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A Hundred Monkeys of Doom

There's the old story of a hundred monkeys randomly typing on a hundred typewriters eventually, over time, producing the works of Shakespeare. The point of this story is that once written, Shakespeare's plays and poetry are a fixed sequence of letters. If a hundred monkeys type random character sequences over thousands of years, eventually they'll produce a match to the Shakespeare sequence.

Of course, if Shakespeare had never lived or written his work, it's possible the monkeys would have still produced the Shakespeare sequence simply by virtue of the fact that all sequences are eventually be produced. On another level, this story is an attack on the artist. The work of the author is just an ordering of glyphs into a sequence that results in a pleasurable decoding experience for humans. Obviously a machine could be built to randomly produce these letter sequences, and then filter out the ones that have the qualities humans appreciate as they decode them. Computing power is verging on the capability to replace human creativity across the board through sheer brute force.

Software engineers often joke about the career potential of liberal arts majors. Something about “do you want fries with that.” But what's lost on them is that Shakespeare's works, reduced to a sequence of letters, is just some fixed sequence of letters. It has little to do with Shakespeare's particular genius. The complex software written by coders could just as easily be the subject of the story. Given enough time, a hundred monkeys at a hundred typewriters could produce the Unix operating system, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. In fact, unlike the works of Shakespeare, it would be much simpler to determine whether randomly generated software code was usable and useful.

Venture capitalists might be better served by investing in these random software generators than in human software engineers. Company founders can be royal pains. Over time the system would generate software that generated random software using commodity computing hardware. The need for engineers would be completely eliminated.

To put a darker cast on the story, a hundred monkeys at a hundred network-connected Unix command lines could generate spam, worms and viruses that would disable the entire network of networks. Even the tightest firewalls and security systems could be breached using this monkey-powered random brute force attack. No security system is perfect, they all have holes that are invisible until an unexpected exploit occurs.

When we say “over some period of time” we usually mean some far off future that none of us will experience. It could take thousands, even millions of years. Of course, the nature of randomness means that, very possibly, it could be the next roll of the dice that seals our fate.


Rick Holland: Clicking the Link of the Real


We begin to think of this as an age of gluttony when we realize we’ve stopped tasting the food. Sure there’s a foodie culture that seeks out the best coffee and beer, the best this and the best that — but it’s not the culture in the main. And even “the best” ends up becoming a strange kind of commodity as it becomes mass produced and commonplace. We only taste its “bestness”, not its flavor. In domains where there are economics of abundance, quantity becomes the only measure.


Our senses have been made the target an endless barrage of synthetic stimulation. Even our sleep is turned into “lucid dreaming“, so we can increase the gape of our maw. When we multi-task while we multi-task, only to pause for a moment to multi-task, we lack the distance to perceive how the span of our attention has been doubled and tripled and stretched all the way to the horizon to maximize the programmable surface of our being. Our gluttony is optimized.

The poet Rick Holland attempts to think through the predicament of meditating “on our technological predicament in a crowd of people discussing Facebook.” The classic move when attempting thought while faced with an over-abundance of stimulation was made by John Milton. In his introduction to the second printing of “Paradise Lost” he was asked to explain his choice of unrhymed iambic pentameter — also called “blank verse” or “heroic verse”.

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.

Milton’s desire to throw off the chains of the “modern bondage of Rimeing” was an appeal to the intellect of the reader. The “jingling sound of like endings” would not serve for a poetry that attempted a theodicy — justifying the ways of God to men. This most serious project required “judicious ears”. Poetry not simply read or heard, but heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. Such that a judgement on this theodicy could be rendered.

The philosopher Tim Morton talks about how we’ve come to view poetry as the candy sprinkles stuck to the surface of the scientifically real. Like the rest of the humanities, it’s something that can easily be chucked overboard when it comes time to tighten budgets. Poetry is booked into the balance sheet as a “nice to have” in a bottom-line world. But for Morton “poetry is the blood of causality”, there’s nothing optional about the aesthetic dimension. He thinks that when you do art, you are directly messing with causality.

