geert lovink on Wed, 26 Jun 2002 15:45:10 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Are Machines Living Things? (Kevin Kelly and Steve Talbott)

From: "Steve Talbott" <stevet@OREILLY.COM>
Sent: Wednesday, June 26, 2002 6:46 AM
Subject: NetFuture #133


                    Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #133     A Publication of The Nature Institute         June 25, 2002
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

                  On the Web:
     You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.

Are Machines Living Things? (Kevin Kelly and Steve Talbott)
   Of rats and cyborgs

On Conversing with Kevin Kelly

Two people caught up in an argument can find themselves in either of two
very different situations.  If they share most basic assumptions, so that
it is easy to arrive at clear-cut, mutually accepted definitions of terms,
then facts and logic come to the fore.  The argument is mostly a matter of
filling in missing information and identifying unrecognized
inconsistencies in one position or the other.

But there is a whole other challenge when the disputants do not share
assumptions and their meanings are subtly divergent.  Then, before the
task of engagement can be reduced to a factual and logical exercise, each
person must find a way to make his terms *conceivable* to the other.  This
typically requires the use of metaphor; only through a kind of cognitive
leap can we grasp a new meaning.

Francis Bacon summarized the two cases this way:

   Those whose conceits are seated in popular opinions, need only but to
   prove or dispute; but those whose conceits are beyond popular opinions,
   have a double labor:  the one to make themselves conceived, and the
   other to prove and demonstrate.  So that it is of necessity with them
   to have recourse to similitudes and translations [that is, metaphors]
   to express themselves.

I think you will agree, after reading the feature in this issue, that
Kevin Kelly and I face the problem of making ourselves conceived by each
other.  What happens in all such cases is that the two sides risk
continually "talking past each other", because they are employing
different languages.

But while this may sound like a fruitless exercise, it can be much more
useful to an active, critical reader than the more routine case where
fundamental meanings are shared.  After all, there is less cognitive gain
in recognizing a logical slip than in discovering an aspect of reality, a
point of view, a quality of the world you have never glimpsed before.

But the gain requires a great deal of work.  In particular, it requires
the extraordinarily difficult metaphoric leap that carries you from the
more familiar perspective to the other, still-rather-foreign perspective.
Until you gain a full appreciation of *both* worlds of meaning, you can
hardly weigh the differences between them.  And there is no mere
accumulation of information that can bring this appreciation.  Information
is more like the problem to be overcome, since it already embodies the
reigning assumptions and meanings -- Bacon's "popular opinions".
Moreover, it embodies these in their most coercive, because least
conscious, form.

I hope you find the exchange in this issue of NetFuture worthy of your own
effort to search out new meaning.



                       ARE MACHINES LIVING THINGS?

      Kevin Kelly and Steve Talbott (;

In NetFuture #132 ( I wrote
about recent experiments with rats.  Scientists implanted electrodes in
the brains of these animals and were then able to steer them at will by
sending electrical signals.  The rats could even be made to navigate areas
they would otherwise avoid.

I juxtaposed this news item with another about efforts to make robots more
human-like and "companionable".  In response to my comments Kevin Kelly
wrote the following brief note, which then kicked off another round of our
ongoing dialogue.  For the previous installment, see NetFuture #130
(  SLT

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KEVIN KELLY:  You wrote,

   Why in the world would we want to engage in the ditzy exercise of
   pretending a robot is a living being, when we're also engaged in the
   dead-earnest exercise of converting living beings into robots?  But I
   guess the real meaning of both exercises is the same:  to train
   ourselves in losing awareness of any distinction between robots and
   living beings.

That's the negative way of saying something extremely positive: "to train
ourselves in gaining awareness of how robots and living beings are alike."
See *Out of Control* for a whole book on how machines and organic beings
are two examples of the same phenomenon.  This is not just philosophical.
In about 100 years or less there won't be much difference between certain
engineered life and certain life-like machines. Instead of binary
distinctions the range of beings will be one continuum, as your posts make
clear is already happening. To clarify, there will always be many beings
joyfully inhabiting the extreme ends of the continuum; wild, organic,
"natural" life at one end, and cold, steely, dumb mechanical machines at
the other. But more and more of the world will be comprised of the
'tweenings:  life that has been given some of the control of machines, and
machines that have been given some of the freedom of life.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

STEVE TALBOTT:  Yes, one can legitimately investigate what is machine-like
in the human being.  But when for several hundred years a culture has
progressively lost its ability to see what is non-machinelike in the human
being; when technology veils from view the natural world so that almost
all our activity is mediated in one way or another by machines; when
"official" science proscribes research that in any way transcends a
mechanistic model, making such research unfundable; and when all this
commitment to mechanism leads to a continual flirting with environmental
disaster for the entire living earth -- well then, I don't understand why
your further promotion of the limiting, machine-human analogy should be
seen as the positive stance, while my suggestion that we recover a fuller
understanding of the human being and of nature is dismissed as the
negative stance.

