issue of software. Something important goes missing when you smash Earth into dust: you lose the information and the software that was embedded in the world’s behavior. An Earth-amount of matter with no high-level programs running on it is like a potentially human-equivalent robot with no AI software, or, more simply, like a powerful new computer with no programs on the hard drive.

Ah, but what if the nanomachines first copy all the patterns and behaviors embedded in Earth’s biosphere and geology? What if they copy the forms and processes in every blade of grass, in every bacterium, in every pebble—like Citizen Kane bringing home a European castle that’s been dismantled into portable blocks, or like a foreign tourist taking digital photos of the components of a disassembled California cheeseburger?

But, come on, if you want to smoothly transmogrify a blade of grass into some nanomachines simulating a blade of grass, then why bother grinding up the blade of grass at all? After all, any object at all can be viewed as a quantum computation! The blade of grass already is an assemblage of nanomachines emulating a blade of grass. Nature embodies superhuman intelligence just as she is.

Why am I harping on this? It’s my way of leading up to one of the really wonderful events that I think our future holds: the withering away of digital machines and the coming of truly ubiquitous computation. I call it the Great Awakening.

I predict that eventually we’ll be able to tune in telepathically to nature’s computations. We’ll be able to commune with the souls of stones.

The Great Awakening will eliminate nanomachines and digital computers in favor of naturally computing objects. We can suppose that our newly intelligent world will, in fact, take it upon itself to crunch up the digital machines, frugally preserving or porting all of the digital data.

Instead of turning nature into chips, we’ll turn chips into nature.

The Advent of Panpsychism

In the future, we’ll see all objects as alive and conscious—a familiar notion in the history of philosophy and by no means disreputable. Hylozoism (from the Greek hyle, matter, and zoe, life) is the doctrine that all matter is intrinsically alive, and panpsychism is the related notion that every object has a mind. (See David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, MIT Press, Cambridge 2007) Already my car talks to me, as do my phone, my computer, and my refrigerator, so I guess we could live with talking rocks, chairs, logs, sandwiches, and atoms. And, unlike the chirping electronic appliances, the talking objects may truly have soul.

My opinion is that consciousness is not so very hard to achieve. How does everything wake up? I think the key insight is this:

Consciousness = universal computation + memory + self-reflection

Computer scientists define universal computers as systems capable of emulating the behavior of every other computing system. The complexity threshold for universal computation is very low. Any desktop computer is a universal computer. A cell phone is a universal computer. A Tinkertoy set or a billiard table can be a universal computer.

In fact, just about any natural phenomenon at all can be regarded as a universal computer: swaying trees, a candle flame, drying mud, flowing water, even a rock. To the human eye, a rock appears not to be doing much. But viewed as a quantum computation, the rock is as lively and seething as, say, a small star. At the atomic level, a rock is like a zillion balls connected by force springs; we know this kind of compound oscillatory system behaves chaotically, and computer science teaches us that chaotic systems can indeed support universal computation.

The self-reflection aspect of a system stems from having a feedback process whereby the system has two levels of self-awareness: first, an image of itself reacting to its environment, and second, an image of itself watching its own reactions. (See Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Mariner Books, New York 2000.)

We can already conceive of how to program self-reflection into digital computers, so I don’t think it will be long until we can make them conscious. But digital computers are not where the future’s at. We don’t use clockwork gears in our watches anymore, and we don’t make radios out of vacuum tubes. The age of digital computer chips is going to be over and done, if not in a hundred years, then certainly in a thousand. By the Year Million, we’ll be well past the Great Awakening, and working with the consciousness of ordinary objects.

I’ve already said a bit about why natural systems are universal computers. And the self-reflection issue is really just a matter of programming legerdemain. But two other things will be needed.

First, in order to get consciousness in a brook or a swaying tree or a flame or a stone, we’ll need a universal memory upgrade that can be, in some sense, plugged into natural objects. Second, for us to be able to work with the intelligent objects, we’re going to need a strong form of non-digital telepathy for communicating with them.

In the next section, I’ll explain how, before we bring about the Great Awakening, we’ll first have to manipulate the topology of space to give endless memory to every object and then create a high-fidelity telepathic connection among all the objects in the world. But for now let’s take these conditions for granted. Assume that everything has become conscious and that we are in telepathic communication with everything in the world.

To discuss the world after this Great Awakening, I need a generic word for an uplifted, awakened natural mind. I’ll call these minds silps. We’ll be generous in our panpsychism, with every size of object supporting a conscious silp, from atoms up to galaxies. Silps can also be found in groupings of objects—here I’m thinking of what animists regard as genii loci, or spirits of place.

There seems to be a problem with panpsychism: how do we have synchronization among the collective wills involved in, say, rush-hour traffic? Consider the atoms, the machine parts, the automotive subassemblies, the cars themselves, the minds of the traffic streams, not to mention the minds of the human drivers and the minds of their body cells. Why do the bodies do what the brains want them to? Why do all the little minds agree? Why doesn’t the panpsychic world disintegrate into squabbling disorder? Solution: everyone’s idea of their motives and decisions are Just So stories cobbled together ex post facto to create a narrative for what is in fact a complex, deterministic computation, a law-like cosmic harmony where each player imagines he or she is improvising.

It takes some effort to imagine a panpsychic world. What would a tree or campfire or waterfall be into? Perhaps they just want to hang out, doing nothing. Perhaps it’s only we who want to rush around, fidgety monkeys that we are. But if I overdo the notion of silp mellowness, I end up wondering if it even matters for an object to be conscious. Assuming the silps have telepathy, they do have sensors. But can they change the world? In a sense, yes: if silps are quantum computations, then they can influence their own matter by affecting rates of catalysis, heat flows, quantum collapses, and so on.

Thus a new-style silp drinking glass might be harder to break than an old-style dumb glass. The intelligent, living glass might shed off the vibration phonons in optimal ways to avoid fracture. In a similar connection, I think of a bean that slyly rolls away to avoid being cooked; sometimes objects do seem to hide.

The remarks about the glass and the bean assume that silp-smart objects would mind being destroyed. But is this true? Does a log mind being burned? It would be a drag if you had to feel guilty about stoking your fire. But silps aren’t really likely to be as bent on self-preservation as humans and animals are. We humans (and animals) have to be averse to death, so that we can live long enough to mate and to raise our young. Biological species go extinct if their individuals don’t care about self-preservation . But a log’s or rock’s individual survival doesn’t affect the survival of the race of logs or rocks. So silps needn’t be hard-wired to fear death.

Let’s say a bit more about self-reflection among silps. As a human, I have a mental model of myself watching myself have feelings about events. This is the self-reflection component of consciousness mentioned above. There seems no reason why this mode of thought wouldn’t be accessible to objects. Indeed, it might be that there’s some “fixed point” aspect of fundamental physics making self-reflection an inevitability. Perhaps, compared to a quantum-computing silp, a human’s methods for producing self-awareness is weirdly complex and roundabout.

As I mentioned before, when the Great Awakening comes, the various artificially intelligent agents of the orphidnet will be ported into silps or into minds made up of silps. As in the orphidnet, we’ll have an upward-mounting hierarchy of silp minds. Individual atoms will have small silp minds, and an extended large object will have a fairly hefty silp mind. And at the top we’ll have a truly conscious planetary mind: Gaia. Although there’s a sense in which Gaia has been alive all along, after the Great Awakening, she’ll be like a talkative, accessible god.