When one hears the question, “Where does poetry begin?” one is prone to visualize things chugging along in their way, and poetry somehow arising out of the chugging, or being sprinkled along the surface of the chugging like sparks flying out of a complex grinding mechanism. But contemporary physics — going back now to 1900 — tells us that the aesthetic dimension is not some kind of optional fireworks that happen if you’re lucky and happen to have (human) ears, eyes and so on. Poetry is the blood of causality. A fruit fly smells not by inhaling some volatile chemical, but by detecting the quantum signature of a molecule: its shape, which is transmitted nonlocally to receptors in the fly’s olfactory system. Shape, which Aristotle calls morphē, just is what Aristotle thinks as the essence of a thing. This ice cream, right here, this one in my hand — its essence is its form, not an idea in my head or in some transcendental ice cream parlor of the beyond. Somehow we have forgotten how important form is. Form got flushed out of the modern way of thinking about things as pure extension and nothing else — maybe with some accidental candy sprinkles here and there — machinating away in the void.

Rick Holland, among others, is searching for a way for poetry to get a seat at the table. One strategy is to become ultra-serious and austere. With the frivolity of rhyming cast aside, the candy sprinkles are brushed off to reveal the real and serious candy sprinkles underneath, and now the verse is ready for judicious ears. Another method attempts to stop your heart with the beautiful. In the midst of a swirl of sensuality, entice the reader to click the link, to open the door, to go down the rabbit hole. Beauty, so beautiful, it cannot be resisted.

The poet Rachel McKibbens reminds us that the stories we receive aren’t all from search engine results pages or Facebook and Twitter streams. While Morton may think of poetry as a kind of “Realist Magic“, McKibbens says “poetry is a kind of witchcraft“. Both seem to see poetry as a technology for messing with causality.

LM: In her essay, “The Semiotics of Sex,” Jeanette Winterson says, “It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist.  The poet who with her dredging net must haul up difficult things and return them to the present.” Do you?
RM: But aren’t the “difficult things” always present? We’ve been taught how to see past the difficult. To bury it. It is why we must constantly name and re-name things, why we spell cast, testify, gift and unbury. Poetry is a kind of witchcraft. We have the power to manifest, to call forth, to make what didn’t happen, happen. I think of the griots who delivered stories from town to town, the soothsayers and playwrights and brujas, all the ceremonies and dedications and incantations and proclamations, everything that starts with the word. And how the word gains its power by being spoken and handed to the next person and how what we write will last longer than our skins, our poems are the truest husks of our former selves.

And so, Rick Holland stands in front of a crowd with a microphone in his hand. The noise of the bar swirls and melds with his voice. Thinking through the idea that metaphor and metonymy may be the original hyperlinks. The musicians take their places, ready to lay down the groove. Old Man Diode is welcomed to the stage. Imagining what life might be like outside of the machine. Bringing back the tradition of the rhapsode… Telling us through the interdigtal blaze that the “linking magic” is our ability to directly mess with causality.

Rick Holland and Old Man Diode

My name is,
as I’m the self consumer of my woes
tonight they self-consume,
to rise and vanish in oblivious host.
a creature breathing nothings with the waves
and there is nothing here to take away
no words, no beats, no breaks
except the rising surge and wave
to surge, to die, to surge again,
so please welcome Old Man Diode to the stage
with Wampa, Fya, Plummer, Beth, Onallee, Chris James
yourselves, the wider crowd, and this the linking age
this is the linking magic we all dive deep to save
children of the interdigital age
interdigitally ablaze
these the waves we came to pave as moving floors
and all of us together

{Track : Clearing Song}
Squall gone
Shoal left
Moon wrapped
These bits left
These bits
A tech lift horizon
blend free
a Clearing Song
Mapped out there
Where the machines left us
Ran out
Out here
It’s me and you out here

The Ill-Equipped: Blending Out of the Background


“Technology is at its best when it gets out of the way. Good technology blends in.” Most of the top technology firms take these ideas as their credo. This is the way Apple talked about the iPad, and the way Google now talks about their augmented reality appliance, Google Glass. The fact that the highest aim of technological devices is to get out of the way is a clue to how broken technological interfaces and devices have been.

Take Heidegger’s favorite example of the hammer. The hammer blends in, it gets out of the way when we are successfully hammering in a nail. The hammer itself, as a tool, blends into the background of the hammering activity. It’s only when the hammer breaks that it juts back into our world of hammering with its brute physicality as a “hammer.”

Another example used by Heidegger is wearing corrective lenses in the form of glasses. While they appear to be the closest thing, literally resting on your nose — while they are in use, they are the farthest thing from us. They exist in another world entirely.

