The Human Cellular Automata

The human cellular automaton is like a Mexican Wave in two-dimensions.

In nineteen sixty-eight the mathematician John Conway invented a particular version of cellular automata called ‘Life’. In Steven Levy’s book “Artificial Life, the quest for a new creation” his original script is given as follows.

“Life occurs on a virtual checkerboard. The squares are called cells. They are in one or two states: alive or dead. Each cell has eight possible neighbours, the cells which touch its sides or its corners.
If a cell on the checkerboard is alive, it will survive in the next timestep (or generation) if there are either two or three neighbours also alive. It will die of overcrowding if there are more than three live neighbours, and it will die of exposure if there are fewer than two.
If a cell on a checkerboard is dead, it will remain dead in the next generation unless exactly three of its eight neighbours are alive. In that case the cell will be ‘born’ in the next generation.”

There are many other forms of cellular automata, with more complicated rules, other forms of emergence and change, further possible states for cells to be in and other dynamics of mutual inter-relation. The version running at WOS is based on Conway’s ‘Life’ because it is fast, simple and infinitely scalable – there’s no excuse not to join in.

This is the script:

  1. Everyone stands in a grid. Each person is a cell
  2. Choose whether you want to start the first cycle in an ‘on’ or ‘off’ position. If you are ‘on’, hold the WOS program, or other piece of paper, on your head.
  3. Once everyone has chosen their state, the next cycle begins. Your state is determined by the cells directly to your front and back and on your left and right. (If you are on an edge ‘wrap’ to the cell opposite. If you are in a corner, wrap to both of your opposites.)
  4. If two or three or your neighbouring cells are ‘on’, you are ‘on’ in the next cycle. If none, one, or four of your neighbouring cells are on, you will be ‘off’.
  5. Move to the next cycle once every cell is in the correct state.
  6. Keep going, see how fast and fluid we can make each cycle.
  7. ‘Stopping’ will emerge by its own set of rules.

The Human Cellular Automata (HCA) is being held at WOS as part of the ‘Software as Culture’ thread because it provides an entertaining and surprising example of mass collaboration made possible by a set of simple rules. It is a program that is also a game – a momentary microculture based on distributed fun processing.
The first HCA was held as part of the Software Summer School last year in London. We took over a small city square and turned it into the slowest, most high-energy, processor for miles. (A heat-sink was provided in the shape of the Ice Cream for Everyone, open recipe project http://bak.spc.org/ice/).
Two other influences on the project are the short performance scripts of Fluxus artists and the behavioural instruction pieces of Vito Acconci. Both are characterised by short sets of instructions which allow the user to suspend normal behaviour and work or think through some other potential way of organising sound, space, food, manners, words, mutuality and so on. As well as these, it is easy to note similarities with the new types of network dynamics found in political demonstrations. It is rare nowadays for people to simply march from one place to another to be harangued by their leaders. Now it is a question of taking over a space, for the purposes of direct action, festivity and demonstration, to keep moving, and importantly, to keep the crowd networked, communicating and aware of itself, avoiding the police. Like the free software movement, once the script is distributed, the license is formulated, the action which is enabled by it can be carried out by anyone.

Further information on cellular automata can be found at:
Andreas Ehrencrona http://www.student.nada.kth.se/~d95-aeh/lifeeng.html/
Mitchell Resnick and Brian Silverman http://lcs.www.media.mit.edu/groups/el/projects/emergence/index.html/