Thursday, September 19, 2013

Excerpt 11: Aleatory writing

When we build machines that deal with meaning, it can be hard to unravel what part of the meaning is created by each of the three participants—the machine, the machine’s creator, and the one reading the output of the machine. A device for doing divination is at a disadvantage because it not only must create meaningful utterances, but also choose its words so that they form a valid reply to the question. There is a field of poetry called aleatory (meaning “chance”) writing that uses similar techniques, but without any pretence of predicting the future. The poet Christian Bök writes, “Aleatory writing almost evokes the mystique of an oracular ceremony—but one in which the curious diviner cannot pose any queries.”
Games, aleatory writing, and divination all have in common the creation of meaning. When poetry is composed with the aid of computers or randomizing elements, it raises questions about the nature and origin of meaning. Discussing such random poetry, Bök writes:
"The reader in the future might no longer judge a poem for the stateliness of its expression, but might rather judge the work for the uncanniness of its production. No longer can the reader ask: “How expressive or how persuasive is this composition?’—instead, the reader must ask: “How surprising or how disturbing is this coincidence?’
…When we throw the dice, we throw down a gauntlet in the face of chance, doing so in order to defy the transcendence of any random series, thereby forcing chance itself to choose sides, either pro or con, with respect to our fortune. Does such a challenge occur when a poet decides to write according to an aleatory protocol? Does the poet wager that, despite the improbable odds, a randomly composed poem is nevertheless going to be more expressive and more suggestive than any poem composed by wilful intent? Is meaning the stake wagered in this game? [1]"

What follows are a few examples of machines designed to generate writing or poetry through the years. Not to in any way denigrate the cleverness of their creators, but none of them are actually very good at writing. Even with the power of modern computers it is still impossible to generate a paragraph of sensible text on a topic without following a very strict template. (For example, programs that take financial data or sports scores and generate a daily news report.)
Even such simple systems, however, illustrate that meaning for a reader in a text can be completely disconnected from the intentions present when the text is written. Remember the story about the million monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare—a random process is perfectly capable of creating anything that can be written, if we’re willing to put in the effort to sort through all the garbage it generates to find the gems. This demonstrates that the key to creativity, the really hard part, is judgment of quality, selectivity. How do we recognize good creative works when by the definition of creativity, they are something new that we have never seen before?

[1] Christian Bök, Harriet: Poetry Foundation Blog, “Random Poetry”, 2008 (web page)

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