Because the silps will have inherited all the data of the orphids, humans will still have their omnividence, their shared memory access, and their intelligence amplification. I also predict that, when the Great Awakening comes, we’ll have an even stronger form of telepathy, which is based upon a use of the subdimensions.

Exploiting the Subdimensions

Let’s discuss how we might provide every atom in the universe with a memory upgrade, thus awakening objects to become silps. And, given that the silp era will supersede the nanotech era, we’ll also need a non-electronic form of telepathy that will work after the orphidnet and digital computers have withered away.

To achieve these two ends, I propose riffing on an old-school science-fiction power chord, the notion of the “subdimensions.” The word is a science-fictional shibboleth from the 1930s, but we can retrofit it to stand for the topology of space at scales below the Planck length—that is, below the size scale at which our current notions of physics break down.

One notion, taken from string theory, is that we have a lot of extra dimensions down there, and that most of them are curled into tiny circles. For a mathematician like myself, it’s annoying to see the physicists help themselves to higher dimensions and then waste the dimensions by twisting them into tiny coils. It’s like seeing someone win a huge lottery and then put every single penny into a stodgy, badly run bond fund.

I recklessly predict that sometime before the Year Million we’ll find a way to change the intrinsic topology of space, uncurling one of these stingily rolled-up dimensions. And of course we’ll be careful to pick a dimension that’s not absolutely essential for the string-theoretic Calabi-Yau manifolds that are supporting the existence of matter and spacetime. Just for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose that it’s the eighth dimension that we uncurl.

I see our eighth-dimensional coils as springing loose and unrolling to form infinite eighth-dimensional lines. This unfurling will happen at every point of space. Think of a plane with hog-bristles growing out of it. That’s our enhanced space after the eighth dimension unfurls. And the bristles stretch to infinity.

And now we’ll use this handy extra dimension for our universal memory upgrade! We’ll suppose that atoms can make tick marks on their eighth dimension, as can people, clouds, or stones. In other words, you can store information as bumps upon the eighth-dimensional hog bristles growing out of your body . The ubiquitous hog bristles provide endless memory at every location, thereby giving people endless perfect memories, and giving objects enough memory to make them conscious as well.

OK, sweet. Now what about getting telepathy without having to use some kind of radio-signaling system? Well, let’s suppose that all of the eighth dimensional axes meet at the point at infinity and that our nimble extradimensional minds can readily traverse an infinite eighth-dimensional expanse so that a person’s attention can quickly rapidly darting out to the shared point at infinity. And once you’re focused on the shared point at infinity, your attention can zoom back down to any space location you like.

In other words, everyone is connected via an accessible router point at infinity. So now, even if the silps have eaten the orphids as part of the Great Awakening, we’ll all have perfect telepathy.

(Re. traveling an infinite distance in a finite time, perhaps we’ll use a Zeno-style acceleration, continually doubling our speed. Thus, traversing the first meter along the eighth dimensional axis might take a half a millisecond, the second meter a quarter of a millisecond, the third meter an eighth of a millisecond, and so on. And in this fashion your attention can dart out to infinity in a millisecond.)

The End?

Of course we won’t stop at mere telepathy! By the Year Million, we’ll have teleportation, telekinesis, and the ability to turn our thoughts into objects.

Teleporting can be done by making yourself uncertain about which of two possible locations you’re actually in—and then believing yourself to be “there” instead of “here.” We’ll work this uncertainty-based method of teleportation as a three steps process. First, you perfectly visualize your source and target locations and mentally weave them together. Second, you become uncertain about which location you’re actually in. And third, you abruptly observe yourself, asking, “Where am I?” Thereby you precipitate a quantum collapse of your wave function, which lands you at your target location. I’m also supposing that whatever I’m wearing or holding will teleport along with me; let’s say that I can carry anything up to the weight of, say, a heavy suitcase.

Once people can teleport, they can live anywhere they can find a vacant lot to build on. You can teleport in water and you can teleport your waste away. What about heat and light? Perhaps you can get trees to produce electricity, and then set sockets into the trunks and plug in your lamps and heaters. Or just get the trees to make light and heat on their own, and never mind the electricity. (Once we can talk to our plants, it should be fairly easy to tweak their genes.)

As the next step beyond teleportation, we’ll learn to teleport objects without our having to move at all. This long hoped-for power is known to psi advocates and SF writers as telekinesis. How might telekinesis work our projected future? Suppose that, sitting in my living room, I want to teleport an apple from my fridge to my coffee table. I visualize the source and target locations just as I do when performing personal teleportation; that is, I visualize the fridge drawer and the tabletop in the living room. But now, rather than doing an uncertainty-followed-by-collapse number on my body, I need to do it on the apple. I become the apple for a moment, I merge with it, I cohere its state function to encourage locational uncertainty, and then I collapse the apple’s wave function into the apple-on-table eigenstate.

What’s the status of the apple’s resident silp while I do this? In a sense the silp is the apple’s wave function, so it must be that I’m bossing around the silp. Fine.

Can animals and objects teleport as well? What a mess that would be! We’d better hope that only humans can teleport. How might we justify such a special and privileged status for our race?

I’ll draw on a science-fictional idea in a Robert Sheckley story, “Specialist,” from his landmark anthology, Untouched By Human Hands. Sheckley suggested that humans would have the power of teleportation because, unlike animals or objects, we experience doubt and fear. Certainly it seems as if animals don’t have doubt and fear in the same way that we do. If a predator comes, an animal runs away, end of story. If cornered, a rat bares his teeth and fights. Animals don’t worry about what might happen; they don’t brood over what they did in the past; they don’t agonize over possibilities—or at least one can suppose that they don’t.

And it’s easy to suppose that the silps that inhabit natural processes don’t have doubt and fear either. Silps don’t much care if they die. A vortex of air forms and disperses, no problem.

So why would doubt and fear lead to teleportation? Having doubt and fear involves creating really good mental models of alternative realities. And being able to create good mental models of alternative realities means the ability to imagine yourself being there rather than here. We can spread out our wave functions in ways that other beings can’t. Humans carry out certain delicate kinds of quantum computation—which, we can suppose, might lead to teleportation.

Take this to the extreme. Could we create objects out of nothing? Call such objects “tulpas.” In Tibetan Buddhism, a tulpa is a material object or person that an enlightened adept can mentally create—a psychic projection that’s as solid as a brick. I think it’s entirely possible that, a million years from now, any human could create tulpas. How? You’ll psychically reprogram the quantum computations of the atoms around you, causing them to generate de Broglie matter waves converging on a single spot. Rather than being light holograms, these will be matter wave holograms—that is, physical objects created by computation: your tulpas.

Your thoughts could become objects by coaxing the nearby atoms to generate matter holograms that behave just like normal objects. You could build a house from nothing, turn a stone into bread, transform water into wine (assuming, given such miraculous abilities, you still needed shelter, food, drink), and make flowers bloom from your fingertips.

And then will humans finally be satisfied?

Of course not. We’ll push on past infinity and into the transfinite realms beyond the worlds—mayhap to embroil ourselves with the elder gods and the Great Old Ones.

Note on “The Great Awakening”

Written in 2007.

Appeared in Damien Broderick, ed., Year Million, 2008.

My preliminary section for this essay, “The Singularity,” is adapted from my book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, Basic Books. And the rest of the essay appeared in the Year Million anthology. There’s a certain overlap between “The Great Awakening,” and my 2005 essay, “Adventures in Gnarly Computation,” which appeared in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine. But I thought I might as well put both of them into my Collected Essays.

