Episode One Hundred and Seven: Allies; How Does This Even; Maximum Happy Imagination

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of problems that I want to solve and the ones that matter to me. And I think I’m honing in on one, but not only just the *kind* of problem, but the way that I want to solve it. A good friend gave me some advice recently that it wasn’t so much about the work (which counts), but also the people. Surround yourself with a good team, he said, and you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve. And that feels like it makes sense, rings true: that things don’t just *happen* in our human universe (well, they do), but we change the universe by deciding to make it change. Agents of our own, self-determining wills. And that truly awe-inspiring things and works can be made by the right people, together, at the right time.

1.0 Allies

There’s a sort of Turing-lite test these days in the creation of Twitter bots. The most famous example to date is probably the story of @horse_ebooks[1], the spammy Twitter account that verged on (and arguably crossed over) into the poetic, and then, once acquired and operated by another human, had to try to pretend to be bot-like.

Some of my favourite bots are by Darius Kazemi[2], an individual with a quite frankly astonishing amount of output over the last few years, with @TwoHeadlines[3] being perhaps the best.

So the other day, I learn about @OliviaTaters[4], another Twitter bot that does a bunch of elementary (and yet incredibly creative) language processing for, well, algorithmically generated poetry. The wonderful thing about this is that it’s another kind of additive creativity: seeing what you can do with off-the-shelf natural language processing for identifying sentence fragments, and then letting the algorithm rip. You never know what’s going to be created.

One the one hand, gamers are used to the phrase “procedurally generated content” to mean maps or levels generated out of thin air, or universes or non-player characters.

But it feels like there’s something different going on when, instead of saying “procedurally generated content”, we talk about procedurally generated poetry. Because, just as in more graphic-oriented endeavours, a procedure is being followed (identifying sentence phrases, picking from a giant corpus of all the utterances on Twitter that already exist) that creates something new. The thing about language, linguists will tell you, is how wonderfully combinatorial it is: that each utterance that we bring into the world has a very high probability of *never having existed before*.

And so the utterances that the TwoHeadlines and OliviaTaters bots come up with feel magical because a) they exist in a space that is full of the gamut of social discourse, but also because b) they retain a feeling of uniqueness both *before* we discover they’re bots and *after*.

There’s something about both of the bots – bots in general – where I wonder if the short-circuiting in terms of leaving out, say, the role of consciousness in constructing speech, results in phrases that, more often than not, stick out at us because they’re speech-without-consciousness. They are simultaneously so close to one hundred percent organic free range human speech and yet also stuck in a sort of uncanny valley that, it feels like, triggers a sort of detector for the sublime. I mean, really, how else can you react to:

what does it say about me that i won’t play 2048 anymore, but i will love you[5]

I feel like I’m babbling here (and it may well be that I’m a receptive-to-babbling state, given that my son’s speech development is at that stage and I’m probably more attuned to trying to find meaning in babbling than at other times), but there are a few things going on here: how much non-human “speech” is being generated these days? When speech-generating bots are being made for fun and the components are easily cloneable and off-the-shelfable, it’s clear that there’s less of an economic incentive. @OlivaTaters was made, in a way, for *fun*. Not in the way that spammers were the first to assemble weapons of mass markov-chaining to brute-force their way past our perception filters into our inboxes and trigger our click-finger-action-potential, but in that people are *playing* with markov-chaining and other techniques to produce new speech with human input as the seed. These utterances are still new, they’re babbling and of course they’re pre-sentient. There’s no real feedback loop, for starters.

It’s against the background of all of this that I learn through a friend about #BotAlly[6] and Tully Hansen[7].

There’s a growing discourse around bots and, well, the discourse that they themselves generate, no better summed up and explored than in a wonderful Medium article by Mark Sample[8], illustrated with painfully on-topic bots like @NRA_Tally[9].

There’s an amazing new genre of literature emerging[10], and it already has its allies.

