Anthropomorphism, Mapping and Blue Planet II

In a previous post I complimented the series “The Hunt” on the low anthropomorphism employed in relating the narrative of the activities observed in the programme. I wrote too soon – in later episodes it became clear that the technique was hard to avoid. In a more recent series – “Blue Planet II” – the technique was used very clearly to communicate an understanding of what was being presented.

In the Episode of Blue Planet II on Coral Reefs for example, David Attenborough likened the reef to a city, with dark alleyways, penthouse suites, suburbs. As an amateur observer, as I watched visual recordings of creatures that appeared alien in their shape and behaviours, the narrative encouraged me to map what I was seeing into the familiar, drawing parallels between the anthropoid and the aquatic. Despite the impression that I got that the entities that I was observing have very different lives to my own I was being encouraged to interpret their behaviours and even body language and expressions as if they were human. The visual editing and cinematography encouraged this interpretation further.

The tendency to anthropomorphise was made even easier as I had seen the remarkably skillful simulations of coral reefs and fish that have been created by Pixar in “Finding Nemo” and related animated movies. One can imagine that the actual fish observed might be characters in a drama.

Indeed I am pretty sure that we do that with everything. At base I think we see everything in the universe that we experience as if it were another kind of us. I have to say that there are some pretty weird versions of me in the universe but it kind of works to a degree. The root of this approach to interpreting our existence may be in the challenge facing an infant as they begin to differentiate between themselves and others as explored in the ideas of Winnicott. Wherever it comes from the effect is palpable. We can imagine the fear of the fish being hunted and the pleasure of the predators as they catch something. We can share the excitement of the chase, appreciate the camaraderie of the octopus and grouper or begin to try to comprehend the possibly aesthetic pleasure experienced by dolphins watching coral fall to the seabed.

This tendency to anthropomorphise is something that is very powerful and can be embraced, but also I think something that is worth making the effort to avoid at the same time. It is quite possible for us to perceive the “both and”, for example an actor can be seen not only as herself or as one of the characters she portrays but also as both at the same time. We can be simultaneously aware of both the reality and the fiction and the frisson of that ambiguity is exciting. We not only enjoy the story being told but also the fact that it can be told – that we can imagine and that we are imagining the same thing as others in the audience. The contrast between the distress at not understanding why others consider something a work of art when we do not grasp it and the pleasure of sharing the appreciation of the programmes that Attenborough has narrated down the years, the emotional bonds that are or are not formed by those experiences are important to us. To criticise the work of David Attenborough would I am sure cause wide opprobrium, yet to praise an as yet widely appreciated artist’s work would also be likely to attract disapproval.

My conjecture is that we are constantly testing our sense of reality. We like to be sure that what we think we are experiencing is what we are experiencing. If we have doubts, we feel uncomfortable and if we are sufficiently uncomfortable we are moved to do something about it. Like the behaviours of creatures observed in the literally amazing recordings made by the people involved in Blue Planet II, we are motivated and act accordingly. As we might have trouble making sense of raw footage, even if we had the time to watch it, it is edited and re-presented for us to summarise what the creators have worked out for us and the way it is shared is using a language of common experience. If the material had been edited and narrated for an audience of experts it would I am sure have led to quite a different set of programmes. It would be translated into a different map.

Anthromorphising things as exemplified in these documentary series can be seen in this way as a type of mapping behaviour.

*(we would be ‘mazed’)



Brain Map

Interactive 3D map of the human brain

When reading this article in the New York Times I came across another article that mentioned the map linked to above.

It was made using Pycortex.

I haven’t quite absorbed the potential uses I might make of this apparent confirmation of ideas that have been circulating for many years now in articles that I have read and patterns that seem to be emerging in my own mind regarding how we make sense of things, but it is great example of mapping.

Seeking Shelter

What are we doing all the time? My interest in how we orient (or orientate) ourselves is perhaps related to what I have just thought after beginning to re-read Norbeg Schultz’s “Genius Loci” and getting an insight into why we are motivated to orient ourselves anyway.

