Parallax Machines: An Ethnography on Artificial Life in the Real World

Research output: Book / Anthology / Report / Ph.D. thesisPh.D. thesis

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This thesis is an anthropological tale about how a small group of artificial life
researchers at the Ikegami Lab - an artificial life laboratory at the University of
Tokyo, Japan headed by professor Takashi Ikegami – seek to fulfill their selfdescribed mission to “construct artificial life in the real world”.
“Life” – the primary scientific object of artificial life, and that painfully imprecise
concept that cuts across all of the living – is at the Ikegami Lab considered to be a constructive category, something, Ikegami and the lab members report, which is best understood by its material construction in artificial media, such as computer models, petri dishes or robots. Thus, it is by constructing new artificial systems, not from bits and pieces of biological materials or organic compounds, such as cells and genes, but from bits and pieces of silicone, rubber electronic circuitries, information, data, algorithms, ones and zeroes, that Ikegami and the lab members may better understand what life is. As an anthropologist of science and technology, I have spent about 7 months talking to and working with them.
Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this ethnography tracks a diverse set of techniques at work at the Ikegami Lab and how they seek to realize their aspiration to construct artificial life in the real world in order to better understand what life is. On an ethnographic journey through the Ikegami Lab, then, I show how these lab members think and talk about themselves and their work, but also how the lab is organized around Ikegami himself. Ikegami is a charismatic leader, I argue, whose personal qualities and style of leadership manifest as a sort of charismatic authority, by which he organizes and commands his lab. And as such, the social structure at the lab represents an emotional collectivization held together by an emotional bond with Ikegami. Thus, Ikegami, as a charismatic leader, offers to lab members his own set of
worldviews, beliefs, principles, norms and values, which I call Ikegamianism, and to which the lab members adhere. And this is precisely, I want to show, what organizes and propels the Ikegami Lab into action, into constructing artificial life in the real world. To show what they mean by constructing artificial life in the real world, then, I introduce the concept of parallax machines to capture how Ikegamianism is given material expression through the artificial systems they make at the lab. Moreover, parallax machines, I further want to show, both materialize Ikegamianism and reflect what I call a parallax view of life that allows the artificial life researchers at the Ikegami Lab to straddle any meaningful distinction between “artificial life” and “biological life”. Parallax machines, in short, materialize both Ikegamianism, the set of values and beliefs springing from Ikegami’s charismatic authority, and a parallax view of life that connects, yet without resolving, indexical regimes that are normally indexed as separate: life may only be apprehended through a parallax view.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherIT-Universitetet i København
Number of pages278
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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