On Bugs, Bytes and Books

Recently, some friends offered a gift to my children. A male rhinoceros beetle. In Japan, these bulgy-looking, tusked beasts are often the favorite pets of young kids during the summer months and can be readily caught in the wild, if one knows their habits and habitats. In fact, department stores everywhere sell the little monsters and all the accouterments to keep them. As a person who generally looks unfavorably on insects, especially those larger than a fingernail, this was a trying moment.

Still, it is part of Japanese culture and my kids would certainly enjoy keeping him. They’d most certainly learn something of maintaining and nurturing a life, including a lesson or two about ecology. I assented to “Rhino-kun”‘s move-in, and so we have a giant bug in our house…willingly…more or less.

It’s been my desire and intention to start an aquarium with my kids, and I may yet do so before too long. My distaste for insects doesn’t extend to aquatic life, and so it seemed a logical way to do my enjoyable little experiment with my kids. The practice of keeping living things of one kind or another has a long history, as humans seem to be both captivated by crawling things they don’t quite understand, and probably somewhat intoxicated with the idea that we have the power to keep and observe almost anything we want. The Latin term for such a venture is vivarium, consisting of the roots for living things and enclosure. The idea is to simulate the living environment of some kind of life form in order to observe it both as scientific curiosity and art.

“Rhino-kun” technically lives in an insectarium, while fish obviously live in an aquarium. Plant life kept in such an enclosure are often called terrariums (or, I suppose more properly, terraria). An ant farm is formally called a formicarium. There are a multitude of other sophisticated environments of this type that include multiple environments, both open and closed. In any such environment, the key is to create and maintain an environmental equilibrium of temperature, humidity, biochemistry, and physical infrastructure that allows the occupant to not only survive, but thrive. If Rhino-kun is going to make it and live relatively comfortably, we have to make sure to equip his enclosure with the right kind of soil, wood, food, humidity, temperature, and food to make his stay with us as pleasant as imprisonment can be, I suppose. We need to periodically clean up after him so he’s not living in his own filth and keep the holes at the top of his box clear of any obstruction so oxygen can circulate freely. We have to know when to change out his food and when to re-hydrate the soil. If we let the system disintegrate into a state of imbalance, Rhino-kun will go from unhappy to dead in no time flat. Fortunately, as a first time bug keeper, rhinoceros beetles are said to be among the easiest pets to keep. Their needs are fairly straight forward and simple.

Slightly less well known to the general public, but possibly much more relevant, is the use of the term vivarium at Apple Computers in the late-1980s. The Vivarium Project, as described by participant Larry Yeager…

…is a long-range research program with the goal of improving the use of computers. By researching and building the many tools necessary to implement a functioning computer vivarium, an ecology-in-the-computer, we hope to shed light on many aspects of both the computer’s user interface and the underlying computational metaphor. We are exploring new possibilities in computer graphics, user interfaces, operating systems, programming languages, and artificial intelligence. By working closely with young children, and learning from their intuitive responses to our system’s interface and behavior, we hope to evolve a system whose simplicity and ease of use will enable more people to tailor their computer’s behavior to meet their own needs and desires. We would like untrained elementary school children and octogenarians to be able to make specific demands of their computer systems on a par with what today requires a well trained computer programmer to implement.

He goes on to say of the project…

Today we use the animal in a biological ecology as a metaphor for an agent in an information ecology. That is, we hope that our research will lead us to useful ways of designing and deploying “agents” – little (or not so little) software tools that will effect our wishes in the computer, from answering the phone and setting up our calendar like a personal secretary to culling articles of interest from all the world’s news sources and preparing our own personal “newspaper” to browsing the world’s databases in search of information relating to a personal enquiry, be it technical, literary, or completely fanciful. (Note the recurring “personal” nature of the demands we would make on our agents; this is consistent with Alan’s view of the progress of computer interfaces from “institutional” to “personal” to “intimate”… imbuing a sufficient number of uniquely personal characteristics to our machines will push them over the categorical edge into the domain of the intimate.)

The “Alan” referred to in the above quote is Alan Kay, who is a multi-talented wonder of an individual, who is largely responsible for the way your using your computer at the moment. I had the pleasure of attending one of his presentations at the 56th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Symposium at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in 2009. The Vivarium Project, under his direction, was piloted at a Los Angeles Open School, built on the ideas of Piaget and Jerome Bruner. The aim was to engage elementary school students in the business of thinking about thinking. They created simulations of living creatures using computers and programmed them to respond to their environments in ways that allowed them to survive. The interaction of user and computer, and the ability of both parties to adapt to the requirements of the interaction, builds steps towards a computer mediated experience that sees computer complimenting human in ways important to the human, and also sees the human complimenting the computer by giving the technology input that favors learning.

Long before computers, and long before Alan Kay was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, a Vivarium was established at Squillace, Italy in the monastery of Roman writer and statesman Cassiodorus. Historical accounts of Cassiodorus contain typically murky information about the exact movements and accomplishments of the man, but a general sketch of his life and work can be agreed upon. Cassiodorus served Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths, an Eastern Germanic tribe, in his uneasy dominion over the Byzantine Empire of the mid-6th century. Cassiodorus was trained in the Greek arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium and was foremost a rhetorician. His belief was that bringing the secular systems of these curricula to the service of Christian spiritual education, as a method to enrich and advance faith, served the spiritual life of the practitioner to the fullest.

Cassiodorus had hoped to establish schools in Rome to undertake this mission, and had indeed begun a project to transcribe texts of Greek and Latin origin to do so, but was forced to abandon his work when the Western Empire fell into turmoil. After turning his attention to spiritual service in Constantinople over a twenty year period, Cassiodorus returned to his native Squillace and brought with him several educated and gifted men. Together they expanded the monastic endeavors of the Squillace homestead by building an impressive library, scriptorium, and monastic retreat of sorts. They named this place Vivarium, after the fish ponds that marked the civilized environment of the grounds, or so it has been said.

It has been speculated that unlike the Benedictine monasteries of the time, or others with similarly rigid guidelines, Cassiodorus’ Vivarium was a relatively liberal environment, where he wrote his famous Institutiones as both a handbook for secular education in the service of Christian ideals and a curriculum mirroring the classical Trivium and Quadrivium education. Key to this undertaking was the establishment of a library at Squillace, hence the scriptorium and its self-feeding oil lamps, sun dial, and water clock. Cassiodorus, built much more than a vivarium of pond fish. He built an intellectual, cultural, and spiritual environment that was intended to create equilibrium in the secular world for Christians, and by employing the technological knowledge of the secular world, including its primary means of shared communication, the manuscript, he also created equilibrium for the Christians in his company by employing the secular. He may, in fact, have only built this environment for himself in retirement, and perhaps a few cloistered compatriots, but the books and facilities of the monastery were equally available to the most educated and well-established members of the community and the least-established laborers and residents without social position. The ecological metaphor was in practice, and not only in name.

Looking at our world, and our care and upkeep of both natural and cultural/intellectual environments (to say nothing of the spiritual), embracing the vivarium metaphor and its ecological imperative seems an important evolutionary step. It works for Rhino-kun, has certainly served us well thanks to Alan Kay and company, and while Cassiodorus’ own sanctuary didn’t stand the rigors of history, the story of his name and his work offer a hint at the enduring quality of his project.

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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