What if, whatever else we may be doing, we are continually seeking shelter? When we read an environment, real or imagined, what guides our interpretation of the space? Are we by any chance seeking dwelling places, categorising where may be safe and where we might be in danger. Identifying and ranking places of potential risk of violence, the weather or other unpleasant phenomena, as well  as places where we may get social contact, food, shelter, etc?

As I wanted to motivate my programmed agents in my artwork so that their behaviours could be read by humans, they were given generic behaviours like this. Embodied at base in Smallworld’s ‘to’ and ‘from’ tendencies, so I have been aware of this for a long time but have not articulated it in words. Now I shall do it, in words and pictures.

Both humans and my agents “map” their context. The Smallworld agents or “animals” choose to ignore some things and attend to others, they even form an hierarchy of categorised locations in their dynamic map. These could have been flagged up but my intention has been for us to read the rhythmic , spatial and compositional patterns without having a map to guide us, as unmapped phenomena, so we can engage in natural mapping behaviour to generate a map based upon an interpretation of their actions and, if we recognise such patterns, form an empathy or antipathy toward them, to relate to them in fact.

Whilst we are relating to their actions we may also engage proprioception and begin to imagine what an agent, or several agents might be feeling if they were to share our sensibilities. We might name these feelings: fear, hope, indecision, satisfaction, contentment, need, invigoration, etc..

Each composition can create different potential environments to orient ourselves in.

Could the unease felt when seeing some fractal forms mentioned by Michael Kaschalk in his talk at BFX Festival Relate to an unease at not being able to use our usual orienting skills to map the territory? Are we disoriented, to some extent sensing a boundary of madness, the state when our mapping system lets us down by misinterpreting our environment making dwelling in it difficult? Being unable to differentiate correctly we are thrown into whatever reaction we are inclined to have to the unknown, unusual, or uncanny. Is it indeed similar in some ways tho the “uncanny valley” effect in robotics and moving pictures?

How can we tell? How prove that this is happening? We cant’t.. We could set up scientific experiments to measure things and apply mathematics to generate a scientific “strong hypothesis” but we might as well ( rather than alternatively) trust our natural judgement through our personal mapping abilities.

We Are Maps

The other day, I was imagining the way our consciousness might appear if it is constructed as the result of the activity of our neurons and it seemed to me that the network of connections and their level of interactivity is rather like a multidimensional map of sorts. Then it struck me that if that is the case we may actually be seen as maps. Complex, dynamically, self-aware maps perhaps, but maps all the same. Mind maps begin to have a peculiar resonance and exploring their potential as ways of representing personality becomes an interesting proposition.

In the programs that I use to make my artwork the representation of the behaviours of the ‘entities’ that generate patterns through their interaction are designed using symbol state tables, which are actually very simple versions of these kinds of map and almost constitute programs in themselves. I will now be looking for others who have had the same idea to see where they have taken it.

Interface for behaviour design,1985
Interface for behaviour design,1985

what I mean by mapping

In the introduction to their book Mapping; Ways of Representing the World Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn refer to mapping as “… the mental interpretation of the world”. This concept of mapping would appear to be similar to the process described by Edward C Tolman, who in Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men argued that the responses of rats navigating mazes were based on cognitive maps, a cognitive map being a “… tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships …”.

mapping and my artwork

Since 1977 I have been producing graphic artwork by programming computers. Since 1985 I have been using an approach where the programs create images by generating and recording the behaviours of imaginary creatures. The artworks are, in a way, maps of the creatures’ behaviours. Some of this work can be seen on my Vimeo site.

When writing the programs I also am involved in a kind of mapping process. To design a program I have to build a mental map of what should happen when the programs are working. in a sense, I have to imagine how the creatures might map their environment. I also have to think about how to translate my idea for the program into programming language – this is another kind of mapping.

Thinking about how imaginary creatures might think ties in with my interest in how humans think.