Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

I have just started my second semester at Amsterdam University College with a course called “Information, Communication, Cognition”. Trying to link tracks in computer science, media studies and psychology, this course looks at cognitive systems: artificial intelligence and the human brain. It seems pretty interesting so far, and I will probably write more about it on this blog as it unfolds.

For the start, we watched an unusual documentary: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, a 1997 film by Errol Morris. It’s hard to describe this movie without asking: What do an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer have in common?

As it turns out, they share more than they might be aware of. All four of them deal with complex systems – and as different as a bear-shaped tree and a lion, a mole rat colony and an insect-like robot might be, interaction with them has shaped similar ideas in the protagonists of the movie.

Complex systems are not stable. They collaps, like a carefully shaped tree statue burdened by a winterly blizzard’s snow, and they can even turn against their human “master”, like a lion suddenly angered by a hidden irritation.

Often it seems as if such systems have a “will”, as if they where progressing in a determined direction. Yet in fact their behavior emerges from inherent qualities – their design, so to say – and their interaction with the environment (including others of their species).

Sensory capacity is thus extremely important. As in the lion which the tamer holds at distance with a chair – because the lion can only focus on one of its four legs and lets go as the chair is put down.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a great inspiration to think about the behavior of complex systems and our interaction with them. The individual stories of its four protagonists lead to great question – how do complex systems work? What is communication? At first, however, its message might be hard to find – I will definitely watch the movie again, because I’m sure I still missed quite some parts of it.

Finally, I also have to mention the film’s fine and quite unusual cinematography (by Robert Richardson, whose work has won him two Oscars for JFK and The Aviator). I loved how sometimes a scene would go on while a different interviewee started to speak, blurring the lines between their seemingly so distinct fields and often making me realize the connecting link between them. All in all, an inspiring and enjoyable movie.

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