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All the World's a Brain

In the new "Web of Life" exhibit, blood vessels flow into traffic arteries, surfers hang ten on brainwaves, humans shake hands with computers, and our world is transformed by the very networks that compose it.


What's the gray matter?

Try if you want, but you cannot escape; the network is you, and you are the network.

Your every thought feeds it, and its appetite spurs your imagination. Reality is as finite as your individual imagination and as infinite as humanity’s collective imagination. Everything is interconnected. Individual hope is a fanciful indulgence, a trifle, but go for it.


If this all sounds a bit too much like the movie ‘The Matrix’, keep reading. This is our society, not a film. This is today, not the future.

These are some of the ideas swimming in the heads of pessimists and technophobes touring the new "Web of Life" tech-art exhibit in Karlsruhe, Germany – or perusing it online at www.web-of-life.de.

But for optimists and technophiles, the exhibit is a masterwork, a positive futuristic vision in which the world’s fast-developing interconnectivity makes for symbiotic relationships between humans and machines, leading to "a new evolutionary era".

Whoa, again.

Neither mere art nor mere technology, the "Web of Life" is eight men’s collective attempt to describe, with visual effects and viewer participation, what that once lifeless word – "networks" – might mean for our future.

A beating heart, plugged into the wall

The exhibition’s heart is an installation based at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, where visitors stand before a large screen, wearing Polaroid "stereo glasses". They watch a stream of images spontaneously, algorithmically generated by a computer. Lines, branches and backgrounds flow by, weaving into new forms and patterns, as if organically.


A visitor's hand on the Web of Life's touchpad

The visual experience does, in fact, become organic when visitors place their hands on a touchpad. It reads the lines in their palms and integrates the data into the display.

Meanwhile, identical mobile installations will be set up at exhibition halls elsewhere in the world, fully connected.

Post-modern smoke and mirrors

The point of all this, says Michael Gleich, the Munich-based science writer and journalist who launched the project, is to link disciplines of art and science and, well, see what happens.

The creators’ conclusions, and the experience of seeking them, will be chronicled in a book, "The New Web of Life: the Art of Connected Living".

It could be chaos. At any rate (of mechanical calculation and human participation) it’s not likely to be orderly, and what "organic" order there is will actually be imposed upon the "Web of Life" by pre-programmed computers, running calculation after calculation.

It is an extraordinary visual experience, but only a virtual foretaste of what it promises to technophile optimists: a world where everything is connected to everything, and the whole universe functions like a brain, with consciousness.

It's enough to disgust or horrify some, yet it's ecstasy for others.

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