Rewriting the Matrix of Life. Biomedia Between Ecological Crisis and Playful Actions


The paper discusses concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘life’ as subjected to historical changes. The 21st century seems to be obsessed with ‘life’ and ‘nature’, which are reconfigured as objects of simulation practices and of a multitude of technoscientific enterprises as well as of political struggle. The historical influences and epistemological shifts of systems thinking are significant within two distinctive and interwoven fields: On the one hand the discourse of environmentalism with the paradigm of ecological crises, centered around ideas of resource management, sustainability, the general idea of an ‘endangered nature’ and the interconnectedness of global politics and individual actions. On the other hand the optimistic promises of artificial life, with synthetic biology and digital cyborg technologies as its avantgarde, which are very much driven by the idea of technoscientific mastery to surpass natures ‘weakness’ and by desires to improve ‘life’ and to even refashion ‘life itself’.

On the field of historical ecology, concepts of systems thinking are traced back to the middle of the 19th century, where ecological thought emerged at the intersections of biology and geography. Meandering between vitalistic, holistic, and mechanistic concepts, between living and non-living elements, systems ecology finally substitutes ‘nature’, which in turn is re-established in its new ‘gestalt’ as computer simulated world model since the early 1970s. Resurrected as an interrelation of system variables at the level of global simulations ‘nature’ strikes as a zombie.

As a second turning point of the rewriting of the matrix, of life we will discuss the advance of ‘games’ since the early 1970ies, with the example of ‘Game of life’ (‘Life’) as a significant landmark. When ‘life’ becomes ‘Life’, it is by computerized modeling in terms of dynamic processes. Computer games can be thought of as instances of the popularization of cybernetic system thinking, functioning as interdiscoursive fragments between the specialized discourse of system theories and the sphere of ‘common sense’ (Nohr 2008), where the specific “gaming situation” (Eskelinen 2001) foregrounds playful individual action and manipulation of system objects within a set of given rules or the manipulation of system rules itself on the level of the ‘code’.

We will argue that both, the ecological discourse and the algorithmic model of self-reproduction of ‘Life’, are historically and systematically related manifestations and mediations of system theory. While they can be regarded as referring to different scales of application (macro-economic reasoning in the case of global eco-systems, modeling of bottom-up-complexity on a micro-level in the case of ‘Life’) and belonging to distinctive disciplines (economic and ecological research vs. mathematical theory of automata and artificial life studies), they share some common ground in being “algorithmic media” (Marks 2014) that are functional as “rhetorical software” (Doyle 1997) and as “allegorithms” (Galloway 2006) of the new compositions of the techno-biological and techno-ecological situation of the 21st century.