by Matthew Taylor
Kinjo Gakuin University
Artificial life (AL, a-life, or alife) has made remarkable achievements in simulating biological and human systems. These simulations, and the ways alife researchers go about understanding them, should be of tremendous interest to scholars and students of literature. This paper asserts that fiction can and should be understood as a robust, vivid, and sophisticated form of simulation, one that has been around at least least as long as the advent of the novel, perhaps as long as humans have been able to communicate compelling tales. Fiction is, on many different levels, a form of artificial life, perhaps the ultimate form of artificial life.
How does this relate to the theme of global networking? In some ways only indirectly, but what is proposed here is that we have, already, a global network that is inadequately appreciated. About a quarter century ago Richard Dawkins advanced the notion of "memes" to describe for the replication of ideas in culture. In his words, a meme is "a unit of cultural transmission,a unit of *imitation*." Douglas Hofstadter proposed the "ideosphere" as the shared mental landscape in which these ideas reproduce, develop, interact, and evolve in culture. Looking at fiction as a kind of "meme" that thrives in the "ideosphere," we get a compelling picture of virtual imagined worlds, and animate imagined beings generated in individual human minds, replicating, interacting, developing and evolving in the collective cultural imagination--without a great deal of technology involved in the process.
Fiction seems especially favored in this context, because it seems to survive longer in active cultural memory than other kinds of communicated idea. As a test of this, we could ask ourselves how much fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, we have either read or heard about, but was written before we were born. Clearly most of us retain more ideas from the past in the form of stories, which seem a compression of information particularly well suited to human memory (evidenced also by their age-old use as a mnemonic device). Although non-narrative writing often has a greater effect on us culturally, it is exactly these "effects" which tend to be communicated in the long term more in narrative form than any other.
Artificial life and complexity science could substantially illuminate our understanding of fiction, but there are also contributions fiction could make to the ontological, epistemological, and ethical issues that have come up in the field of artificial life. In fact, this paper sees these issues as having rather severe and frightening ramifications for humanity, and sees dialogue between science and the humanities as being urgent and necessary. Fiction is one arena for such dialogues, but one hopes there are others.
Artificial life can be viewed in three prime manifestations: the "weak" claim (alife is a form of simulation and only that), the "strong" claim (alife entities are really alive), and the "extra strong" claim (silicon-based life is the next evolutionary leap, and may likely surpass and even replace us).
Fiction can engage, and be engaged by alife at the level of all three claims. As suggested already, with the "weak" claim, we can explore fiction as a compelling form of simulation, a virtual world, a complex "meme," whether we are looking at the elements of character, work, style, or genre.
At the level of the "strong" claim, fiction poses an "ontological challenge" to alife: if alife is really alive, why not also fictional characters? Fictional characters can only *not* be alive in this sense by an arbitrary priviliging of the computer over the human mind. But the human mind is, at least for the moment, demonstrably superior in many ways to a computer. This leads to an epistemological challenge as well: if imagined worlds are just as real as non-imagined worlds, then what makes knowledge of a "UFO experience" less real than a scientific debunking of it? What alifers are unwittingly driving us towards is a sawing away of the foundations of any kind of objective "knowing" (not to mention the foundations of scientific thought). Yet this kind of "knowing" is sorely needed now: there is little in the new communication technologies to suggest that irrationalism can be contained by it, and irrational human thought has proven, perhaps especially in this century, particularly ugly and destructive. If the sole arbiter of objective truth in our culture can no longer tell us what is real and what isn't, what kind of shape are we in?
At the level of the "extra strong" claim, we see alifers moving ahead, with rather startling calmness, to develop a new life form that they aknowledge may ultimately surpass, prevail over and replace all carbon-based life. Clearly some great shift has taken place in the evaluation of humanity (and biological life in general). Why this suddenly automatic preference for mechanism? Could it be that the premium on human life drops exponentially as the computational capacity in machines rises?
If there was ever a time for the other side of the "two cultures" to step in and assert alternate values it would seem to be now. But postmodernists in the humanities are not likely to defend something as banal and deconstructible as the intrinsic worth of humanity, and will tend rather to celebrate this "subversion" or overturning of categories like "natural" and "artificial" and "life."
Can fiction save us? No. But fiction through its very nature asserts human worth by an appeal to complexity. As John D. Barrow reminds us, the human brain is the most complex object yet disclosed in the universe. And fiction is one of the most complex forms of communication ever to pass from one human mind to another. Yet the most important appeal fiction makes on our behalf is that it simulates people, and in so doing presents them (accurately) as thinking, feeling, and fundamentally moral beings that are worth nurturing, protecting, and preserving.
In the meantime, can fiction survive? This paper goes back to a view of fiction as a meme, comparing Hans Robert Jauss's idea of "reader horizons" to what in complexity science is called a "fitness landscape." The prognosis for the "ideosphere" is not good now, because it can be strongly argued that the chances of a good story surviving have been curtailed by the incentives of the present day communications industry. This argument echoes some of the recent lamentations of Sven Birkerts, but tries to make its case more in terms of biological and evolutionary analogy: The future tendency will be for stories to enjoy a burst of popular attention before they are quickly forgotten: stories will not be good enough to survive. But as noted earlier, stories are about the only things that do survive, so this suggests that little or nothing will get passed on at all. Further, "reader horizons" will not be expanded but rather blandly satiated. More simply, we will lose the ability to communicate and understand complicated ideas. If this prognosis seems bleak and overstated, it is put in strong terms to counterbalance the unrealistically optimistic (and probably incorrect) assumption, among partisans of cyberspace, that increased access to information automatically means higher levels of thought.