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what's the matter? automata!

“we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous information system”
– Donna Haraway

For the rest of this class, we’re going to be thinking about what it means to simulate: specifically, what it might mean to simulate on the web. In particular, we will be thinking about how different kinds of simulations can tell different stories, and how we can make complexity and chaos out of very simple code.

Final Assignment

In this class so far we’ve looked at the internet from the perspectives of data, representation and communication.

We know that the web is full of countless streams of information, far too vast to represent in one way or one place. We’ve also started to look at representing that information in different ways, to try and make sense of it. Simulation in this sense is a way of taking complex information and exploring the outcomes of different actions based upon it.

Right now, the whole world is watching simulation models: models of predicted spread, of mortality rates, of the effects of different kinds of social isolation. These models are all attempts at understanding an impossibly complex system: how Coronavirus spreads through a population, and what effects it has. Simulation models are wildly influential: in the case of the UK, the fate of an entire country was changed by the release of a single research paper, a model that analysed the government’s strategy and calculated a death toll of hundreds of thousands.

Simulations tell us things about our world that, without them, would be far too complex to percieve. We aren’t used to thinking in terms of global systems, and simulations give us a way to achieve that.

Your final project is to make a simulated environment that exists on the web

‘simulation’ in this case is a term we’ll explore further over the next few classes, but it refers to a model of how a particular set of variables affects a set of outcomes. As we’ll see in this class, simulations don’t have to be complicated to be interesting and effective!

‘environment’ in this case means an immersive, visual and interactive exploration of your system, e.g. not just a graph! You can be very creative with this: it does not mean you need to make a realistic environment. Instead, think about how you can use this medium to tell a story about your system.

The goals of this project are your own to set, and depend on what you think you might want to learn about. The next 3 classes will introduce different ideas about and philosophies of simulation and environments.

How this project will be structured

We will iterate on these projects together in stages, with each week having a deliverable component (ideas, concepts, designs, code) that will move your project forward. While for all the COVID reasons I’m happy to be flexible with deadlines, for your own sake I really advise that you stick to them as they will help to balance out your work. The deadline that is not flexible is the final crit.

NB: If you’re worried that this flexibility will prevent you from working to your full abilities, let me know and I will be more than happy send you mean emails if you don’t submit stuff on time :)


Guidance (for this and for life)

How this project will be assessed:

We will be having a final critique for this project! This will take place over Zoom. I’m still confirming people to come in, but you should assume there will be at least 2 external critics. One will be Owen Trueblood, an artist and researcher who works with simulation and robotics.

During this critique, you will:

Feedback you will get for this project will be based on 4 things:

lecture: games of life

This class is about a simulation technique called Agent-Based modelling (ABM). ABMs allow us to achieve complexity with very simple starting conditions!

conway’s game of life
  particle life


pattern formation
  reaction diffusion turing pattern conus textile   nervous system software

  leafcutter ants supercolonies termites slime moulds
  boids how-to

generative artworks
  sol lewitt Mass MOCA MIT student art lending program solving sol
  conditional design fungus
  anders hoff github

  Washington Post ABM NYTimes Interactive model Why It’s So Freaking Hard to Make A Good COVID-19 Model

make your own
  wolfram mathematica atlas of simple programs
  cellular automata in the browser

agent based modelling
  schelling segregation
  Humans of Simulated New York
  Language evolution simulation
  Ian Cheng’s Emissaries Project   Subreddit Simulator

ABMs in games
  Dwarf Fortress
  Party Fortress


Using Nicky Case’s Simulating to make cellular automata.

in-class assignment

In groups, use Nicky Case’s Simulating to make a cellular automaton model of some system that you relate to or experience.

  1. Check out an existing simulation model in your groups. Try changing the parameters over screenshare to get some different results. Document your results as you go with notes and screenshots.

  2. Add in a new variable: how does this change the system?

  3. Together, decide on a system to simulate, and build using the Blank Sim Canvas. At the end of the class, we will exchange simulations.


Come to class with a system that exists in your life, that you might like to explore in your final project. (you can change this in the future but it’s an important exercise). In addition come with one specific technology or coding skill that you would like to learn during the remainder of the class. This can be something we’ve touched on already that you like to consolidate, or something totally new. Your assignment this week is to write these things on your site, accompanying reading responses for the week.

Write a paragraph on your website about the system, addressing the following questions:

An example: the food that’s in my house is affected by:

What I want to eat today is short term, my income is medium term, climate change is long term. Some of these factors interact with one another: e.g. the amount of money I’m earning might affect the amount of time I have to go shopping, or if I buy local and in season, perhaps it has a (minor) affect on the climate.

(genuinely, myself and my flatmates are building a simulation of this right now…)


Ian Bogost The Rhetoric of Video Games
FiveThirtyEight Why It’s So Freaking Hard to Make A Good COVID-19 Model