A Journal of Second Order Cybernetics & Cyber-Semiotics

Vol. 2 no. 2 1993

Massimo Negrotti and Lars Qvortrup:
Introduction to the Theme: the Theory af the Artificial

What is "artificial intelligence"or "virtual reality"? What is a computer as a system of software. What is a piece of music? Are they machines, produced by man, aimed at manipulating the environment? Obviously, they are not. Still, however, they are artificial objects, or they are "artificialisms" which is a strange term but avoids the materialism implied by the word "object".

In this century one of the most influentive books about the artificial is H.A.Simon's book The Sciences of the Artificial. Simon's premises assume the artificial as products of man's constructing activity and starting from that point his theory produces an illuminating series of findings. However, these premises can also be studied in themselves and, in this way, the question becomes: is it plausible to think that, inside the concept of 'technological object', we could find different realities in the same way that we found different subatomic elements inside the atom?

This is our aim within this thematic section: to analyze artificialisms, i.e. to analyze the artificial in se and not just as an adjective of some (more important) noun. Three major topics can be identified:

First, a concept cannot be defined through its correlation with something "out there", a material object; it must be defined through its relations to other concepts. For example, the concept of "the artificial" implies the existence of something non-artificial, i.e. concepts of "the natural" and of "the social". Even more tricky, however, a new concept gives a new - or a modified - meaning to old concepts. An analysis of "the natural", "the social" and "the artificial" is provided in Lars Qvortrup's article.

Second, traditionally concepts like "artificial intelligence" are used as subsets of the concept "technology". However, in our opinion one must differentiate between conventional machines and artificial devices. If we look at the concept of technological objects with a sort of new conceptual microscope, we can easily distinguish between two quite different classes of motivations for generating such objects: one is the desire to produce machines which, adapting themselves to nature, are useful for human needs; another is the desire to reproduce something existing, usually some natural system, both accepting a challenge interesting in itself or, again, for human needs.

The 'reality' of an artificial device is very different from the reality of a conventional machine. In fact, we build up the artificial to surrogate, to replace, to mimic or to copy (the differences among these verbs should be deeply studied too) something existing outside it. Therefore, its reality is always swinging between its being a machine and its natural reference.

Since the artificial cannot reach the stage of 'replication' of the natural exemplar, what kind of reality does it establish ? Is it possible, between natural objects and conventional machines, to introduce something like 'naturoids' ? In any case the diversity of the artificial from the pure 'invented' machine seems to be clear. Thus, a differentiation within the concept "technology" must be provided. This is the aim of both Lars Qvortrup's and Massimo Negrotti's article. However, where Qvortrup uses the phrase "second order technology", Negrotti uses the phrase "technology of the artificial".

Third, artificial devices are built in order to "mimic" something outside the device, be it something in the natural, the psychic or the socal world. But what does it mean to "mimic"? This issue is discussed in Massimo Negrotti's article. It is plausible to think that the concept of artificial concretely includes two poles (nature and technology) and generates new realities and not only metaphores. A children's game, a theatral piece, a painting or a symphony are good examples of artificial realities in the sense that they try to reproduce situations, feelings or ideas by means of 'technologies' like social rules, language rules, colour rules or acoustic rules. What kind of objects do they set up ? Surely they generate artificial realities, but not in the sense of something false: rather they establish new levels of reality (or recombine other levels of reality in a new one) strictly depending, as in any other case of the artificial, on two factors: the 'selections' of the author and the technological tools adopted to reproduce them.

In a sense, man is much more involved in doing the artificial than in doing something natural and this is, perhaps, his very peculiarity as compared to lower living systems, though not to all of them. Since to reproduce is, coeteris paribus, more easy than to produce ex novo, humans spend a lot of time reproducing the world, both the external and the internal one, thanks to the various technologies invented during the centuries.

The more an artificial object is based on new or renewed technologies (as it happens in the artistic revolutions) the more it includes an 'added value' of complexity. For instance, while emotions are daily communicated among human beings, they become something different when they are reproduced by a learned and creative composer.

For the same reason, the new technologies tend to be misunderstood, or to be perceived as astonishingly 'unreal', when they introduce new models of thinking, or of ways of acting, or of looking at either the natural or established cultural realities.

At every stage of social development a cultural shift is needed in order to make it understandable that there isn't just one reality (or, better to say, the realities we are confident about). The reality of the artificial is the next one we have to accept, since it promises to be very helpful also for understanding human nature.


  1. Our thanks go to Hugh Gash who has patiently corrected our Danish/Italian English in this introduction and in the following two articles - but not in this sentence, of course.


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