Cross Talk
Artbyte (New York) 1, no. 6 (February-March 1999), pp. 16-17
Jon Ippolito

Should you feel guilty turning off the computer?

I recently dreamt I was on the subway. When my train stopped at Bergen Street, a toddler who had been in my car wandered out the door alone. I ran to the door and called out, "Does anyone know this boy's mother?" I really wanted to get home, but I felt obligated to go after him. Somehow in my semi-waking state I realized I was in a dream--and as the train door began to close, I wondered whether I still had a responsibility to step off and find the boy, given that it was only a dream.

I imagine that Tom Ray asks himself a similar question whenever he turns off his computer. A zoologist at the University of Oklahoma, Ray is best known as the creator of the Tierra project. Tierra is an experiment in artificial life that has been described as a wildlife sanctuary for computer viruses. To create this digital habitat, Ray wrote snippets of program code designed to copy themselves and then left them on his hard drive to reproduce. He also configured his operating system so that it would introduce occasional random mutations in the computer code of these algorithms. Thanks to this magic combination of self-replication, competition for disk space, and mutation, Ray's little viruses evolved into new "species" he never could have predicted. Their patterns of evolution--hosts giving rise to parasites, which in turn spur the evolution of immune hosts, for example--are strikingly similar to those of biological organisms, despite the fact that they are just ones and zeros on a hard disk. Ray himself claims that his creatures are alive--in a way that even artificial intelligence programs are not--by the very fact that they reproduce and evolve.

So I was particularly interested to read an interviewer ask Ray if he felt guilty turning off his machine. After all, every time Ray shuts down his hard drive or restarts his Tierra program, he erases all the itty-bitty creatures it took him so long to evolve--as though God spent a week creating the earth's denizens only to erase what He had done on the seventh day. Ray evaded this ethical dilemma with an astute observation: He didn't feel guilty, because he could always recreate that exact set of creatures just by resetting his Tierra program to the same initial conditions and letting the digital ecosystem evolve again. Indeed, Ray went on to explain that he had created the organisms only in the sense of creating the potential for them to exist; as long as that potential remained, the organisms would in some sense still be alive.

By what ethical precedents shall we judge Ray's defense of the charge that he might be murdering his artificial organisms just by quitting his program? The comparison that leaps first to mind, one provoked by Ray's insistence that his viruses are alive, is to actual biological animals. To be sure, the viruses Ray incubates are such primitive life forms that they make E. coli look like the pinnacle of evolution--and few people think twice about killing off a few million bacteria whenever they wash their hands. Nevertheless, even if Ray were in principle against harming bugs of whatever rank on the evolutionary scale, his conscience could rest assured that his ecosystem could be recreated exactly, while ecosystems of the biological world cannot. (Ray knows the irreversibility of biological destruction well; in his fieldwork outside of the computer lab, he is involved in establishing a real-life sanctuary to protect the Costa Rican rainforest.) Given this difference between the worlds of flesh and silicon, it is tempting to compare Ray's "mistreatment" of computer viruses with the mistreatment of other beings we meet on a computer screen, such as avatars in chat rooms and MOOs. The most notorious case of avatar abuse occurred on the online text environment LambdaMOO, when one participant used a programming trick to force another participant's character to have virtual sex with his own. Here again, however, the analogy is strained, for although there was no physical rape, the participant whose character was abused certainly felt violated. In Tierra, by contrast, there is no biological animal or person corresponding to the virtual presence being "mistreated." The computer viruses are not avatars for something else; they are just computer viruses.

Perhaps a more telling parallel to the Tierra question is the spate of recent court cases against simulated child porn. Up till now, groups on both sides of the pornography debate have backed legislation against child porn on the grounds that the exploitation of the children involved is self-evident. In a challenge to this "self-evident" presumption, recent cases have focused not on actual video captures of sweaty juveniles coupling for the camera, but on images of *simulated* children having sex. When adolescent faces are morphed onto boffing adult torsos, it shifts the issue away from "are children being exploited?" to "are such representations inherently harmful?" Viewed in this light, the Tierra question shifts from potentially harmful effects on digital creatures to potentially harmful effects on the observers of those creatures. This argument is familiar from the public debate over violence in rap music and Hollywood movies; no dinosaurs were harmed making Jurassic Park, but what was the effect on the kids who went to see it?

The analogy can be more finely tuned. While viewers of Jurassic Park witness virtual violence, they do not commit it. Players of video games, on the other hand, regularly blow away menacing dragons and aliens for fun. The parallel is drawn even more exactly in the case of artificial life-inspired CD-ROMs like SimEarth. The manual for this game, in which the user manipulates variables to influence the evolution of an entire planet, exhorts the first-time user to turn up the heat of the sun so as to witness its effect on the creatures under that user's care. (Answer: everybody but the blue-green algae pretty much gets roasted.) To be sure, Ray claims that his creatures are not simulations but instantiations of life--but this claim only strengthens the unease that might be associated with cutting their lifespans short.

While none of these precedents specifically prepares us for the decision of whether Ray should have any qualms turning off his machine, the comparisons do tend to shift the question away from the (possibly unanswerable) issue of whether harm is done to Ray's viruses to the question of whether harm is done to Ray himself. For although the effect on the viruses of wiping out their colony may be reversible, the effect on the person who does so is not. If artificial life is a synthetic biology, then the issues raised by doing harm to that life are a synthetic ethics--a testing ground in which to examine issues of life and death outside of established social norms. When I awoke from my dream, nothing remained of the ghostly presences I saw on the subway except the ethical questions they had forced on me. I don't know whether Ray's experience shutting down his program over and over makes him more likely to squash bugs on the sidewalk, shoot deer on vacation, or feel less compassion for hundreds killed in a Bangladeshi flood. But I hope he thinks about it.

Related links:
Tierra Home Page (
Carl Kaplan, "Does the First Amendment Protect Computer-Simulated Child Porn?" CyberTimes, August 7, 1997 (