Just North of Something Important

Rachel: "People on the Internet can get angry about anything." About me (contact info and bio)
Academic / Professional site (including CV)

Sep 24

My main disappointment about Horse_ebooks being an art project will be if it turns out the tweets weren’t auto-generated in some way. They were clearly coming from a person, but I held out hope that the person in question had just managed to write a really great algorithm. I remain hopeful, but it seems unlikely.

Back when me and Maura were doing News of the Spam World we quickly learned that the best/funniest “random” lines we were getting in our spam were actually headlines from sub-Onion satire sites. You had to Google it, or else what you were posting wasn’t an instance of machine-generated genius but the efforts of some underemployed and undertalented comedy writer. Isolated turns of phrase that resonate meaningfully with humans are incredibly hard to generate randomly. Without the expertise that a person acquires through decades of using language, machines primarily generate a string of words humans can easily tell were not intentionally chosen to go together in that order to convey a particular meaning. The likelihood that a series of words extracted from some larger text is going to be meaningful is incredibly rare; go over any thread of “turn to page X in the nearest book and post the first sentence” for evidence of this.

Maybe the great lesson of the internet is how much intentionality matters to our assessment of meaningful acts. On a strictly rational basis, it matters whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a hoax or not because its provenance determines its meaning; if it isn’t actually written by the Zionic Elders, it doesn’t have any truth value. But there’s no truth value in the random strings found in Horse_ebooks tweets; they “mean” the same thing no matter what. We’re just going to assess them differently if we think another human consciousness is intentionally trying to convey that meaning. If it’s a human, there’s an intentional act of communication taking place; if it’s a machine-generated bit of randomness, we have created the communicative act ourselves by finding and reading the string. In the latter case, we are the acting subject, whereas in the former case we are the object being acted upon. And without the knowledge that the act is intentional, we cannot interact with it as an act of interpersonal communication rather than our own discovery.

We are disappointed in the revelation because we thought we were a horse that discovered a river. Instead, we were a horse that was led to water, and our only choice in the matter was whether or not to drink.


  1. vaertebrae reblogged this from barthel
  2. erica-scourti reblogged this from barthel
  3. denyinghipster reblogged this from barthel and added:
    "Isolated turns of phrase that resonate meaningfully with humans are incredibly hard to generate randomly." Read the...
  4. notmonochrome reblogged this from notational
  5. rubot reblogged this from barthel and added:
    “Maybe the great lesson of the internet is how much intentionality matters to our assessment of meaningful acts. ”
  6. notational reblogged this from lukesimcoe
  7. lukesimcoe reblogged this from towerofsleep and added:
    Barthel, on point as always.
  8. onemanbandstand reblogged this from towerofsleep
  9. towerofsleep reblogged this from barthel
  10. emergentdigitalpractices reblogged this from barthel
  11. theyearofthewhopper reblogged this from smokingkitten
  12. smokingkitten reblogged this from barthel