Why VitalismWon’t Die; or Refactoring Agency Mike Travers firstname.lastname@example.org://omniorthogonal.blogspot.co m RefactorCamp 2012
Trained in the mechanist/reductionist tradition• The world consists of physical objects and forces• This is theoretically enough to explain everything• Success story: molecular biology• Not-so-successful story: AI
Vitalism / Animism• Mechanism violates people’s commonsense intuitions (eg free will)• Not going to get into this tired debate• Old, more or less discredited theories of “life force”
My nagging itch• Despite its unscientificness,• There’s something in vitalist and similar theories that we need to pay attention to.
How to be a vitalist at MIT• I cheated -- with the epistemological / metaphorical turn• How do people understand the world, and computers, and systems?• Through a wide variety of metaphors including – Animate Metaphors – Agents – Programming by creating networks of agents
Distributed Agency• Minsky’s Society of Mind• EO Wilson’s Ant Colonies• Hewitt’s Actor Model of Computation• Agre& Chapman’s Situated Action
Other neo-vitalists• Christopher Alexander from Pattern Language to a radical metaphysics of the living• Bruno Latour and followers A democracy of objects
Refactoring Agency‘In the case of ... potato chips, it seems appropriate toregard the hand’s actions as only quasi- or semi-intentional, for the chips themselves seem to call forth, orprovoke and stoke, the manual labor…To eat chips is toenter into an assemblage in which the I is not necessarilythe most decisive operator” -- Bennett, Vibrant Matter
Refactoring the grammar of agencyI ate the potato chips. The potato chips were eaten by me. The potato chips compelled me to eat them I ate the potato chips. The potato chips eta me. ???
So what?• We are increasingly embedded in complex networks of sociotechnology• How do we make sense of it?• We need to be able to analyze systems through simultaneous application of a variety of cognitive systems: – Mechanical – Tool – Agency• Software has goals of its own, whether we acknowledge it or not