Objective 2: Emerging Functionality

The functionality of an artefact corresponds to the range of functions it exhibits or the experience it provides. In reality we may expect a range of different kinds of artefacts, some general purpose and some quite specific.

Even if an individual artefact has limited functionality, it can have more advanced behaviour when grouped with others. The aim is to look at how collections of artefacts can be made to work together, and in particular how they provide behaviour or functionality that exceeds the sum of their

The basis for new functionality to emerge is due to the fact that artefacts have properties as described in the first objective, for instance:

  • They are Modular
  • They can Communicate with others
  • They can adapt and learn from previous events
  • They can be placed in various locations

These properties lay the basis for collections of artefacts to be able to behave as a complex interacting system. The main aim of this objective to see how to take advantage of this inherent complexity so as to allow for the behaviours and functionalities of collections artefacts to be changeable and emergent.

Because artefacts can be re-configured, or recombined by people and because they can adapt and evolve, their collective behaviour is not static, and collections of artefacts can evolve to produce new behaviours. This is not just a random behaviour, but one that is guided by how artefacts are used or configured by people.

As a consequence, people are given ‘things’ with which to make ‘new things’, rather than only being supplying with fixed and un-changeable tools. This requires a ‘re-think’ about the ways in which tools should be conceived of and designed, and this is taken up further in objective 3.

In order to lay the foundations for new functionality to emerge from collections of artefacts, this objective considers two main topics:

Working Together

Artefacts have to be able to work together in order to allow new ‘collective’ functions to emerge. As a basis for this, research is needed into:

  • The ways in which artefacts communicate with other artefacts or other information sources (either globally or locally) and the protocols they should use.
  • The structuring of different kinds of artefacts into collections or ‘families’, each with a different role and level of influence.
  • The design of new forms of ‘adaptive operating systems’ that would provide a platform for more general software across a range of artefacts.

Emerging Functionality

Given that artefacts can communicate, adapt and are modular, the specific ways in which functionality can be designed for collections of artefacts have to be researched.

This should consider the ways in which functionality can be constructed and the specific ways or conditions for new functionality to emerge. Some indications are outlined below:

  • Because artefacts are modular means that parts of them (either from the software, hardware or physical aspects) can be constructed, deconstructed or mixed, or added on to other artefacts. These kinds of changes would in turn create a new hybrid artefact with a new functionality. Combinations or various artefacts would lead to new functionality that would go beyond what individual artefacts could do.
  • The fact that artefacts can communicate and can be aware of other artefacts, means that under certain conditions, artefacts could ‘synergize’ to produce new properties and behaviour that they otherwise they would not exhibit. For example, the proximity of a group of artefacts could trigger an interaction between them and a new functionality would become possible. This principle ‘non-linear addition’ or synergy could also be applied to certain groups of artefacts interacting over a distance.
  • The fact that an artefact can learn or adapt from a history of past events, means that this knowledge can trigger new functionality that for example, emerges with time. An individually adaptive artefact may also communicate with other adaptive artefacts so that a group would produce a more complex behaviour.
The Disappearing Computer Initiative © 2002