Savoring the satisfactions of the inventor, you talk about the hybrids we
can make, but say nothing about the creatures caught in the cross-fire of
our making.  What about the plight of the remote-controlled rat?  And what
about the human being who is subjected to the same values and practices so
clearly evidenced in our treatment of the rat?

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KK:  Regarding your first paragraph:  I can't put my finger on it, but I
found this the most persuasive argument you've made yet in my hearing.
This may work for me because you implicitly acknowledge the machine view
-- which is really the point of my responses.  I will quibble with certain
phrases, but I can let them pass.  What I hear -- and correct me if I am
wrong -- is a plea to restore a balance in our views; to resurrect the
non-machine view of humans, of science, of our surroundings, etc, so that
this well-seasoned, wise, and powerful view might stand as high in our
esteem as the mechanical view, which has ascended with the rise of
technology.  Where I may part with you is if you claim the organic is a
superior view.

I am not sure who speaks for rats other than rats themselves.  If I was a
rat I might enjoy having an implant for the sheer novelty of it, just as I
am certain many humans will take implants themselves so they can
experience something different, or to extend their sense of self.  Of
course no human knows what a rat thinks or feels, but with implants we
actually may know one day.  Rats may want to have nothing to do with us
and be left alone, or they may want to have everything to do with us and
want a chance to be something different.  Or both.

Certain humans will benefit tremendously by the experiments we are now
conducting in rats, just as many humans benefit tremendously by the
experiments we conduct on humans.  It is not difficult to imagine science
discovering a way to enable someone crippled to walk using the kind of
results initially found by implanting electrodes in the brains of rats.
There is some benefit to rathood itself in this research, too, although
those benefits don't apply to all rats.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

ST:  I sympathize with your interest in preserving multiple views of a
thing.  That is exactly my own concern.  The problem with your "mechanical
view", in fact, is that historically it represents the *refusal* to accept
other, fuller views.  Those who say "the organism is a machine" have said
it precisely in order to deny that the organism is anything more than a
machine.  Therefore they have had to use twisted, inadequate concepts so
as to reduce the organism to their preconceptions.  How do you borrow
these twisted concepts without also borrowing their untruth?

Let me give an example.  It was all too natural for proponents of the
mechanical view to imagine the organism as compounded of reflexes, and to
search for clear, simple reflexes as paradigm cases.  The underlying idea
is that "the organism represents a bundle of isolable mechanisms that are
constant in structure and that respond, in a constant way, to events in
the environment (stimuli) .... The aim of research, according to this
conception, is to dissect the behavior of the organism in order to
discover those 'part processes' that can be considered as governed by
mechanistic laws and as unambiguous, elementary reactions to definite

Those are the words of the eminent neurologist, Kurt Goldstein, and it was
Goldstein whose classic work on *The Organism* demolished the reflex
theory.  Goldstein showed that slight changes in the intensity of a
stimulus can often reverse a reflex; a reflex in one part of a body can be
altered by the position of other parts; an organism's exposure to certain
chemicals can reverse a reflex; other chemicals can completely change the
nature of a reflex; fatigue can have the same effect; consciously trying
to repress a reflex can accentuate it (try it with your "knee-jerk"
reflex); and so on without end.

Needless to say, Goldstein's work was largely ignored by a science bent on
mechanistic reductions.  (The recent re-issue of *The Organism* with an
introduction by Oliver Sacks is an encouraging development.)  But
Goldstein's point nevertheless stands:  the machine view of the organism,
which assumes that parts can be isolated from the whole and satisfactorily
elucidated in that way, continually falsifies our understanding.

