Analysis of Electric Sheep

The final chapter of Laboratory Life by Latour and Woolgar, presents a framework for understanding the construction of scientific facts. I will use this framework to analyze the knowledge production in Electric Sheep. This knowledge concerns the location of aesthetically pleasing fractal flames in the space of all possible fractal flames. Each fractal flame is an image produced from a seed of 84 real numbers. Essentially, each one may be defined as a point in an 84-dimensional space.

Using the framework in Laboratory Life, I can describe the Electric Sheep project as moving from chance to necessity. In the beginning, there is no way for you to know where the interesting fractal flames may be hiding, so all locations are equally probable. If you were to choose one to look at, you would have to make a random guess, only informed by chance. But as you build up knowledge of where the nice fractal flames may live, certain places are more probable than others. Eventually certain positions in this space become necessary to look at, as the probability of it containing interesting fractal flames becomes very high. This movement, from equal probability and chance to unequal probability and necessity, is the essence of knowledge production.

Latour and Woolgar's book describes six elements which work together to create this movement. First off there is construction, which is the slow, evolutionary process of accumulating facts. These facts are created through an agonistic process where hypotheses and their scientists compete to show that they are the best one. Once these facts are accepted they are embodied in laboratory equipment or skills and then taken for granted - materialization. This influences the fact's credibility, which refers to the cost in rejecting an established fact because of the time and energy invested in it. It is also important to recognize the role of individual circumstances in the production of knowledge, as knowledge is not so much about finding the universal truth as it is an idiosyncratic approximation to it. Finally, noise is a description of the initial state where all possibilities are equally probable, which facts try to limit into necessities.

In Electric Sheep, construction is the creation of a family tree of the best fractal flame images, or 'sheep.' Each one represents the knowledge that interesting sheep are more likely to be found nearby in 84-dimensional fractal flame space. Sheep are voted on for this privilege, which is agonistic in that it is competitive. Materialization takes place when the popular ones are saved as part of the family tree, to be used as the basis for later variations. Participants can not communicate to convince each other to vote for one sheep or another, so credibility does not play a noticeable role. People may submit their own fractal flames as stock for new sheep, and the direction the family tree branches from it is highly dependent on individual circumstances. It is extremely unlikely to chance upon the same fractal flame more than once, and the space of possibilities is so large that any knowledge network can only map a small portion of it. The end result is that in one corner of this fractal flame possibility space, the noise has been decreased so that some spots may be known to hold pretty fractal flames.

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