Human/Computer Collaboration

I feel the most comfortable with Giles’ Some Strategies of Bot Poetics (I have a huge appetite when it comes to reading about concept development strategies and these were no exception), so I will attempt to respond coherently to John Morris’s How to Write Poems with a Computer.

In my sweepingly vague artist’s statement for my ITP application, I wrote about using technology to tell human stories. I sought to begin with an idea and use tech to serve it, not the other way around (VR for the sake of creating VR). Morris explores this notion in a way I had not considered. The frequent reference to the uncanny valley effect felt appropriate and something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around when it comes to writing electronic text. For a refresher on the uncanny valley effect, please enjoy this ridiculous graph:

We don’t like things to appear too real or we’re repulsed. Our brain naturally likes to put things into boxes. We need to or we feel uncomfortable. We rely on labels and categories to feel like we’re in control. With Morris’ examples of poems written by an algorithm, I naturally searched for the humanity in them. I wanted to feel connected to them, to the source. But can we ever feel connected to an algorithm?

The beauty I see in these poems is just that: the reader seeking meaning and connection. Our brain is happy to fill in the gaps, to ignore awkward syntax to find substance. The reader finds substance by projecting their own life experiences onto the text. Perhaps that’s what brings the poem to life.

I was also curious about these texts and their context. I discovered them in a piece written about poetry algorithms. But what if they were in a poetry book, ostensibly written by a human and not a computer? How would I perceive them then? They’d come across completely differently, I’d imagine. Knowing the source is a computer casts them into the uncanny valley.

Morris’ pivot to the poem written by his young daughter felt juxtaposed to the previous poem examples in that it felt pure and wonderfully human because it is. The personification of the wind, the simplistic vocabulary, I know this little girl, I can hear her voice reading it. It serves as a time capsule for her parents, capturing her voice at a specific point in time. She might write that poem differently as she ages. Her choice of words might change, her subject matter might become more complex. A computer doesn’t “age” the way a human does- it could write the same poem over and over again for an eternity. Humanity’s ephemeral nature makes art more compelling.

The final facet of this piece that caught my attention was the algorithm creation. The poet selects the words and phrases, the poet defines the logic, the poet chooses the final output. In that scenario, I’m curious as to what role the computer is playing. Is is a co-author? Or is it simply relegated to a tool the poet used to bring their vision to life? Is there a ratio that feels “right” to us? What is the threshold between poetry that feels human and poetry that is uncanny? 

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