Artificiality and Nature under a Microscope
:from ‘Arbitrary Radius Circle’

Yi Jinkyung 

Suyuneomo, Seoul National University of Science and Technology
Translation: Minji Chun

Humans and nature, society and nature, culture and nature, artifacts and natural objects, machines and life. It is not just Rousseau romanticists who praise the wild nature that confront the man-made world with the naturally given world. This dichotomous way of thinking still pervades everywhere: domination and conquest of nature, animal nature and rational human beings, the development of rational perception of nature, the comparison between machines that repeat only predetermined things according to given commands and life that makes some creative saltus. The idea of “nature itself remained intact (無爲自然),” leaving the artificial thing and living in nature, can also be read as closer to Western philosophy rather than Lao Tzu’s. Isn’t there anything like living in nature that’s “yu-wei (有爲)”? So is the dichotomy of needles and computers, farming and factories, log houses and concrete buildings. How does the needle correlate with untouched nature? The idea that agriculture protects the natural ecosystem unlike industries is also groundless. Farming, whether done by hand or because it is organic, is the process of applying artificial transformation to the ecosystem to grow only the crops you want and kill the rest. Isn’t weeding a kind of killing process that removes everything except the crops I want to grow, whether it’s by herbicide or a sickle? A log house is to cut down intact trees to make pillars and walls of the house for me to lean on. Among them, where is the ecologicalism of respect for nature and life that humans have not reached?

What is more problematic in the argument that praises the importance of life is that contempt and contempt for the lifeless are natural. Just as the concept of “human dignity” in the past easily pushed non-human things into the trash can of “nothing.” In this respect, life ideology or biocentrism can be seen as an extended thought from humanism. When talking about the importance of life in this thought, lifeless objects, objects made of products, and machines with good power only to do repetitious works are always otherized as a background that highlights precious things. Maybe that’s why, there’s a fuss as if something great happened when the Other-machine feels like it’s doing something. While persistently revealing what artificial intelligence cannot do when it exceeds human abilities in quizzes and Go, on the other hand, marveling at their ability to overtake humans and worrying whether machines dominate us now is exactly one side of otherizing machines.

As Bruno Latour points out, Thomas Hobbes separated and confronted the “civil society” and “state of nature” created by humans, and Robert Boyle, who made the vacuum pump laboratory a spectacle, also separated nature captured in a purified form from the concept of society. However, humans belonging to society are part of nature, and nature in the laboratory is artificially created for specific social purposes and specific objects. Therefore, there is no nature outside of society or culture, and there is no society or culture that contrasts with nature. Only a hybrid that is mixed and combined between the two exists.

Boyle or the contemporary scientist’s laboratory has a boundary that is distinct from the outside, the as-it-is world, but what happens inside is directly connected by repeated natural phenomena outside. Just as Boyle’s vacuum pump is connected to the air outside the laboratory, the quantum laboratory of a giant accelerator is connected to the entire universe along the lines drawn by very small particles. The greater the strength of the connection, the greater the influence of the laboratory, so the boundary of the laboratory has various sizes that cannot be said to be limited to the physical walls surrounding it. Yi Sang would have found a circle with an “arbitrary radius” here. Experimental tools such as microscopes allow us to look into nature that we do not know, but it should be remembered that they are only shown through optical theory and lens processing technology that we know. We’re outside the lab but inside the lab at the same time, and those inside the lab are in that little room and also in the outside world. The straight-line connecting nature, the lab, the inside and outside of a circle demolishes the circle, and it is a passage for a “strange reversible reaction” that goes from inside to outside, and from outside to inside. What A Strange Reversible Reaction, which is the title of Yi Sang’s poem, again quotes and reminds the audience of this: “Microscope/under it, artificiality was also developed just like nature." What is under the microscope lens is no different in that it is a natural object and an artifact. In this way, this artwork aims to draw a straight line that “kills” the line that separates nature and culture, nature and society, machines and humans. However, if you only imagine approaching nature as it is through a straight line connecting the inside and outside of the circle, you have not yet escaped the illusion of “purified” pure nature that is not contaminated by external conditions or other obstacles. You have forgotten that nature is as developed as artificial as it is. Accordingly, the Skinner’s Box, which the artist is persistently questioning, provides a good reference point. Think of a mouse or monkey in a small box, or an animal trapped in a laboratory or zoo cage. Through the animals trapped in the small circle, behaviorists including Skinner believed that they could scientifically grasp the psychological nature of humans outside the circle.