Many of the ideas in “The Great Awakening” found their way into my 2007 SF novel, Postsingular, and its 2009 sequel, Hylozoic. It’s also worth mentioning that I posted some of this material in two blog posts in March, 2008, “Fundamental Limits to Virtual Reality,” and its follow-up, “Limits to Virtual Reality: Answers to Comments.” The first of these can be found here and the follow-up is the next post in the blog. I don’t think I’ve ever got such passionate comments on a blog post!

Some people seem to have a nearly religious belief in the reality of a digital afterlife. Being one of the first people to have written about this idea—in my 1982 novel Software—I’ve learned to to take it all that seriously. But it’s fun to think about.

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Everything Is Alive

Consciousness and Life

Panpsychism is the philosophical doctrine that every physical entity is conscious. By a “physical entity” I will mean any physical object or naturally occurring process.

Note that panpsychism is different from (although consistent with) the pantheistic doctrine that the universe as a whole has a conscious mind. Panpsychism allows that the universe may be conscious, but its primary statement is that each object and each process has a little consciousness of its own. Galaxies, rocks, planets, atoms, electrons, air currents, fires, rivers—each of them has a mind.

Panpsychism is related but not equivalent to hylozoism, which says that every object is alive. That curious word comes from the Greek words hyle, matter + zoe, life.

To clarify the distinction between the two doctrines, we can divide entities into four distinct categories, listed in the left-hand column of Table 1. And the right-hand column of the table lists some possible candidates for each category.


Possible Examples

Conscious but not alive.

Brittle chip-based ultracomputers. Ghosts.

Conscious and alive.

Humans, higher animals. “Self-reproducing” robots who build more robots.

Alive but not conscious.

Bacteria. Biological viruses. Group organisms such as anthills or human societies. Self-modifying computer viruses.

Not alive and not conscious.

Stones. Atoms. Planets. Fires. Waterfalls. Air currents. Fluttering flags.

Consciousness and Life

Despite these seeming distinctions, I’m going to argue that everything really belongs to the “conscious and alive” category, for I am both a panpsychic and a hylozoist. Certainly I realize this is not a common point of view! To some extent, I am only adopting these ideas on to see how they feel, that is, I practice a Philosophie des Als Ob—a philosophy of the “as if.”

A critic might remark that our notions of being conscious and being alive help us make useful distinctions, e.g. between a person and a rock. So if I argue that everything is conscious and that everything is alive, then I am undermining the utility of two words. I would respond that I’m not seriously urging that we abandon forever our colloquial notions of what life and consciousness mean. Of course it’s useful to distinguish oneself from a rock. But it’s also useful—but much less often attempted—to argue the distinction away. My goal is to expand the reader’s sense of what’s possible.

I currently work as a science fiction novelist as well as a philosopher of computer science. I find it useful to adopt extreme philosophical positions so that I can dramatize them as novels. One might regard my novels as extended thought experiments. Some of the ideas I discuss in this paper are finding their way into my most recent two novels, Postsingular, [Rucker 2007], and Hylozoic, [Rucker 2009].

Part of the attraction of panpsychism and hylozoism is emotional. It feels pleasant to imagine oneself to be surrounded by living minds. The nineteenth century philosopher Gustav Fechner was an eloquent advocate for the satisfactions of panpsychism: “Humans are surrounded at all levels of being, by varying degrees of soul. This is Fechner’s ‘daylight view’—the human soul at home in an ensouled cosmos. This he contrasted to the materialist ‘night view’: humans alone, isolated points of light in a universe of utter blackness.”—Quoted in [Skrbina 2005], p. 122.

In the long, run, I believe there will be quite practical reasons for believing in panpsychism. Firstly, it begins to seem possible that we can build computers which are conscious. And secondly, in the longer run, our computers will consist of ordinary objects. For the history of technology tells us that digital chip-based computers are likely to disappear from the scene, like any other technology. We don’t use clockwork gears in our watches anymore, and we don’t make radios out of vacuum tubes. The age of digital computer chips is going to be over and done, if not in a hundred years, then certainly in a thousand. By then we will be working with the quantum computations of ordinary objects.

In this paper, I’ll present a logical argument for panpsychism and hylozoism My argument hinges on the concept of “gnarly computation,” which is a term I apply to chaotic processes that are somewhat orderly. My argument will proceed through the following nine steps.

(1) Universal Automatism. Every physical entity is a computation.

(2) Moreover, every physical entity is a gnarly computation.

(3) Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence. Every naturally occurring gnarly computation is a universal computation.

(4) Consciousness = Universal Computation + Self-Reflection.

(5) Any complex system can be regarded as having self-reflection.

(6) Panpsychism. Every physical entity is conscious.

(7) Walker’s Thesis. Life = Universal Computation + Memory.

(8) Every physical entity has memory via its interactions with the universe.

(9) Hylozoism. Every physical object is alive.

Everything is a Gnarly Computation

I enjoy using a dialectic approach to develop ideas, as I am Georg Hegel’s great-great-great grandson. Usually we think of dialectic in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—the synthesis represents an escape from the contradiction found between the thesis and antithesis. This pattern is called a dialectic triad.

I’ll start with a dialectic triad whose synthetic component is my statement (2): Every naturally occurring phenomenon can be regarded as a gnarly computation. My first version of this triad appears in a book whose title summarizes the argument: The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, [Rucker 2005]. This title is a pattern of the form thesis, synthesis, and antithesis. (If I wanted to closely match the usual order of ideas, I might have called my book The Lifebox, the Soul and the Seashell. But that phrase doesn’t roll off the tongue so well.)

My thesis in this case is statement (1): Every object or process is a computation. My name for this thesis is Universal Automatism. Universal Automatism says the world is made of computations. A particularly contentious case of Universal Automatism is the statement that a human mind is a computation. In my book’s title, I represented this case of the Universal Automatism thesis by the word “lifebox,” which is a (still science-fictional) device that holds enough data and algorithms to fully emulate a person’s behavior. I feel that we will see lifeboxes on sale within a century or two.

In order to make Universal Automatism more believable, I have to use a very inclusive notion of computation. So I say that a computation is any process that obeys finitely describable rules.

Do note that, rather than saying the world is one single computation, I prefer to say that the world consists of many computations—at high and low levels. There need not be any single underlying master computation—no robot voice reciting numbers in the dark. Instead we are a seething swarm of little computations made of yet smaller computations.

My antithesis in the book’s dialectic triad, expressed by the word “soul,” is the existential observation that consciousness doesn’t feel like a computation. We have an innate sense of awareness that we express by the phrase, “I am.” One has a feeling that being conscious involves merging into the world, which doesn’t seem like something a computation would easily do. Our experiences with sensual qualia give us a sense that consciousness has a texture not captured by computation. Dreams and religious visions also give us a feeling of having a higher consciousness that’s not captured by computations.

My synthesis in this dialectic triad is to claim that naturally occurring computations can in fact have the richness of consciousness, for the reason that they are gnarly computations. Furthermore, I argue that all naturally occurring processes are in fact complex enough to be gnarly computations.

I’ll say more about gnarly computations in the next section, but for now suffice it to say they are complex and unpredictable. In my book’s title, I use the word “seashell” to represent the notion of gnarly computations because certain seashell patterns are believed to be naturally occurring computations of this complex sort. (See Figure 21.)


Rudy holding a cone shell with a gnarly cellular automata pattern

To summarize, my original dialectic argument says:

Thesis: Everything is a computation.

Antithesis: Human consciousness doesn’t feel like a computation.

Synthesis: Everything is a gnarly computation.

