Notes on Blocks

On Elemental Computation

by Jon Chen
Black Ocean, by Liu Yujia. [A still taken from the film Black Ocean, which cuts together shots of vast machine landscapes in China, inspired by the novel Invisible Cities (1972) by Italian writer Italo Calvino. Excerpts of text from the novel are overlaid on top of the film “to allow the audience to get in, to wander, to get lost, and to find an exit or several ones somewhere at some time.”]

As the presence of “space” continues to coincide with the digital and the physical, the separation between the technological and the natural world feels all too shapeless. Websites slip in and out of electronic devices like a spirit in their vessel. Machine landscapes built to sustain a new kind of ecology (one for data) hum away, giving life to the internet we know today. And the smartphone — a modern-day compass — replaces celestial guides with glowing symbols on screens, tethered to orbiting satellites high above. 

The channel “Elemental Computation” subverts how we define and explore the material relationships of computers and the environment. Technologic dissonance controls and denies us understanding of the present world around us, a by-product of this human-nature divide. The constant pursuit of human centric qualia further distances us from the innate elemental properties on which computation relies — computation is not an extension of nature but rather part of nature itself. We can deliberately engage with the strategic metaphors that serve to legitimize abstract techno landscapes and their inhabitants: The cloud, internet of things, and the desktop utilize our understanding of the physical world to ground us in familiarity, but without consequence. Might we instead choose to reshape, tend to, and explore the shared grounds between nature and technology as an ongoing process, allowing metaphors to sit in a state of perplexity to allow collaborative authorship by human, non-human, and environment, rather than consolidated authorship of a few? 

By tracing the personal and earthly genealogy of computers and their predecessors, we can redefine and reconstitute their fundamental material properties based on discoveries made in the world around us — building hardware like earthenware.


John Durham Peters’ book The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media is the most significant personal influence on my channel “Elemental Computation.” Peters challenges the notion that media is limited to technological platforms and argues that environments themselves can act as media, influencing our experiences and shaping our interactions with the world. Within the book’s long, winding journey through the nature of water, fire, sky, earth, and ether media, he first recognizes our reliance on fire as a meta-medium holding the power to eviscerate and cultivate. “Electricity is the manifestation of vestal fire,” he writes; our digital computers rely on transistors, electrical switches that were once a centimeter long and are now only slightly larger than 14 times the width of a DNA molecule. At the heart of the digital realm lies binary logic — 0/1, on/off, true/false — providing a standardized and convergent approach to information processing. 

While digital computers unify and transform the formerly distinct analog information, they also encounter limitations in design, algorithmic performance, and interpretations due to their discrete nature of binary representation. Elemental Computation, in contrast, embraces the latent interconnections between computation and the continuous observation of elemental patterns and material conditions, unraveling an intricate web of relationships.


Emerging technologies, such as quantum computing, challenge the traditional performance of transistors by harnessing qubits (short for quantum bit) in a state of superposition, capable of representing both 0 and 1 simultaneously. The case for non-binary logic, based on performative qualities, not only shifts the technical space of computing at large, but more importantly the meanings and greater philosophical perspective — like any other language they are the meta frameworks on how we filter experience. More importantly, choosing to remove the capitalist-driven guise of computing, we emerge into a vast ecosystem of computers and energy, which is already present all around us and dependent on the specific needs, cultures, and landscapes derived from the natural world. 

Applying Sophie Dyer and Sasha Engelmann’s definition of “Fractal Earth” from the feminist Open-weather project to computation — by seeing multiple pictures at once (inspired by the process of its community’s DIY Satellite Ground Station nowcast), each individual view of earth is its own fractal at differing scales and perspectives holding specificity and difference together with similarity avoiding an absolute, universalist image of the earth — we become aware of this constantly evolving ecology. Consisting not only of electricity and the digital alone but a unique fractal of relations to geographical region, cultural experience, historical outcomes, and perspectives.


The Mark I Perceptron, built in the 1950s, was one of the first Artificial Intelligence Systems built to “perceive, recognize and identify its surroundings.” It implemented the perceptron algorithm, which was inspired by the structure and function of neurons in the human brain. Capable of classifying 400-pixel images, it relied on a process of learning, using motors to adjust neurons or a collection of various weights stored on potentiometers — a device that varies the amount of electrical resistance, allowing one to control the flow of electricity, which in this case represented the value or weight.

Although the 400-parameter system of the Mark I Perceptron is a far cry from modern multi-billion parameter artificial intelligence systems, the images of drooping cables and tactile handiwork acknowledge a perceptible physical origin that is lost in today's black box algorithms. Despite falling short of its original goals, this early sensing machine would pave the way to the multi-hyphenated machines that interact with the environment today.


Last year, my friend Arthur showed me the art piece Fluid Memory by Ioana Vreme Moser, a rudimentary computer built out of glass and salt water, capable of storing memory through fluidic logic gates, “writing, storing and re-writing bits of information, generating patterns of fluidic movement and sound in each cycle.” This computer operates at a different cadence than traditional computers, one that is more in tune with the flow of water. With the lack of human intervention, the feedback loop between the water and its structure allows a continuous change in levels of water adjusting its overall flow. This offers a revisiting of the relationship with the natural speed of environments.


