Bots is Totally Gnarly Dude…

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I must admit this weeks electronic literature picks were harder for me to analyze and interpret. I decided to focus my attention and energies on BOTS. I remember learning and hearing a bit about this concept last spring in Net Mirror. I was like: Yay bonus! I actually know a concept, phew! So lets stick to what we know Nives, or at least what we think we know, shall we? I found the home page interface to be easy to navigate. It was just a lot of information all at once. I found my eyes darting from one small square of images to the next. But the description of the piece was helpful on the opening page. I read the editorial comments, line for line and word for word. I must admit however, that I had to do a little more research on this BOT revolution because I still felt unsure of what it was I was looking at. Here is a brief description of what I learned. The first chatterbox, ELIZA was developed by Joseph Weizenbaum from 1964 to 1966 at MIT. Fascinating! Never thought anyone would develop this type of technology or electronic lit back in that era. The second bot PARRY was made at Stanford in 1972. These early bots were not easy to interact with. You had to make appointments and take a trip to MIT in order to have a in person bot experience. During the second generation, many of the first generation bots were implemented on the Web, providing widespread access to them. Bots have become much more sophisticated over the last few decades. They serve as characters in interactive fiction and video games. The third generation of bots have become much more artistic and literary due to the influx of the world wide web and social media platforms. This brings us to the current electronic literature piece we see in BOTS.

The picture above is from Facade. I became enthralled with this interactive elit piece when we were introduced to it in the first reading assignment we had about navigating through electronic literature. Plus as I’ve admitted to in the past, I’m a total video game geek, so for me this type of interactive lit is my favorite to explore. When I first began to navigate my way through BOTS I could see how far the bot innovations have come. These characters are now more advanced and have gone far past the chatbox subgenre. Now they are presented as humans that publish their own works on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks. While exploring and clicking my little heart away from one square box to the next, I realized what was happening to me. I was interacting with bots on Twitter, who knew!? Totally rad! These bots are now leveraging social media networks as contexts and spaces to develop their own audiences! You can follow these bots and they also pick up on key words and phrases you may tweet out. They can even create haikus from you tweets, which is highlighted in of one of my favorites: poem.exe. Some other personal favorites of mine were: how 2 sext, tiny star fields, and everyword. I found each of them to be thought provoking and innovative! It was also interesting to see some of my own followers following these bots back on Twitter! I’ll sum up my experience with this particular piece of electronic literature by saying it was interesting, easier to navigate and I found myself wanting to explore more. I also begin to question what bots has to do with literature exactly? I guess there is coding involved and a sure method to the madness. I’m also glad that I decided to take the time to do some research on this piece before hand. It gave me a map or a compass to follow. Which is extremely helpful when your a novice in this trippy world of e lit. I also appreciate the fact that the inter face and experience was user friendly, yet a kind of felt like a bystander this time, not like I was fully immersed as a part of the experience. Lastly, I’ll say it blows my mind to think how far technology has come today, and this creation of bots in particular is kind of scary, but like the good kind of scary. I’m looking forward to seeing Kevin’s interpretation of this on Wednesday! Ciao, ciao!

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Meaning and Structure in BOTS

When I initially started looking through the different bots, I didn’t feel like there was anything especially literary or special about them. A bot that is basically a teenage boy spurting out nonsensical euphemisms for sex acts? Anthropomorphizing a lost buoy out at sea by giving it the voice of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick? Creating weird formations that are interpreted as constellations? What is this and why is it literature? As I contemplated this, the two things I focused in on the most were the meanings found in the text and the creation of the structure of the pieces.

Though I knew coding was involved with the bots creative process, Iwas still under the misconception that there was little structure in the way they were creating ‘literature.’ “So the bot gets lucky and creates things with some syntactic structure and vague semantic significance,” I thought. “A monkey throwing slips of paper with poetic lines in the air could do the same thing.” But when I looked deeper, I saw that the process was quite a bit more advanced than that of said hypothetical monkey.

The key to getting a better understanding of this was when I discovered the word ‘Oulipo’ in connection to a few of the bots. Poetryfoundation.org defines it this way:

“An acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), a group of writers and mathematicians formed in France in 1960 by poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. Unlike the Dada and surrealist movements, OuLiPo rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of literary creativity. Instead, the group emphasizes systematic, self-restricting means of making texts.” (n.d.)

In light of this definition, I could see that the literary process of the bots is a result of a systematic formula, i.e. code. So, though random in combinations, the products are still contained within an organized structure; @_LostBuoy_ can only combine it’s weather data and lines from Moby Dick to create; @poem_exe can only draw from A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems and create something that has some kind of reference to the seasons. To me this makes the process seem slightly more literary because there is a method to the madness. The bots are programed to create work that is somewhat syntactic in nature so that we can identify their products as ‘poem’ or even just ‘sentence’. But, as I am learning in Linguistics, syntax doesn’t always mean semantics. We can have a perfectly syntactic sentence that means absolutely nothing. We can ALSO find semantic significance in a sentence that is ungrammatical, which bodes well for some of the nonsense these bots create (I’m looking at you ROM TXT). But, for something to be considered literature, it needs to have some level of semantics to go with syntax – the bots have structure, but do they create meaning?

Thinking about meaning was the most intriguing part of going through BOTS for me. I felt like the nature of the bots’ literary productions creates so many questions around meaning – what happens when you take something that was intended to mean one thing, and put it in a context that completely changes that meaning? Can the result of randomness really be called meaningful? Who is the meaning maker – the bot or the reader? In the midst of this questioning, I discovered a term in poem.exe creator Liam Cooke’s description that was fascinating to me both on a psychological level and on a literary level: ‘apophenia.’

After a quick read through in Wikipedia (2020, September 20), I learned that apophenia is basically when we connect things that are unrelated and drawing errant meanings from said connections. The distinguishing feature of apophenia is that the meaning and connections are not actually related in the way we believe they are; in other words, we are literally being delusional. And on every practical level, there IS a delusional feeling to the bots’ strange mash ups and the meaning we seem to draw from their random connections. Take the how 2 sext bot.

What do sexting and the wiki articles have to do with each other? Outside of there probably being a wiki article on how to sext, nothing. Sexting has its own contextual meaning and wiki articles have theirs; not only that, the two have totally different audiences and purposes in mind! So, what does that say about the nature of meaning when we take the wiki articles and place them into the context of sexting, transforming their original intention and meaning?

I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I am excited to be left with such big questions – especially from something as silly and strange as a Twitter bot.

I started my exploration of BOTS with very low expectations. In fact, I had a difficult time understanding how it was e-lit in some ways because it didn’t feel literary or as if I was really navigating in anyway, I was more of a passive observer. But as I came to understand the generative nature of bots, and saw the underlying questions they stir up about meaning and creation, I found this to be yet another enriching e-lit experience. I am coming away from this piece with a more technical understanding of e-lit and it makes me excited to continue to see other pieces and how they might shed light on the questions this one created for me.

References

Apophenia. (2020, September 20). in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 3. (2016, February). BOTS. https://collection.eliterature.org/3/collection-bots.html

Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Glossary of Poetic Terms: Oulipo. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/oulipo