Techology Imitates Art: Code, Music, Genotype, and Phenotype

Technology imitates art. There are many ways to interpret this statement. One way has fascinating implications for music in its present form on the web. To explain this, we need to clarify the work of 20th century mathematician Nils Barricelli.

In his own words, he wanted to create “a class of numbers which are able to reproduce and to undergo hereditary changes.” He did just this, crafting a digital universe on a computer for them to exist and evolve. But there was prominent frustration. “Something is missing”, Barricelli insists, “if one wants to explain the formation of organs and faculties as complex as those of living organisms. No matter how many mutations we make, the numbers will always remain numbers. They will never become living organisms!”

In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson emphasizes that this setback came from the lack of clarity between the numbers’ genotype (“an organism’s coded genetic sequence”) and phenotype (“the physical expression of that sequence”). An organism becomes an organism because its genotype manifests into a phenotype. Working at the phenotype level, evolution have more meaningful results.

This proved to be Barricelli’s solution: “We must give the genes some material they may organize and may eventually use, preferably of a kind which has importance for their existence.” Code must have something to do and become. Sure enough, Barricelli found programs that played games to be a particular phenotype that his numeric organisms latched onto.

This places a considerable amount of power into the genotype, the code. A physical manifestation cannot exist without the corresponding code. The inverse is just as crucial. Without the phenotype we are stuck with Barricelli’s problem: code just hanging out as numbers.

So, when we say that technology imitates art, it can mean two things. One, technology needs to imitate art in order to exist, and two, art needs technology to imitate it in order to exist. Genotype and phenotype need each other. These numeric organisms, then, will become music as a fulfillment of their function. In order to exist on the web, music needs to be made of code. Symbiosis is the only way each can exist in the present and dominant digital environment.

Music and code need each other.

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