So, yes:  I certainly do want to say that an organic view of animals and
humans is superior to a mechanistic view -- overwhelmingly superior.  It
is superior because it avoids the radical untruth of the mechanistic view.
If there is no such thing as a "reflex mechanism", it is because there is
no such thing as a mechanical organism.  The most we can say is that, by
doing our best to isolate certain parts of the organism from the rest, and
by viewing only restricted aspects of the part's functioning, and in
general by ignoring everything that makes the organism an organism, we can
arrive at extremely rough approximations to various mechanical elements.
These approximations may indeed be instructive for some purposes, as long
as we continually remind ourselves of their limitations.  But you will be
frustrated if you try to find any such reminders in the conventional

Finally, I am disturbed by your casual unconcern for that remote-
controlled rat.  It's not that I think one can formulate any absolute
rules about what is permissible in such situations.  But the only way for
us to gain a basis for decision-making is to approach the rat as best we
can on its own ground and enter into respectful "conversation" with it.
(See "Ecological Conversation" in NF #127.)  As things are, I have this
half-comical image of a technician sitting at his keyboard and enjoying
the exhilarations of a video game as the frenetic rodent he is controlling
compulsively dashes across the floor this way and that -- with you on the
sidelines blithely commenting, "Maybe the rat is enjoying it".  This is
not the conversation I have in mind.

I suggest the following as a possible starting point for any assessment of
the experiment's meaning for the rat.  Every organism strives to express
its own wholeness; its health entails being more or less at one with
itself so that what is going on in each part harmonizes with and gives
distinctive voice to what is going on throughout the whole.  But the
effect of the robo-rat experiment is to set the rat at war with itself --
to forcibly create, in violation of the unity of its being, a set of
response mechanisms sufficiently isolated from the whole as to allow
effective manipulation from outside.

At first blush, this manipulative, arbitrary, and disruptive invasion
seems hard to reconcile with any respectful stance toward the rat as a
being with its own meaning and its own coherent life to live.  But, of
course, this problem is completely hidden from anyone assuming the machine
view, because a machine just *is* a collection of isolable mechanisms
without any particular meaning or wholeness of their own.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KK: "Every organism strives to express its own wholeness".  I find myself
disagreeing with this, your most fundamental assumption.  I don't disagree
with it because it is mystical, which it most certainly is.  (If it is
not, I don't know what a mystical statement would be.)  I disagree with it
because I find it meaningless, or I should more politely say, because I
can't find meaning in it, that is I don't understand what you are trying
to say by saying it.  It would be far more accurate to say "Every organism
strives to survive."  That would be true.  When I think of a hydra
squirming in a pond, that is what it is striving to do.  I would even go
on to agree with this statement: "Every organism strives to maintain its
own wholeness," as in, keeping its systems intact.  I'm just not sure what
it means for a lichen to "express" its own wholeness.  When you say "its
own" do you mean of this particular piece of lichen, or of this particular
kind of lichen?

I am beginning to suspect that "wholeness" to you is a vital force, that
mysterious X factor that living things supposedly have which non-living
things don't.  I would be willing to bet that you don't believe that a
machine can have "wholeness of its own" or certainly that if it did, that
it could not ever "express its own wholeness."  Wholeness is your code
word for the differential separating life from non-life.  Is this correct?

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

ST:  I certainly do take wholeness -- or, rather, a particular sort of
relation between part and whole -- as offering one way to distinguish
living things from non-living.  This does not, on my view, have anything
to do with a vital force or mysticism.

But may I delay a rather lengthy explanation so as not to let drop an
earlier remark of yours?  You said that the electronically manipulated rat
might lead us to the kind of knowledge enabling the lame to walk.  This,
of course, is the standard sort of advertisement for prospective
technologies.  You can *always* propose some such good.  I don't believe
it's possible to conceive any technology, however horrendous, for which we
cannot imagine a good use.  Clearly, such imaginings by themselves are not
enough to guide us through the thickets of technological choice we face
today.  There is no criterion here for *rejecting* any particular choice.

I don't see how to assess the rat experiments except by beginning with the
relationship between the experimenters and the rats themselves.  If this
relationship has a moral dimension, then that must be our starting point.
But perhaps you are of the view that there is no moral dimension here,
because the rat is a machine?  If so, I would like to know it.  If, on the
other hand, we both grant the moral aspect, then in making our judgments
we need to keep in mind how dangerous it is to commit a moral abuse in one
place in order to gain a benefit in another.

