Silicon Second Nature : Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World

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9780520207998: Silicon Second Nature : Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World

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

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

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

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Review:

Few scientific disciplines are as ripe for ethnographic study as artificial life, known as a-life, a hybrid, high-tech field with practitioners who routinely suggest that the self-replicating computer programs they design not only mimic but actually are living creatures. As Stanford anthropologist Stefan Helmreich convincingly demonstrates, it takes more than just chutzpah to advance such a claim--it takes a powerful belief system. The belief system Helmreich fingers is the complex web of historical, mythical, and religious narratives that form the fabric of modern Western culture.

Of course, a good deal of solid science goes into a-life's elaborate digital simulations of the biological world, and Helmreich takes care not to let his cultural analysis drown that science out. Indeed, his descriptions of the theories and techniques behind some researchers' attempts at concocting artificial life--ranging from simple computer viruses to Tom Ray's globally distributed Tierra system for breeding digital "organisms"--are occasionally more compelling than his own attempts to read disturbing racial and sexual mythologies into those experiments.

Ultimately, though, what fascinates Helmreich about a-life is neither the biology nor the mythology, but the way this unique discipline highlights the intersection of the two. A-life researchers may or may not have created new organisms, but what they have created, Helmreich argues, points the way to a new and more sophisticated understanding of the delicate relationship between science and culture. --Julian Dibbell

From the Inside Flap:

"Helmreich's analysis--extensive, imaginative, rigorous, and insightful--promises to establish him as the cultural authority on A-Life. . . . He shows that, in the age of complexity, science simultaneously disenchants and re-enchants the world. . . . The book is written in a personal and engaging style . . . so full of ideas and interesting asides [that] Helmreich takes on the persona of a smart and well-informed tour guide of the A-Life world [with] an enviable ability to take very complex ideas and discuss them comprehensibly without simplifying them."--Hugh Gusterson, author of Nuclear Rites

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