Machine-Created Culture

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Procedurally generated art from Strangethink’s Secret Habitat. Image: creators.vice.com.

“Every object of design sets a trap by presenting a problem in the form of what appears to be its solution. It is the spoon that determines that we should transport soup to the mouth.”

—Vilém Flusser (design philosopher)

The human cyborg dates back to the invention/discovery of simple machines: lever, wheel, inclined plane, pulley. One could argue that tools define humans. We are rarely without a tool in at least one of our hands, a smartphone, a pencil, a trowel, a spoon. These things we make and use comprise material culture. Our stuff defines us. Excavate a modern house or an ancient Tel and you will find things left behind. These things examined singly and then taken together tell stories. They are the stories of us. It might be late this evening as I write this, but I cannot think of a single human story that does not have at least one thing in it that is manipulated in some way.

Human-thing interaction is constant, and with today’s technology, it truly never stops. In fact, the technology we created persists without us. A pencil remains a pencil even when it is not being used by someone. Its pencil-ness persists, designed with purpose, although that purpose could be writing/erasing answers to math homework, or possibly killing someone a la John Wick. The things we make have primary and secondary purposes, and design can lend itself to other uses not considered by the designer. These alternate uses emerge from the complexity of design, and the design creates intuitive use.

Because humans depend on the things they make/use, we take a subservient role to them. I rely on my car to get me to the train station, and the train to get me to the office on time. I rely on my phone’s alarm to wake me up in the morning. I rely on coffee, which is dependent on climate, labor, manufacturing, transportation, and commerce among other things. The train relies on its engineer, on track maintenance, on signals. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that we’re answering to our own technology. We serve the technology we created and then purchased. We made roads, then cars, then traffic lights. We let the lights tell us what we can and cannot do, stopped by the invisible force of a rule/law. We get impatient when the light takes too long to change, yet most of us will sit and endure the wait. We complain about our digital technologies, too, our tools of communication. We bring this pain on ourselves. As the Buddhist saying goes, “all possessions lead to suffering.”

So do we really control the machines, or do the machines control us? We take raw materials to create something, and by doing so invest that thing with rules of usage. As the usage of something spreads like a virus between users, the rules become shared practice, and then becomes part of our culture. We surrender our control to our things, even though we made them in the first place. But this is a fallacy.

People rely on manufacturing in order to have instant access to any thing they need. Someone can design a spoon and create a prototype by hand. If successful, its design schematic will be created electronically to inform machines how to make a spoon. We see this on a smaller scale with 3D printing. Humans make the design and the rules for production. The machine takes it from there. Did the human make the spoon, or just the design of the spoon? This is procedural generation in the real world.

So what about video games? These are created by people. Some games contain their own ready-made culture with lore attached, cooked up by writers. These games contain things, and the design of these things ties them to various cultures in a game. For the most part, nearly every game is a product of deist world-building and significant attention to detail. The designer is in complete control. In the instance of games containing procedurally generated content, the designer writes algorithms containing rules of manufacture that the game then executes. The designer might make a wood-grain texture and a metal texture. The designer might make a long handle or a short handle. The designer then instructs the game to create a spoon with a texture and a handle, but does not define which to use. So the software “chooses” these. Spoons are similar, but different. Add enough textures and styles, and the spoons begin to show complex variety and types.

What if you took this to an extreme? What if you made a game in which everything is procedurally generated? What if that game included the ability to create never-before-seen cultures based on the rules set by the designer? This is already well underway with Mark Johnson’s Ultima Ratio Regum. Are these really new cultures emerging from the code? Are these machine-made, or made by the designer? Regardless of the answer, the rules dictate creation and use, which force players to abide by what their machines tell them. The games influence our culture directly, unless we are engaged in counterplay. Even then, that counter-culture is influenced by a game and its rules. We are still subjecting ourselves to what the game expects players to do. If this happens to one player and makes the player respond in a certain way, it is machine-created behavior. But what if enough players behave in a similar way as dictated by the rules of a game? I’m calling this machine-created culture (MCC). Our culture is also (at least in part) defined by how we use our things, yet the things have their own rules that dictate use, and ultimately form the shape of the culture we have. We delegate the task of the creation of things to automation. Our culture ceases to be our own invention, but is instead machine-made.

I’m interested to see where this thinking leads me (if anywhere). Machine-created BEHAVIOR is easy to see. It happens all the time. The console crashes, so I submit an error report and then re-log to assess the damage to my previous saves. If enough players play a game that encourages the behaviors of looting, or of cooperation, and then share their experiences with one another on how to exploit the game mechanic, how to create and read a loot table, how to glitch the game for gear, we see a turn from behavior to culture. It’s people-made, but also machine-made. But it’s ultimately the technology and rules within the game that determine behavior (both human and machine) and ultimately a culture of gameplay.

More interesting to me than the above is what happens when hardware executes the rules of software and unintended things happen as a gamespace is made. The hardware isn’t conscious (yet) of what it’s done. It just did what it was told. Yet at the same time it has done something in following the rules that the original maker (and the player) never expected or intended. The conjunction of hardware, software, maker, and player makes a new thing, and that entanglement proceeds as the world of the game unfolds. How does this interaction/agency create a new in-game culture, and a new extra-game culture? Is it really “culture”, or is this something new, something archaeological and anthropological in a virtual space that requires new vocabulary? I suspect I will spend the rest of my life refining and rewriting the concept of MCC. I had to start somewhere.

The ultimate test will be when a game is created that creates its own cultures that then interact with each other and evolve, which can be done independently of human intervention. What will that culture (or those cultures) look like? And will humans be able to recognize it? How many examples of shared behavior must exist before culture emerges from that shared behavior? At the speed of computing, how many iterations of culture will appear in a second, and how many iterations will there be after a minute? It’s evolution made infinite yet crammed into a very small period of time. The human scale is made behemoth and slow as the generations within MCC unspool at the speed of light.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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3 thoughts on “Machine-Created Culture

  1. ME AGAIN, HERE TO POKE HOLES IN THINGS.

    1] “Because humans depend on the things they make/use, we take a subservient role to them.” A lot of HCI scholars / media scholars would yell at you about this. The one that springs to mind immediately is Karan Barad who speaks about entanglement with tools – ie: tools need us to act upon them, as much as we need them to act upon other things. I guess my point is “subservient” is a pretty loaded, though very sexy term here.

    2] “that the game then executes”. This is more me musing about the ontological construct of games but: does the game itself execute them – assuming you mean game as compiled, playable entity here ie: what the player interacts with? Or does the compiler, well compile them, and the computer executes them to given stimuli which then becomes the game? Guess it depends how far down the rabit hole of what you mean by “game” is. Im sure way cleverer people have written about this.

    3] “Are these machine-made, or made by the designer?” – as an aside, I have a feeling that defining MCC for archaeology in terms of existing onlogocial constructs might be difficult and require something new to explain it better – HCI probably has some interesting reading thingies on this. Oh, having just read further you suggest that we need a new branch – yeah, agreed. My gut reaction is that it is cultural, Jim, but not as we know it. Whether this is archaeological – or something we are just applying archaeological methods to is another kettle of fish perhaps – again, it would require some different epistimologies for archaeology to deal with the in-the-moment nature of it, or some other way of seperating / explaining slices of it as contexts? Anyway. /rant.

    4] “It’s people-made, but also machine-made. But it’s ultimately the technology and rules within the game that determine behavior (both human and machine) and ultimately a culture of gameplay.” – dosent this exist in archaeology though to a certain extent? Hear me out on this… Like, when you flintknap you co-create with the flint. The flint determines what can manifest, whilst the hand of the knapper directs it – even with skill you can’t dictate something that can’t happen and glitches* [*features] still happen from unexpected intersections between creator and medium. I mean, I get that digital stuff is a more immediate rendition of it, but if you wanted to view it archaeologically I guess the basis for extending the vocab is there if you use a more media / human-object-interaction oriented approach and extend it to the digital. also: Machine-made here gives a ton of agency to the medium alone, rather than seeing it as an interaction / intersection between things. I dunno. I need to think about this more. I guess this gets into metaphysics again on the nature of how you want to categorise and understand these things – like, when does culture become culture and not just a random assortment of stuff n junk that happens to represent something kinda like what we describe as culture? [ye olde signifier, signified / construct debate]. Basically this is problematising the whole idea of “culture” and taking us to a thrilling deconstructive place.

    5] “when a game is created that creates its own cultures that then interact with each other and evolve, which can be done independently of human intervention.” – again, depends on what we are defining as “culture/al” here. But there is some pretty nifty stuff going on with neural networks (my old love) and language bits n bobs that might be worth checking out.

    6] “And will humans be able to recognize it?” This, is actually a really interesting question that stabs right at the heart of what we do as archaeologists with our typologies and what not. I mean, if we stick to our immediate archaeoloigcal frameworks then this gets sticky real quick. Suggestion: burn them, burn them to the ground and let something more resplendant rise from the ashes.

    7] I can’t comprehend most of Mark’s work because it is way 2 cool and clever 4 me but there are some really interesting questions that arise from playing URR about the nature of “culture” itself and whether this is simulation, that we can understand nicely in our adorable existing ontologies, or whether the nature of the in-the-moment, system-nature of it is outside of our archaeological constructs. I’m not even sure how you would start about dealing with it if you go for it being the latter. Unhelpful comment, I know.

    8] “Machine-created BEHAVIOR” – Nitsche [sp?] talks about the interaction of the spaces of gameplay, that might be useful for this argument: ie, how player, game, etc intersect and influence each other within and beyond ludic spaces. Again at first glance this seems a bit reductionist – there is a happy little merry-go-round of “real world” “culture” impacting HCI and design which impacts the “game” which impacts “behaviour”. Anyway, I just like to be picky about terminology at 12.30am on a sunday as a hobby.

  2. I’ve been reading Ingold, Making (2013) (his most recent book). Just got through the first chapter, but I think you’d find that there’s stuff there that elegantly gestures towards what you’re talking about, especially when he goes on about correspondances, and an anthropology _with_ (or archaeology _with_) etc not _of_. Anyway, give it a quick look I’d think.

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