We cannot adequately justify the rat experiments either by professing
ignorance of the rat's being (ignorance would only counsel us not to act
unnecessarily) or by imagining future benefits.  The imagining may be
helpful, but we also have to enter deeply and sensitively into our
transactions with the rat itself and ask, "What are the moral qualities of
this exchange between two beings?"

I'm not suggesting that the answer will be simple.  I'm only pointing out
that the question isn't even being asked.  And it doesn't seem to me to be
present in your responses.  Am I missing something?  Or is this absence
required by the "machine view"?

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KK:  You ask, "What are the moral qualities of this exchange between two
beings?"  It is a good question.  But I'd like you to clarify the
question, because as you are using the term, I suspect that "moral" has a
circular definition.

Does the following question make any sense?:

   What are the moral qualities of an exchange between two machines?

Or is "moral", like "wholeness", only some mysterious quality that can
occur in what you would call living beings?

So what do you mean by moral dimension?

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

ST:  It seems enough for present purposes to note that the world is moral
so far as it poses questions of right and wrong for us.  Sure, this would
involve me in circularity, inasmuch as it's probably impossible to define
"right" and "wrong" without importing some idea of morality.  But this is
the kind of circularity that every fundamental notion leads to.  (Try
defining "truth".)  The fact is that almost everyone has at least some
sense of morality, or right and wrong, and that's what I'm appealing to;
it's as much an elementary "given" for us as the brute fact of the
perceptual world is a given.  And, no, I don't think machines confront
moral issues -- because *nothing* is "given" to them in this sense; they
are not conscious.

But leave my views aside for the moment.  I would like to know how *you*,
according to your own definitions, view the moral qualities of the
exchange between those scientists and their rats.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KK:  Our moral responsibilities toward other beings scale to the
complexity of their being, and are in proportion to their own abilities to
be moral.  We have a different relationship and obligation to an e. coli
germ than we have to a gorilla, and different again to a robot or a tuft
of grass, because these beings all have different capacities of action,
communication, contemplation and awareness, and because they have
different relations to us.  We use rats for research because, as mammals,
they share some of our cognition, but we also use them because they are
among the simplest beings that share anything significant with us.  We owe
the particular individual rats we use as little suffering as we can
manage, and the maximum comfort we can afford.  We owe the rat race the
opportunity to evolve.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

ST:  I would answer rather differently, but -- fair enough.  Picking up on
"opportunity to evolve":  I don't see how this can have much meaning
without some sense for the kind of being the rat is.  That is, our
understanding of where rats might reasonably go, evolutionarily, depends
on our understanding of who they are.  And this leads right back into our
dispute over the nature of the organism.  So I see no alternative to my
addressing at length your basic concern that I'm founding everything on
some vague, inaccessible sphere of mystery from which I magically produce
concepts like "wholeness", "organism", and "morality" on demand.  So be

Taking strong issue with my statement that "every organism strives to
express its own wholeness", you prefer the alternative, "every organism
strives to survive".  But what does your formulation say, beyond "every
organism strives to keep on striving"?  It's an empty statement.  Yes,
it's true:  any organism that got into the habit of gnawing on its own
liver or dancing into the lair of its predators is not likely to be here
today.  To some degree or another all traits have to pass the negative
test of not leading the organism to destruction.

But this tells us nothing about the positive character of the organism.
Conventional biology avoids this problem simply by not *looking* at the
character of the organism.  Such looking requires a qualitative and non-
mechanical approach and, whether we like it or not, if this approach
presents us with a coherent organism -- an organism in which,
physiologically, morphologically, and behaviorally, every part positively
"speaks" in the unified and distinctive voice of that species -- well,
then, the standard biological explanations based on random mutation and
natural selection are hopelessly inadequate.  You can no more get from
those explanations to the qualitative unity of the organism than you can
get from the distinctive style of Van Gogh to that of Picasso through a
random and mechanical process of pixel substitution.  You can, of course,
deny that organisms have any such unitary character, but this is hardly
seemly when you have refused to look at the organism with the qualitative
eye of the artist.

(NF #97 contained an example of a "whole-organism study" of the sort that
aims to get at this qualitative unity.  The piece, written by Craig
Holdrege, was entitled, "What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?".)

