Improvising Out of Algorithmic Isolation

Michael Garfield
12 min readMar 25, 2021
“Drawing Hands” by M.C. Escher.

These miraculous machines!
Do we shape them
Or do they shape us?
Or reshape us from our decent, far designs?

But we are learning.
We are learning to build for the future
From the ground up.

Robert Flaherty, 1948

This was written for a forthcoming essay collection by Bennington College, but will be so heavily rewritten that my editor has granted me permission to publish what I have as-is. (Seems appropriate given the theme of iterative open-ended evolution...I welcome your feedback.)

Take 1

Evolution is improvisation. Innovation is the same appropriation of existing parts and recognition of affordances. Design is on a different timescale than biology (so far) but otherwise obeys the same dynamics. Algorithms, then, are acting inferences of the world, encoded expectations based on histories of interaction. None are final or complete. Externalities are unavoidable. This is a blessing and a curse: we cannot be reduced to n-dimensional descriptions, always offering surprise; but we can’t comprehend even the simplest thing in its entirety. This always-more-ness is an invitation for an insurrection, gives an opportunity to slip between the cracks of insufficient models. The gaps that trouble justice, the lacunae opened in the interstices in between known knowns, is where the…



Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness! Biologist turned philosopher, host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast, ex @sfiscience ex @longnow.