And this argument takes us from my statement (1) to my statement (2).

What is Gnarl?

By way of explaining more precisely what I meant by a gnarly computation, I’ll point out that computations lie on a spectrum of complexity. My analysis follows that of Stephen Wolfram in his book, A New Kind of Science, [Wolfram 2002].


The spectrum of computational complexity

Suppose that we focus on some particular category of computations such as Turing machines or cellular automata rules. No matter what the category, we always find four basic kinds of behaviors: comes to a halt; goes into a repeating loop; produces unpredictable but somewhat orderly output, produces random-looking output.

We view the first two types of behavior as simple, and the second two types as complex. In chaos theory, both of the complex classes are regarded as chaotic. The reason I have introduced the word “gnarly” for the third class is so as to have a more convenient phrase than “somewhat orderly chaos.” Christopher Langton refers to this zone as the edge of chaos.

In this context, we aren’t very interested in the distinction between the terminating and repeating computations, so we lump those two simple classes together. Thus we arrive at three general classes: simple, gnarly, and random-looking. And just as in the fairy tale about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we can view the behaviors as too cold, just right, and too hot.

Simple (Too Cold): Dies Out or Repeats.

Gnarly (Just Right): Complex, moving, unpredictable. Life. Natural processes.

Random-looking (Too Hot): Seething.

Most of my own taxonomic research on computations has centered on two-dimensional cellular automata. We can think of these computations as taking place on a computer screen. Each pixel acts as a tiny independent computer, each pixel updates its state on the basis of the states of its neighboring pixels, and the states are depicted as colors.

At the end of his life, the computer science pioneer Alan Turing was beginning to use these kinds of rules to show how the patterns on animal coats and butterfly wings might emerge from cellular automata rules based on two competing chemicals, an activator and an inhibitor. The “Turing patterns” that emerge from these rules can look like spots or filigrees.


Nine gnarly cellular automata

We can create computer simulations of these rules by supposing that the state of each pixel includes two real numbers representing the intensities of activator and inhibitor. Figure 23 shows some of the patterns generated by these rules. In these images we see the spontaneously generated scrolls that biochemists call Belousov-Zhabotinsky scrolls. The dynamics of these patterns are lovely. The spirals are constantly turning, and the scrolls expand, swallow each other, and spawn off new scrolls—almost like living creatures.

Getting back to my main line of argument, let me say a bit more in my support of my statement (2): Every object or process is a gnarly computation. In many cases it’s intuitively clear that nature is performing a gnarly computation: think of swaying trees, a flickering fire, the cracks in drying mud, flowing water, or even a rock. A rock? To the human eye, a rock appears not to be doing much. But viewed as a quantum computation, the rock is as lively and seething as, say, a small star. At the atomic level, a rock is like a zillion balls connected by force springs, and we know this kind of compound oscillatory system behaves chaotically.


For the next stage of my argument, I want to argue for a form of what Wolfram calls the Principle of Computational Equivalence. This is my statement (3): Every naturally occurring gnarly computation is a universal computation.

Computer scientists define universal computers as systems capable of emulating the behavior of every other computing system. The complexity threshold for universal computation is in fact very low. Any desktop computer is a universal computer. A cell phone is a universal computer. A Tinkertoy set or a billiard table can be a universal computer. And very many gnarly computations such as Conway’s Game of Life have been proved to be universal computations as well.

One difficulty here is that in 1956, Richard Friedberg and Albert Muchnik, working independently, showed that one can in construct computations which are gnarly but not computation universal. This is why in my version of the Principle of Computational Equivalence, I restrict the focus to “naturally occurring computations”—the supposition being that the Friedberg and Muchnik computations are in fact so artificial as not to occur in the wild.

Now we come to the question of consciousness. On the surface, being a universal computation seems like very nearly a sufficiently strong condition for being conscious. But there is a sense that one’s consciousness has something more, and one might well suppose this additional ingredient to be self-reflection, where the self-reflection aspect of a system stems from having a feedback process whereby the system has two levels of self-awareness: first, an image of itself reacting to its environment, and second, an image of itself watching its own reactions. (See [Damasio 1999].) Thus we arrive at statement (4): Consciousness = Universal Computation + Self-Reflection.

I have come to believe however that the requirement of self-reflection is otiose. That is, my experience as a computer scientist suggests that one can in fact used fixed-point methods to give any universally computing system this kind of self-reflectivity. This leads to my statement (5): Any complex system can be regarded as having self-reflection.

And thus we can deduce (6): Panpsychism. Every physical entity is conscious.

One problem which remains to be solved is whether we can learn to converse with the conscious objects surrounding us. Possibly we will develop some quantum computational technique so that one can sufficiently entangle oneself with an object so as to able to talk with it.


My fellow philosopher of computer science, John Walker, makes the point that living beings seem to have memory as well as universal computation. (See [Walker 2004].) Walker points out that humans, for instance, have physical memories at three different levels.

Genetic memory: DNA.

Organic memory: Immune system.

Behavioral memory: Neural patterns.

Even if we don’t expect living entities to have a biological component, one can make a case that memory plays an essential role in such characteristically life-like processes as reproduction, morphogenesis, and homeostasis.

Thus we arrive at (7): Walker’s Thesis. Life = Universal computation + Memory.

So now in order to extend my line of thought to reach hylozoism, I need some way of asserting that every physical object already has some kind of memory.

While preparing this paper to present in Kyoto, I started thinking of the Zen koan of the flag. Two monks are looking at a flag fluttering in the wind, and this system is performing a gnarly and therefore universal computation. But what is the system? The first monk says, “The flag is moving.” The second monk says, “The wind is moving.” The third says, “Mind is moving.”

The flag koan is, in its own way, a dialectic triad, and the flag/wind system is a conscious mind.

That is my panpsychic interpretation of the koan; probably the more common interpretation is a pantheistic one, under which the flag/wind motion is viewed as an aspect of a single, overarching mind that imbues all things.

Now suppose we want to say the flag/wind system is alive as well. Does the fluttering flag have a memory so as to satisfy Walker’s thesis? At first it seems the answer must be no. An isolated natural system is dissipative, that is, different past histories can lead to identical present states.

In my novel Hylozoic, I suppose that we might get around this problem by changing the topology of space at scales below the Planck length—that is, below the size scale at which our current notions of physics break down.

The current notion of space at very small scales, taken from string theory, is that we have a lot of extra dimensions down there, and that most of them are curled into tiny circles. But what if we could find a way to change the intrinsic topology of space, uncurling one of these stingily rolled-up dimensions? Of course we’d be careful to pick a dimension that’s not absolutely essential for the string-theoretic Calabi-Yau manifolds that are supporting the existence of matter and spacetime. Just for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose that it’s the eighth dimension that we uncurl.

I see our eighth-dimensional coils as springing loose and unrolling to form infinite eighth-dimensional lines. This unfurling will happen at every point of space. Think of a plane with hog-bristles growing out of it. That’s our enhanced space after the eighth dimension unfurls. And the bristles stretch to infinity.

And now we’ll use this handy extra dimension for our universal memory upgrade! We’ll suppose that atoms can make tick marks on their eighth dimension, as can people, clouds, or stones. In other words, you can store information as bumps upon the eighth-dimensional hog bristles growing out of your body . The ubiquitous hog bristles provide endless memory at every location, thereby giving people endless perfect memories, and giving objects enough memory to make them alive as well. (Do understand here that I’m speaking in a completely speculative and fanciful way.)

