ADS4 Research Folio, 2016







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Super Models

Extract from the introduction essay included in ADS4's Research Folio, 2016
Complete version including citations available here.

[Research Folio design by Laura Jouan]

In June 2016—the same month that this current cohort of ADS4 students graduates from the RCA—a video game will be released under the title No Man’s Sky. In the game, randomly placed astronauts isolated from one another by millions of light years must find their own existential purpose as they traverse a galaxy of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets.[1] Every particle in the universe is accounted for; the precise shape and position of every blade of grass on every planet has been calculated; every raindrop has been numbered, and each animal has a unique behavioural profile (they have friends and best friends too), explained the chief designer, Sean Murray, to The Atlantic in an interview in February 2016.[2] Murray and a group of programmers designed this vast digital cosmos in a studio half an hour south of London. Or rather, through the science of procedural generation,[3] they designed a program that allows a model universe to create itself.

What sets No Man’s Sky apart from other games is that the physics haven’t been faked. In other games, when you’re on a planet, you’re surrounded by a ‘skybox’—a cube that someone has painted stars or clouds onto. The skybox is also a barrier beyond which the player can never pass, the limit of the digital world. In No Man’s Sky, however, every star is a place that you can go. Day turns to night not because the game is programmed to transition between different skyboxes but because the planet is rotating around a sun. When they decided they wanted green skies, the team had to redesign the periodic table to create atmospheric particles that would diffract light at just the right wavelength. The physics are ‘real’ and the model is potentially infinite. It turns out that the laws of nature needed to create an entire model cosmos can be written in just 600,000 lines of source code. In one sense, because of the game’s procedural design, the entire universe exists at the moment of its creation. In another sense, because the game only renders a player’s immediate surroundings, nothing exists unless there is a human there to witness it. Like our own world, this simulated universe is bounded only by our ability to experience it.  

At the heart of the history of the computer there has always been the dream that one day it would be possible to mathematically simulate the physical world well enough to generate graphics which, to our eyes, would be indistinguishable from the real world. As we approach the fulfillment of this techno-evolutionary dream, it is difficult not to wonder: What if we are in fact living in a computer simulation? The proposition that the universe is actually a computer simulation was first considered seriously back in the 1970s, when John Conway famously proved that if you take a binary system, and subject that system to only a few rules, then that system creates something rather peculiar. What Conway’s rules produced were emergent complexities so sophisticated that they seemed to resemble the behaviors of life itself. He named his demonstration The Game of Life, and it helped lay the foundation for the Simulation Argument[4] and its counterpart the Simulation Hypothesis.[5] These fields have gone on to create a massive multi-decade long discourse in science, philosophy, and popular culture around the idea that it actually makes logical, mathematical sense that our universe is indeed a computer simulation.

Regardless of whether the Simulation Argument is to be believed (and if it is, then whether it should affect our behavior), the world we live in can be thought of as a model. Or, at the very least, as being controlled by models—political models, economical models, mathematical models, theoretical models, business models... From early computer simulations performed as part of the Manhattan Project[6] to the significance of climate modeling for political processes, we are basing our decisions on a series of numerical models. As such, the world itself can be considered a sort of super model. This is a condition created by humans, but only partly controlled by them. As the real and the virtual, the seen and the unseen, begin to merge we must look frankly at the technologies that are transforming the concrete reality of social civilisation into abstractions—figures, algorithms, financial speculations—leading to the accumulation of nothing. Only through striving to understand and adapt the model can we be more than merely supporting actors playing out simulations of real life.[7]

It was on this premise that ADS4 started the year with the idea of the ‘model’: the conceptual bridge between the virtual and the real. We investigated what models mean for architecture and urbanism, their present use and their future consequence. We also formed our own definition of the model to help distinguish between prescriptive models and descriptive ones. From scale models and representational models to the social models that form the context for our lives, we explored the possibility that we might one day fabricate—for better or worse—a new model for reality.

“To make a model”, wrote O.M. Ungers in 1982, “means to find coherence in a given relationship of certain combinations and fixed dispositions. This is usually done with two types of models, visual models and thinking models”.[8] For Ungers, by means of these two models we can formulate an objective structure that turns facts into something more certain and therefore more real. The model is an intellectual structure setting targets for our creative activities, just like the design of model-buildings, model-cities, model-communities, and other model conditions are supposedly setting directions for subsequent actions.

The pursuit of new and alternative models seemed particularly pertinent this year: Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles; Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content; and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Social media and the sharing economy are transforming models of business; open-source platforms and the nascent ‘maker movement’ are challenging modes of production and the referendum on Europe is already disrupting our model of politics. Through our investigations we set out to identify our own individual models of thought, theory and practice.

© Thomas Greenall