Normative Echoes is an installation I developed on top of the functionality provided by Virtual Raft. It’s an exploration of a lot of the ideas that I pursued early in my graduate career, especially the application of sociological theory to multiagent systems. Communities of animated autonomous agents communicate with one another, while those communications are sonified so as to be comprehensible by human participants. As the agents interact with one another, patterns of communicative behavior emerge as norms within these communities. When one agent is transferred to another community, it takes with it all the norms and institutions it knows and attempts to use those to communicate in the new community. There is also a level of user interaction, in that participants may communicate with the agents via a microphone. The words and phrases uttered by the participant are learned and repeated by the agents, which then incorporate those utterances into their communications.
This installation explores a number of ideas. One of them is in the possibility for multiple interpretations to allow for user (re-)design. In computational systems, it is often the case that the meaning of a certain portion of the system is inherent to the system itself. That is, meaning is posited by the designers and implementers of the system. However, this ignores the fact that any design will be appropriated by its users. For example, the phone book on a teenager’s cell phone has just as much functional utility as it does social capital in its ability to show to whom the individual is connected. Such uses were neither intended nor predicted for such a device. How can we as designers support and encourage this implicit redesign to allow for the creation of more useful and more meaningful artifacts? I argue that one was is to remove some of the inherent meaning from computational devices. In Normative Echoes, the utterances spoken by the agents do not, for them, carry any inherent meaning; any comes from the actions and interpretations of participants. In this way, participants implicitly take part in the design of the system and define for themselves its meaning.