However, as animal behaviorists have pointed out, the experimental animals trapped in the room are nothing more than artifacts named animals that mechanically respond to the binary stimulus of reward and punishment. It was repeatedly discovered that their behavior in the laboratory was a type of behavior rarely performed in the open space outside. In an experiment to observe whether elephants or gibbons can use sticks to pick high-hanging bananas and eat them, they have become animals not knowing how to use tools. However, this was actually due to the scientists’ ignorance that they did not know that elephants’ noses were sensory organs and tentacles. Also, for gibbons that live while hanging from the tree, the ground was not their Umwelt(Uexküll), which means their space of life. When a monkey who ate a cucumber as a reward for learning is seen giving a banana to the monkey in the next room for the same behavior, the act of throwing the cucumber back to the person who gave it also shows that they became beyond the simple stimulus-action made based on the principle of profit.

Nevertheless, experiments in these rooms, which ideally embody the laboratory model, have long been regarded as a beacon of understanding human psychology thanks to its scientific form. In that way, we were dragged into the laboratory and were in a room with laboratory animals. So the artist’s question about Skinner’s box could be translated as this: “If there's a human being sitting in the box, what would they think about the stimulus of reward and punishment given to them, and the attempt to know their nature with that stimulus?” This question, on the contrary, would be to get the mouse out of the box. The straightforward scene of transforming a mouse into a human would be out of concern that people could miss this question.

In fact, these questions are easily asked by anyone who has an antipathy to the mechanistic notion of animals. However, through Yi Sang’s microscope, where nature and humans, and nature and machines, are developed in the same way, the question the artist is trying to throw toward a circle of arbitrary radius can be translated as follows: “If a human sits inside an artificial intelligence experiment box, what would they think of the rewards and punishments imposed on them, or the attempts to train and construct them in that way?”

If the words reward and punishment for machines sound odd, read a simple article on “reinforcement learning” of artificial intelligence. In the field of machine learning, a method of directly inputting human knowledge or experiences and allowing artificial intelligence to learn them is still widely implemented instead of programmed rewards and punishments. However, as the artist notes, artificial intelligence is not much different from the animal in the Skinner’s box in that it is trapped in a box that experiments based on data entered by humans and repeats experiment until humans respond appropriately. If artificial intelligence is being developed with the goal of working just like human intelligence, it is a reminder that the question, which should have been asked to artificial intelligence, is not being asked, as it was to animals in Skinner’s box. Of course, it should not be forgotten that it is not a question just for a prisoner trapped in a box, but for us connected to the outside of the box. The question Franz Kafka asked while writing A Report to an Academy was similar. The monkey trapped in the Hagenbeck Zoo finds its way out in the cage that is “too low to stand up and too narrow to flop down.” He said: “I used to have so many exits, but now I don't have any.” Still, he had to find a way out. Because he “couldn't live without it.” However, he said that he did not want freedom to deceive humans as much as it was noble, and that he “wanted only one exit, even if the exit was an illusion.” What he chose was not like a clumsy escape, but “sneaking away.” It is copying human actions as they are told. Then he shakes hands, smokes, drinks, and eventually speaks. “If you have to learn, you can learn. If you want an exit, you learn.” It is difficult to avoid boredom, anger, frustration and fear, and the emptiness that is easily represented by being trapped. The monkey Rotpeter’s will, not to show the “tuned animal delirium” seen in the chimpanzee’s eyes next to him, may be because it passed through his body. But in order to live, wouldn’t what we humans, who live in small boxes everywhere, need is the exit of Rotpeter, which may be (im)possible, to forget the boredom, anger, frustration, fear, and emptiness? Even if it’s an illusion.