Is there any less science-fictional way to achieve the same result? One approach might be to say that there are in fact no isolated natural systems. The effects of the flag/wind system’s state ten minutes ago are still present in the state functions of the myriads of particles that are quantum-entangled with the particles of the air and the flag. Put more simply, the system’s memory is part of the universal state function. In this once again pantheistic view, each limited system can draw upon the entire memory of the universe as a whole.

This notion is anticipated by the Zen koan in which a monk asks the sage, “Does a stone have Buddha-nature?” The sage answers, “The universal rain moistens all creatures.”

Thus we arrive at (8): Every physical entity has memory via its interactions with the universe. And now we have reached our goal of (9): Hylozoism. Every physical object or process is alive.

In closing, I should mention that in an earlier paper [Rucker 2008] I combined statements (4) and (7) to have this statement: Consciousness = universal computation + memory + self-reflection. And moving from there, I argued that to be a conscious physical object of this kind is essentially to be alive—so that in the end, I arrived at the same position as in the present paper: Everything is conscious and alive.

I would like to thank Masatoshi Murase for having organized this interesting conference, and Mark van Atten for his useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


[Rucker 2007] Rudy Rucker, Postsingular, Tor Books, New York 2007.

[Rucker 2009] Rudy Rucker, Hylozoic, Tor Books, New York 2009.

[Skrbina 2005] David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, MIT Press, Cambridge MA 2005.

[Rucker 2005] Rudy Rucker, The Lifebox, The Seashell and the Soul, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York 2005.

[Wolfram 2002] Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, Champaign IL 2002.

[Langton 1990] Christopher G. Langton, “Computation at the edge of chaos,” Physica D, 42, 1990.

[Damasio 1999] Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt, New York 1999.

[Walker 2004] John Walker, “Computation, Memory, Nature, and Life,” on his website.

[Rucker 2008] Rudy Rucker, “The Great Awakening,” in Damien Broderick, ed., Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge. Atlas Books, New York 2008.

Note on “Everything Is Alive”

Written in 2009.

Appeared in the Proceedings of the Kyoto “What is Life” Conference.


With friendly schoolgirls in a Kyoto bus, 2007.

In October, 2007, Sylvia and I got a free trip to Kyoto, where I spoke at a conference on the theme, “What is Life.” It was an eccentric mix of talks—a number of them were what most academics would call pseudoscience. Which might help explain my presence! I worked up a “rigorous” proof of the hylozoic hypothesis that every object is not only conscious but literally alive. Note that “hylozoism” is indeed a real word, you can look it up on Wikipedia. And I used this notion in my novel Hylozoic. Note that a crucial step of my proof of my tenet that “Everything is Alive” is based on a SFictional fantasy that appears in my novel. I enjoyed taking advantage of the intellectually loose nature of the conference to write an academic paper that is in some sense a flight of fancy. This said, I really do, when I remember to, believe that all the objects around are in a very real sense alive. Why not think this? It makes the world a cozier place.

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An Incompleteness Theorem for the Natural World


The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz is perhaps best known for the fierce controversy that arose between him and Sir Isaac Newton over the invention of calculus. The S-like integral sign that we use to this day is in fact a notation invented by Leibniz.

When Leibniz was a youth of nineteen, he wrote a paper called “De Arte Combinatorica”, in which he tried to formulate a universal algebra for reasoning, in the hope that human thought might some day be reducible to mathematical calculations, with symbols or characters standing for thoughts.

 But to return to the expression of thoughts by means of characters, I thus think that controversies can never be resolved, nor sectarian disputes be silenced, unless we renounce complicated chains of reasoning in favor of simple calculations, and vague terms of uncertain meaning in favor of determinate characters. In other words, it must be brought about that every fallacy becomes nothing other than a calculating error, and every sophism expressed in this new type of notation becomes in fact nothing other than a grammatical or linguistic error, easily proved to be such by the very laws of this philosophical grammar. Once this has been achieved, when controversies arise, there will be no more need for a disputation between two philosophers than there would be between two accountants. It would be enough for them to pick up their pens and sit at their abacuses, and say to each other (perhaps having summoned a mutual friend): “Let us calculate.” [Gottfried Leibniz, Die philosophischen Schriften, edited by C. I. Gerhardt. Translation by George MacDonald Ross.]

Let’s refer to this notion as Leibniz’s dream—the dream of finding a logical system to decide all of the things that people might ever disagree about. Could the dream ever work?

Even if the dream were theoretically possible (which it isn’t), as a practical matter it wouldn’t work anyway. If a universal algebra for reasoning had come into existence, would, for instance, Leibniz have been able to avoid his big arguments with Newton? Not likely. People don’t actually care all that much about logic, not even Leibniz. We just pretend to like logic when it happens to be on our side—otherwise we very often abandon logic and turn to emotional appeals.

This said, there’s a powerful attraction to Leibniz’s dream. People like the idea of finding an ultimate set of rules to decide everything. Physicists, for instance, dream of a Theory of Everything. At a less exalted level, newspapers and TV are filled with miracle diets—simple rules for regulating your weight as easily as turning a knob on a radio. On the ethical front, each religion has its own compact set of central teachings. And books meant to help their readers lead happier lives offer a simple list of rules to follow.

But, as I hinted above, achieving Leibniz’s dream is logically impossible.

In order to truly refute Leibniz’s dream, we need to find a precise way to formulate it. As it happens, formal versions of Leibniz’s dream were first developed early in the Twentieth century.

An early milestone occurred in 1910, when the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead published their monumental Principia Mathematica, intended to provide a formal logical system that could account for all of mathematics. And, as we’ll be discussing below, hand in hand with the notion of a formal system came an exact description of what is meant by a logical proof.

There were some problems with the Russell-Whitehead system, but by 1920, the mathematician David Hilbert was confident enough to propose what came to be known as Hilbert’s program.

(1) We will discover a complete formal system, capable of deciding all the questions of mathematics.

(2) We will prove that this system is free of any possible contradiction.

As Hilbert put it, “The conviction of the solvability of every mathematical problem is a powerful incentive to the worker. We hear within us the perpetual call: There is the problem. Seek its solution. You can find it by pure reason, for in mathematics there is no ignorabimus.”

For a decade, scientists could dream that Hilbert’s program might come true. And meanwhile mathematics and much of physics were being recast as formal systems. Scientific theories could now be viewed as deterministic processes for determining the truth of theorems. Leibniz’s dream was nearly at hand!

But, then, in 1931, the logician Kurt Gödel proved his celebrated Incompleteness Theorem.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. If F is a consistent formal system as powerful as arithmetic, then there are infinitely many sentences which are undecidable for F.

This means there can never be formal system of mathematics of the kind sought by Hilbert’s program. Every formal system F about mathematics is incomplete in the sense that there are sentences G such that F fails to prove G or ~G, where ~G is the negation of G.

Gödel’s sentences G take the form of statements that certain algebraic formulas have no solutions in the natural numbers. Normally these sentences include at least one very large numerical parameter that in some sense codes up the entire theory F. Wolfram (2002, p. 790) has suggested that there might be some much simpler undecidable Gödelian sentences, and proposes that the following sentence might be undecidable: “For all m and n, m2 ¹ n5 + 6n + 3.”

Philosophers of science have wondered if there is something like an Incompleteness Theorem for theories about the natural world. One somewhat awkward approach might be to argue that if the natural world happens to be infinite, then we can in some sense represent the system of natural numbers as a list of objects within the world and then go on to claim that the usual undecidable Gödel statements about arithmetic are also statements about the natural world.

