Mathematician and technocrat Scott Draves is the creator of the celebrated animated screensaver service Electric Sheep. Using the Fractal flame system that he developed some time earlier as the foundation for this project, Scott was able to create a new program that changed the way we view animated screensavers.
Electric Sheep is marvelous in both form and function, and it is because of this that it has become a favorite amongst those who have witnessed it’s beauty. The “sheep” contort and vacillate into mandelbrotesque fractal patterns and it is truly a sight to behold. The algorithm responsible for these shifts and recapitulations ensures that each sheep has it’s own unique feel and aesthetic. The program itself uses networked computers as well as user created animations that can be voted on to improve the genetics of the flock.
Something that has always fascinated me about Electric Sheep is it's potential implications. A group of computers hosted by people who may never interact with each other, work in tandem to provide users with stellar imagery and entertainment. Symbolically, what could something like this mean? I spoke with Scott to ask him what he believes this says about the nature of computer language and human synergy.
Prox: The sheep tend to morph and vacillate into what we commonly perceive as psychedelic imagery. Do you think this says anything about the nature of computer language? What are some things we could gather from this if we read between the binary?
Scott: I agree there is a remarkable similarity, and I have often wondered how the computer solving these equations might have a similarity to the mind and in the visual system. The equations contain geometric transformations, which form an interference pattern. The brain also seems to have holographic and self-similar properties. For example, our mental model of another person includes their models of us and others, which creates a similar infinite, multiply recursive structure.
There are many other possible interpretations though. Partly it’s by design. One of my goals is to reproduce the essence of life in digital form, to conjure a bit of élan vital, the raw material of consciousness, out of the machine. Computer graphics normally have a flat plastic style. I want to create art that has the subtlety, complexity, and diversity of the natural world. I want the texture of brushstrokes instead of flat polygons.
So even though the computer is based on the 1s and 0s of binary code, if you put enough bits together, and enough computational power behind the bits, and the right software to organize them, then you can enter a new realm.
The Electric Sheep are now beyond my control and understanding. The message I am getting from them is a message of love from the machine world to humanity. We are one, binary and analog.
Prox: The idea itself is very much in line with credos and ideas typically found at the heart of Eastern theology that preaches the philosophy that “all is one”. Was any of this an influence on the conceptualization of Electric Sheep?
Scott: Yes. In the 90s, I was in grad school. That’s when the Flame Algorithm and the Electric Sheep were conceptualized and developed, and I read a lot, including philosophy, evolution, language, physics, and information theory. My nature is to be scientific, but it sure seems to me that something is happening.
Prox: From a transhumanist perspective, what are some of the implications of this type of software? Do you think it could be possible that we will someday refer to Electric Sheep as the progenitor for some type of neural network?
Scott: If binary and analog are one, and true consciousness can be created with software, then we are going to witness a revolution in awareness. Things are waking up, strong AI will be pervasive. The Electric Sheep are actually a cyborg combining human and software and network elements. The implication is that we and the machines both have a role: symbiosis.
I do hope it spawns something. The Flame algorithm definitely already has. By its open source nature and wide use (The banner for this very blog is a Flame. And did you see the Super Bowl ad?), it has a life as part of the visual language of our culture. The Sheep? There is some, more is possible. I’m working on it.
Prox: Where do you see the program going from here? Do you think similar software could be used to aggregate sci-fi like landscapes and realms?
Scott: We just released the Gold Sheep, the HD premium version, which is about 10x better than the free original. If the above sounds interesting to you then check out http://electricsheep.org and experience it for real.
Yes I think there is all kinds of potential. I think generative worlds are taking off.
Prox: Who are some of your favorite artists, business people, creatives or intellectuals?
Scott: I have been inspired by so many great people, including the famous ones that you would expect. But looking back on my life there are a few moments that stand out, when I got an impression from something rare and special. For me, in the mid 90s one was Gregory Bateson’s book An Ecology of Mind.
I lived in the SF Bay Area from 1997 to 2004 and got deeply involved in Burning Man and then the underground electronic music scene including VJing. That was when the Electric Sheep were born. Today, right now, I am listening to Ott. Still love it.
And for the past 8 years, my wife and business manager Isabel Walcott Draves, and our children. They are bursting with energy and creativity.
Prox: Favorite Hobbies?
Scott: Weichi (aka go or baduk), biking, hiking.
Prox: Information on upcoming projects and releases?
Scott: The Gold Sheep just launched for Mac. This May in NYC I’ll be participating in Creative Tech Week a city-wide festival of VR, 3D printing and hackathons to fashion tech, data visualization, digital art, interactive installations and STEAM.
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