Google Glass takes an interesting path to the background. The example of the hammer shows us that any tool, whether it contains onboard network-connected computer processing or not, can become a part of the background. Heidegger’s discussion of eyewear tells us something about what is near or far in the context of the person engaged in a project in the midst of the world. Google Glass moves to the background by attempting to move into, or behind, our eyes. Like the example of eyewear, the eye itself is part of the background when it is merely seeing. This technology gets out of the way by positioning itself outside our field of vision and then superimposing augmentation layers on it.


Google’s augmented reality appliance attempts to erase its material presence. Its only trace is the data it projects onto the world. In this sense, it is an metaphysical idealist par excellence. Its camera claims to record the world from a unique subjective perspective. From outside of the world, as it were. Do you see what I see? Well, now you can. Click here.

Of course, while the position of Google’s Glass gets it out of the user’s way, it puts itself directly in everyone else’s way. “Glass” breaks your face for me. It’s no longer operating as a face, now it’s a camera and potentially it’s projecting augmented reality data on or over me. This is the problem with misunderstanding how backgrounds work. Being physically “out of the way” is not the same thing as blending into a background.

Technology yearns to recede into the background just at the moment when the background itself is broken. Global warming and other forms of pollution have resulted in the geological era known as the anthropocene. The combined force of human activity is now part of what we used to call the background. Extreme weather and other strange events jut out of the background and disrupt the status quo of our everyday world. What they’re telling us is that our everyday world has ended. The background is permanently broken. The narrator no longer inscribes his story on the backdrop (augmented reality); it’s the backdrop that inscribes its narrative onto the narrator. These strange weather events are an augmentation of reality from reality’s point of view.

Rather than tools that attempt to blend with background, perhaps we need tools that are partially broken. Tools that are a little weird and occasionally provide unexpected results. Tools that remind us of where they came from and the labor conditions under which they were produced. Tools that start a conversation from the tool-side of the divide. In his letters from the 1940s and 50s, Samuel Beckett writes about his decision to write in French rather than English. He points to:

“le besoin d’être mal armé” (“the need to be ill-equipped”)

Writing in English was starting to “knot him up”, it was a language he knew too well. It was this ill-equipped writer that would one day write “Ill Seen, Ill Said“. In addition to the necessity of using broken tools, Beckett also points another writer with his phrase: Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme was one of the first poets to bring the background into the body of the poem. In his poem “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” the white space, the background of the text becomes part of the work. When philosopher Tim Morton talks about “environmental or ecological philosophy” he’s trying to get at just this. It’s not a philosophy that takes the environment or ecology as its topic, but rather a thinking that’s ill-equipped, a little broken, a little twisted, where shards of the background come jutting through.

Google’s Glass is signalling to us about backgrounds and our place in them. It’s a message we can only hear in the moments before we raise the appliance and attach it to our face.


Ellen Ullman: One Night At Tosca Cafe


Among the world’s best bars, there’s Tosca Cafe; and across the street, stands one of the world’s best bookstores, City Lights. Earlier this week, they teamed up to present a reading by Ellen Ullman of her new novel “By Blood.” It’s difficult to explain the kind of perfection this event captured. The literary history of San Francisco welled up in the room and presented the kind of event, anyone will tell you, never happens any more.

On floor 3b of the Mechanic’s Institute Library, there’s a section tucked around a corner that shelves the books of Marshall McLuhan. I’d been reading a lot of McLuhan and was scanning the section for new candidates for my reading list. My eyes passed over a title of a small book, “Close To The Machine.” I’d come and gone from that section three or four times before I finally picked up the volume. The title alone read like a poem. It was already inside something I’d been giving a lot of thought: our intimacy with the Network. Ellen Ullman wrote the book in 1997, long before the Network reached critical mass. She writes about technology with a facility and intimacy that’s very rare. Ullman is a programmer, critic and novelist with a view of the long arc of the culture of technology and the technology of culture.

Ullman’s second book was a novel called “The Bug,” and it continued to explore the world of computer programming and technology. At the reading, I asked her about the new book, “By Blood.” How and why did she decide to leave writing about technology behind? She answered that if she continued to write within the boundaries of technology, her work might stray off into the world of science fiction. Ullman’s work isn’t about the machine, it’s about being close to the machine, deep inside it, the strange intimacy we have with our technology. She said that she would continue to write essays about technology, but that her fiction would no longer be bounded by it. I look forward to both.

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