Notes on Walled Garden, Flwr Pwr

Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden, moderated by Matt Ratto. Ideas from the building and discussion of emergent behaviors and communications in networked environments. Workshop during the Walled Garden working conference held at the Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam 20 – 21 November 2008

from the working group description:

Imagine a garden of dream flowers, powered by duracell, made of abandoned Starbucks coffee cups, styrofoam cubes cut from the latest iMac packing materials, a brain made in Italy, a blossom made by 1/2 Tod 1/2 Bot. The flowers glow with an eerie pulsating glow, sending secret missives across a darkened room. Some flowers horde their individuality, resisting attempts to transform, to change. Others broadcast their distinctive natures broadly, encouraging nearby flowers to go with them, to be like them. Still others promiscuously adopt the patterns of others, reproducing, syncing, connecting. They live they die. The garden flourishes it declines.

In this group, workshop participants will build electronic flowers using some pre-assembled electronic components and craft materials (paper cups, styrofoam, cardboard, etc.) These flowers ‘talk’ to one another using infrared light patterns and, in doing so, gain and expend energy. They can be programmed in various ways – to be more open or more closed, more aggressive or more sharing – which has an effect on each flower’s own individual survival as well as the survival of the garden as a whole. In addition to resulting in what I hope will be an interesting visual display, the project will serve to open and inform discussions relevant to the topic of ‘walled garden’. Themes include questions about the porosity of boundaries, the necessity for both inclusion and exclusion as part of community, the power of exchange, and so forth.

Working in a small group of about 5 participants, Matt brought pre-prepared units: Arduino boards with infra-red light and receiver for sending messages and a three colored light blinker for displaying the different patterns exchanged. The software was ready programmed and only needed minimal changes in code to try out the different settings.

We experimented with a very simple network, sending a message (ID, pattern, ID) out to whoever is listening, receiving patterns when listening, and displaying patterns according to change. The parameters were the amount of time spent listening, the amount of times sending a pattern, and the relative values gained or lost in this process. A starting value of ‘energy’ was defined. Changing these parameters determined the balance of the group, whether one dominates or looses too much energy. 

3 concepts of exchange and value were tested, the gift economy, where one accepts a new pattern and changes, the info commons, where one only changes if the pattern is new, and the info neighborhood, where a memory is built in and will only change is the pattern is different from the last three.  In the gift economy value = exchange, in the info commons value = difference. The difference in the exchange of patterns however reached equilibrium, or homogeneity very quickly, and the only way out of this was a new input from outside. This was tested with the idea of a wall, a boundary, a walled garden with some flowers inside and others outside.

Important observations from playing with these simple networks:

  • To keep change available, one has to collaborate, be able to predict the onset of homogeneity because this means the imminent death of the whole garden. Given this realization one has to be prepared to ask for or exchange patterns before patterns become homogenous, or set up a system which accepts input from outside, or add noise to the system (which will be less predictable).
  • Each node in the network is individual creating an uneven, unbalanced system (equal nodes, if possible, would make an unreal network). [NB I supposed both these last points are linked to the onset of chaos and chaos theory.]
  • Messages have content, they carry information that has varying value of its own, which means that the value is linked to the content of the message, not to an external value parameter such as simply sending and receiving. 
  • Can data itself be both the communication, the message and the carrier? This would stop the splitting of content from carrier. [What are the theories on this?][It reminds me too of the Meta-Orchestra work with exchanging large amounts of complex performance and musical data made available on a network, and how this changes musical ideas of collaboration within a group. I should look also at the work of The Hub here for example.]

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