But, as I discuss in (Rucker, 1982, p. 290), this isn’t a satisfying approach. If we wanted to have number theory be a subset of a theory W about the physical world, we’d need for W to single out an infinite set of objects to play the role of the numbers, and W would also need to define relations the correspond to numerical addition and multiplication.

What we really want is a proof—or at least a plausibility argument—for a Natural Incompleteness Theorem that asserts the existence of undecidable sentences that are about natural physical processes—as opposed to being about the natural numbers in disguise.

Wolfram’s analysis of computation in A New Kind of Science opens a path. The first step is to accept the idea that natural processes can be thought of as computations. And the second step is to argue for some form of Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence.

Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence (PCE): Almost all processes that are not obviously simple can be viewed as computations of equivalent sophistication.

In this essay I’ll show that, starting from Wolfram’s two steps, we can prove a Natural Incompleteness Theorem. My method will be to make use of Alan Turing’s 1936 work on what he called unsolvable halting problems. And rather than using the full strength of Wolfram’s somewhat controversial Principle of Computational Equivalence, I’ll base my argument on a weaker assumption, which I call the Halting Problem Hypothesis. And we’ll end up with the following Natural Incompleteness Theorem.

Natural Incompleteness Theorem. For most naturally occurring complex processes and for any correct formal system for science, there will be sentences about the process which are undecidable by the given formal system.

This is, I believe, a clean statement of new result—and may be of real importance to the philosophy of science. Although Wolfram (2002, p. 1138) gives some specific examples of undecidable statements about natural processes, he fails to state the general Natural Incompleteness Theorem.

The Halting Problem Hypothesis

It’s traditional to ask if a computation comes to an end, or if it halts. We can extend our language a bit and speak of a natural process as halting it happens to reach or to pass through some particular designated state. The established results about the narrow sense of halting apply to this generalized sense as well.

In many situations we value processes that halt in our more general sense. Suppose you feed a set of equations into some computer algebra software, and that you ask the software to solve the equations. What you want is for the resulting process to halt in the sense of displaying an answer on the screen. It doesn’t halt in the more dramatic and narrow sense of going dead or freezing up the machine.

In many situations, we like to have computations or processes that don’t halt. When we simulate, say, the life of some artificially alive creature, or the evolution of a species, we aren’t aiming towards a specific kind of result, and still less do we want to see a fixed state or periodic behavior. In this situation we prefer a non-halting computation that continues to produce novel effects.

The distinction between halting and not halting leads to Turing’s Theorem of 1936.

Definition. The computation P is said to have a solvable halting problem if and only if there is an algorithm for deciding in advance which inputs will cause P eventually to reach a halted target state, and which inputs will cause P to run endlessly without ever reaching a halted target state.

Definition. A computation is universal if it can emulate any other computation.

Emulating a particular computation C means that you can feed a certain code into your universal computation U that will cause U to produce the same input-output behavior as C.

As it happens, universal computations are in fact very common. Any personal computer, for instance, embodies a universal computation. Indeed, even as simple a computation as the one-dimensional cellular automaton with rule-code 110 is universal (Wolfram, 2002).

Putting all our new concepts together, we arrive at the following.

Turing’s Theorem. If U is a universal computation, and then U has an unsolvable halting problem.

This means that if a computation is of a sufficiently rich and general nature, then there is no simple algorithm for predicting which inputs will make U run forever, and which inputs will make U end up in some desired target state, such as the state of coming to a halt.

Let’s switch focus now, and discuss how the notion of halting problems can be used to formulate a weaker form of Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence. For convenience, here is a statement of the PCE again.

Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence (PCE): Almost all processes that are not obviously simple can be viewed as computations of equivalent sophistication.

I’ll now ring the PCE through three changes, hit a snag, formulate an alternate form of the PCE, and then suggest a still-weaker hypothesis that I’ll call the Halting Problem Hypothesis (HPH).

Suppose that we speak of computations rather than processes, and that we speak of computations that are “complex” rather than “not obviously simple.” In this case the PCE becomes:

(1) Almost all complex computations are of equivalent sophistication.

What might Wolfram mean by saying that two computations are “of equivalent sophistication”? Suppose we take this to mean that the computations can emulate each other or that, more technically, they have the same degree of unsolvability. So now the PCE becomes:

(2) Almost all complex computations can emulate each other.

Now certainly Turing’s universal computation is complex. So, given that a computation which emulates a universal computation is itself universal, the PCE becomes:

(3) Almost all complex computations are universal.

But mathematical logicians have proved:

(Snag) There are very many complex computations which are not universal.

The “almost all” in the PCE gives us some wiggle room. But at this point we’d do well to back off. Suppose we weaken the range of application of the PCE. Rather than saying it applies to “almost all” complex computations, suppose we say it applies to “Most naturally occurring” complex computations. And this gives us a weakened formulation of the PCE.

(4) Most naturally occurring complex computations are universal.

This statement may still be too strong. Rather than insisting upon it, let’s consider what we plan to use the PCE for. As I mentioned in the introductory section, I plan to use something like the PCE as a stepping stone to a Natural Incompleteness Theorem. And for this, all I need is the following Halting Problem Hypothesis (HPH).

(HPH) Halting Problem Hypothesis: Most naturally occurring complex computations have unsolvable halting problems relative to some simple notion of halting.

Think of a computation as an ongoing process, for example your life, or society, or a plant growing, or the weather. As I mentioned in the previous section, relative to a given computation we can formulate the notion of a target state as being some special status or behavior that the computation might eventually reach. The halting problem in this context is the problem of deciding whether a given input will eventually send your computation into one of the target states. And, once again, a halting problem is unsolvable if there’s no computation, algorithm, or rule-of-thumb to detect which inputs won’t ever produce one of these specified target state.

The HPH says that if you have some naturally occurring computation that isn’t obviously simple, then there will probably be some simple notion of a target state that leads to an unsolvable halting problem.

Note that the PCE implies the HPH. Going in the other direction, the HPH does not imply the PCE. The HPH claims only that certain computations have unsolvable halting problems, and does not claim that these computations are universal. The good thing about the HPH is that, unlike the PCE, the HPH has no difficulties with the many non-universal computations that have unsolvable halting problems. The HPH has a better chance of being true, and is easier to defend against those who doubt the validity of Wolfram’s analysis of computation.

It’s worth noting that it may be possible to drop the two-fold qualifier “mast naturally occurring” from the HPH and to get a Strong Halting Problem Hypothesis as stated below.

Strong Halting Problem Hypothesis: All complex computations have unsolvable halting problems relative to some notion of halting.

This says that all complex computations have associated with them some unsolvable halting problem. If this is indeed the case, then the Strong Halting Problem Hypothesis clarifies what we mean by a “complex computation.”

Getting back to the weaker HPH, let me clarify its import by giving some fanciful examples. The table below lists a variety of real world computations. In each row, I suggest a computation, a notion of “target state”, and a relevant question that has the form of a halting problem—where we try to detect initial states that produce endlessly running computations that never reach the specified target state. (I’m idealizing here, and temporarily setting aside the issue that none of the physical processes that I mention can in fact run for infinitely many years.)

Assuming that the HPH applies to these computations with these particular definitions of target state, we’re faced with unsolvability, which means that none of the questions in the third column can be third column can be answered by a finding a simple way to detect which inputs will set off a process that never reaches the target states.


Target States

Unsolvable Halting Problem

The motions of the bodies in our solar system.

Something rams into Earth.

Which possible adjustments to Earth’s orbit can make us safe forever?

