How to account for the unaccountable
You may have never thought about it, but life would not be the same without randomness.
Our entire lives are nothing but an enormous game of chance.
But what is it about randomness that make it so special, yet inexplicable to most of us?
In French, aléatoire is the term used for uncertainty and mathematical randomness. It is taken from the Latin alea, the name for dice-games.
Uncertainty is so compelling [to us] that even otherwise skill-based games usually incorporate formal elements of chance, such as the coin toss at the beginning of a football game. Incorporating chance into the game helps delay the moment when the outcome will become obvious.¹
Randomness in the arts
Tristan Tzara’s “To Make A Dadaist Poem” is one of the most well-known – and one of the earliest – examples of indeterminacy applied to the creation of an artwork. While initially seen as an anarchic provocation by the Surrealists of that time, “pulling words out of a hat” has given birth to a valuable trend of chaos in the arts.
While modern artistic implementations of unpredictability have mainly served to address a lack of inspiration or a writer’s block, early uses of randomness could be identified as a “deliberate reaction to World War I”¹.
In music, the major figure making extensive use of indeterminacy in his work was certainly John Cage. According to Cage, randomness can help eliminate the artist’s bias and, therefore, enhance the work by reaching into unexplored territories.
“…Each performance of (such) a piece of music is unique, as interesting to its composer as to others listening. It is easy to see again the parallel with nature, for even with leaves of the same tree, no two are exactly alike” (1996)
In the rest the digital arts, randomness was explored as soon as technology allowed images to be produced via imputing random variables. But is when the first few professional artist gained access to computers, plotters, and microfilm that the visual arts were revolutionised.
Manfred Mohr, for example, made extensive use of random values in the creation of his digital drawings.
Randomness in computing
The need for randomness in engineering has always been so necessary that an entire book of random numbers – “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates” – was published in 1955 to address the need for more random numbers (before the advent of computers).
An obvious question to ask about randomness is why a computer would need to implement it in any form.¹
Unpredictable random sequences of numbers are what machines have to deal with all the time. Think about forecasting the weather, or calculating a route taking the traffic conditions into account. These are only some of the operations that can deal with an high amount of uncertainty in computing.
Yet, complete randomness is never what scientists, engineers, and orogrammers usually deal with. Pseudo-randomness is the “subject matter” for indeterminacy in most applications. It is the term used to describe the deterministic process of a machine in producing an evenly distributed sequence of random numbers. It is based on probability and on the existence of constraints within which random functions can exist.
Various uses of randomness
Perlin Noise is a technique employed mostly by game programmers and Hollywood’s VFX industry which generates organic textures with “seemingly” random patterns. Those can be finely controlled to make for perfect natural-looking results.
It was created by Ken Perlin, one of the graphic programmers in Tron, and by the 1990s, it was being used extensively in Hollywood special-effects films and had been incorporated into most off the-shelf modeling software.¹
Randomness also plays a crucial role in the security of networked systems.
Security protocols like SSH (Secure Shell) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) enable us to make payments on the web and rely on random numbers in many ways, but mostly for generating keys for encryption.
With continual increases in processing power, attacks on encryption are becoming easier, and the goal of making random numbers more. random will be critical for securing society’s constant digital transactions.¹
- 10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5+RND(1));: GOTO. (2014). 10print.org, [online] (1), pp.119–145. Available at: https://10print.org/.
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.