All of which leads to your question:  Is "wholeness" my code word for
whatever separates life from non-life?  I wouldn't say "code word";
"wholeness" is the proper name for an idea that can be reasonably
explicated.  The particular view of wholeness I will articulate traces
back to Kant, and was worked over by Goethe, Coleridge, and Rudolf
Steiner.  Here is how I would summarize certain insights stemming from
this tradition:

Think first of human speech, or a text.  In reading the initial words of a
sentence or paragraph, we find ourselves immediately grasping for the
thought of the whole.  ("What is this about, and where is it going?")  As
we proceed, and as the meaning of the whole comes into ever clearer focus,
we discover this whole working into and transforming the individual words
we read.  It is well known that you cannot make sense of any profound text
"from the bottom up", simply by importing the dictionary definitions of
the words and adding them together.  These words have to become the
bearers of a governing idea or intention that now shines through them.
And, by virtue of its participation in this intention, each new word in
turn shines through all the other words, subtly shifting their meanings.
So you don't have neatly given, determinate parts (words) entering into
purely external relationships.  The part itself only comes into existence
-- that is, only becomes this particular part, or word -- through the
expressive agency of an antecedent whole (the meaning of the passage).
Until then, the word has no adequate definition.

This points us toward the kind of dynamic relation between part and whole
characteristic of organisms.  A key point is that an organic whole
manifests itself within each of the parts; they only become what they are
by virtue of the activity of an antecedent whole.  Of course, this begs
for illustration from an actual organism.  But for the moment let me
explain further by contrasting this organic principle of wholeness with
the mechanistic one.

The organizing idea of the machine -- its functional wholeness -- is
imposed from without through the arrangement of parts whose nature remains
static.  These parts are not transformed through their participation in
the whole.  *We* arrange them with the overall idea in mind, and the
resulting external relationships between the given, well-defined parts are
sufficient to specify the machine.  That is, everything we need to know in
order to understand the determinate functioning of the machine is
available to us in the evident relations we have given to the parts.

So the machine does have a wholeness of its own peculiar sort, but we are
the ones who have "striven to express it".  Further, its parts remain
precisely what they are even without reference to the functional idea of
the machine as a whole; remove a part from the machine, and its external
relations will be lost, but the part itself will remain essentially just
what it was.

In Coleridge's pithy summary:  what is "organized" from without is a
mechanism; what is "mechanized" from within is an organism.  And NetFuture
reader Peter Kindlmann, a professor of engineering design at Yale
University (whom I would not want to saddle with all my own views) was, I
think, getting at a crucial aspect of the matter when he described how the
engineer partitions "a larger whole into functional modules, each
described by an input/output 'cause and effect' behavior".  There you see
the machine conceived (correctly) as a collection of parts (modules) with
clearly defined external relations.  I would add that every machine,
"modularly designed" or not, must, at some level, be analyzable in exactly
those terms.

But, Kindlmann continues, "nature does not 'design' this way".  Instead,
it offers

   a total fusion of function and form that we are right to admire
   aspiringly, but can seldom take as a direct lesson [for engineering].
   A blade of grass is a totally integrated system of structure, fluid
   transport and chemical reactor.  (

This "total fusion of function and form" signifies that there is no way to
partition the organism into cleanly separated modules whose purely
external relationships tell the entire functional story of the organism.
The parts interpenetrate each other, and do so in a manner whereby the
whole is revealed as active within each part.

Is any of this mystical or meaningless, as you suggest?  Or is it just
that the mechanical narrowing of one's vision leads to a premature
dismissal of those aspects of the world invisible to a mechanical mindset?

One other thought.  No whole can be wholly material.  If it were, it would
be just another part among the others, or the mere sum or aggregate of all
the parts.  If those (such as complexity theorists) who speak of the whole
as being more than the sum of the parts really meant what they say, they
would grant that, once you have removed all the parts, the whole remains;
what was *more* than the parts remains.  But few of them will say this, so
powerful are the reigning mechanical habits of thought.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

KK:  I think we are getting someplace.  It's clearer where we disagree.

I have no argument at all with concepts like this:  "A key point is that
an organic whole manifests itself within each of the parts; they only
become what they are by virtue of the activity of an antecedent whole".