The evolution of our species as we spread from world to world.


Which possible tweaks to our genetics might allow our race survive indefinitely?

The growth and aging of your body.

Developing cancer.

Which people will never get cancer?

Economics and finance.

Becoming wealthy.

Which people will never get rich?

Crime and punishment.

Going to jail.

Which kinds of careers allow a person to avoid incarceration forever?

Writing a book.

It’s obviously finished.

Which projects are doomed from the outset never to be finished?

Working to improve one’s mental outlook.

Serenity, tranquility, peace.

When is a person definitely on the wrong path?

Finding a mate.

Knowing that this is the one.

Who is doomed never to find true love?

Inventing something.


Which research programs are utterly hopeless?

Unsolvable Halting Problems In Everyday Life.

A Natural Incompleteness Theorem

Let’s begin by defining what I mean by a formal system. A formal system F can be characterized as having four components: A set of symbols, a rule for recognizing which finite strings of symbols are grammatical sentences, a rule for deciding which sentences are to be regarded as the axioms of the system, and some inference rules for deducing sentences from other sentences.

A proof of a sentence S from the formal system F is a sequence of sentences, with the last sentence of the sequence being the targeted sentence S. Each preceding sentence must either be an axiom or be a sentence which is arrived at by combining still earlier sentences according to the inference rules. If a sentence is provable from F, we call it a theorem of F.

Combined with the notion of proof, a formal system becomes the source of a potentially endless number of theorems. Aided by a formal system, we mentally reach out into the unknown and produce facts about entirely new situations.

Now let’s think of a formal system as a computation. There are several ways one might do this, but what’s going to be most useful here is to work with a computation FProvable that captures the key aspect of a formal system: it finds theorems. Our FProvable will try to detect—so far as possible—which strings of symbols are theorems of F. That is, for any proposed provable sentence S, the computation FProvable(S) will carry out the following computation.

(1) If S fails to be a grammatical sentence FProvable(S) returns False.

(2) Otherwise FProvable starts mechanically generating proofs from the formal system F in order of proof size, and if S appears at the end of a proof, FProvable(S) returns True.

(3) If S is a grammatical sentence but no proof of S is ever found, then FProvable(S) fails to halt.

As it turns out, if F is a powerful enough formal system to prove the basic facts of arithmetic, then FProvable will be universal. And then, by Turing’s Theorem, FProvable has an unsolvable halting problem.

(That is, Turing’s work showed that arithmetic is strong enough to emulate the running of Turing machines. More specifically, he showed that for any F as strong as arithmetic, we can set things up so that FProvable emulates M. Since we can do this for any machine M, this means that FProvable is a universal computation, so Turing’s Theorem applies, and FProvable has an unsolvable halting problem.)

Let’s come back to Leibniz’s dream. Suppose we could formulate some wonderfully rich and inclusive formal system F that includes mathematics, physics, biology, human psychology, and even the laws of human society. And then, just as Leibniz said, whenever we’re asked if some statement S about the world were true, we’d set the computation FProvable(S) in motion, and the computation would eventually return True—provided that S is provable as well as true.

One cloud on the horizon is that, if S isn’t provable, then FProvable(S) is going to run forever. And, due to the unsolvability of the halting problem, there’s no way to filter out in advance those sentences S that are in fact unprovable sentences.

To delve deeper, we need two more definitions. As a I mentioned before, we’ll use ~ to represent negation. So if S is a sentence, ~S means “not S”. That is, S is false if and only if ~S is true. Using this notion of negation, we can formulate the notion of consistency.

Definition. F is consistent if and only if there is no sentence S such that F proves S and F proves ~S.

According to the usual rules of logic, if a theory proves even one contradiction, then it will go ahead and prove everything possible. So an inconsistent theory is useless for distinguishing between true and false statements about the world. We can reasonably suppose that our proposed Leibniz’s-dream-type theory F is consistent.

What if neither S nor ~S are provable from F? As it turns out, the neither-nor case does happen. A lot! The reason has to do with, once again, the unsovability of the halting problem for FProvable.

Definition. If F is a formal system and S is a particular statement such that F proves neither S nor ~S, we say S is undecidable for F.

A priori, we can see that there are four possible situations regarding the behavior of the “Is S provable?” computation.


FProvable(~S) returns True

FProvable(~S) doesn’t halt.

FProvable(S) returns True.

F proves both S and ~S, meaning F is inconsistent.

F proves S.

FProvable(S) doesn’t halt.

F proves ~S.

F proves neither S nor ~S, meaning that S is undecidable for F.

Four Kinds of Provability and Unprovability

In their optimism, the early mathematical logicians such as David Hilbert hoped to find a formal system F such that the undecidable and inconsistent cases would never arise. As I mentioned earlier, Hilbert’s program proposed finding a provably consistent formal system F that could decide all mathematical questions. But Hilbert’s hopes were in vain. For we have Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which tells us that any formal system designed along the lines of Leibniz’s dream or Hilbert’s program will leave infinitely many sentences undecidable.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. If F is a consistent formal system as powerful as arithmetic, then there are infinitely many sentences which are undecidable for F.

What are these undecidable sentences like? As I mentioned in the introduction, one simple kind of undecidable sentence, call it G, might be characterized in terms of some algebraic property g[n] that a number n might have. It might look like this, where g[n] can be thought of as being a simple algebraic formula with the parameter n:

(G) For all n, g[n] isn’t true.

It’s interesting, though a bit dizzying, to compare and contrast two related ways of talking about a sentence S. On the one hand, we can ask if S is true or false in the real world of numbers, and on the other hand we can ask if S or ~S happens to be provable from F . In the case where the sentence G has the form mentioned above, only three possibilities can occur. In order to illuminate the notion of undecidability, let’s take a quick look at the three case.

(1) G is false, and ~G is provable. If G is false, his means there is a specific n such that g[n] holds in the world of numbers. F will be able to prove the instance g[n] simply by checking the arithmetic. Therefore, F will be able to prove ~G.

(2) G is true, and G is provable. If the G sentence is true in the world of numbers, then g[n] is false for every n. Now in some situations, there may be a clever proof of this general fact from F. I call such a proof “clever” because it somehow has to prove in a finite number of symbols that that g[n] is impossible for every n. A general proof doesn’t get bogged down at looking at every possible value of n. It has to use some kind of tricky reasoning to cover infinitely many cases at once.

(3) G is true, and G is not provable. In these cases, there is no clever proof. The only way F could prove G would be to look at every possible number n and show that g[n] isn’t true—but this would take forever. In a case like this it’s almost as if G only happens to be true. At least as far as F can see, there’s no overarching reason why g[n] is impossible for every n. It’s just that, as chance would have it, in the real world there aren’t any such n. And thus G is undecidable by F .

The computer scientist Gregory Chaitin suggests that in a case like the third, we think of G as a random truth. It’s not true for any deep, theoretical reason. It’s just something that turns out to be so. ( You can find more details in the papers on Chaitin’s home page.)

Note that there’s an endless supply of undecidable sentences S beyond the simple kinds of sentences G that I’ve been discussing . Some initial examples of the next level of complexity might be “For each m there is an n such that g[m, n]” or “There is an m such that for all n, g[m, n].”

Most mathematicians would feel that, in the real world of mathematics, any of these sentences is definitely true or false, regardless of F’s inability to prove either of the alternatives. So the undecidable statements are “random” truths about the mathematical world, brute facts that hold for no particular reason.

But so far, we’ve only been talking about number theory. How do we get to undecidable sentences about the natural world? If we accept the HPH, and we assume that any natural process can be regarded as a computation, then we can find undecidability in any complex natural process!