Moser’s work on water in relation to computation is both influenced by and reveals the history of research on this topic, which dates back to the 1960s. While electrical transistor-based computers were being developed, a group of scientists tried to create a commercially viable fluid-based computer. However, their prototypes fell short of feasibility. The storage of memory through fluid shift registers began to evolve in the 1980s, eventually leading to the development of microfluidics. Today, microfluidics plays a significant role in the biomedical industry, with applications in tools like the PCR machine. In fact, the common at-home COVID test is an example of a simple fluid logic gate — positive or negative — simple in outcome, but demonstrating the utilization of elemental logic structures in everyday life (the test processes a biological sample (input) to determine the presence of the virus (output) using specific molecular reactions). The result is still not without failure due to false negatives and the dynamacy of biological materials and fluid — an illusion of a binary is reliant on tight feedback loops and often the creation of stasis, one of the many human phantasms.


In 2010, Japanese researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki placed a slime mold colony in the center of an arrangement of oats representing cities in Japan. The experiment was designed to test the slime mold’s ability to find the shortest and most optimal route between cities, a common algorithmic problem in computer science. Amazingly, the slime mold nearly recreated the paths of Japan's railway system — possibly even improving it.

A different reference work entry titled “Slime Mold Computing” collects a variety of research and algorithmic use cases for the slime mold, including Nakagaki’s prototype. Slime mold has been researched in a variety of applications, including simulating mass migration, experimental archaeology, space exploration, and the computing of circuits through various logic gate tests, including collision-based and microfluidic.

The slime mold, without a brain or limbs, questions the nature of technology and intelligence. Its ability to solve complex problems without a centralized brain system suggests a form of intelligence not of the machine or human but rather the binding element of emergence.


Using the writer and video game designer Ian Bogost’s definition of procedural rhetoric, for the last two blocks I’d like to navigate two instances where a video game’s procedural representation encourages creativity and allows players to interact with the environment and its tools to create unorthodox systems that I believe to augment our understanding of the physical world.


In the genre of sandbox video games, developers incentivize creativity and creation through the rules of the world they create. If done successfully, the in-game tools, materials, properties, and interactions become the basis for player communities to constantly push what is possible in the game. Arguably the most famous example is the popular sandbox game Minecraft: its block based world allows limitless creativity with its building and crafting systems, vast block selection, terrain generation, and redstone circuitry (Minecraft’s own take on a computational system). Unbounded by the physical limitations of space or resources, individuals have sought out to build turing complete computers with its simple yet expansive redstone system. One individual under the username “Sammyuri” created CHUNGUS 2, an 8-bit computer built within Minecraft capable of running games like Snake or Tetris controlled by a user jumping on blocks.

A software runs on a physical computer that simulates a video game world allowing the construction of turing complete computers — a snake eating its tail, an ouroboros.


In the much anticipated Zelda sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, the player embarks on an open-world adventure that skillfully merges a meticulously designed physics-based sandbox environment with an engaging techno archaic lore. Expanding upon the impressive elemental mechanics in its predecessor, water, fire, wind, and electricity are all malleable and interactable variables in this game world. The player is infused with an ancient artifact that grants them the ability to glue together any object or item from the environment, extending the entirety of its environment as a creative medium. Whereas in the physical world we may glance over the environment, this augmentation of experience disrupts and deliberately refocuses our attention to the essence of play or adventure. The community's viral creations have been an amazing spectacle, showcasing solutions to in-game puzzles, inventive ways to fight monsters, efficient transportation methods, and resourceful farming techniques. One user I came across, by the name “c7fab” on youtube, created logic gates with beams of light emitting from an in-game device cleverly blocked by physical blockades powered by rotating wheels. The clip serves as a catalyst, filling practical gaps in elemental computation, sparking imagination, inspiring visions of computers fueled by visible light and the intriguing possibilities of using other elemental properties through accessible tools and structures found all around us. In a separate video, Tony Hinderman showcased a simple 3-bit calculator, capable of adding three inputs and generating two outputs, using an array of in-game items such as metal cubes, fire hydrants, weapons, wheels, and spring-like trampolines.

The significance of logic gates in Tears of the Kingdom is not their functionality, but rather how they relate to the game’s lore, narrative, and mythology. For those who are willing, this recontextualization of computational knowledge can now be discovered or applied to our experience of the world in itself. How we define a computer can become a retelling and one of mythological rediscovery as evident in the experience of this procedural rhetoric. Storytelling becomes a profound vehicle for meaning, allowing individuals to make sense of, relate to, and resonate with a redefining of our reality as well as expand and shape the narrative dynamically, adapting to its unfolding complexity. A story of Elemental Computation is made not of a single perspective but instead a kaleidoscope of the individual, community, and environment, to piece together and cultivate the natural beauty of the algorithmic into a future we wish to inhabit.

Jon Chen is an artist, creative technologist, and designer who creates personal digital and physical tools to navigate emerging worlds through the feedback loops between the skeuomorphic and imaginative. They are currently exploring speculative worlds that rely on a culture of Elemental Computation — questioning the relationships between nature, technology, and being.