The emergence of meaning in a text, or of health in an organism presents
the similar vision in me.  An organism does not reside in the parts but in
the totality which transcends the part -- the whole.  Yes, this is how it
is.  Our real split, Steve, is your insistence that this kind of wholism
can't happen in human-created systems, but only in natural ones.  I
questioned your definition of wholism not because I don't agree with it or
believe in it, but only because it is evident to me that it occurs in
machines as well, while you deny that, which makes me wonder what you mean
by the word.  Yet everything you say about it makes it clear the same
thing happens in artificial systems.

Your example of a machine is very primeval -- an "arrangement of parts
whose nature remains static."  Sure that's how primitive machines are, but
that is not to say, how the web is, or how law is, or how even a complex
factory is.  In several chapters in *Out of Control* I tried to
demonstrate the many ways in which machines 1) could and are made of
dynamic parts that 2) self-assemble, and 3) can even evolve and therefore
are beyond not only human engineering but human understanding.  Therefore
your statement that "everything we need to know in order to understand the
determinate functioning of the machine is available to us in the evident
relations we have given to the parts" is absolutely and fundamentally
wrong.  It is not just theoretically wrong, but practically wrong.  We
already write software (a machine if there ever was one) that nobody
understands, that nobody designed, and that nobody has cataloged the parts
of.  More importantly, it's clear that this trajectory in machines will
continue so that machines (it's almost a refrain) take on yet another
aspect that we thought only living organisms had.

Here is another example:  "Remove a part from the machine, and its
external relations will be lost, but the part itself will remain
essentially just what it was."  Also not true.  There are very complex
machines which can route around removal of parts, just as organic
organisms do.  Again, you reference simple primitive machines that do
indeed share only a little with life.  But my arguments concern the
increasingly complex machines that share much with life.

The drift of your arguments remind me of the Roman notion of "order".  The
Romans and most classical cultures of antiquity were obsessed with order.
There was a natural order to things and to people, which everyone
accepted.  This was not about rank, but about classifications.  It was
unnatural for a servant to lecture a nobleman, just as it would be
unnatural for a mouse to try to be a bird.  Most of this classical sense
of order disappeared from our modern world except in the area of race,
where it remained far too long.  There was a time not too long ago when
otherwise nice people could say in all sincerity that it was simply
unnatural for a white and black to marry.  The two were separate
categories, and even if it was possible for them to marry, it was against
the order of things for them to do so.

I am arguing against separatism in beings.  The classic view is that there
are separate classes of things:  those born and those made, those of life
and those of machines.  Supporters of this separatism offer all kinds of
rational arguments why these two categories are very distinct, why they
should be treated differently, and why if they might be brought together
(as say in genetic engineering) this is horrible and unnatural.

The arguments for why living beings are different from created beings
range from, "living beings are trying to express their wholeness while
created beings don't" to "parts of an organism interpenetrate each other,
and do so in a manner whereby the whole is revealed as active within each
part, while in a machine they do not."  These reasons can seem as far
fetched to me as some of the reasoning of old as to why white people were
categorically different from blacks.

This separation bias against machines goes even further.  It is clear that
even as machines become more biological-like, as they take on more of the
characteristics of living things while they become as complex as living
things, their natural abilities are denied.  Even in the face of the
obvious intelligence and morality of a black person, a white slave owner
could deny the black had a human intelligence and consciousness because
everyone knew that a negro could not -- by definition -- have those
qualities.  In the same way the stirrings of intelligence and purpose in
machines are denied because humans know that -- by definition -- a gadget
can't have consciousness or morality.  And it is true, that by those
definitions, as seen above, it can't.

There are many elevated arguments against racism, but one mechanical one
will do here.  It is clear there are very pale humans and very dark ones.
Black and white skins exist.  But most people of the world are brown.
They have some shade of pigmentation.  There is no pure white, just as
there is no pure black.  Black/white racism falls apart when brown fills
the world.

There are some very organic beings full of life, like humans.  And there
are some very inert machines like a hammer.  But our world is filling with
many brownish things half-way between. We know of viruses and prions,
organic entities born, but not quite living.  And now we have complex
systems made, but not quite dead. We have embryonic AI.  We have
artificial evolution.  We'll have a world of dry engineered life and soft
machines.  What we call life is a continuum that extends into other
elements beside carbon.  What we call intelligence extends into other
realms beside tissue.  What we call morality extends into other beings
beside humans.

