Perhaps all boundaries are illusory, whether erected by ourselves through our lack of information about the nature of things, or by the choice of an oversimplified (or even overcomplicated) model of reality?1
During the past two decades the separation of the ‘digital’ and the ‘analog’ has become increasingly less clear but semantically we choose to continually differentiate these spaces. The ‘Digital Landscape’ is a construct that fulfills our need to differentiate between the processes of the physical world and the processes of virtualisation. While these realms have functioned within two conceptual spaces, thisform of differentiation between analog and digital, or physical and virtual, is collapsing. This perceptual collapse is predicated on the complexity of interactions between analog and digital realms described by the continual overlap of physical entities and computational models. These models are carefully crafted from continuously collected data through sensors, inputs, and interactions, in which acts of sensing and monitoring engender landscapes of ‘translation’, a form of ‘decoding’ or ‘knowing’ that become acts of modification.
The contemporary landscape, is a product of anthropogenic influences intricately enmeshed and shaped by the digital. The landscape, as a territory of operations and negotiations between material and computational logics is more appropriately observed through devices that extend our senses. The perception of the physical world by human senses, replicated through sensory technologies create abstractions inherent to devices, machines, and synthetic organisms. The feedback loop comprised of extended human senses, the representation of the landscape as model, and the subsequent modifications of the landscape irreversibly stitch together the physical and the digital. Model making, derived from the sensing and translation of data as an integral part of the feedback loop between human intent and the physical landscape promotes itself as an actor in the modification of the built environment.
Landscape architecture has developed a dialog that privileges a form of authenticity exuding from the dirt, plants, and physical materials of the profession. While there is an underlying truth to this experience, we are being confronted with a new reality, one that hinges upon a landscape enmeshed in digital and analog spaces. What has evolved is an alternate space, accessible through databases and simulations, that create the justification and capability to assess landscape conditions and proposed goals. The ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ space is active, created for specific applications and evolved through successive iterations. The ‘digital’ is a pervasive space, shaping the physical world while receiving feedback and evolving through these interactions. The entwinement is deep enough to render the term ‘digital’ obsolete; to be uttered when speaking about the discrete data stored as 1s and 0s, not the complex forms of virtualisation that are managing, modifying, and codifying our relationship between devices and organisms.
These complex forms of virtualisation are hybrids — designed to interface with synthetic landscape logics evolving in parallel with biotic systems. These hybrids are composed of models, sensors, instruments and devices all working in tandem to render our physical and virtual realms. Most landscape virtualisations fall into a category of computational modelling that describes the morphology of a landscape surface — the representation of a topography utilised to simulate or render infinite narratives. This form of modelling, representation and mapping is the foundational media for describing landscape design proposals. What we see is a tradition of analog representation simulated and reappropriated with digital tools.
Recent installations by artists and designers working collaboratively (and often interdisciplinarily), with accessible technologies in the fields of interactive design and responsive architecture, are beginning to bridge large-scale speculative design proposals. As a bridge, it establishes methods for the application of real-time technologies to address adaptive and non-deterministic landscape strategies. The space of responsive landscapes2 is emerging through a series of strategies and an array of case studies that begin to illustrate the potential for responsive technologies to bridge digital and physical landscapes. Expanding upon concepts within the field of responsive architecture, where the application of responsive technologies within the built environment presents the opportunity to mediate spatial conditions, responsive landscapes pose larger questions concerning how the growing integration of technology within the landscape alters and provides opportunities for how we perceive, interact and modify the landscape.
Responsive landscapes pose a series of methodologies: elucidate, compress, displace, connect and ambient which build up to modify. Elucidate is the foundation of responsive environments, in which sensed landscape phenomena are rendered in situ to reveal imperceptible conditions and relations. Compress describes the compression and alteration of recorded phenomena over time, to recompose behaviours and processes into human timescales. Displace is the removal and reconfiguration of information to new contexts, virtual or physical. And connect establishes obvious connections for human interactions with the responsive system.
These methods are all interrelated to approach the application of responsive technologies as a method of ‘inquiry’ into the contemporary landscape as a site of emergent and novel conditions3. Rather than assume there is a particular question for the condition of the contemporary landscape, these methods attempt to harness the potential for the translation of real-time landscape phenomena by technological devices to offer an evolving epistemology in ecological systems — one that is deeply embedded within the complexity of ecological interactions existing across physical and digital space. All of these strategies become tools for modifying the landscape, in which the responsive system is designed to shape and alter the physical landscape.
