Do Cyborgs Dream of Electric Sheep?

<p>Scott Draves, software pioneer, speaks up.</p>

Aug 30 2010, 4:33pm

At the start of his career, in the early '90s, Scott Draves created an algorithm that was unlike anything he or anyone else had seen before. It was soft, fluid, and sensuous—delicate, flowing ribbons of color that emerged in stark contrast to the hard-lined geometric forms that had always characterized computer-generated art. Draves called it the flame algorithm and published it online for free, enabling others to use, modify, and repurpose his work. After that, it became virtually inescapable, and his work is now a part of the visual language that is an inherent part of much computer-generated graphics both online and off. It also became the basis for the project that would come to define his career—a networked, collaborative screensaver art piece called Electric Sheep which still exists today. Download it for free here. Draves sat down to chat with us about his vision, career, and how he weeds out “flashy-trashy” sheep.

Can you explain The Electric Sheep to us?
There's a lot of different pieces to it, but pretty much the way it works is it's a screensaver so anyone can download and install it. When it comes on, all the computers with the screensaver installed communicate with each other to form a super computer, and they all work together to create the images. They use the internet to share the resulting images which show up on everybody's screen. So, when you're watching Electric Sheep, what you see was actually made by everybody.

Is there an element of human interaction in this process?
It's totally automatic; you don't have to do anything if you don't want to. You can just sit back, watch and enjoy the show. But if you feel inspired and if you know what you can do, then you can interact with it and influence it. We use the up and down arrow keys to implement the Roman justice system. If you don't like the image, it's just deleted—it dies, it disappears. If you do like it, then that's communicated to the server, where it's more or less counting the votes from everybody. So there's a popularity contest and the "sheep" that get the most votes "mate" with each other, they reproduce, they have "children" with a genetic algorithm, and there's a family resemblance between them.

What constitutes a "sheep"?
A sheep is one coherent image on the screen. So, during the screensaver they last about 10 seconds, and as you watch it, it'll change shape and become something completely different. Each thing is one sheep. They're kind of like virtual creatures or life-forms. They're conceived, born, live and die on the internet, in virtual reality. Their design comes from thousands of numbers, they have essentially a DNA code that controls their shape and motion and color. They're called Electric Sheep because of that old idea that when you go to sleep, you count sheep in order to sleep. When your computer goes to sleep is when the screensaver comes on, so these things are electric sheep because they're the computer's dream, not just your computer, but THE computer, the internet, the worldwide electronic mind.

The "flame" style is everywhere these days, thanks in large part to Photoshop and After Effects, but largely to the fact that you initially released it as open source code. Why did you decide to do that?
Open Source, or free software, was already an important part of my philosophy and an important part of how I worked, so when I came up with this algorithm, there wasn't even a second thought for me. Of course I'm happy when someone says, "Your art is pretty, I like this picture," but I'm even happier when they come to me and say, “look at my picture that I made with your software,” because then I know they've really engaged with it.

There's a lot of debate right now around the topic of open source and whether it makes sense for artists to release their code for free. Do you see any cons to this way of working?
I think we as a society should support free information to a much greater extent than we do. My artwork is the manifestation of this philosophy, or at least it's trying to bring that philosophy to the art world, which is actually a place that is extremely conflicted on that front because it is based on exclusivity and limited-edition, and is totally opposed to infinite copying or sharing. It's based on the idea of the artist, the creator who goes into his cave and meditates and then has this brilliant idea. When in reality every day you have all kinds of influence—you talk to many people, you see many things, you read many things—and then you go home and you create. Everything in this world is just processing all this cultural input. So, in a way, the Electric Sheep being a collective project is challenging that assumption. I think in the future there's going to be a lot more stuff like that.

Is there something inherent in the internet or maybe even computers themselves that fuels desire to work collaboratively, to have participation and openness? What came first—this collaborative ethos or the technology?
I think the basic urge predates the internet, although that was like pouring gasoline on a fire, but the thing about computers that triggers it is editability. Because it's electronic you can just take somebody's story, edit it, change a word and save it, and then what you have is just as good as the original, but it's your changed version. Whereas previously, with traditional media, you had to type the whole damn thing again, or repaint the painting in order to make your fix, or in other words, recreate the original in order to make your change. With electronic media, it's essentially instant and your work is proportional to your change, not the whole piece. I think that the perfect copy and the editability that computers enable is what really made that change.

In recent years, you've started creating limited edition videos of the Electric Sheep, as well as prints and other items. Why did you decide to do that?
One of the things with the screensaver is that it's popular, and that's sort of a double-edged sword because it's popular like pop music and because it's based on voting, it appeals to the lowest common denominator. And so what you often get is what I call the "Las Vegas Effect"—essentially sheep that have really bright colors and fast motion — the sort of flashy-trashy sheep — get a lot of votes. That's not necessarily what I think is beautiful, but the screensaver is full of that stuff. What I did was go through the thousands of things made by the screensaver and pick out just a few that satisfy my aesthetic and then send them back out to the network to be done in high fidelity, high resolution. Then I just edit them, assemble, polish them, and turn them into a finished piece of art that's not transmitted over the internet to everybody, it's limited edition and collectible and can be sold. That produces the revenue which then allows us to run the servers and pay the bills.

You refer to the sheep as living and mating and dying, as if they are actual organisms that you've created. Is there an element of you playing God here?
That's right. I've created a universe and the rules for this universe and then inside it sort of has a population that lives there. So, I guess there's an obvious appeal to ego there, which is fine, but really it comes from an impulse of, how can I get the computer to do something unexpected? And I think that's really the essence of life—unpredictability, and I don't just mean that in the sense of complete randomness, you can roll dice and of course that's very unpredictable, but I'm talking about a difference that makes a difference, that has meaning. And life embodies that ability. So my mission is to create life.

Would you say that's your artistic mission?
My artistic mission is to create life in virtual reality. It's not clear how successful one can be. The answer is up for debate in current society. Can computers think? Can a computer be creative? Are the robots from science fiction in our future, or will it be something that looks different but is in principal the same? Or is humanity the only possible vehicle for what really amounts to a soul? It comes down to a religious question. Some people believe that only people have souls, some people believe that spirituality exists everywhere in the universe, some people believe that all material matter follows the rules of physics, and if you can figure out what physics is, a computer can follow the rules and therefore you can simulate life in a computer. So it really becomes a profound question that we are, as a society, really just starting to struggle with.

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