Fiction, AL, and the Memeing of Life

Fiction could be understand as a form of artificial life. Perhaps it is the greatest globally networked AL experiment in history. Are fictional characters alive? Are they real? Starting point for a reality check of claims in the field of AL

Matthew Taylor

In an article about virtual reality Ivars Peterson observed that the idea behind such computer-mediated environments is nothing new to readers of good fiction: "Successful authors use words to depict such vivid, compelling characters and settings that it's easy to lose oneself in these purely imagined worlds" (1992, p. 8). An analogy even more apt than virtual reality would be artificial life (alife or AL), since readers of fiction are not entering a preexisting interactive environment but generating it nearly from scratch. From a mere string of words (albeit words strung together with considerable craftsmanship) readers are able to create an intensely engaging dynamic simulation in their mind.

I propose that fiction is a form of artificial life, perhaps the greatest globally networked AL experiment in human history. This assertion is not particularly remarkable or original, as it is based on self-evident properties of fiction and on well known ideas that have been advanced by Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter and others.

What may be less obvious are some of the implications that can be drawn from the comparison. Fiction presents a peculiar but I think substantial challenge to the "strong claim" in AL - that many of its digital entities are in some real sense alive. The same claim could be made for fictional characters, but is generally (and I think sensibly) not. Thus fiction might illuminate some of the ontological, epistemological, and by loose extension even ethical questions that AL has raised: What is alive? What is real? How do we know it? How can we value human life when life is defined technologically?

Though what I propose is a "common sense" view, I hope it is not construed as an "anti-AL" argument, or a call to dig in our heels against unsettling philosophical concepts from that field. I am in fact an ardent lay fan of AL research, astounded by its achievements. Yet I think a reality check (or more fittingly, an "unreality" check) is in order, if only to begin sorting out some of the provocative questions that AL has tossed our way.