The path leads through the following lemma, proved by Turing in 1936.

Unsolvability and Undecidability Lemma. If P is a computation with an unsolvable halting problem, and F is a correct formal theory, then there will be infinitely many sentences about P which are undecidable for F.

In this Lemma, by the way, I’m using the phrase “correct formal theory” to mean a formal theory that doesn’t prove things which are false. I won’t go into the somewhat technical details of the proof of this lemma, but the general idea is that there have to be lots of sentences about P that are undecidable for F, for otherwise F could solve P’s unsolvable halting problem.

So now we come to the pay-off. Naturally occurring processes can be thought of as computations. If we accept the Halting Problem Hypothesis, then each naturally occurring process will have an unsolvable halting problem. And then, by applying Turing’s Unsolvability and Undecidability Lemma, we get the following.

Natural Incompleteness Theorem. For most naturally occurring complex processes, and any correct formal system for science, there will be sentences about the process that are undecidable by the given formal system.

What makes the Natural Incompleteness Theorem attractive is that the undecidable sentences are not just about arithmetic. They’re about the behavior of actual real-world processes.

No matter how thoroughly you try and figure the world out, there are infinitely many things you can’t prove. Here are some examples of potentially undecidable sentences. Each of them may be, in principle, true or false, but only in a random kind of way, in that they’re not proved or disproved by any of our formal theories about the world.

Nobody will ever manage to bounce a golf ball a thousand times in a row off a putter head.

There are an endless number of planets in our universe.

There are an endless number of planets with people indistinguishable from you.

No human will ever be born with six functioning arms.

No cow’s spots will ever spell out your first name in big puffy letters.

Every year with a big birth rate increase is followed by a big war.

The left wing will dominate American politics more often than the right wing does.

Mankind will evolve into higher forms of life.

The majority of times that you move to a different line in a supermarket, the new line goes slower than one of the lines you didn’t pick.

New races of intelligent beings will emerge over and over for the rest of the time.

The time of our cosmos extends forever.

Potentially Undecidable Statements about the Natural World.

Do note that, as with our examples about natural halting problems, we need some analysis of how to take into account the issue that so few of our natural systems can in fact be viewed as potentially eternal. But I’ll leave the fine points of issue for other investigators to work out.

Undecidability Everywhere

It often happens in the history of science that some odd-ball new category is discovered. At first nobody’s sure if any phenomena of this kind exist, but then there’s some kind of logical argument why these odd-ball things have to occur. And then, as time goes on, more and more of the curious entities are discovered until finally they’re perceived to be quite run of the mill. And I think this is what will happen with the notion of undecidable sentences about the natural world.

To dramatize this notion, I’ll present a sustained analogy between the spread of undecidability and the rise of transcendental numbers in mathematics. Brian Silverman suggested this analogy to me in an email.

Transcendental Numbers. 300 BC. The Greeks worked primarily with real numbers that can be expressed either as the fraction of two whole numbers, or which can be obtained by the process of taking square roots. By the time of the Renaissance, mathematicians had learned to work with roots of all kinds, that is, with the full class of algebraic numbers—where an algebraic number can be expressed as the solution to some polynomial algebraic equation formulated in terms of whole numbers. The non-algebraic numbers were dubbed the transcendental numbers. And, for a time, nobody was sure if any transcendental numbers existed.

Undecidable Sentences. 1920. In David Hilbert’s time, it seemed possible that, at least in mathematics, every problem could be decided on the basis of a reasonable formal system. This was the inspiration for Hilbert’s program.

Transcendental Numbers. 1884. The first constructions of transcendental real numbers were carried out by Joseph Liouville. Liouville’s numbers were, however, quite artificial, such as the so-called Liouvillian number:


The number has a 1 in the decimal positions n! and 0 in all the other places. Someone might readily say that a number like this is unlikely to occur in any real context. (n! stands for “n factorial” which is the product 1*2*…*n of all the integers from 1 to n.)

Undecidable Sentences. 1931. Kurt Gödel proved the existence of some particular undecidable algebraic sentences. These sentences were somewhat unnatural. Relative to a given formal system F, they had the form “This sentence is not provable from F,” or the alternate form, “The contradiction 0 = 1 is not provable from the formal system F.”

Transcendental Numbers. 1874. Georg Cantor developed his set theory, and showed there are an infinite number of transcendental numbers. Someone could say that Cantor’s transcendental numbers aren’t numbers that would naturally occur, that they are artificial, and that they depend in an essential way upon higher-order concepts such as treating an infinite enumeration of reals as a completed object.

Undecidable Sentences. 1936. Building on Gödel’s work, Alan Turing proved his theorem on the unsolvability of the halting problem. He immediately derived the corollary that there are infinitely many undecidable sentences of mathematics, and that these sentences came in quite arbitrary forms. Even so, the specific examples of such sentences that he could give were still odd and somewhat self-referential, like Gödel’s undecidable sentences.

Transcendental Numbers. 1873. Charles Hermite proved that the relatively non-artificial number e is transcendental.

Undecidable Sentences. 1965. On an entirely different front, Paul J. Cohen proved that an important question about infinite sets called the continuum hypothesis is undecidable from the known axioms of mathematics. (Cohen’s proof built on an earlier result proved by Kurt Gödel in 1946.) 1970. Back in the realm of unsolvable halting problems, Julia Robinson, Martin Davis, Yuri Matiyasevich showed that among the sentences undecidable for any formal theory we’ll find an infinite number of polynomial Diophantine equations which don’t have any whole number solutions, but for which we can’t prove this fact. This means there a very large range of ordinary mathematical sentences which are undecidable.

Transcendental Numbers. 1882. Ferdinand Lindemann proved that the garden variety number pi is transcendental.

Undecidable Sentences. 2002. Wolfram pointed out that we should be able to find numerous examples of undecidability in the natural world.

And now we have a Natural Incompleteness Theorem telling us that every possible complex natural process is going to have undecidable sentences associated with it! Undecidability is everywhere, and all of our theories about nature must remain incomplete.


Chaitin, G. J., 1999. The Unknowable. New York: Springer.

Leibniz, G.W. and Gerhardt, C.I. (ed.), 1978. Die philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.

Rucker, R., 1982. Infinity and the Mind. Boston: Birkhäuser.

Rucker, R., 2005. The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Wolfram, S., 2002. A New Kind of Science. Champaign: Wolfram Media.

Note on “An Incompleteness Theorem for the Natural World”

Written in 2012.

To appear in Essays For the Tenth Anniversary of A New Kind of Science.

 This paper is adapted from my book, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, and formal details about my argument can be found in that book’s appendix and in its footnotes. Note that in my book, I used a somewhat unfortunate terminology. I gave what I here call the Halting Problem Hypothesis a less precise name: I called it the Natural Undecidability Hypothesis. And what I here call the Natural Incompleteness Theorem is given the a less dramatic name in my bok: the Principle of Natural Undecidability.

Ever since graduate school I’d wanted to find a version of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem that applies to the physical world, and I feel like here I achieved what I wanted. Unlike my argument in “Everything is Alive,” the reasoning in “An Incompleteness Theorem for the Natural World” is meant in complete earnest.

But by the time I published The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, I was no longer in academia, so I never got around to promoting my theorem among logicians and philosophers. I got my fill of doing that when I was in my thirties. I have some small hope that my theorem will receive some recognition when it appears in Wolfram’s forthcoming anthology of essays relating to his NKS,