Thursday, December 11, 2014

On the origins of Computer Codes as Literature

It's rare in life that one admits to the public—and even less often to oneself—that they were wrong. And not wrong as a matter of oversight or luck, but because of ignorance. Last week I mentioned, in a review, the writings of Algo. An author who has managed to include in his writings computer-code-like writing, as well as computer codes themselves.

I won’t deny that I thought these algorithms to be somewhat overdone. And I didn’t even take a moment to try them out. They were mixed, of course, and the code notes accompanying them were enough to allow even a marginally computer-literate person the ability to understand them [1]. But I didn’t take it a step further and carry out the code the way it was intended.

Last night I received a harried text telling me what I'd missed out on. I moved in to investigate and what I found out was that Algo didn’t come up (or even perfect) with the idea of telling stories through algorithms. That honor belongs to a subset of poets who started a movement a few years ago. 

There is no official title to their group—none that I’ve heard. Some call them a derivative of the flarf poetry movement—something they bristle at. And indeed this new poetry movement does seem like a distinct movement. Myself, after all my experiences with them, I’ve come up with a name for them: the crawlers. 

The start of the Crawlers is quite the story. A student was, a few years ago, kicked out of college in New York City. No real record exists of why [2], but this student of math and computer science was evicted from his dorm room without a dime to his name. [3]

An orphan from the hinterlands of America, he started to live inside the city’s churches [4] and public libraries he could hide in. One day he befriended a man on 5th avenue. The ex-student stole the man’s laptop. Luckily for him, it was never reported or remotely shutdown. 

He burrowed his way into an abandoned subway station somewhere between 1st and 14th. There he wired into an ethernet line and thought about what it was he wanted to do in life. He swore off hacking and decided that he needed to focus on the beautiful aspects of humanity. 

And that’s where the first poems, made through codes, were created. The basic idea was this: that all one needed was code and one could create amazing works this way. 

I want you to think about that for a second. This code (with minimal help) created poetry. Myself I’m impressed with what it is they were aiming to do.

But like all founders of groups of lasting import, the ex-student lost control of the group, of the idea (though he would always remain its figurehead). Initially it was simply a matter of diversity: there were people who preferred to get their poem lines from comments, or comments on a right wing or left wing blog, or headlines only, or headlines from other countries translated through google, or essays, or Facebook posts, or Facebook posts from women or white women or tweets… well you get the idea; the internet is full of text, and they manipulated it as they desired. 

When the group grew to ten people, there appeared the first major rift. It wasn’t much, at first, but a pair wanted to create something like poems from before [5], in other words, to manipulate the sentences or phrases grabbed from the Internet after the code had “harvested” them. 

This didn’t sit well with many of the others. The whole point, they said, was to care about the code. That the code was what mattered, no after-the-matter-manipulation by humans could be allowed. The splinter pair argued that it was about the result. That sentence caused another schism: some said it was not about the code, but that the text from the Internet in its original form that was sacrosanct. Words were exchanged, and the little utopia beneath the streets of New York was no longer. 

There ended up being two groups, at the end of that day (it was this one issue that rose above the rest): one that claimed the text was not to be rearranged, only grabbed from the internet, and one that claimed it was the final poem that mattered. 

Later, the original group (I’m assuming that the ex-student was head of this group, and that was that the Internet text was sacrosanct) would split, as would the first splinter. Each grew, gained followers and further split along the lines of whatever argument was pertinent at the time. 

There were many: The issue of code being the only manipulation needed, that those who did any post-hands-on rearranging with the text or the order of the text were not being true to the original intention and were quite possibly computer-disinclined (the ultimate insult) would serve as a background radiation that would spike at random times and split groups irrevocably. Others, code-fundamentalists, claimed that it wasn’t what the code spat out that mattered but what the code looked like. 

After some time, the diversity about where the text was gathered—as in could the text from a single line be from multiple webpages or one—became an issue. Some people claimed it should be from one website or kind of website only, some said two, some said n, and some from wherever it was possible. Splits ensued.

I found the Turing shift to be the most humorous [6]: some people thought that what is spit out should not be any different from what a human can write. Others claim that they are beyond that old and silly idea of copying humans, the time of humanity is over and to accept the future is to discard that antediluvian idea that is the Turing test. The immediate counter point to this is that the text is already being grafted from the internet, land of human text, so why the pretense?

Yet none of the above compares to the fighting that occurred around realism. It could have been a matter of jealousy; some of the poets were gaining fame, gaining money, while others were not. But the realists, in the end, had found the most commercial route and were mocked for it. Secretly everyone wanted their fame. This was proven by how many groups collapsed and joined the realists. 

Some said that it was a vile group, these realists, that wanted nothing more than to destroy the diversity that had been created in the underground lair. There soon [7] came a small war in this underground poets' lair. 