We can stop this only by playing with the definitions.  Indeed that is
what has been happening.  There is an ad-hoc common sense definition of
intelligence, or life.  When some contraption or other meets that
definition, then we say, well obviously our definition is incomplete
because obviously what this contraption is doing is not thinking or
living.  Obviously blacks or machines can't be intelligent or moral.
These qualities -- by definition -- don't apply to them.  So we keep
shifting definitions.

A more moral way would be to extend the definition.  In the long term --
say in another couple hundred years -- I believe that humans (whatever
they are by then) will look back to now and marvel at our insistence in
keeping machines and organisms separate.  Not because the convergence will
be seen by them as inevitable, but because morally our separatism will be
repugnant.  Why did we think only humans could be conscious and moral, and
why would we not want to bring consciousness and morality to as many
machines as we could?

It is the obvious fact that machines and living things *can* co-mingle
that has brought out the separatists. The prospect of cyborgs stirs up
fears of mutant descendents, and this is when we begin to hear the strong
sermons on why organic beings are fundamentally different from human-
created ones. They can no longer argue that there is a fundamental
difference, because hybrids abound, only that it is unnatural and against
the natural order to mingle the two. We should expect to hear more like
this as this continuum of being between life and machines becomes yet more

Your last point:

   If those (such as complexity theorists) who speak of the whole as being
   more than the sum of the parts really meant what they say, they would
   grant that, once you have removed all the parts, the whole remains;
   what was *more* than the parts remains.  But few of them will say this,
   so powerful are the reigning mechanical habits of thought.

I will say it.  There is something mysterious and immaterial about the
whole.  The important point is that this wholeness is shared by the world
of the made as well as the world of the born.

                      *   *   *   *   *  *  *  *  *

ST:  I am perplexed to hear you so vigorously associating my stance with
racism and with empty, rationalizing argument by definition -- not to
mention continually "shifting" definition.  I'm not sure what relation any
of this has to my own offerings, and will therefore leave it alone, except
to say this:  my entire line of thought is intended as part of an effort
to grasp how things *are*, not how they *must be* according to some
preconceived definition.  I have attempted to elucidate what we can *see*
with our senses and our understanding.

As for your direct response to my argument:  I am fully aware of all the
buzz about dynamic assemblages that "self-organize" and "evolve".  This
kind of talk was, in fact, uppermost in my mind when I described the
mechanistic relation of part and whole, because these trendy assemblages
perfectly fit the bill.  The cellular automata of the "artificial life"
enthusiasts, the complex adaptive systems of John Holland, and the
autocatalytic sets of Stuart Kauffman are, to my mind, the quintessential
mechanisms.  They bring to a kind of perfection what was inherent in the
notion of a material mechanism from the very beginning.  Far from
overriding my distinction, they are the best illustrations of it.

One does not move beyond the mere aggregation of fixed, externally
relating parts by making the parts very small.  The individual cells of a
cellular automaton are the perfect little mechanisms.  Yes, as is common
with machines of all sorts, when you assemble these elements you can get
them to change their configuration and do various things, but these
rearrangements and activities (including the often magically conceived
"self-organizing" activities) proceed in full accord with the distinctions
I have drawn.

Certainly all such devices embody a great deal of intelligence -- and ever
more so.  Machines always have.  There is no limit to the intelligence we
can invest in them.  This, I suspect, is what leads you to pass far too
quickly over my point, which is that intelligence, in the form of the
device's organizing idea, is imposed from without -- a fact that manifests
itself in a distinctive sort of relationship between whole and part.  For
example, the organizing idea is "external" to those individual cells of
the automaton -- they are not formed and enlivened by it from within, but
are just put into varying external relationships.  There is always such a
rock-bottom lifelessness in the machine, which betrays itself, not merely
at the bottom, but at any level of description you choose.  The organism,
on the other hand, is enlivened from within, which means, among other
things:  *all* the way down.

Unfortunately, we are already over-length for this current installment of
our dialogue, so I will have to leave your remarks inadequately answered
for now.  And I'm not quite clear how to proceed, given our continuing
failure to achieve direct engagement.  (Virtually every point in your last
response appears to me badly misdirected, just as my comments appear to
you.)  Perhaps I will need to write a full-length article or two, and then
invite you to respond.  Or ... ?


                          ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and
human responsibility, is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C,
Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116; web:
Postings occur roughly every three or four weeks.  The editor is Steve
Talbott, author of *The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines
in Our Midst* (

Copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: