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The Allure of Machinic Life: Book and Review

The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI by John Johnston, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008 — In The Allure of Machinic Life, John Johnston examines new forms of nascent life that emerge through technical interactions within human-constructed environments — “machinic life” — in the sciences of cybernetics, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. With the development of such research initiatives as the evolution of digital organisms, computer immune systems, artificial protocells, evolutionary robotics, and swarm systems, Johnston argues, machinic life has achieved a complexity and autonomy worthy of study in its own right. Drawing on the publications of scientists as well as a range of work in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, but always with the primary focus on the “objects at hand” — the machines, programs, and processes that constitute machinic life — Johnston shows how they come about, how they operate, and how they are already changing. This understanding is a necessary first step, he further argues, that must precede speculation about the meaning and cultural implications of these new forms of life. Developing the concept of the “computational assemblage” (a machine and its associated discourse) as a framework to identify both resemblances and differences in form and function, Johnston offers a conceptual history of each of the three sciences. He considers the new theory of machines proposed by cybernetics from several perspectives, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and “machinic philosophy.” He examines the history of the new science of artificial life and its relation to theories of evolution, emergence, and complex adaptive systems (as illustrated by a series of experiments carried out on various software platforms). He describes the history of artificial intelligence as a series of unfolding conceptual conflicts — decodings and recodings — leading to a “new AI” that is strongly influenced by artificial life. Finally, in examining the role played by neuroscience in several contemporary research initiatives, he shows how further success in the building of intelligent machines will most likely result from progress in our understanding of how the human brain actually works.

Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Anglia Ruskin University

“John Johnston’s The Allure of Machinic Life deals with the post World War II culture of cybernetics and reterritorialization of intelligence and life to machines. An emphasis on the crucial contexts of cybernetics, artificial intelligence and artificial life has been suggested by several writers when considering the shifting categories of life, the living and technological objects. What Johnston brings into the soup is a historically concise and in general detailed explication of the new “computational assemblage” of the Western world.

The concept of “computational assemblage” is what defines Johnston’s approach. With that notion Johnston is able to dig both into the material layers of a computational devices that process information and into the discourses that place, distribute and evaluate the functions, purposes and significance of the machines. This double nature of his method allows a combination that, as Johnston acknowledges, is familiar to scholars in the Deleuzian camp, but also resonates with some of the “materialist media theory” that comes from Germany – Friedrich Kittler as one of its best-known representatives. Yet The Allure of Machinic Life is not a mere application of theoretical ideas but a real strong articulation of the emergence of a new intimacy of biology and technology that – with a nod towards Gilbert Simondon – is the world of technical objects embedded in quasi-biological dynamics.

Indeed, the meticulous attention Johnston pays almost in a breathtaking manner to developments in cybernetics, neuroscience, mathematics, cognitive science and of course artificial intelligence and life is what distinguishes his work from past cyber theorists. He clearly adopts some of the themes and agenda from various earlier writers that have tried to make sense of the conflation of the biological and the technological but in a way that makes this research stand out.

The book is divided into three parts: 1) From cybernetics to machinic philosophy, 2) machinic life, and 3) machinic intelligence. The first section outlines not only how cybernetics introduced actually not a disembodied notion of information and life, but a new “complexity of machines.” By reading for example W. Grey Walter and Ross Ashby, Johnston frames what I would call the “cybernetic zoology” of various machines and the like that acted as the crucial objects and systems to think with – here, the link to later designs by Rodney Brooks is made evident and how the archaeology of emergent systems cannot ignore for example Walter’s toaster looking tortoise machines. This section like the rest of the book is a restless one (but in a positive sense of the word) and refuses to stay occupied within one discipline. Johnston for example maps the interface of cybernetics with psychoanalysis – again, a connection that has been discussed in the past years but, I would claim, never in such a comprehensive manner. Sections 2 and 3 point toward, among other things, the archaeologies of recent notions of emergence, swarms and self-organization even if they don’t touch much on pre World War 2 developments –only a reference to William Wheeler but nothing on for example C. Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution (1923). As a mapping of the discourses of ALife and new AI since 1970s or so, Johnston is however unbeatable. As it progresses, the book becomes a huge mesh of links between contemporary philosophy, biological theories such as Neodarwinism and theories of self-organization and the concrete technological systems through which various ideas were relayed. Indeed, it offers insights into the redefinition of life in informational systems but never suggesting this as a simple fall into immateriality; instead, what the book maps are the new materialist constellations that force also media theory to rethink its premises regarding the ontology of technical media.

As a dip into the history of science, Johnston adopts a nice methodological point of view that does not prioritize either the objects or the discourses, but looks at them as relays and networks in themselves. This is evident in what Johnston refers to as the “innovative theory-practice relay systems” of contemporary science and technology, especially Artificial Life experiments. Even if he refers to his sections as “conceptual histories” we have to understand concepts here not as reflections of material processes, but as active participants in the experimental probings of life through technology. Indeed, The Allure of Machinic Life is not conceptual history in the old “history of ideas” -sense (although, at times this philosophical focus on discourses of knowledge seems to take over a bit) but a contemplation of how we can approach scientific disciplines through their technological objects that carry forward the wider discourses. There is actually something media archaeological in this kind of an approach.

After praising the book of its truly genealogical method of mapping connections between the messy fields of technology, science and philosophy (where only “art” is in a way missing from the Deleuze-Guattarian emphasis on science-art-philosophy as distinct modes of production and knowledge) one might actually wonder: is there too much here? With 461 pages The Allure of Machinic Life is a book that covers a huge amount of terrain – and actually could have been two books, so wide is its scope. When discussing computer viruses, this results in some omissions: the work neglects some of the key contexts and for example the abstract machine of capitalism that extended one face of the viruslike artificial life experiments to capitalist interests in e.g. security and software production. Indeed, when adopting the notion of “abstract machines”, Johnston pays little attention to for example political economic processes and how the various software systems were developed even directly in the contexts of neo-liberal global capitalism. Certainly this context plays a part in the discourses that specified the machines and the computational assemblage? For sure, The Allure of Machinic Life does not ignore such points, but as it progresses it develops increasingly into a piece of philosophy and history of contemporary science and technology where themes of politics or capitalism are not the focal point. Yet it can work as important supplement to the various post-Fordist theories of contemporary remodulations of techniques of life that extend life from the human to the realm of machines (or the Agambenian discourse surrounding of life beyond meaning) – and Johnston offers here a very detailed image of how this diagrammatic distribution of discourses and machines happens. It would be interesting to continue some of the ideas regarding machinic life – life machinated and reterritorialised into new contexts where evolutionary software, swarm organisations and self-organizing machines exhibit agencies of new kinds. Far from being a post-human wet dream of science fiction, it is interesting to think what kind of changes these reterritorialisations present to politics of life and how technological agencies could be mapped as part of the agenda of biopolitics. Tapping into the intensities of human and animal bodies in order to learn about their affects and precepts was a crucial part of the birth of modern media culture during the nineteenth century; is this new form of machinic life mapped by Johnston then the object of current capitalist biopower? Nonorganic life of for example software could that way made into a politically crucial question and relevant for a wider consideration of political economy of digital network culture.

The book does not entirely effectively return to the important theoretical and methodological frames outlined at the beginning even if it is able to execute them through its analysis. Yet, what I would have wanted to see is a really strong concluding section. In a book of this calibre and width a summary and mapping of the arguments would have really been a way to further illuminate the historical and theoretical importance of this research.”


Apr 4, 11:20
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