The realists claimed that their goal was to graft as much as they could from the internet so as to show something of significance [8], not random lines (some of them became prose writers in this sense) or even just beautiful or interestingly juxapositioned lines. The resultant civil war created numerous injuries. It created a detente (no one wanted the cops coming around) that's barely contained today. [9]

The latest fad is creating code that writes code that can learn from its mistakes and make more and more creative and beautiful poems. When I visited this dark underground lair—stinking of sewer runoff and burning wood—I found checkpoints and narrow alleys. Men and women with torches and machetes stood guard. 

Each time I had to shift my way to a new group, I went through the same process of being patted down, of being asked inane questions that seemed to come out of a government manual. Some were nice about it, apologetic, telling me they had lost people to the latest infiltration of their group’s mind-space [10]. But others were rough, angry. 

As far as the code that writes code that writes poems, I heard many who were against the idea: some said it would make them redundant. Others said it wasn’t feasible—had you seen what it created—and wasn’t this whole endeavor about literature, about humanity, about humans? What happens when that’s ripped out? Yet others still said code writing code wasn’t enough. There needed to be more degrees separating humans from code. That exact degree was being debated fervently while I was there. And you could see it in the tension in the air. Everyone’s eyes darted about. They couldn’t afford another outbreak of ideas as they were tired of fighting. Many were reverting to the fundamental code group, hoping to at least find peace (if everyone else followed). 

It took hours of conversations for the outside world to be mentioned. Unfortunately it leaned towards the paranoid. I learned that some were worried about the police, certain that they were being paid by higher powers to come and destroy all that they had created. That somehow ‘natural’ poets above were paying the cops off to silence them. That even the NSA wanted a piece of what they were doing—or perhaps didn’t like the competition. 

When I asked if they were really making that much money (them or the natural poets), they looked at me like I had been duped and said it wasn’t about money, it was about ideas. I decided that, given the fervor, it wouldn’t make sense to argue with them. I left the lair with relief. The fear in the air was strong and I wondered how it was when it was just starting out, when it was actually just about ideas. 

The police, when I talked to them a few days later, mentioned that they had only recently come to find out about this lair and that they were thinking about raiding it if something violent happened. For the most part they had better things to do. But the place was starting to stink. People, tax paying people, who lived above were complaining of a stench that seemed to just linger in the air. I can’t have that, can I? The captain said. I empathized with him.

Nevertheless, there is hope, and the sense that the future will be with these poets. The movement has surely come of age and might reach a higher level of expression soon enough.

[1] I should go even further to point out that Algo came up with pseudo code whereby he had prose that represented something like code that ‘called’ other tidbits of ‘prose’ from a library; this is not what I’m referring to, as that was fine.

[2] I talked to the dean, and she said, with great disgust, that they had no room for “that kind”, that they were an institution of higher learning, created to make the country better, people like that student—poets, she said disgustedly—were either parasites, or at best a piece of lace on the chair. I left her office, certain that I had interviewed the wrong person)

[3] I heard rumors about a possible hacking scandal might have been the reason: the day before he was kicked out, someone hacked the college’s website and placed the following banner: “College is for kissing rich kids’ asses in hopes of a job”. Which sounds like the silly sort of analysis only a freshman can muster.

[4] Though not for long for both he and organized religion stood at odds with each other.

[5] They were, this splinter group—let’s call them the crawlers—cocky enough to designate a Before Code (BC) and Apes Deconstructed (AD) for the moment the splinter movement started.

[6] similar, but stemming from different ideas, to the “beauty of the poem over the code” argument that I mentioned earlier.

[7] I forget which specific group came up with realism first, but few were immune from it. However,  the code fundamentalists would stay out of this (only further inflating their thought that their way was easily the best)—and many other fights because they had strict rules, but they also experimented less and had fewer followers.

[8] To show something of importance in the world, or highlight something about it that most people don’t know, or just take part in the cultural conversation.

[9] I cannot ignore the personal in all this. Some rifts occurred after lovers were stolen, and these were the longest lasting. Therefore actions that would seem inconsequential to outsiders resulted in breaking up of groups and tit for tat revenge schemes (all under the banner of some ideal, such as the ones above).

[10] Which seemed a little melodramatic, as I’d been to war zones and this wasn’t that.

Update Here is a coders contest for those interested in how to code to make a novel.

Update 04Feb2014: Well, this idea is not new, not by a half century, perhaps more. Here we have it as part of Vonnegut's thesis (rejected, I believe). He said there is no reason it can't be fed into a machine. Fair enough.  And the idea that there are stories with a template to their plot can also be looked on as a designer's blueprint to creating new code for creating such stories.


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1 comment:

  1. And, I'll comment here to say that if anyone doubts the ability of people to be creative, here's a story on some people trying to create something beautiful with code (well, novels and prose and such). Though it can be said that they aren't successful in the literature way of things:


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