No. 41 — Umwelt 👀 Robot readable world 🍄 Sonic Symbolism
What is it like being an algorithm?
My name is Linda. I write a bi-weekly newsletter about computer science, childhood and culture - and there are 9 643 of you listening. If you enjoy this issue, please share it with anyone you think may find it useful.
Happy first of September! In Paris, it’s the season that goes by jour de rentrée, a return to school, but also to routines, practices and past ponderings.
I always enjoy finding words that capture something of the time we live in. During summer I read two quite different books - James Bridle’s Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence and Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us - that both shared a concept called Umwelt.
So Umwelt, a German word for environment.
It’s a concept floated around by Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok throughout the 1940s until 1980s. A little bit simplified, the idea is that different animals in the same ecosystem live in very different worlds because their senses pick up on different things.
“Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.
Nothing can sense everything, and nothing needs to. That is why Umwelten exist at all. It is also why the act of contemplating the Umwelt of another creature is so deeply human and so utterly profound. Our senses filter in what we need. We must choose to learn about the rest.” - Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us
The umwelt, the unique sensory world of a penguin, a human, a mushroom and an artificial intelligence differ from one another. Instead of trying to stack these intelligences in order, might we be able to attempt to understand and account for nonhuman intelligence through the lense of umwelt?
The umwelt has long been a useful concept in robotics as well as biology. It’s easy to see how the example of the tick’s simple rules could be adapted to provide the basic framework for a simple, autonomous robot: ‘move towards this light; stop at that sound; react to this input.’ What then is the umwelt of the self-driving car? - James Bridle, Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence
I find these questions so fascinating when brought to the realm of education and childhood.
How do we teach children to recognise the intelligence of a gibbon, a mosquito, a thermostat and a six-year old? Could drama based pedagogy be one tool?
I wonder what would happen if you spent a day cosplaying as a Roomba, a jellyfish, a hedge fund’s high-frequency trading algorithm, or the Facebook newsfeed ranking system? What are the timespans computers operate in? What never before seen details of everyday life discovered? What empathy would be created?
In computer science, a linked list is a linear collection of data elements whose order is not given by their physical placement in memory. But here it is a selection of things I’ve been reading lately.
Related to umwelt of computers, no-one comes close to what Automato did with these delightful videos. How does it feel to be an object in a smart home? “Cleaning robots might get angry at Fans making a mess, Plugs can decide to switch on and off other objects to save energy and you can decide to follow or not the tips from the overlooking Smart Home voice.”
…except for maybe Timo Arnall’s film Robot readable world.
The queen of umwelts, Björk, has a new album coming up. Dubbed as biological techno and mushroom club music for your living room, it feels like the perfect soundtrack for the fall (and a contender for my all time favorite art piece, Biophilia). Earlier today Björk also released a ten part podcast series called Sonic Symbolism where she discussed all ten of her previous albums. I listened to Debut and Post immediately and warmly recommend the series.
I’m hoping to surface and share stories from all of you and I’d love to see your creations! Here are a few teachers using Ruby in creative, fun and inspiring ways.
Dance videos always make my day! See instructions here.
Well well, Internet in the wild.
My Latvian publisher is wonderful and the set of four books a beautiful gift if you have latvian speaking friends or family.