[1] http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/the-human-behind-a-favorite-spambot-horse_ebooks/
[2] http://tinysubversions.com
[3] https://twitter.com/twoheadlines
[4] https://twitter.com/oliviataters
[5] https://twitter.com/oliviataters/status/479836122236063745
[6] https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%23botally&src=typd
[7] http://tullyhansen.com
[8] https://medium.com/@samplereality/a-protest-bot-is-a-bot-so-specific-you-cant-mistake-it-for-bullshit-90fe10b7fbaa
[9] https://twitter.com/NRA_Tally
[10] http://iloveepoetry.com/?p=5427

2.0 How Does This Even

So, Washboard.co[1], a startup designed to solve that irritating problem of not having quarters when it’s time to do laundry by shipping them to you at a cost of $15 for $10 worth of quarters, comes out at exactly the same time as renewed scrutiny for the term “disruption”.

There’s a few things to note here.

The first, of course, takes a few minutes of getting used to, which is: how is this even a real thing? Are people these days (or, even, are *enough* people these days) so lazy as to pay a 50% premium to have some quarters lying around, or to not even, say, use a change machine?

The quick answer is: well, only six people have signed up so far[2].

The second is that, it’s easy to see imagine this in an ad agency creative pitch for a client like, say, Tide. The award submission video writes itself: “We set out to bring a new audience to Tide – hard to reach millenials whose only relationship to laundry detergents might be through their mothers. So we asked ourselves: how could we reach them at a relevant moment, when we could bring home to them how valuable Tide could be to them as a partner in their laundry endeavours? The answer was staring us in the face. We all remember that feeling of not having enough quarters for the laundromat: so we developed the world’s first laundry quarter subscription service – brought to you by Tide. By showing that we understood the problems encountered by millenials, we could gain their trust – and bring home the real benefits of Tide in their lives.”

I mean, this kind of stuff is award season *gold*. I fully expect Washboard to have been ripped off and to win big at Cannes this time next year.

The third is: holy crap, do we have any new formats for startup/product/service homepages yet? Large, full-bleed background images, vertical scrolling, thin type. You almost don’t even need to read the stuff anymore.

[1] http://washboard.co
[2] http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2014/06/19/new-business-charges-for-quarters-can-work/stA5GE3E271nm6x6Bph1PM/story.html

3.0 Maximum Happy Imagination

I’m glad Matt Jones has started blogging again because his post about Maximum Happy Imagination[1] hit a chord. It’s a short one, this, but Jones quite deftly points to the end-game of bending things in hockey-stick shaped lines toward divide-by-zero states that just don’t make sense. Only, in the utopian post-scarcity world, for some reason, capitalism remains and we’re still talking about “democratic capitalism to the Nth degree”.

It feels like an abrupt failure of the imagination. Almost like capitalism is a *law* that cannot be broken, that it’s simply a fact. And yet here we are, quite happily imagining breaking the speed of light! Alcubierre drives, negative mass, exotic matter – all of these things, all in the service of not being happy with the status quo and wanting more out of the universe. We want 5nm manufacturing processes, we imagine matrioshka brains devouring entire stellar systems, *all of these things* and yet, and still: democratic capitalism to the Nth degree.

Now it may well be that it’s impolitic to talk too loudly about replacing democracy with something else. Or replacing capitalism with something else. That might be a good reason.

But to assert (seemingly blindly) that *even in a post-scarcity world*, even in a world where we’re able to do so much more than we are now, that democracy and capitalism are in effect finished projects, perfected, seems remarkably short sighted.

The full extrapolation, in the way that Andreessen posits, of the traits and concepts of “money, competition, status-seeking or the will to power” almost sounds like it falls to the innovator’s dilemma trap of assuming that all of those things are immune to disruption. Sure, you can imagine a future that has all of those things in it, assuming that all of things are inherent characteristics of our universe. And perhaps some of them are. But, in the same way that we assume that we can and might fight what we assume to be *physical* laws of the universe and find ways to change them, do we not imagine that we can change status-seeking or money or competition?

Do we imagine that we, as hom. sap., are also immune to change and that our current predilection for status-seeking and the usage of competition to bring about forward momentum in ourselves as societies and species is immutable?

[1] http://magicalnihilism.com/2014/06/20/maximum-happy-imagination/

Well on that note, I hope you have a good weekend.