Word machines

I’ve been reading Uncreative Writing by writer and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith, who thinks that writing is ripe for a revolution. He thinks of language not solely as semantic content but also as raw material — material that can be transformed by computers, or written from scratch by computers, sometimes even meant to be read only by other computers. In effect, writers get abstracted (promoted?) a level, from generating language to managing its creation and manipulation.

It has me wondering what this would mean for stories. Goldsmith’s narrative examples involve the appropriation of existing narrative material. What would it look like to not make up a story but to manage a machine generating a story?

The only example I’ve found is A Ship Adrift. Perfectly, the credits say that “a ship adrift is a thing “by” james bridle.” Bridle explains on his blog that he began by creating a system to read information from a weather station:

A Ship Adrift takes the data from that weather station and applies it to an imaginary airship piloted by a lost, mad AI autopilot. The ship is drifting because the pilot is mad or the pilot is mad because the ship is drifting; it doesn’t really matter.

If the wind whips eastwards across the roof of the Southbank centre at 5mph, then the Ship Adrift floats five miles to the East. […]

As the Ship drifts, it looks around itself. It doesn’t know where it is, but it is listening. It’s listening out for tweets and foursquare check-ins and posts on dating sites and geotagged Wikipedia articles and it is remembering them and it is trying to make something out of them. It is trying to understand.

The ship is lost, and I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t know what it’s going to learn, but I want to work with it to tell some stories. I want to build a system for cooperating with software and chance.

A Ship Adrift

A Ship Adrift

The result is, to my eye, gibberish. But it’s gibberish on a timeline, written by hundreds of people and amalgamated through a partnership of man and machine. And if you look at the text in the context of the wandering little dot representing the ship, it’s even a little poignant. Perhaps the beginning of something.


Further reading: Nietzsche Family Circus

5 thoughts on “Word machines

    • I think that’s right and will continue to be — most of the time. But I can see this as a small strand of literary practice that exists alongside the type that emphasizes craft and personal expression. The way that a majority of artists create their own work, but conceptual artists write instructions and farm out the execution. (Goldsmith uses this analogy throughout his book.)

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