Our cultural artifacts are already the products of technological intervention whether we choose to fully embrace the hybrid, dive into the virtual, or resist the seduction of data. Agricultural landscapes are a significant example hybridising technological interventions and operations with biological material, shaping a significant portion of the terrestrial biosphere. These logics appear through the application of mechanised tools, the redistribution of water resources, the establishment of monocultures, the creation of synthetic species or the simulations developed to test architectural scenarios. The relationship between computational space and physical space is singular, before the singularity4. Computing does not need to match a biological entity’s complexity5 any more than a virus needs to be as complex as its host: the symbiosis exists without a pure definition of the digital or biological. Landscape cannot be conceived outside of this surrogate space, a space that no longer exists purely in a beige box that we attempt to access through tangible inputs — shifting instead to a dialogue of resistance6 and symbiosis that attempts to actively propagate modes of interaction and response. This virtual, surrogate, digital realm interacts deeply with the physical through logics of operation and implementation.
The surrogate recursively exhibits evolving logics deeply embedded within the formation of synthetic environments. Actuated by feedback loops and protocols, the surrogate encounters interference and produces resistance while systematically responding to perceived phenomena. As the surrogate terraforms the landscape, we watch through captured imagery. Copies, visualisations, distillations and propaganda populate across immaterial boundaries. Within this complex assemblage of realities, layers of abstractions conceal the authenticity of perceptions and blur intentions.
These acts of modification slowly evolve hybridised landscape logics through the combination of both digital and biological computation. The surrogate is not in search of a solution or answer, but instead attempts to observe and embed. Beyond technology creating the platform for new devices or mechanisms, the behaviours and logics of computation function as entities. Algorithmic behaviours that are driving devices, simulations and models evolve and contain a physical agency. A form of adaptive epistemology is existing as algorithms, constantly evolving in search of small bits of knowledge. This parallel form of knowledge is evolving with humans and the landscapes or environments we occupy.
The algorithms in parallel with humans and landscapes are modifying one another, taking us physically away from the landscape, but also closer to it. Closer, as we uncover hidden processes and develop modes of interaction between biotic and abiotic systems. Potentially further, as we prioritise information and knowledge of specific conditions leading to increasing modes of abstraction. It is a form of ‘nature’ that relies on synthesis and novel relationships that are increasing in complexity. While at one point humans were the sole creators of algorithmic ‘thought’, these entities are updating themselves through knowledge acquired from human and environmental history and from sensed environmental phenomena. A digital space is evolving as computational systems, led by humans, parsing the world and manipulating systems with greater amounts of articulation and purpose. Not only do these systems evolve, but they are also evolving forms of biology.
These acts of visualisation, inquiry and modification are the composite of the known and unknown, the intentional and unintentional — composing realms which deny outright construction, in which there is no outcome — only tuning and nudging, choreographing between and into new states through acts of resistance and ambivalence. The limitations of ‘modify’ reside in the feedback loop — sensing, processing, visualising, responding and actuating — particularly within the discrete products of responsive technologies. The repercussions are apparent across the contemporary landscape.
The physical evidence of digital computation is revealed across the landscape as permanent marks of organisational space, scars of infrastructural failures and ecological decline, traces of fleeting interventions and clones of repeating landscape typologies. The intentions of these physical manifestations become difficult to trace across the realms of machine and biological intelligence, tangled between the agency and interdependence of digital and biological computation. If instrumentality and feedback extends across these realms, how might we begin to address the physical, virtual, peripheral and intangible territories associated with alien insertions of responsive technologies within the landscape? In the way that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics revealed the paradox of Planck’s constant to disprove Newtonian laws of nature with the concept that “even with perfect instruments it is impossible to measure the location and velocity of a body simultaneously7”, there are limitations to modelling the detailed complexity and expansive interrelations of large-scale anthropogenic and ecological systems. Expanded upon as a metaphor, even if humans were capable of producing an intricately detailed virtualisation of the physical world, the model would never be able to both accurately, depicting one moment in time while mimicking the velocities of individual entities. We are left with the surrogate, a stand-in for which there are infinite hybrids — all far from the comprehensive model capable of complex goal-oriented systems8 — to partake in small bits, the beginnings of a cybernetic epistemology, whose intelligence relies more on biological interaction than cognitive ability.
- Barrow, J., Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.↩
- The field of Responsive Landscapes is described by Responsive Landscapes by the authors is forthcoming by Routledge in 2015. This essay builds upon the theoretical framework outlined by the text.↩
- Rabinow, P., Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 3.↩
- The technological singularity is the advent of artificial intelligence capable of recursive self-improvement.↩
- Makarieva, A., ‘Cybernetics,’ in Systems Ecology, Vol. 1 of Encyclopedia of Ecology, eds. S. E. Jørgensen and B. Fath, Oxford: Elsevier, 2008, pp. 806-812.↩
- Galloway, A. and Thacker, E., ‘Protocol, Control, and Networks,’ Grey Room, no. 17, 2004, pp. 6-29.↩
- Barrow, J., Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 22-23.↩
- Nechansky, H., ‘Elements of a cybernetic epistemology: preprogrammed adaptive systems’, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, vol. 26, 2009, pp. 411- 427, doi:10.1002/sres.942.↩