Rebekah Wilson

Beyond Isomorphism: Transformation of Human / Machine Agency

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Machines are designed to replace human agency when we cannot be there to act. Machines are also designed to act in ways that humans cannot: in speed, accuracy and scope. With these machines we encode, construct, transform and transmit our agency: on our behalf, machines act. This becomes a form of ‘mediated presence’: the technological illusion of being present in a place other than our physical selves and actions.

Machines gather, process and transform data: they generate information along prescribed lines. Machines are ideal for data mining and algorithmic processing but not for creating meaningful observations; any meaning that is created is tangential to its purpose. Gill states that “you cannot create meaning without a tacit dimension and that there are many paths one can take and which path you take depends on your purpose” (Gill, 2015). A machine’s purpose is determined by the engineer at the time of execution, while meaning is created at the time of observation by a human. A machine has no tacit knowledge from which to create meaning—it exposes explicit information to be acted on.

Isomorphism occurs when components are tightly coupled (Hawley, 1986). Isomorphism is illustrated in electronic music when a gesture is translated via a machine from one form to another and its source is readily perceived. Yet, we live in a post-digital world where there is no obligation to reproduce reality: thus, we may— and should!—uncouple components and transform reality at the whim of our curiosity. Uncoupling suggests autonomous machine interaction, however it is critical that we maintain performance cohesion. When presence is mediated by technology this means we must reproduce, generate, share the information that we need for participation: timing so that we can perform together, and musical features such as timbre and dynamics so we can experience a shared relationship. Regenerating information means accepting substitutions— substitutions derived from computational decisions made by the machine designers. While mediated presence can cause the loss of certain parts of natural presence, machines can surpass the limits of time and place, adding “elements to natural presence which natural presence otherwise would not have possessed.” (Nevejan, 2007).

In this technical paper I present my current research towards building non-isomorphic musical agents. As independent agents are transmitted over the Internet, imbued with the vital information necessary for a remote musical performance, they act as co-conspirators: transforming the data they carry in correspondence with the networked performance environment.


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author: Rebekah Wilson